WordPress themes have been the savior of countless numbers of people and businesses. It’s easy to find them online for free, or for money. For less than $100 you can get a theme that will make your site look professional and reasonably custom.
Here in the office, we routinely help small business owners get started with their online presence buy starting with a fresh copy of WordPress and a professional theme. Based on our interaction with our clients, here’s a good list of DO’S and DONT’S when buying a WordPress Theme.
WordPress Theme Do’s
Do know the type of site you are
When you look for a WordPress theme retailers like to divide sites into their respective types. This can vary a little bit from site to site but for the most part, you’re going to be one of the following.
The question is, which is it?
Do know what you want your website to do
If you had trouble answering the above question, it’s because you need to answer this question. What do you want your users to do, exactly? Are they reading articles? Looking at photography? Watching video? Listening to a podcast? Buying something? A combination thereof?
Users are on websites to accomplish a task. The “task” in this case is what your website does.
Do know your needs for functionality and design
Traditionally in WordPress themes handle design and plugins handle functionality. When you buy a professional theme, they love to stuff them with functionality. Shortcodes comes to mind. Built in SEO is another. And that’s fine, I guess. But those shouldn’t be why you’re buying a particular theme. Themes, first and foremost, are about displaying content. If you find yourself looking for functionality in a theme, you’re probably actually looking for a combination of a theme and a plugin.
If you can find a plugin that does what you want (like, say, SEO) then you can focus on finding a theme that better highlights your content, or otherwise enhances your brand.
The one exception for this, in my opinion, are e-commerce themes. If you need e-commerce and are trying to DIY it, it’s possible that integrating an e-commerce plugin into a theme is above your skill level. In this case, e-commerce themes work beautifully as a solution.
Do know where people are using your website
Mobile is a big deal and only getting bigger. Accessibility means your website needs to be viewable on a PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and an Xbox. At least. How important is that to you? Different themes handle this kind of accessibility differently. Most importantly test the theme on the device where it will be mostly used. That’s the only way you’re truly going to know if it works for your needs.
Do think about your need for multiple layouts
I know all about this one from personal experience. This website, abetteruserexperience.com, is a WordPress site that is a very slightly modified theme we found on ThemeForest. When we upgraded to in in January 2012, it was orders of magnitude better than what we had to that point (a simple blog on wordpress.com). One of the things I didn’t think to check was how the category pages look. In hindsight, I wish they had their own featured sections and were more sexy.
We’re going through a redesign now, and you can bet your bippy that we’re more aware of this consideration this time around.
For you, how do you want your content to look on the page? Most themes have a front page that looks different from the interior pages. Check the front page, the category page, the archive page, the page page, the post page, and verify that you’re cool with that design. Because once you buy it, you’ve bought it.
Know what parts of your website HAVE to be in place and where you’re willing to compromise
In my experience, buying a theme is an exercise in compromise. Know where you’re willing to give a little: where the design doesn’t have to look just like how you thought in your mind, or if you’re okay with a layout that’s different than what your really want on the category page. Themes will do that to you. You’ll love 80% and practically loathe the other 20%. So it helps to know going in what you’re willing to budge on and what you just have to have.
Do look for all of the basic WordPress functions
Low quality themes (or themes developed by beginning WordPress designers) frequently leave out some of the basic wordpress functions. In WordPress, you should be able to take advantage of their hooks. This means being able to use widgets, featured images, wordpress menus, etc. To be honest, it couldn’t hurt to know a bit about how WordPress themes are put together. This overview from Yoast is a good primer.
Do look for good documentation
After you buy a WordPress Theme, you’re stuck with having to configure it for your needs. This is a lot easier if the theme has good documentation. If not, you could find yourself unable to replicate some of what you saw in their Live Demo. Chances are also good that the more well documented a theme is, the better quality it is too. Quality and documentation tend to go hand-in-hand.
Know your own technical limitations
Since you (or somebody on your team) is going to be responsible for building the website out, you need to know what you can’t do. If you don’t have a programmer, then don’t expect amazing functionality past what WordPress and various plugins can do for you. If your graphic design talents are limited, keep that in mind. Or find a great stock photography place. If you know your limitations then you can buy a theme that plays to them and allows you to play to your strengths.
WordPress Theme Dont’s
Don’t get persuaded by colorful imagery
When I look in theme stores, it reminds me of shopping for a TV. Every theme tries to have the most visually arresting photography. They do this because it works. Don’t fall for it. Look past the pretty pictures and try to imagine your own content there. Does it still look as slick as it does right now? Probably not. They’re probably using pictures from nature scenes and video games. Both are highly colorful. What about you?
Once you take the pictures out, most themes get way less sexy. Be aware of this and don’t get fooled!
Don’t buy themes for their functionality (that’s the job of a plugin)
Like we discussed above, themes make your content look pretty and plugins are responsible for functionality. A lot of premium themes include some functionality. But ask yourself: what do I need my website to do. If you need SEO, or email address collection, or e-commerce, or caching, or pushing updates to social media, etc., then you should look for plugins that can do that for you.
Themes are about content presentation. Don’t forget.
Don’t assume anything about your theme
I can’t stress this enough. Never assume anything about the theme you’re about to buy. If you think “it looks like a quality theme, I’m sure it’s in there”. No, it’s not. Not until you check and confirm that fact. WordPress themes are as varied as fingerprints. That’s why you need to look to see that all the basic stuff is included. You can’t even take that for granted. Look at the headlines. The paragraphs. The bullet points. Everything. If you don’t like it, you’re going to have to change it or you’re going to be stuck with it. So don’t assume your theme does it. Check before you buy!
Let’s be honest, we’re talking about a $40 theme, most likely. So it’s not exactly an incredible amount of money. If you find that you’ve bought a theme that you hate, can’t understand, or don’t want to use. I feel ya. I’ve been there. And it made me smarter about buying the next theme. The best thing to do is to become more familiar with the WordPress platform and how it works. This will help you make educated decisions when buying your theme. It’s not necessary to dig into the WordPress codex (though if you can code, dawg, get on it), but it also couldn’t hurt to read a tutorial on how to design a WordPress theme. Then you’ll know what they’re supposed to be building, and you’ll have a better idea of what to expect when buying your next WordPress Theme.