Ahhh WordPress. Its no surprise to me that with millions of themes to choose from that people often get confused when trying to find a good one to use with their website. So I’m going to go over some things which I feel are important in choosing what works best for you.
Forget about the color scheme, header images, and the hot pink rainbow background you might see. If the theme has the layout your looking for then you may have found your theme (despite the fact its current design may resemble the most annoying thing you can think of). If the layout is what your looking for, the other things can be modified.
A good layout will include easy to use navigation. I always recommend a horizontal navigation menu that goes above your main content either above or below the header/logo area. Having your sites pages neatly displayed in a horizontal eye catching menu will make it obvious to your visitors what choices they have.
You also want to make sure there is a sidebar or two. It really doesn’t matter much if its a left sidebar, right sidebar, or both. If you choose to have two sidebars, I would put your Pages, Posts, & Categories on the left, and an email opt-in box, testimonials, and other things of that nature on the right. You can arrange it how you want with the use of Widgets, which brings me to my next point.
For the past few years, Widgets have been available for us in the admin area of WordPress (Appearance –> widgets). These are drag and drop boxes you can put on any widgetized area on your theme, mostly in sidebars and footers. A lot of Plugins use widgets, and the Text Widget is very handy for adding custom html/code to your sidebars or other areas. You really want to make sure that your theme is going to be “Widget Ready,” A lot of older themes are non widgetized, and in my book are just pretty useless. Not to worry though, if your theme is not widgetized, there is a way to add it in. Not that I would want to mess with adding it though, since if it doesn’t have widget ready sidebars, then it makes me wonder if the rest of the code is outdated.
WordPress.org Free Themes:
WordPress.org has a Theme selector that you can browse and search through free themes. I personally do not recommend this because I have ran into experiences where the theme would be good till the next wordpress update, then it would crash my site when I updated WordPress. Then it was back to the drawing board for another good theme. So my suggestion is to stick with themes that you know will be kept up to date. There are many sites out there that offer free wordpress themes which are kept up to date. I am putting together a resource page in the next couple months and will have links to sites that offer these, and paid themes.
My friend also pointed out, after proof reading this article, that another good reason you might not want to use Free Themes from WordPress.org is the possibility that the theme may have some bad code in it. Maybe even a virus, spyware, or adware that may be harmful to your computer or even the server that your WordPress installation is on. That would be horrible to unknowingly put someone through something like that, or worse yet, get banned from your webhost. OUCH. That would take more than a few bandaides and apologies than I would be capable of. So, with that being said, you might want to read reviews of themes or run it by a friend that knows what to check for before you install them on your blog.
If you find that ugly theme with the right layout to use, and its being kept up to date with the latest WordPress Codex, you will want to make sure you backup your theme before updating it since you will likely lose all your changes/customizations you made to the original theme. You can do that by using whats called a Child Theme. All it is is basically copying the stylesheet, putting it in a folder and adding the word “child” to the folder. If your theme is called twentyten for example, then you should put the child theme in a folder called “twentyten-child.” It helps keep things organized and is also industry standard. There are many resources on how to use child themes in WordPress. A simple google search will bring a nice long list of tutorials. Its worth looking into, and I suggest it to all my clients unless we build a custom theme from scratch, which means its up to me to keep the codex updated.
Update 3/01/2013: Here is my full article about Child Themes
Paying for a theme may offer more features for you. There are a lot of themes out there like OptimizePress, StudioPress, and others, that offer you the flexability of having numerous page templates, places to add affiliate products or Adsense code. A lot of these Premium themes also offer additional short codes you can use to add media, files, certain formating options, and other things to your pages/posts. So you should get a lot more options when paying for a premium theme. Look out for themes that don’t have these options since you can probably find one similar (if not the same one) for free somewhere else. ThemeForest is also a good place to get a theme.
A lot of themes these days offer users a “Theme Options” page in the admin dashboard which will let you select a new header without needing to modify the css code (a big help for those who are not good at code). The theme options page can also have a LOT of other options. I have seen some themes where you can change ALL of the CSS options right from the admin panel, and do just about everything short of making you dinner. Just make sure you get this theme from someone who is going to offer support, and also releases updated themes about the same time when there is a new updated version of WordPress. The more advanced the theme is, the more of a chance it has of having issues with new WordPress updates. These are usually resolved quickly though.
Responsive is developer speak for “It works on everything pretty good.” There are many different web browsers (IE, Chrome, Firefox just to name a few). Each one of these different browsers reads code in ever so slightly different ways, but it could make a huge difference in how your site looks. Unless the developer tells you up front, its hard to tell if a theme is going to work good on all browsers (if you pay for one it darn well better!). The focus has been on Smart Phones and Tablets lately (iphone, ipad, android, windows mobile, and others). If you recently read my article about some of my favorite plugins, you heard me talk about a plugin called “WPTouch” which will allow people to use and navigate your site on their mobile device. The user interface will not look much like your site, but it does help. There are lots of other options available if your theme doesn’t cover smart phones/tablets.
I certainly hope this helps eliminate some confusion if your shopping around for a good theme. I will keep this post updated if I think of anything else to add.
Questions? Comments? Feedback?