A lot of decisions go into creating the perfect WordPress website, from site-wide implementations to fine-tuning. While the process is different for everyone, finding the right WordPress theme is a universal challenge.According to your visitors, your theme basically is your website — it’s what they look at, interact with, and remember. Your site’s look and interactivity impacts not only how people view your online presence, but your entire brand. Simply put, your theme needs to deliver.
Anyone can build a WordPress theme, and after doing some research it might feel like everyone has. There are thousands and thousands of themes out there, spread across dozens of marketplaces, from creators ranging from single developers to fill-blown organizations. What’s more, all of the quality control is on you.
Given all this, I wouldn’t fault you for feeling a tad overwhelmed. How can you be sure you’re installing the best WordPress theme for your site?
To make your research process a little easier, let’s discuss 11 essential qualities to consider when picking a theme. If a theme satisfies these guidelines, it’s a worthy contender for your front end.
WordPress Theme Essentials
- Look and Feel
- Cross-Browser Compatibility
- Plugin Support
- Customer Support
- Positive Reception
Some WordPress themes are free, while many are paid, or “premium.” First, ask yourself: Are you willing to spend a little extra for a premium theme? There are many viable choices in both categories, so don’t feel forced to purchase a premium theme, especially if you’re a beginner and lack the budget.
If you end up choosing the free route, find a simple, lightweight, and flexible theme that you can easily customize. Be wary of free themes with few downloads, as these might be poorly-coded or contain malware. To help avoid these, stick to the official WordPress theme directory, branch out to other popular theme distributors if you’d like, and check out our favorite free WordPress blog themes for more recommendations.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to judge a theme solely on cost. That said, a high-quality premium theme that enhances your website is one of the best investments you can make. Start by drawing up a list of features your theme absolutely needs. If you can only find these features among premium options and you have some cash to spare, don’t let the price deter you.
2. Look and Feel
With money out of the way, let’s discuss what WordPress themes are all about: look and feel. Above all else, your theme should:
- Visually complement the content of your website.
- Be easy to navigate.
You likely have your branding planned out and a sense of how you want your site to appear to visitors, based on your type of business. WordPress websites for a food blog, an online clothing store, and a real estate agent will all look different, and thus require different themes.
If you’re not sure about appearance, evaluate some websites belonging to other businesses in your industry to better understand what designs people expect. If your favorite sites are built with WordPress, you might even be able to find out what theme they’re using.
No matter your style choices, your theme must be intuitive to use and explore, especially for new visitors. Simplicity is key here — what users want should be immediately apparent from the homepage. If your theme is cluttered with effects and features, it will send many users straight to the “back” button. Trendy effects will come and go, but a great user experience is always relevant.
The best way to test this? Try the theme’s demo, typically linked on the main page of the theme listing. This will give you a feel for how your own site might look and perform with the same theme. A theme might even offer multiple demo sites that you can directly import to your own site and populate with your own content. Take the free Astra theme, for example:
One more note here: Remember that not all users will have the same experience browsing the web as you. Some have disabilities or limitations which affect their ability to engage with your content, so your theme (and your website as a whole) needs to be accessible to all.
Every quality theme comes equipped with accessibility tools, but always make sure of this, and see our Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility for more pointers.
Chances are, you won’t find a theme whose default layout matches your needs exactly, which is why your theme needs to be customizable
Of course, all themes are customizable to an extent, but too few choices will significantly limit your ability to brand your site and optimize the user experience, while too many will slow your site. If a theme listing offers a customizer demo, test to see if you can add page elements you want and change the look to suit your brand.
Also, you shouldn’t have to break out PHP for Dummies every time you want to add an element or rearrange your layout. To make these changes effortlessly, find a theme that integrates with a drag-and-drop page builder plugin like Elementor. This way, you can switch themes while keeping the same builder that you’re used to.
You probably realize how important it is for your site to look good on all devices, since more than half of web traffic comes from mobile phones or other handheld devices. A responsive WordPress theme detects the size of the browser window and changes the page layout to improve the browsing experience. This isn’t just a perk — it’s a necessity.
Most WordPress themes you’ll see are technically responsive, as stated in the theme description. But, this doesn’t guarantee high-quality responsive pages. You should test this before activating it.
Using a theme’s demo, there are few ways to check responsive design. You can open the demo on a mobile device, shrink the size of your browser window to assess how the layout changes, or, if you’re using the Google Chrome web browser, try simulating different mobile devices on your desktop with Developer Tools (don’t worry, no coding here):
5. Cross-Browser Compatibility
Whether it be Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Internet Explorer, your visitors are going to prefer different web browsers. All popular themes work well across all modern browsers, and will say so in their descriptions. If you want to run some tests yourself, it’s as simple as opening the demo in a few different browser windows.
6. Plugin Support
Plugins are necessary to accomplish anything in WordPress past the basic blogging tools of WordPress core. Your theme needs to be fully compatible with most or all WordPress plugins you expect to use for social sharing, ecommerce functionality, contact forms, advanced SEO optimization, etc.
Again, a reputable theme will have this covered. But if you’re browsing some lesser-known themes, verify from the description that they work with popular plugins. If not, it’s better to seek out an alternative that does.
Your theme plays a big role in optimizing your WordPress site for search. After all, your theme helps make up the pages that search bots crawl through. A theme with messy code tells these bots that your site is low-quality, hurting your website’s ranking.
Be aware that most theme descriptions include “SEO-optimized” or some variation, but it’s best to run some tests to validate. You can check the quality of the theme's code by pasting the demo URL into the W3C Markup Validator.
Also, consider limiting your theme research exclusively to search-friendly themes.
SEO is closely related to performance, which is how fast your pages tend to load. Faster load times influence higher search engine rankings, more visitor engagement, and increased conversions. Why? Because internet users are impatient. The standard for websites today is an average load time under three seconds, though this will vary based on the amount of content per page.
To ensure your theme does not slow down your site, avoid feature-rich themes. You probably won’t use the majority of the effects they offer, and your theme files will be needlessly large. The larger your website files, the more time your pages will take to load.
Between new features, security patches, bug fixes, and performance improvements, WordPress updates a lot. You’ll need a theme that keeps pace.
Theme descriptions will include a “Last Updated” attribute, which is a good indicator of whether the theme stays consistently up-to-date. If a theme has been updated within the past few months, go ahead with it. Any update older than six months is less promising, and avoid any theme that hasn’t been updated in two years or more.
10. Customer Support
Most paid WordPress themes come with at least a few months of premium customer support. After this expires, you’ll have the option to renew on a monthly or annual basis. If you foresee using this perk in the future, be sure to factor the cost of a recurring support subscription in your theme choice.
Keep in mind that free themes rarely offer the same support options as premium ones. You’re on your own if you encounter any major problems – that’s why the theme you choose should at least come with thorough setup instructions and support resources (e.g., forums or a knowledge base).
11. Positive Reception
Finally, don’t ignore what other customers have said about the theme. Look for a high number of active installations, five-star ratings, and positive reviews. There’s no hard rule here, but any theme with a download count in the thousands and at least a handful of reviews is worth a try.
Research Now, Save Time Later
Choosing a theme for your WordPress site can be an intimidating and sometimes tedious job. Given the importance of your theme, however, it’s always beneficial to put in research before installing one. Follow these guidelines to narrow down your search to the best options — doing this will save you time spent dealing with any complications down the road.
Originally published Oct 12, 2020 11:42:00 AM, updated March 17 2021