Free is great, right? Who doesn’t like free stuff?
But when it comes to free WordPress themes, ‘free’ doesn’t always equal ‘great’. In fact, sometimes free sucks.
Why? Because sometimes you need more than most free themes can deliver. You need complex functionality, kick-ass design, and rock-solid support.
This is where premium themes come in to play.
There are various free and paid WordPress themes out there, each meant for a specific purpose. In this article, I shall be discussing six points that you should keep in mind when choosing a premium WordPress theme.
1. The Seller
Naturally, the first thing that you notice about a premium theme is the provider or the seller. If you are buying directly from a premium theme shop, chances are that you will most likely opt for a reputed name: WooThemes, Elegant Themes, WPZOOM, Obox Designs, Theme Furnace, UpThemes, Organic Themes, ThemeZilla, Graph Paper Press, and so on.
But what about that gorgeous theme that you saw on ThemeForest or Mojo Themes? Well, to begin with, each theme marketplace generally offers user-submitted reviews and ratings. Beyond that, a simple Google search for the theme developer’s name can prove useful. Simply Google the theme provider’s name, along with a not-so-happy keyword, such as “support”, “known issues”, “problems”, or even “sucks”. Going by my experience in the web hosting industry, I have noticed that people are more likely to write a review if they are unhappy with a given service (of course, positive reviewers are also quite common, but the negative ones are generally more outspoken).
Another good metric to judge a theme seller’s credibility is its social media presence. The level of activity and interaction on Twitter and Facebook page of the seller can help you assess their reliability. Similarly, the blog posts (or, in case of individual sellers, Github pages) can also provide you an idea about the seller and the quality of their work. Be warned though, not having a blog that is updated weekly with tutorials does not imply that the developers are not good at their job. Often, some theme providers create wonderful themes, but their blogs are rarely updated.
Lastly, if the theme provider is offering a free theme, download it and check it out! Obviously, the free theme may not be premium-like in quality, but it can give you an overview of ‘what to expect’. If, for example, the free offering has shady or spammy code, stay away from the premium version as well.
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2. Code Compliance
Code compliance is a vital factor when it comes to choosing a WP theme. Poorly coded themes have various drawbacks: they can slow down your website or, even worse, make it easier for malicious hackers to hack your site. Furthermore, poorly coded websites generally get poor pageranks in search engines as well.
It is a good idea to run the W3C Validator check on the theme’s homepage itself. If the homepage throws up multiple errors, the rest of the theme may be poorly coded too.
However, it is worth noting that most web pages on the internet fail to get a 100% cleanliness score on the W3C check. A good theme is largely, not absolutely, code compliant. Plus, certain errors may be due to embedded content such as videos, or third party elements such as plugins and thus, it is worthwhile to go through the errors before blaming the theme.
If the W3C Validator does not work for you (or you just need an alternative), try Validator.nu, another free service that lets you check a web page (or even an uploaded file) for code compliance.
In addition to the W3C Validator, two useful plugins that can help you assess a theme’s coding standards are Theme Check and Theme Authenticity Checker. However, both these plugins are more useful after you have actually purchased/downloaded a theme, and not before you have bought it.
3. Update Frequency
A regular update mechanism is vital when it comes to anything related to WordPress: themes, plugins, or even WP itself. The logic behind this is that WordPress keeps coming out with newer versions and features, as well as updates, security fixes and patches. Naturally, themes too need to be updated in order to be compatible with the latest WP versions as well as avoid the latest security issues. If the theme provider offers a public changelog for the theme, go through it just to ensure that the update frequency is not erratic.
The concept is fairly simple: look for the ‘last updated’ date on the theme’s page. If the theme has not been updated recently, don’t consider it.
Lastly, you can also search for the theme’s name plus the WordPress version number on Google to see if other users are experiencing problems with the given theme on a specific WP version. Also, don’t forget to go through the theme seller’s forums for any support threads, as often users and developers comment about known version and update issues in the forums.
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When it comes to premium themes, the pricing seems to be quite diverse. For instance, a decent theme at ThemeForest costs anywhere between $30 and $45, but a premium theme from WooThemes costs much more.
Similarly, Club Membership rates differ as well — a Standard Club Membership at Elegant Themes will set you back by $39 per year, whereas a similar Membership account at WPZOOM will cost you $108 per year (plus a one-time Membership fee of $199). Also, before purchasing, be sure that you have gone through the refund policy (if any) of the theme seller.
Still, all said and done, pricing should not play much of a role when it comes to picking a premium theme. If the theme features that you want are provided to you in a theme worth $70, why hesitate?
Generally, ‘you get what you pay for’ happens to be the norm when purchasing any commodity, and WordPress themes are also no exception to this norm, though there are many cheaper premium themes out there as well which offer a decent set of features.
That said, often a WordPress theme’s pricing can serve as an indication of its features, and more importantly, after-sale support and update mechanism. This is primarily the reason why providers such as WooThemes tend to be costlier than developers who publish via ThemeForest: WooThemes provides much better support and updates than many other cheaper alternatives. For instance, let’s say you purchased a theme from ThemeForest, and another from WooThemes. With the former, your best bet is a comment thread, or possibly some email support. With the latter, on the other hand, you have extensive documentation, forums, email support, and so on.
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And now, coming to the biggest point of them all, theme features!
When it comes to theme features, it all boils down to your requirements and needs. If you intend to create a magazine website, your requirements will differ from those of a photoblog. Similarly, a video blogger’s theme will clearly not serve the purpose for an eCommerce site.
That said, however, there are certain common metrics to bear in mind. Ideally, we can group the features under ‘Must Have’ and ‘Optional’.
Must Have Features
For the first category of ‘Must Have’ features, the list is pretty straight forward.
- Responsive web design: This is the era of mobiles, and responsive web design is gaining popularity with each passing day.
- Properly coded HTML and CSS: Once again, a properly coded theme can help you avoid hacks, get better SEO, etc.
- Regular updates: Like we discussed above, a regularly updated theme is vital in order to match pace with the dynamic nature of web design trends.
- Specialized support from the theme provider is an added bonus.
Now for the ‘Optional’ category. Of late, there have been many premium themes which come loaded with a multitude of features — SEO settings, shortcodes, custom post types, admin layout changer, etc. Many such features are not really required from a theme.
For instance, take SEO. Simply put, SEO is a plugin’s job. (Granted, a properly coded theme is crucial for getting a good page rank, but specialized SEO settings ideally belong in a plugin). And so even though a premium theme may come with its own SEO options, added features such as SEO should not play a primary role when deciding which them to purchase.
Similarly, when it comes to using shortcodes on your website, you can easily opt for a plugin instead of binding yourself down to a theme.
Another thing worth considering is the future-proof model. Obviously, the theme you buy today should not be expected to be the same theme you will be using two decades later, but at the same time, when looking at a theme’s features, you should keep your future needs in mind. For instance, you may not need custom post formats today, but as your website grows, you may have a need for such formats and having a theme that supports post formats will come in handy.
It also makes sense to consider the possibility of child themes. Generally, especially on themes sold by many individual developers on ThemeForest, the norm is to offer multiple page templates with the theme itself. While there is nothing ‘wrong’ with this, it is more sensible to rely on a child theme for needed templates. Thus, when purchasing a theme, do consider its support for child themes.
Similarly, another trend in theme features that is quite common, but often unnecessary, is to include custom post types. In fact, pick up any portfolio theme from ThemeForest, and 99.9% of them will have a custom ‘Portfolio’ post type. Install it, use it, and if you ever change the theme, your portfolio items are gone! Such custom settings belong in a plugin, not a theme. They should not play a key role in decision making.
In simple words, if you are paying for a WordPress theme, you are entitled to proper support. The most basic form of support is forums, though most theme providers offer email support to their club members. In fact, it has become almost essential for any firm to have a support forum — WPMU DEV has its own forum, wherein you can check out support threads posted by users.
A good method to assess the after-sale support provided by a theme developer is to go through their tweets and Facebook page. Often users tend to tweet questions and feedback to the developers, and the manner in which the theme provider responds on social media says a lot about how they may reply in a support thread.
Over To You…
With that, we come to the end of this guide about purchasing premium themes for WordPress. Now, to quickly sum it up, how about a check-list of things you should consider when buying a theme?
- The theme seller has a good reputation.
- Theme is code compliant and is regularly updated.
- The theme seller provides good after-sale support for the theme.
- Make a list of features that you want. Most common and oft-needed ones include:
- Responsive design.
- Support for child themes.
- Lastly, features such as “Awesome SEO settings” and “Over 10,000 color layouts” should not be a deciding factor in choosing a premium theme.
What are your thoughts? Which factors do you like to consider (or overlook) when buying a theme? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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Photo credits: Huasonic.