Free WordPress Themes: How to Choose the Perfect Theme for You

Get a free WP Checkup Today!
Get a completely free health check of your WordPress site, no email or signup required.

The volume of free quality themes available for WordPress boggles the mind.

With nearly 3,000 themes available on WordPress.org at the time of writing, we’re certainly spoilt for choice.

However, that choice comes with a dilemma: how to separate the relatively low percentage of high-quality themes from the rest. And, unfortunately, the “rest” aren’t that great.

With that in mind, in this article I want to show you how to separate the WordPress wheat from the chaff, so to speak. We’ll cover every aspect of what you need to consider when choosing a free theme for your WordPress website.

Moesia
Make no mistake: free themes can be seriously good-looking.

Why Choose a Free WordPress Theme Over Premium Options?

This article is going to focus on how to pick a free theme, but I do want to briefly touch upon the free versus premium debate first, mainly because it gives me an opportunity to link to Raelene Wilson’s excellent article on free WordPress themes.

In short, most free WordPress themes are free for a reason: they’re not as good as their premium counterparts.

However, there is a big overlap between the two. Many free themes are better than lower quality premium offerings, and it could well be that you do not need a premium theme; that a free theme will do the job perfectly well for you.

To hammer my point home, here are a selection of free themes available on WordPress.org right now that I consider top quality:

There’s plenty more where that came from — trust me.

Ultimately it’s up to you, but we’re going to proceed on the assumption that you want to find a free theme for your site and are willing to put a little time into finding the best option for you.

WordPress Theme Customization: What You Need to Consider

Ideally, you should make a decision about customization before you start looking for themes. More specifically, you need to ask yourself if you want to find a theme that you can use as-is, or one that you can tweak to your satisfaction.

The first option is obviously very simple, while option two can be akin to opening a can of worms.

The issue is this: high quality themes are put together with a great deal of thought. Everything “fits.” As soon as you start customizing such a theme, you run the risk of negatively affecting the harmony of the designer’s original vision.

To put it another way, you can make a mess of something pretty. I say this with affection; I am guilty of having done this many times in the past. You’re not alone!

My recommendation for design newbies is to pick a theme you love the look of it and leave it well alone in terms of advanced customization.

It is, of course, your prerogative. If you want to change the color scheme, fonts and so on, more power to you. That being the case, you should be on the lookout for information in the theme’s description on WordPress.org as to how easily it can be customized. A simple rule of thumb is this: assume that a theme cannot easily be customized unless it is explicitly stated in the theme’s description. In my experience, that tends to be the case.

WordPress' default themes (such as Twenty Fourteen, above) usually do a great job of listing customization options.
WordPress’ default themes (such as Twenty Fourteen, above) usually do a great job of listing customization options.

The simplest path is to find a theme that you are happy enough with; that you can install and then continue with what really matters: creating content and marketing your site.

There is no such thing as a perfect design; you just need to find something that works for you. The path to perfectionism is filled with dead ends and many wasted hours.

The Basics of Choosing a Free WordPress Theme

I don’t want to insult your intelligence, but there are a few basic things worth recapping when it comes to choosing a free WordPress theme.

1. (Almost) Only Ever Download Free Themes from WordPress.org

WordPress logo

Since WordPress.org essentially acts as a free advertising platform for any free theme developer, there is no obvious reason for an honest theme developer not to upload their theme.

Therefore, if someone doesn’t upload their theme, one has to consider why.

With that in mind, a good rule of thumb is to never download free themes from anywhere else other than WordPress.org.

Of course, there are always exceptions that prove the rule.

2. You Can Download Free Themes from Reputable Third-Party Sources

WooThemes

Some reputable developers release free versions of premium themes (or free offerings in an attempt to entice people into purchasing premium themes sometime down the line), which aren’t made available on WordPress.org. WooThemes is an obvious example.

You’ll want to be a little careful about downloading these themes. Obviously, a company as reputable as WooThemes are perfectly safe to download themes from, but in general you’d do well to stick to the carefully considered recommendations we’ve made here on WPMU DEV in the past.

If you’re interested in going down this road, check out Joe’s huge collection of 120 free WordPress themes from premium theme developers.

3. Check Key Theme Information on WordPress.org

WordPress theme information

There’s another good reason why you should only download themes from WordPress.org: you’re provided with valuable information that you will not generally find elsewhere.

In brief, here’s why each piece of information shown to the right is valuable (and how you can best analyze it to make an informed decision):

  • Last Updated: You will want to pick a theme that has been updated recently (say in the past 3-6 months).
  • Downloads: As a rough rule of thumb, the more downloads a theme has, the better you can expect it to be.
  • Ratings. Star ratings should be used as a guideline, and taken with a pinch of salt. Don’t necessarily let one star reviews put you off a theme; you can click on each line of star ratings to see written reviews, and you’ll often find that people have left low ratings with no justifiable reason.
  • Support. The ratio of resolved/unresolved support threads serves as a good indicator of the developer’s willingness to resolve issues. Quality free theme support is a pretty rare commodity, so finding a well-supported free theme can serve as a a compelling reason to choose it.

How to Find Free Themes For Your WordPress Website

From here on in I’m going to continue on the assumption that you are using WordPress.org to find your free theme of choice, because it is, in my opinion, the best tool for our purpose.

Having said that, if you do choose a theme from a third-party provider (such as WooThemes), you’ll still find plenty of useful information below.

When it comes to finding candidate themes for your website, you have two broad options:

1. Explore Curated Free WordPress Theme Collections

A quick Google search will turn up plenty of curated free theme lists for you to choose from. For example, Raelene (yep — she’s at it again) published a list of the 20 best free WordPress themes for bloggers not too long ago. Most of those themes are available for download from WordPress.org while others are available for free from premium theme shops.

Stanley
Stanley: one of the free WordPress themes recommended by Raelene.

You can try different search queries to suit your needs. For example, rather than simply typing “free wordpress themes” into Google, try “free wordpress business themes” or “free wordpress portfolio themes” instead.

As long as the featured themes always lead back to WordPress.org (or if you’re feeling adventurous, a reputable third-party site), you’re golden.

2. Browse WordPress.org

Unfortunately, WordPress.org does not offer the best browsing experience. The tags and filter search engine is not yet that reliable; you’re better off browsing through themes manually.

Your best bet is to start from the top of the Most Popular list and work your way down until you have found a number of themes that you like the look of. It’s not ideal, which is why I prefer to work with curated themes lists as I mentioned above. It’s far better to let someone else do the work in scoping out quality free themes than doing the work yourself, but if you like the thrill of the hunt, feel free to browse through WordPress.org

How to Inspect a Free WordPress Theme

In my experience, it is all too easy to get sucked into a theme’s superficial beauty, only to later find that it’s not for you.

To be more specific, there’s a lot more to a theme than its homepage, which is the point I want to drive at in this section.

The first thing I’ll say is that a theme without a good demo site should almost certainly be disregarded. Unfortunately, WordPress.org’s Preview function is not particularly useful, as it only utilizes a limited amount of dummy text. In short, it is not representative of what the theme will look like on a “real” website.

Twenty Fourteen theme

Instead, what you should be looking for is the “Theme Homepage” link on the theme’s WordPress.org page, which should take you through to a dedicated page with a demo/preview option:

Most popular themes -- such as Catch Kathmandu -- have a demo/preview option.
Most popular themes – such as Catch Kathmandu – have a demo/preview option.

If a developer takes his or her theme seriously, they will have gone to the trouble of creating a demo. If they haven’t, you might question their dedication to creating a high quality theme.

Note that, as above, some theme demos will be the premium version of a free theme you are looking at.

Best of all, these demos almost always allow you to click through to well-populated pages of all types, and include dynamic sidebar widgets and anything else you may want to use on your own site.

A good theme demo should enable you to explore every nook and cranny, because those nooks and crannies will be vitally important when it comes to using the theme on your site.

In the case of free versions of premium themes, theme demos can also give you an opportunity to discover just how much the developer is holding back with the free version.

Checking for Responsive Design

Responsive design is now arguably the present and the future of web design. As such, in my opinion, any theme you choose should be responsive.

This is more of a hard and fast rule than an irrefutable truth, but if the developer has gone to the trouble of making a theme look good on mobile devices, it’s a pretty good sign that they’ve been conscientious in most (if not all) other elements of the theme’s design.

Believe it or not, checking responsive design on your PC or Mac is a piece of cake. If you have Google Chrome (and if you don’t, get it now), you can activate responsive views first right-clicking on the browser screen and selecting the Inspect Element option, then clicking on the small mobile button in the popup tool bar:

Responsive view

This will give you options for viewing the website in a number of emulated screen sizes and resolutions:

Catch Kathmanu preview

If the theme looks consistently good over multiple formats, you could be in business.

Running the Numbers

By this time you may have a few candidate themes that you really like the look of.

Now’s a good time to “run the numbers” on your site. There are two things on this front that we should concern ourselves with:

1. Site Speed

While there are lots of ways in which you can speed up your site, starting with an efficiently coded theme without too many resource-sucking graphics and scripts is an excellent place to start.

Fortunately, finding out if your chosen free WordPress theme will pass the speed test is easy enough. My favorite free tool is Pingdom. Just enter the demo site’s URL into the box and hit Test Now. You’ll be given all the information you need:

Pingdom

I don’t have an ideal site load speed that I can recommend, but my suggestion is to examine the results with this infographic in mind:

Site speed infographic
Image courtesy of Kissmetrics.

If you have a few themes that you’re interested in, compare and contrast the load times. It can be an excellent way of choosing a winner amongst a close group of competitors.

2. Theme Integrity

Once you’ve made a tentative decision to move forward with a theme, the final piece of the puzzle is to make sure that it is safe to use.

If you’ve downloaded the theme from WordPress.org, it is almost certainly safe, but it doesn’t hurt to put your own checks in place.

My WordPress security plugin of choice is Sucuri. In my opinion, they are the daddy of WordPress website security; often on the front line of new security vulnerability announcements via their blog.

Sucuri WordPress plugin

While Sucuri are ultimately in business to sell their premium products (which you may consider), their free plugin offers a good level of cover and should give you peace of mind.

If Sucuri doesn’t throw up an red flags when you install and activate you chosen theme, you should be good to go.

Conclusion

There is no such thing as a foolproof process for picking the perfect WordPress theme.

All you can – and should – do is equip yourself with as much information as possible in order to make an informed decision.

I hope that I have given you the tools you need to in order to do just that.

If you have any questions or comments, please fire away below in the comment and I’ll be happy to help out.

Get a free WP Checkup Today!
Get a completely free health check of your WordPress site, no email or signup required.