Choosing a 3rd-party WordPress Theme

themes_imagesOf course I sometimes build a custom WordPress theme from scratch. But the type of website I offer my clients – especially at the price I offer it – benefits greatly from the use of a good-quality 3rd-party WordPress theme. There simply isn’t time to re-create the wheel in that sense, and there is no need to, as long as I’m extremely careful about choosing a theme.

A first step is establishing with the client that they cannot simply Google “WordPress themes” and then pick out something they like the looks of. The visual appearance is only one of a number of important factors in choosing a theme, and I make it very clear that I have criteria that must be met.

A primary criteria is whether the theme is from a company or author which offers decent technical support for their product. I may never need that support – usually I don’t – but if I have a serious problem with a theme, I want to be able to get good, timely support from the author or company. I don’t need or want anything close to hand-holding, but if there’s something confusing or difficult about the code or functionality of the theme, I want to know that I have access to people who know the coding inside-out and are willing to assist. This support is typically via a web forum and can be slow and require a lot of diplomacy and patience, but even that is a thousand times better than being stuck with a theme which you can’t make work, with no recourse.

Naturally, a related concern is the stability of the theme author/company as a business. I only want to work with an author or company which is well-established as a WordPress theme provider and shows every sign of continuing in that line of work into the future.

Also a crucial concern in choosing a theme is what it offers in terms of layout and features, especially on the Home page. This is where a lot of the value of using a WordPress Theme comes in. The large images, sliders, grids and extra widget areas all arranged nicely are very useful when they’re appropriate for the project in question.

And then there are theme options which allow easy customization. Does the theme have its own mini control panel in the WordPress Dashboard? What options can be changed easily? Naturally, I could change anything about the theme by straight code editing of the CSS, functions.php file and theme files, but Theme Options makes this much quicker and easier.

Interestingly, although clients will tend to look at themes and think only of the visual appearance, that is the least important criteria, for me – because I’m going to change a whole lot of the visual appearance.

The price of a theme is not important to me, assuming it is reasonable in the current market. I don’t consider “free” to be any advantage at all. It is so much more important to use a theme from a reputable provider who supports it, than to save $50 or $100, that I don’t hesitate to pay for a good theme.

WordPress Frameworks. A WordPress framework is a theme which is sometimes referred to as a “parent theme”, since it is designed to be used to create child themes. The framework’s whole purpose in life is to make it faster and easier for developers to produce full-featured websites. Frameworks typically provide theme code which complies with the current version of WordPress and is optimized for SEO. They typically allow easy customization which would otherwise be time-consuming or difficult.

Using a framework can be very helpful. I’ve used Genesis on a handful of websites and have found that it made many tasks much easier. It’s also great to have the support of the people behind the framework as well as its community of developers. On the flip side, I’ve found it frustrating when some code I wanted to edit was hidden beneath layers of files and includes within the framework. And I sometimes feel a bit leery of being so dependent upon the framework company, which may or may not be as responsive to support questions as I’d like, and may not even be around forever.

I suggest at least experimenting with one or two of the frameworks available. If you find one you really like, and the support is good, and the company appears to be stable, it could be a good direction for your business.

The most common WordPress frameworks as of this writing: Genesis, Thesis, Pagelines, Headway, and iThemes Builder.