With WordPress, your site’s overall look and design will be determined by the WordPress theme you choose. When you first install WordPress, a self-hosted site uses a basic default theme which comes prepackaged with WordPress. 99% of the time you will want to customize the look of your site to make it your own. Below, I've rounded up ten tips on how to choose the best WordPress Theme for your site.

1. Should You Pick a Free WordPress Theme or a Premium Theme?

Should you use a free WordPress theme or a premium WordPress theme? What is the difference?

I've used free themes. I started my first WordPress site with a free theme. I've also had a custom theme created for me (big mistake, more on that below). I've also used premium WordPress themes and learned how to customize them.  Free themes are great for those on a tight budget, but here are some common problems with them:

  • Many offer overly simplistic designs
  • Limited customization options
  • Many are not updated regularly
  • Many get abandoned completely
  • Support is can be limited. (This can be a big problem if you need help while customizing your site.)
  • Many times you'll encounter poorly coded design flaws

However, free themes are perfect for personal blogs that don’t need a lot of embellishment. I also like them for when you are still figuring out exactly what kind of business and site you'll need.

Premium WordPress Themes are not free but many are still relatively inexpensive (often less than $100) so we aren't talking about a massive commitment or out of pocket expense even for the thriftiest bootstrapper. For a reasonable outlay they offer:

  • Higher quality design
  • More frequent updates
  • Offer better site security
  • More and better customization options
  • Ratings and helpful (read: detailed) reviews from previous customers
  • Sales and bundled offers where you have the option to buy many themes allowing you to switch to a theme that fits your evolving business
  • Layouts tailor made to work with the nature of your business

2. What Do Others Think About This WordPress Theme?

An excellent way to see if a theme is worth buying is to check out the reviews and see what other users have to say. Take a look at how many downloads the theme has had. When was this WordPress theme was last updated? Is it compatible with the latest version of WordPress? I also like to look at the comments and reviews and look at the top tier of reviews and the lowest rated reviews. When I look at the lowest tier of reviews I ask myself if that person's site, business, or vendors are similar to mine. If they are having a hard time with a translation to Armenian I'm unlikely to run into the same problem. If that reviewer had a problem because of their host provider and I'm on the same platform I might need to pick a different option.

3. How to Get Your WordPress Theme Up and Running in No Time Flat

Not everyone is a technology wizard and creating the perfect website can take a lot of time and effort. Skip laborious setup and customization options while getting a great out of the box look by using demo content.  This way, you simply have to replace the content which will take a ton less work than creating a format and then uploading conent. Just replacing dummy content is great for people with zero background in messing with code. The trade off is a site that isn't as unique in the short term but has a professional look from the start.

4. Is The Theme Responsive?

Although many folks are still surfing the web on computers, these days, people browse websites on their phones and tablets all through the day even while they are sitting in front of a desktop. With that in mind you have to make sure your theme is responsive. The less responsive it is, the more visitors you will lose or never even see in the first place.

responsive wordpress theme
Market Pro Theme + Genesis by StudioPress

When picking a responsive theme for your site simple is better. Lots of features are great if you have a pretty complex vision of what someone visiting your site will do. But if you just want a photo blog with a calendar of events that is all you should get. Although it's tempting to pick a WordPress theme with loads of bells and whistles the more features you get the more loaded down your site will be. This can slow down just how responsive your site is even when the visitor has a screaming internet connection.

Many theme makers offer refunds, so if you ever end up buying a theme makes your responsiveness slow to a crawl, all you need to do go back to your original theme or swap the slow one out for a different one and get a refund. But make sure that the issue is not something you've done (bad coding, for example) before requesting a refund! I also like to shop for themes on platforms with a variety of theme options. Then if I have to bit the bullet and switch one out I'm usually not dealing with a different transaction it's just a matter of crediting the prior purchase to that of a different theme.

5. Does the Theme Render Nicely on All the Major Browsers?

In one of my early sites, I was shocked and appalled by how poorly it looked on Safari and Explorer. I had only been looking at the site on Chrome and Firefox. Of course, this is one I paid someone to custom design for me. You'll want to make sure your theme looks great on all the major browsers: Chrome, Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc.

6. Can I Test the Theme?

Almost very good WordPress theme has a demo version that you can test. There is typically a live preview or demo on the main sales page. You should also be able to see a majority of the different features available. You can probably spend a load of time trying things out in the live preview. Make sure you evaluate the options that are important to your website. If you don't have an idea of what options matter to you check out the list below and compare it to a site that is similar to the one you want to launch to figure out what features are most important to you. Some items to check:

Live Demo WordPress Theme

  • Social: Are social buttons they bundled options and in a clear location?
  • What about creating landing pages?  Does it look easy to do in your chosen theme?
  • Do the homepage and blog post pages have an appealing appearance that is close to the vision you have for your site? Can you customize them?
  • What alternate layouts are available? Are they static or can you customize those?
  •  What options do you have to customize the menu? Does the menu seem logical and easy to understand?
Wordpress Theme Demo
Customize Your Demo on MyThemeShop

7. What About The Theme Settings?

If you are reading this you probably aren't a developer. If that's the case, you will want to be sure to choose a WordPress theme that is easy to customize. Before settle on your final pick, determine if the settings seem well organized. Are they intuitive? Think about if they will be easy to adjust and maintain. If you constantly have to remember where the toggle to adjust ad code is hiding it will be a waste of time each time you need to make that change. I love the current themes I'm working with but always have to think twice about where I adjust the content in the footer.

In the best case scenario, most of the settings will be in one spot. That said, I've worked with some great themes that were cumbersome on the backend because the developer scattered some features throughout the site. Others were cumbersome because they seemed to be built from a mashup of a bunch of plugins each with their own settings.

StudioPress Sites

Take a look at the screenshots the theme provides of the theme settings:

  • Do they seem to be centrally located?
  • Are they organized?
  • Can you play around with these settings in the demo?

8. Security?

Many people forget about security when picking a WordPress theme. But security is actually an important consideration. One of the best ways to determine how safe a theme is by reading customer reviews. Generally, I'd  stay away from themes that have few to no reviews or downloads. The wisdom of the crowd is important. Unless you really know what you are doing you don't want to be the first one to download things. Customers are usually quick to pick up security lapses, which means that you can learn from other’s experiences and find a safe WordPress theme.

Your host provider may also offer up a list of themes and plugins that are considered non-starters. Since WP Engine focuses exclusively on hosting WordPress sites they are particularly vigilant about staying on top of plugins that have major security holes or negatively affect the performance of your site.

9. Does The Theme Fit Your Business Model?

There are tons of fantastic WordPress themes available, but finding the right theme is about more than aesthetics. You need to choose a theme that fits your business modle and provides a user experience that appeals to your audience. Most themes are categorized by use to help you pick the right on for your business. In addition to being clear about what you need your site to do it can also be helpful to make a list of all the theme features that are important to you and use that to narrow down your choices.

Authority WordPress Theme Demo from MyThemeShop
Authority WordPress Theme Demo from MyThemeShop

Be honest with yourself even if a theme looks amazing does it really fit with your business model? A theme might look wonderful but if it doesn't do what you need it to do then it isn't going to be a good fit for your business. Items you might need depending on your business are: effective sales funnel, display advertising, content, image friendly, video friendly, etc.

WordPress Theme for Video
WordPress Theme from ThemeIsle tailormade to showcase videos.

A content oriented site needs to have a content oriented theme so users are interested in clicking and reading or viewing more of your content.  An affiliate business model should have a theme that works well with affiliate programs or are even designed to work with one program in particular. Like these two: Authority on MyThemeShop and Smart Passive Income Pro on StudioPress   Are you setting up an online store? You will want to easily load up high-quality images that showcase your goods and services.

Photography WordPress Theme
Photography WordPress Theme from ThemeIsle

Are you an Artist or Photographer? You'll want a site that can showcase your work. Unless you are also selling your work from your site you don't need all the bells and whistles that go into an e-commerce site. You might also want to have a place where you can load up content that elaborates on your products and share news about shows where your work will be exhibited. If you have a content site you definitely don't want a site that is designed to showcase great recipes. The demo might have the exact color scheme you want but remember you can usually customize that in a theme that offers the features you actually need.

Wordpress Theme by Studio Press
Smart Passive Income Pro via StudioPress

10. Is the Theme SEO Ready?

A WordPress theme can play a major role in how SEO friendly you site is.  Even a great looking theme can generate poorly structured code, this can impact your site’s performance on search engines and its overall ranking. That said it's difficult for someone just learning about SEO to analyze a theme's code on their own.  Many WordPress theme developers will market their themes by letting you know the pages in them are SEO optimized.

There are certain plugins that you can install on your WordPress site to assist with SEO. However, not all themes support these plugins. Be on the lookout to see if SEO is mentioned in the features list.

You may also have to do some of your own testing. Look at the theme demos and see if it supports SEO plugins. Also, check to see if you notice that the pages load relatively quickly if it's super slow that can negatively affect your ranking too.

11. Does It Support All the Must Have Plugins?

There are certain plugins that you can install on your WordPress site to assist with SEO. However, not all themes support these plugins. Be on the lookout to see if SEO is mentioned in the features list.

You may also have to do some of your own testing. Look at the theme demos and see if it supports SEO plugins and has HTML tags. Also check how quickly the page loads, as slow pages are not good for SEO purposes.

If you know you need to have a WordPress Theme that is compatible with several plugins like Yoast for SEO and Gravity Forms for sign ups, check to see if those are on a list of compatible plugins. If you don't see them or can't find them ask the developer.

12. What About Social Media Options?

Social media is incredibly important for getting your message out, so it will naturally be an important consideration when choosing your WordPress theme. Try to find a theme that has fully integrated social media widgets. This will make it easier for your audience to share posts and interact with your social media pages.

Social Media Options Demo via MyThemeShop
Social Media Options Demo via MyThemeShop

13. What Are the Support Options?

While some free themes offer great support, as mentioned above many of the free themes don't offer any. If you mess up your free WordPress theme you might have to figure things out on your own, reinstall it, or hunt for a third-party developer to solve even the smallest glitch.

Premium WordPress themes are usually better about offering good onboarding documentation for setup, have good searchable knowledge bases, and may offer email based support. That said try to hunt around and see what's offered before you buy.

14. Does the Theme offer Drag and Drop Page Building Options?

There are a variety of WordPress plugins that allow you to customize infinite page layouts with a drag and drop user interface? What does that mean you ask? Imagine dragging images across a screen to create a collage. That's it. You don't have to mess around with code or shortcode. More and more premium WordPress themes come with drag and drop functionality either built into the theme or as a plugin that is bundled and pre-installed with the theme.

This type of option is fantastic if you have a variety of different page types however if you just have a few very basic landing pages using a drag and drop page builder can result in a ton of unwanted code.

15. Translation and Multiple Language options

As noted above I'm unlikely to ever offer any of my sites in Armenian. I've occasionally considered a Spanish language option but its unlikely to come to pass as I'm busy enough managing my English language sites. However, I've used themes that come with tons of language options. If you are launching a non-English site make sure you are selecting a WordPress theme that is translation ready and supports non-English plugins. If you can't see this obviously in the description or in reviews ask the developer before you make your purchase.

Can I just skip all this and have someone design me a custom WordPress theme?

For many folks just starting out this is their first stop. When I first started out I thought I would use a free theme for just a bit while I had a developer design me my own custom site. Not even my own WordPress Theme. I wanted a custom coded site Ha! I quickly figured out how expensive that would be. I moved on to wanting a custom WordPress theme. I tried to get just that not just once but numerous times. The first pitfall when you go down this path is finding that there are lots of very unscrupulous folks out there that are more than happy to charge you multiples of what the project should really cost. The second pitfall is that although your custom WordPress theme might be beautiful your developer might not design your theme in a way that allows you to make your own changes. Unless you learn how to code and can decipher what the developer has coded for you, making even the smallest layout change might be very difficult.  Unless your developer has specifically designed your custom theme it to be user-friendly and taught you how to make changes you might have to keep them on the payroll just to make minor adjustments to the homepage, add a new logo, or adjust your color scheme. The beauty of off the shelf WordPress themes is that the developers have an incentive to make them easy to use and install. If they design things well and have a robust knowlege base and library of q&a's they will have less customer service tasks to take care of. Perhaps you'll want to hire someone to do some of the customizing for you, even if that is the case a well-designed theme can keep those costs down to so you can focus on creating content on your site and then publicizing it.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, Project Eve will earn affiliate commissions should you elect to purchase something from one of these links. These commissions help us keep the lights on and supports our work. We are most grateful for your readership and support. Thank you!

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Meridith Dennes is a co-founder and the CEO of Project Eve LLC, a leading women's lifestyle media company online including some of the web's best loved communities including the eponymous Project Eve, Getting Balance, Project Eve Moms, Project Eve Money and Scary Puppy Silly Kitty. With a digital readership in excess of 20+ million monthly uniques, and over 1 million social media followers, Project Eve provides the news and resources to inspire and empower women. Meridith also works as a digital consultant and social media strategist and has worked with several Fortune 500 companies to help increase brand awareness and improve social media engagement.Meridith holds a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from NYU's Stern School of Business. Prior to founding Project Eve, she spent 15 years working in investment banking. Meridith currently lives in Vermont with her husband and 2 daughters and spends her free time teaching skiing, practicing yoga, hiking and snowshoeing.