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The Beginner's Guide to Selecting a WordPress Theme

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When you're first starting out with your site or blog, it's easy to rush into things because of the desire to get things up and running as quickly as possible. In some cases, that works fine, in others it's not always the best idea.

And in this case, it's the latter.

If you download from the wrong provider, you could end up with malware on your computer, or security holes in your website, and if you choose the wrong theme, you can end up with many unnecessary headaches down the road.

Today, we'll cover what themes you should avoid as a beginner, and how to choose the right one for your website.

Free Themes You Happen to Stumble Upon

Not too long ago doing a Google search for "free WordPress themes" was a bad idea. In 2011, a post on WPMU that has since been updated to this post made a big splash in WordPress circles when it came out, because it proved the shadiness of many of the top results on Google for "free WordPress themes".

Specifically, they covered and proved the case that if you were to download a free WordPress theme, you were placing yourself at risk for downloading spyware or, worse, a theme with malicious code that would allow for others to access the backend of your site.

These days, you're more likely to get trusted sources as your first results, but indirectly you still might stumble onto an dangerous site because many of the results are lists of themes on third party websites. Also, going through the results myself, I can't help but notice the amount of outdated themes that show up in the list articles on the first page.

With many lists including themes that haven't been updated in years that probably lack complete compatibility with the latest version of WordPress. And that brings us to our next point.

Dated Themes

One of the first things you want to do when you're considering a theme is to check when it was last updated. If it hasn't been updated in a long time, let's say three-to-six months or longer, picking another theme would be a good idea. If it's been years since it's been updated, you definitely want to avoid the theme.

The date since a theme has been updated can serve as a warning sign that it may not be compatible with the latest version of WordPress. Though that's bad enough in itself, it also means that there is almost a zero percent chance of any issues that you have with the theme getting fixed. While some of these themes look great, and the lack of updates seems like a small price to pay, the lack of compatibility can not only limit your options when it comes to plugins, but also mess up the functionality of the site itself.

Suboptimal Niche-Specific Themes

Sometimes you'll come across a theme that looks absolutely amazing, and even though it's not quite what you were looking for in terms of functionality, and site focus, it can be really hard to pass up the good looks. This is true, especially if the theme is free.

But keep in mind that if you choose a niche-specific theme that seems to hint that the focus of your site is one thing, for example a great looking photography theme that showcases the photos but also has some text options, you might be sending the wrong message to your visitors if your site is all about written content.

Another example is if you're starting an environmental blog, and you end up choosing a great looking corporate theme, you're sending mixed signals to your visitors, and that could cause you to miss out on key parts of the audience you're trying to reach.

Skeleton Frameworks and Base Themes

If you're a complete beginner, it is a good idea to stay away from skeleton-like frameworks that require a lot of work to look good. Of course, this  unless you're prepared to put in the effort, and have the time available to get familiar with a particular framework and learn to bend it to your will.

For example:

If you want the functionality of a proper framework later on, then a great option can be to choose a child theme that aligns with the vision you have for your website. That way you get the functionality and the strengths of a framework without having to do too a lot of design and development yourself.

Another thing to consider is that when you're first starting out, unless you are an experienced web developer or designer, it's not always a good idea to give yourself a lot of options. It can become a very significant distraction and even an excuse to not do what's really important: To develop content and get it out there for the world to see.

This is not to say that that design doesn't matter, after all, a large part of Tuts+ is focused on teaching how to do design well, but if that's not your forté, your time is most likely better spent doing something other than editing your font colors multiple times a day. There's something almost reassuring by having something set in stone, allowing you to focus on doing what you do best.

How to Pick the Right Theme

Now that we've covered how to avoid themes that could damage your brand (and/or your hosting environment!), it's time we deal with how to find the perfect theme for your specific needs.

Use a Trusted Provider

To get the obvious out of the way, there is WordPress.org's theme directory. The directory is great because all relevant information is listed right on the page, and all of the themes in the database have their code reviewed by a team of volunteers before it's accepted and released. The downsides include the sheer volume of themes available, the occasional inaccurate categorization, and the relative unoriginality of many themes available there compared to themes developed for commercial purposes. There are definitely some gems to be found, and if you're willing to do some leg work, it's likely that a good match is out there waiting for you.

Remember to check the date it was last updated, and whether or not the author responds to support tickets. A truly great free theme will check out not only in the looks department, but it will have a dedicated author that keeps working on it and fixing the issues and concerns its users have.

Other than that, you can find some really nice looking "free premium themes" if you look in the right places. These will typically not be listed in the WordPress theme directory, and therefore you'll have to go straight to the source. It's best to focus on large, established theme providers that develop premium themes and use free themes as a way to generate exposure.

Let's take a look at some of the larger providers that are available.

  1. If you have decided to use a premium theme, the ThemeForest marketplace offers a huge variety of themes from a multitude of independent developers, and can be a great place to start.
  2. WooThemes is one of the biggest theme shops, and it also has a few free themes available through its website; however, the majority of the five they offer (and coincidentally the newest) are focused on the integration of their plugin, WooCommerce. Thus, it's aimed more towards people interested in starting an eCommerce store.
  3. WPExplorer offers a variety of high quality themes, one thing to note is that not all the free themes on display are originals works. This isn't indicative of anything negative, it's just worth knowing that the actual product may be hosted on a third-party website. Additionally, and as with most themes, the free themes also rarely enjoy support or regular updating, unlike it's premium counterparts.
  4. Themify is one of the "drag and drop" frameworks, and has a few free responsive themes to offer. Although you can get the themes, you will have to pay if you want support and a PDF that guides you through the process of setting it up and getting the most from it.

Consider Your Primary Focus

What do you want to do with your website? Build an audience? Promote your services? Have an online portfolio?

If your goal is to sell something or build a business, you should consider a premium theme that offers support to its customers. The reason for this is quite simple: If one day a technical issue is preventing you from customer acquisition, you won't be completely on your own. Plus a professional and original looking website provides an air of trustworthiness that having the same free theme as half the blogosphere simply does not have

If you want to spread a message, or put yourself out there, your main objective should be to find a theme that emphasizes content over anything else.

Consider Your Audience

Who are they? What is their main concern that you are trying to address with your website?  What are their other interests? If you're trying to build an audience of people interested in simplicity, it makes sense to have a very simplistic theme. If your audience is mainly writers, it makes sense to have a strong focus on the written content. If your audience is mainly photographers or those who want your photographic services, then it makes sense to have a strong focus on the visual content.

If you're feeling stuck or lost, there's a cheat code for getting an idea of what work in your space: Look at the top competitors for inspiration.

What are the favorite websites and blogs of your target audience? While trying to completely emulate them is a bad idea, you can get some important pointers for what kind of theme you should pick for your website.

Safety First

If you find an amazing theme through a list that leads you to a third party website, or even if you get your theme from a trusted provider, you'll want to check the integrity of the code of the theme. And thanks to a plethora of free plugins, this is a task that no longer requires you to have any coding knowledge or experience.

Plugins you can use include:

  • Sucuri is easily the most popular security related plugin for WordPress, and while it has premium options, the free version checks the integrity of your theme. So this will discover both intentional, and unintentional weaknesses in the code of the theme itself. Coincidentally it also does a range of other things, like check for blacklists and other kinks in the armor of your website or blog. After you've installed the plugin, it will appear as a menu item in the dashboard menu with the name "Sucuri Free".
  • Theme Authenticity Checker is specifically designed to seek out weaknesses, or suspicious lines of code in your themes. TAC shows you what the lines are and where they are located. It will also detect static links (typically a link back to the developer's website) which is nothing to worry about especially since the use of the theme for free might be predicated on the fact that the link remains, although you will have to check the TOS of the specific provider to determine whether or not that is the case. After you install and activate the plugin, you can find it in the Appearance menu labeled as TAC.

Conclusion

While it might seem counter-intuitive to spend a lot of time picking a theme up front, having the right one in place from the start can make a significant difference for your project and save you a lot of time in the long term.

And while going with a premium theme is a good idea if you're building a professional portfolio, or a website for your business, there are plenty of great free options out there to help you get started if you take the time to look properly.

Lastly, while fiddling around with a theme is not for everyone, if you have the time and interest, and your chosen theme permits you to do so, by all means. In fact, Tuts+ is a great place to learn how to do exactly that.