There are so many free WordPress themes out there it can put your head in a tail spin. So in an effort to help you sift through the good and the – let’s face it – crap, we’ve put together this ultimate guide to free WordPress themes.
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There’s an overwhelming number of free themes available – just search Google. It’s easy enough to just download the first free theme that catches your eye. And why wouldn’t you? They’re free!
Why should you fork out your hard-earned cash for a premium themes when there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, available for free?
And you’re right. Why should you pay for something you can get for nothing? Downloading a free theme instead of a premium theme seems like the obvious choice.
But like most things that are too good to be true, free themes come with a catch. You risk downloading malicious code, struggling to customize a poorly written theme or finding out the hard was that you’re all alone with no support when something goes wrong. What might be free now, you’ll pay for later in frustration, time and money.
Stick around, but in this very comprehensive look at free themes, I’ll let you in on everything you need to know about free themes and where you can find safe and reliable options.
In this post we’ll cover:
- What is a Free WordPress Theme?
- Advantages of Free WordPress Themes
- Disadvantages of Free WordPress Themes
- Free WordPress Themes Versus Premium WordPress Themes
- Should I Use a Free Theme or a Premium Theme
- Where You Can Find Reliable and Free WordPress Themes
- Searching for Free WordPress Themes on Google
- How to Check Your WordPress Themes for Potentially Malicious Code
- Tips for Choosing Your Ideal Free WordPress Theme
What is a Free WordPress Theme?
A free theme is, well, free.
Some developers create free themes to build their portfolio or just for fun. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of themes shops out there and some, like WooThemes and Graph Paper Press, also create free themes, often to attract users to their site in the hope they’ll empty their wallets for premium content.
If you’ve searched Google for free themes, you’ve no doubt stumbled across WordPress.org and its Theme Repository, the largest collection of free WordPress themes available online.
WordPress software is licensed under the GPL and all themes uploaded to the Repository are also required to be 100 per cent GPL-licensed, or use a GPL-compatible license. This includes all PHP, HTML, CSS, images, fonts, icons and everything else.
What’s the GPL?
The GNU General Public License, according to its preamble, is “intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software – to make sure the software is free for all its users.”
When referring to free software, the GPL means freedom, not price. The GPL is designed to ensure you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service, if you wish), and that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new, free programs.
The GPL was the first copyleft license made available for general use.
Creative Commons licenses are another type of public license, which is free of charge to the public. These licenses allow creators to communicate which rights they reserve and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators.
Some WordPress themes, which are not part of the Theme Repository, are licensed under Creative Commons rather than the GPL.
Free Themes Are Not All Created Equal
Back in 2009, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg sought to clarify licensing for free themes. The US-based Software Freedom Law Center gave the legal opinion that PHP in themes must be GPL, while artwork and CSS may be licensed under GPL, but it’s not required.
When downloading any theme it’s important to understand how it is licensed and what you’re legally allowed to do with it.
Advantages of Free WordPress Themes
What’s not to like about something that’s absolutely free? There are many advantages to using a free theme:
Free Themes Are Free!
Free themes aren’t going to burn a hole in your pocket. You can simply download the theme you want and starting using it.
Premium themes can be expensive and if you buy a theme and later decide you don’t want it, or discover that it doesn’t work well with plugins you really need, it can be difficult to get your money back.
Also, why hire a designer and developer to create a site for you when you can simply download one for free?
While free themes often come without support, there are plenty of resources out there to help you get started with a free theme you’ve just downloaded or with any advanced customizations you may want to make. The WordPress Support Forums are the first port of call. We’ve also got a rocking support team at WPMU DEV.
If you’re like me, you quickly spot a theme you like, download and activate it and then decide it’s totally wrong for you site. Rinse and repeat.
This can get pretty expensive if you’re buying premium themes at $45 a pop. With free themes, since you don’t have to pay for them you can download as many as you like without compromising your budget. You can experiment with as many themes as you like until you find the right one that suits your needs.
Disadvantages of Free WordPress
While there are many good reasons to download free themes, they do have their limitations and disadvantages.
There are a plethora of blogs out there (including ours) that regularly publish lists of the best free themes, so the best ones are quickly picked up and promoted.
The best free themes can be download hundreds, if not thousands, of times, ensuring your site is about as unique as a banana.
Many free themes are put together by amateurs who have poor coding skills, leaving your site open to security vulnerabilities if you decide to use the theme.
Poorly coded free themes are also less likely to be localization-ready if you want to translate your site into another language, or SEO-optimized to help your site load faster and perform well in search rankings.
Lack of Features
Free themes usually offer very basic features. The premium theme market is an incredibly competitive place – just look at Theme Forest. Themes need to offer responsive design and dozens of customizations to get ahead of competitors. Free themes more than not have a very limited number of features.
Lack of Support
Free themes often don’t come with customer support, so if you run into a problem you’re on your own.
WordPress is constantly being updated. In fact, the latest version of WordPress, 3.8, was released just two months after WordPress 3.7. It’s important your themes are compatible with the latest version of WordPress. When you use a premium theme, the onus is on the developer to release timely updates. But when you’re using a free theme, you could wait months for an upgrade or not even see one at all.
There are themes in the WordPress Theme Repository that haven’t been updated in more than two years.
Malicious Code and Encrypted Footer Links
Free themes are notorious for being a conduit for malicious code, encrypted spammy links and link injections for malware or whatever else.
Since the Google Penguin update, Google has cracked down on sites that have spammy and encrypted links. Hell, we were even unfairly penalised for it.
Free Themes Versus Premium Themes
It’s important to weigh up what you want to actually achieve with your site. Small personal blogs or portfolio sites may benefit from a free theme because it’s a quick and inexpensive way to get a site up and running. Small businesses that require e-commerce, agencies and large companies would do better with a premium theme. Don’t even think about using a free theme for a complex corporate site.
Premium themes offer many features that are worth paying for and free themes simply can’t compete. If you do decide to use a free theme, it’s important to acknowledge its limitations and accept them.
What is a premium theme?
Premium themes are themes which have been professionally designed and developed and include advanced features and functionality, such as sliders, e-commerce, styling options, and custom widgets, among other things.
Premium themes are usually sold at a fixed cost or as part of a membership. You’re look at around $45 for a theme at Theme Forest or $99 for a standalone theme at WooThemes. When you buy a theme, it usually comes with support and regular updates for a fixed period of time.
When you hand over money for a premium theme, you can expect a higher standard and quality compared to free themes, as well as a greater selection of theme designs and functionality.
Unfortunately, there are nasty people out there who manipulate and distribute free WordPress themes containing dodgy links and malicious code. Unless you know what to look for in a theme’s files, using these free themes can negatively affect your site’s efficiency and search engine trust and rankings.
Premium themes can give you the peace of mind that a theme is clean and optimized to make your site perform at its best.
Should I Use a Free Theme or a Premium Theme?
When you’re just starting out, it makes sense to download and experiment with free themes so you can get a sense of how WordPress works and how to makes customizations.
If you’re a blogger, a free theme is ideal. Not only is it low cost, but it is unlikely you will need advanced features that comes with premium themes.
When your site starts to get more popular, it’s probably time to start thinking about buying a premium theme
Free themes are best for:
Premium themes offer features more suited to
- Popular blogs
- Small businesses
- Corporate sites
When making a decision about what kind of theme to use, it’s also worth considering what kind of look and feel you want to project to your visitors. If you use a free theme with a footer link displaying the name of the site where you downloaded it from, it tells people you don’t put much effort into your site.
Where You Can Find Reliable Free Themes
It’s important to remember that malicious code isn’t the defining characteristic of free themes. In fact, there are many quality free themes out there.
Rather, malicious code is a problem of unsafe sites offering those themes. This is why it’s important to download free themes from reliable sources like the ones mentioned below.
The Theme Repository really is the largest collection of free themes available online (where else would you find it? :)
At last count there were 2216 themes in the repository, which have been download 89,271,832 times. (Remember what I said about the uniqueness of free themes…?)
The Repository has a fantastic feature finder, while allows you to search for themes based on their tags. So if you’re looking for a pink theme with a right sidebar, a fixed layout and a feature header for the holidays, you can search for and find just that.
As I mentioned above, all themes uploaded to the Repository are 100 per cent GPL and are throughly tested by the Theme Review Team, so themes should be free of malicious code.
120 Free WordPress Themes from Premium Theme Developers
Our very own Joe Foley put together this amazing list of premium themes that are also 100 per cent free.
Not only are these themes free, but you can trust that they have been created and released with clean code. Many theme shops don’t provide support for free themes, so it’s a good idea to check this out if you do decide to download a free premium theme.
Free Premium Themes
While theme shops really just want you to buy and download their premium themes, many also release free themes to entice new customers.
Here are just a few:
Themes Kingdom offers six free themes, including a charity theme. The themes features clean designs that come with support.
WooThemes offers a collection of 16 free themes, including e-commerce, blogging and business designs.
Thirteen free themes are available at Graph Paper Press, a theme shop aimed at photographers, artists and small businesses.
Wpshower offers seven free themes that come with features such as custom widgets and a jQuery-powered featured post carousel. The theme shop’s site includes a forum where users can ask questions about free themes.
Themify offers three free themes, which come with features such as responsive layouts, sliders and child theme support.
Searching for Free WordPress Themes on Google
A few years ago, a simple Google search for “free wordpress themes” was very different to what it is today. Back in 2011, a search turned up a gaggle of dodgy, theme websites littered with themes containing malicious code and hidden, spammy links:
Times have certainly changed since then! Since Google’s Penguin update, the search engine has cracked down on spammy links and link schemes. In 2014, a search for “free wordpress themes” brings up a very different set of search results:
I should also add that the top 10 results change daily, albeit slightly.
So what are all these sites? Let’s go through each one and check their credibility.
WordPress Theme Repository
It makes sense the WordPress Theme Repository, the largest collection of free WordPress themes available, ranks highly. In fact, both first and second.
The repository is one of the safest places to find and download free themes. A volunteer Theme Review Team reviews and approves themes submitted for inclusion in the repository. Theme reviews are a way to control the quality of themes that are available in the repository. The team doesn’t review designs, but it does look at the quality of code, ensures themes meet a strict set of guidelines and can handle test data.
WPExplorer offers a collection of free and commercial WordPress themes and plugins sourced from third-party sites, such as Theme Forest. The sites makes money from affiliate links.
According to the site’s terms and conditions, many of the themes available for download on the site are not hosted on the WPExplorer domain, and those that are hosted on the same domain may include a footer link back to WPExplorer.
Importantly, the terms and conditions also specify “any free theme downloaded from WPExplorer.com is done at your own risk and the owner of WPExplorer.com will not be liable for any problems caused from such activity.”
WPMU DEV Blog
The fourth search listing is the very blog you are reading right now! Back in 2011, we reviewed the top 10 search listings for “free wordpress themes” and found the majority offered themes containing malicious code. The subsequent post, Why You Should Never Search For Free WordPress Themes, was a huge eye opener for WordPress users who had never bothered to look into the code of the free themes they were downloading.
But 2011 was a lifetime ago in the online world so we’re bringing things up-to-date in this post.
Design Razzi calls itself a design magazine, but it’s really just a collection of lists, i.e. 125+ Free Responsive WordPress Themes 2014, 150+ Best Free Photoshop Text Effects Tutorials, 5+ Best Responsive WordPress Video Themes. The site is crammed with ads.
The WordPress themes section offers lists of themes hosted off-site, such as 125+ Best WordPress Photography Themes and 75+ Best Personal Blogging WordPress Themes. There’s no terms and conditions section. When you click on a theme you are taken to a third-party site where you can download or demo a theme.
My recommendation: download themes from Design Razzi at your own risk.
Smart Magazine WordPress Themes
Smart Magazine Themes offers a huge collection of free and premium themes. The site’s themes are available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license – another type of license, similar to the GPL in its aims – which means anyone who downloads a theme can share it or adapt it, but they must give attribution to the theme’s creator. This means that every theme must display a link in the footer to the Smart Magazine WordPress Themes site.
While all of the themes are free, you need to cough up some cash if you want to get rid of footer links or use any themes for client sites.
Web Designer Depot
The seventh entry is Web Designer Depot, a blog about web design and development. The link displayed in Google search is a round-up of themes, The Best Free WordPress Themes, December 2013. The themes listed are all hosted off-site. Many are available on the WordPress Theme Repository, while others are hosted on sites belonging to a theme’s developer.
While the site has terms and conditions, there is nothing related to the free themes promoted on the site. Themes that are available on the repository are generally safe, but you may want to check the files of any free themes you download from other sites. I’ll go into how to check free themes for malicious code later in this post.
Towfiq I. is a theme shop run by Bangladeshi developer Towfiq, offering free and premium themes. Obviously, Towfiq has been working hard on his SEO!
I downloaded a bunch of free themes from the site and scanned them for potentially malicious or unwanted code using the Theme Authenticity Checker plugin (I’ll go into more detail about this plugin later in this post). I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary, only links back to the Towfiq site. The fact this site ranks on the first page for this search term makes me wonder how he boosts his SEO?
Hongkiat is a popular design and blogging site that features articles and tutorials on Photoshop, HTML/CSS, WordPress, photography and design. The site’s WordPress section features tips and tricks, much like the WPMU DEV Blog.
The link that appears in Google search is for a list post, 40+ Free Responsive WordPress Themes. A lot of sites, such as our blog, publishes these list posts, which are designed to spark inspiration and provide a handy look at what’s out there.
The posts in this list are all hosted off-site on theme developer sites, so download at your own risk.
Last but not least, Torque Mag comes in 10th in our Google search. Torque is a WordPress news site run by managed WordPress host WP Engine.
The link, Best Free WordPress Themes from 2013, offers a list of 25 free themes released during 2013. Like other list posts, the themes are all hosted off-site, so download at your own risk.
How to Check Your Theme for Potentially Malicious Code
It’s a good idea to scan new themes of malicious code if you’re not 100 per cent satisfied that the code is clean.
Luckily, there was a few great programs to help you out – and they’re all free, no less.
TAC searches the sources files of every installed theme in your WordPress install for signs of malicious code.
It’s simple to use – just install and activate the plugin. A new menu item will appear in your admin area – Appearance > TAC. If bad code is found, TAC will display the path to the theme file, the line number and a small snippet of the suspicious code.
Exploit Scanner searches the files on your site, as well as the posts and comments tables of your database, for anything suspicious. It also examines your list of active plugins for unusual filenames.
This plugin is also easy to use – just install and activate it and go to Tools > Exploit Scanner to run a scan.
Sucuri scans your site for malware, spam, blacklisting and other security issues like. htaccess redirects and hidden eval code.
Like the plugins mentioned above, just install and activate the plugin. Sucuri Free will appear in the admin sidebar with various options for checking your site’s security.
The plugin available in the WordPress Plugin Repository is free, though Securi also offers premium plans.
Tips for Choosing Your Ideal Free Theme
When choosing a free theme, only you know what your needs are so it helps to write them down keep them in mind when searching for a theme.
- What features do you need? Do you need a slider? A portfolio? A great free theme should meet your present and future needs.
- Is the theme easy to customize? Whether you’re a coding king or a WordPress newb, it’s important to keep in mind what customizations you may need to make to your site if the original design doesn’t meet all your needs.
- Does your site fit a particular genre? If you are putting together a site for a specific purpose, such as a portfolio, photography or restaurant site, searching for themes available for your genre may help you save time.
- Is there support available for the theme? Free themes often come without support, though some theme developers are happy to help. It’s a good idea to check on this before you download a theme.
- Is the theme regularly updated? As I mentioned above, there are themes in the WordPress Theme Repository that haven’t been updated in more than two years.
- How old is the themes? Following on from my last point, check how old a theme is before you download it because it may not be compatible with the latest version of WordPress.
Where do you go for free and reliable WordPress Themes? Tell us in the comments below.