Updated May 2021.
We're already lucky to have 39.5% of the world's websites powered by WordPress. And WordPress themes are big business, with many developers and companies launching new themes every day. But what do you look for? Here's a checklist so you can pick a theme that addresses your technical and design needs.
First, what the heck is a theme? I like to separate out terminology this way:
What is a WordPress theme?
According to Dreamhost, it's "A WordPress theme is a group of files (graphics, stylesheets, and code) that dictates the overall appearance of your blog or website. Themes can control something as vast as your site's layout, or as minute as your hyperlink colors."
So it's the design and the actual code of your site that tells it to appear as it is.
What is a WordPress plugin?
And from a favorite WordPress newbie site, WPBeginner, a plugin is "a piece of software containing a group of functions that can be added to a WordPress website. They can extend functionality or add new features to your WordPress websites. ... They make it easier for users to add features to their website without knowing a single line of code."
So, in essence it's what can provide functionality for your site, such a contact form creator (like Ninja Forms), or what may display rotating testimonials (like Strong Testimonials, which I use on this site).
Back to it. Though I'm a devotee of custom theming, templates can get you online faster. But all themes aren't equal: It may not be mobile friendly; it may have bloated code and be very slow; it might just look like the dog walking business down the street.
The WordPress theme checklist
In working with quite a few of them, I have a checklist of things to look for before you purchase:
✔️ Is the theme responsive?
That is, will it also work on an iPad or other tablet, and an iPhone, Android or other smart phone? An easy way to check: If you're on your desktop computer and shrink the size of the browser window to that of a tablet or phone, do the graphics and text rearrange themselves and move along with it? If no, it's not responsive.
✔️ Should you use a framework like StudioPress Genesis, Pagelines or WooThemes?
Keep in mind you’ll be married to that framework, and any quirks that come along with it. Many developers have a preference, or prefer using themes without the framework [that's me, usually! As always, it depends on what you're doing!].
✔️ What about page builders like Divi, Elementor, or Beaver Builder?
I'll admit, I often use Divi so that clients can update and utilize their site on their own; but, I also provide training on it. If your developer won't provide some training, check out the page builder's tutorials and see if it seems doable. If not, you may be looking for more help down the road, fixing and updating your site.
The often-mentioned downside of page builders is that they make your site slow if not optimized correctly, and you need someone who understands how to work with it who knows how to accomplish this.
✔️ Free is not better.
There are good free themes out there [the WP theme library has a lot, but of course most of those looks like old-school blogs], but when I worked with a big brand who relied on a free theme, I spent more time fixing hacks on an abandoned template that didn’t keep up with WP upgrades. Talk about a pain!
✔️ Does the theme have everything you want out of the box?
That is, if you want social media icons at the top, it may not be simple to make this happen, and may require extensive hacking, depending on how the theme was built. Get as close to all of the features you’d like off the bat.
✔️ Don't buy a theme anticipating you'll one day use all of the extra stuff it comes with.
This just bloats the theme and slows you down.
✔️ Don't rely on your theme for functional things.
That's what plugins are for. Use themes only for design, and keep other options like calendars, etc. to plugins.
Special control panels can be a pain. Many developers offer these “easy” panels to ease customization, but this sometimes buries or obscures code. Likewise, if it depends on certain plugins, you'll always be married to it, even if it's a layout designer that should make things better. Like much software, ease of use and compatibility is paramount, and this may complicate the upkeep of your site rather than ease it.
✔️ Don’t rely on the theme calling itself “SEO friendly” as being enough.
Good search engine optimization requires each page or post being optimized, by you.
✔️ Don’t expect the theme to install just like the demo, with everything working, out of the box.
In fact, be prepared for more of a mess! Many themes these days have custom post types, designate posts and pages for different things, and usually have a lot of quirks that may not be explained, even in paid themes.
✔️ Is there a support forum, and how fast does the developer respond?
Are there support queries sitting out there for weeks or months? Support forums are the lifeblood of WordPress, since someone else likely encountered the same problem and can help quickly, but not all theme developers are available at a moment’s notice.
✔️ And some additional tips as you create your new site:
The original theme can be updated and left untouched—your changes are kept and your theme’s vulnerabilities can be fixed in its next update.
Do not keep the exact look of the theme.
Chances are others have, and you don’t want your site to be a clone of that aforementioned dog walking business down the street! Change up colors, fonts, images, and get creative: Texture and color can really set you apart.
✔️ Keep a WordPress pro on hand [yes, I'm emailable!].
You’ll need advice, or more likely, someone to come in and clean up the installation and make things work as they should. Many of us are in WP all day long, so that issue that takes you 4 hours might just take us 15 minutes!