If you’re running a WordPress blog or a company website, its design is largely determined by the theme you are using. In this article, we will discuss what a theme actually is, why you need it, and how to make the right choice that will make you a happy website owner.

What is a Theme?

Let’s start with the basics: a website template is a set of visual styles and page layouts that users can upload/install to their websites and customize up to their needs. A stand-alone template includes HTML and CSS3 files, and often some JavaScript; even though adding content is up to the template user, some bundles also include pre-made images, audio and video.

Website templates are usually created for a specific website engine, or CMS (content management system): a Joomla template won’t work for WordPress, and a template that is meant for Wix will is usually not portable to Drupal or Ghost. Summarizing the above, a WordPress theme is a web template made specifically for WordPress-powered websites.

If you’ve already tried looking for a WP theme, you’ve surely noticed that scarcity is definitely not a problem: rather, one can quickly get overwhelmed by the sheer variety of hundreds and thousands of template options all over the web. To help you choose, we’ve compiled a list of the most important factors to consider; before we get to that, however, let’s quickly answer the question:

Why Do You Need a Theme?

To understand the implications of using a website template, let’s look at the alternatives. First of all, you may hire a freelancer (or an agency) and order a custom website design – this is a suitable option if have several thousand dollars to spare, as high-quality, personalized web design is not a cheap product these days. Moreover, you will need to choose a knowledgeable developer to implement the design, or you’ll end up with a product of poor quality that might be ridden with bugs and security glitches.

If you don’t feel like paying that much for your website, you may think of creating your website yourself. This is a viable option if you already know the basics of web design and development, yet if you’re new to both of these fields AND you need a website now, this option may be ruled out with easy heart.

The third way to launch your website is by using a combination of a content management system (CMS) and a template. As you might have probably guessed, this option combines the speed of the first approach with the low cost of the second option:

  • Using a website template is a good solution for small businesses, even if you’re on a budget. The template’s average price is $40 – $80, which is way less than for a custom design from an agency.
  • Website templates help you save massive amounts of time as you don’t have to start from scratch with your designs. Templates not only come with pre-made layouts and styles, but also frequently with sample data that contains diverse content, pre-made for you by template developers. Using sample data, you can simply change the text and images to the ones you need.
  • With many templates, you save on acquiring paid plugins as authors tend to equip their themes with premium plugins, such as sliders or content builders, at no additional cost.
  • High-quality website templates are usually well-documented and many of them come with customer support so help you solve any configuration issues.

Things to Take into Account When Choosing a WP Theme

To fully reap the advantages listed above, it is worth while keeping certain things in mind while choosing the right WordPress template for your future website:

  1. Who is behind the theme? To end up with a high-quality template that is built with valid, well-structured code, you are better off searching for it on the websites of the leading template providers, such as ThemeForest, TemplateMonster, or Elegant Themes. By doing so, you can be sure that you’ll get a product free of security vulnerabilities, glitches and bugs. Moreover, due to the severe competition, well-established template providers are motivated to deliver designs that follow the latest trends and bring you the most powerful features.
  2. Does the theme look modern? If you want your website to be taken seriously, you’ll need a theme that looks current and professionally designed. Some of the most prominent features of modern web design include clean, clear lines, plenty of white space, bold, easily readable typography, absence of obtrusive, noisy or too detail-rich elements. It is also a given nowadays that a website looks good on all types of screens, from large HD monitors to the smallest smartphones – so be sure to check out how the theme looks and behaves on various devices.
  3. Does the visual style match your needs? Your website’s design and content should go hand in hand – depending on what you’re offering and who your target audience is, you might want to adjust your requirements. For examples, if the site is meant to showcase your creative works, a more minimalist and bold theme with an emphasis on imagery could be suitable, while a more text-focused theme is a good fit with an information-heavy website, such as a blog or a news portal.
  4. Do you need a niche template? Keep your specific needs in mind when looking for a specialized theme – be it fashion, photography, car repair, sports, education, consulting or food industry, you’ll be able to find a number of options that offer niche-specific features and design elements.

    Niche templates include features that provide for specific needs of your visitors and clients. For example, you’ll find an extended real estate search plugin in a real estate template, an appointment booking plugin in a healthcare or beauty salon template, a timetable plugin in education or sports template, etc.

  5. Does it load fast? Load speed is one of the most important visitor retention factors for any web page – so make sure the theme you’ve chosen does not take too long to fully render a page. Among the factors that most commonly influence website speed are the scripts, stylesheets, and other files loaded by the theme and bundled plugins. You can check a theme’s demo page in Pingdom’s Speed Test or using the GTMetrix engine to make sure everything is running smoothly.

    It’s an additional bonus if your chosen template comes with an animated pre-loader which clearly indicates to your guests that the page is in the process of being loaded. Be mindful, however, that it’s not a substitute for lean, optimized code, as Google and other search engines will still prefer pages which load faster.

  6. Does it include a content builder? Most theme users prefer creating pages using content builders nowadays; a content builder is a visual system that offers pre-designed elements as drag-and-drop blocks for your content. Such a tool helps you add varied content (such as tabs, dividers, counters, progress bars, timelines, blurbs, diagrams, tables, etc.), as well as create and reuse entire custom layouts.

    It’s not a big deal if your chosen theme doesn’t include a page builder out of the box, though – you can always purchase and install one by your own, e.g. the Visual Composer, one of the most popular plugins from the CodeCanyon marketplace.

  7. Is it search engine optimized? Look for a template that is built in accordance with recommendations of major search engines, such as Google, Yahoo and Bing. You use free tools such as the SEO Site Checkup to perform an SEO audit of the chosen theme’s demo website or other existing pages that use the theme.

    Despite the fact that there are numerous specialized (free) SEO plugins for WordPress out there, it’s always a plus if a theme allows at least defining meta titles and descriptions for individual pages, as this alone might even be enough to avoid using yet another third-party plugin that would potentially slow down your website.

  8. Is it compatible with major plugins? It’s also worth checking whether a template is compatible with popular WordPress plugins such as WooCommerce, Contact Form 7, BuddyPress, bbPress, etc. Most good themes will offer pre-built features and styling for the most widely used plugins, while the best theme authors will also offer their help in ensuring that a given less popular plugin also plays nicely with the theme.

Premium or Free?

The web is a pretty competitive and largely frictionless market – which means that in most cases, you truly get what you pay for; even if what you paid was zero dollars. Having said that, it would be unjust to claim that only premium WP themes are worth your while: there are numerous free templates that offer most (if not all) of the important features of paid ones (you can check out our free Bento theme for example).

With the free themes getting more and more advanced, it can be argued that the real value of premium templates stems from three thigs these days: pre-built layouts, more detailed documentation, and faster, dedicated support. The former saves you massive amounts of time by allowing to start from entire websites pre-designed on top of a specific theme and just fill them with your content; the latter will come handy if you’re on a tight schedule.

Overall, it all boils down to your personal requirements: in case you’re okay with getting into the nuts and bolts of it, and do not have significant time constraints, a free theme might be a good fit; if, though, you value top quality visuals, abundance of options and quick support, going for a paid theme might be a sensible idea.

Over to You!

Have questions about any of the above tips? Still can’t choose between two or more WP themes after reading this? Drop us a line in the comments section below, we’ll be happy to help!

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by Helen Miller
A freelance author with a keen interest in web design and development, Helen works with large online brands such as Template Monster to deliver useful content to WP lovers around the globe.

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1 comment

Brandon Graves

A most useful information you shared here, I have enjoyed the article and referring to others.