Why Pay? How to Get By with a Free WordPress Theme

Why Pay? How to Get By with a Free WordPress Theme

After reading through a variety of WordPress blogs like I do, you come to a few realizations about things. People think plugin round-ups are the business, for instance. But I’ve noticed something else. When giving advice to newbie WordPress users, the trend is to suggest selecting a premium theme.

Premium themes can be awesome. They come with boatloads of features that many of the free themes don’t touch. They also tend to be more reliable since they need to meet a certain quality factor for developers to shell out cash for them. But just because premium themes tend to meet a higher quality threshold doesn’t mean free themes should be discounted altogether.

In fact, I’d argue it’s not just possible, but relatively easy to find and set up a free WordPress theme for any kind of website, even those for businesses. You just need to follow a few extra steps and putting a few safeguards in place to ensure your information is secure and your site is as reliable as one built on premium products.

A Few Words of Warning

While I’m going to spend the majority of this post regaling the benefits of free themes, I feel it’s dishonest to wear rose-colored glasses about them. They do have some drawbacks, of course. I mean, there is a reason the premium theme market exists and there is a reason it’s so successful.

It’s important you be aware of these potential drawbacks that can apply to some free themes, but certainly not all:

  • Lack of Updates: Again, this doesn’t apply to all free themes but they tend to not be updated as often, which can be problematic when WordPress Core is updated quite frequently. You’ll obviously want to keep a lookout for free themes that have a regular update schedule and always seem to roll out changes following Core updates. This shows the theme developer is passionate about his theme and wants to make it functional for as many people as possible.
  • Security Problems: Since free themes tend to not be tested as rigorously as their premium counterparts, they are more likely to open up your site to security vulnerabilities. Some of this has to do with lack of updates, as I already mentioned, but some free themes out there actually contain malware within them. This is why it’s important to be diligent when selecting a free theme and only download from well-respected sites—preferably the WordPress Theme repository.
  • Lack of Support: Sometimes the only dividing line between free and premium themes is the inclusion of full support. Free themes very seldom include support so if you run into a problem during setup, you’re on your own. This can be a real problem for many and is often the thing about free themes that sends developers running toward the premium market.
  • Lack of Features: This is a generalization, but I can think of many free themes off the top of my head that include an awesome feature set. Still, in general, free themes are lacking in the feature department and require that you use plugins to beef up what your site can offer to its visitors.
  • Lack of Customization: On the backend, many free themes lack the customization options offered by premium ones. This can lead to a site that looks a bit generic and doesn’t fully capture your brand.

Now that you know why some opt out of free themes, we can start to discuss how it’s totally possible to get by with them and wind up with a stunning-looking site, to boot.

Step 1. Know the Developers

Stick with recognizable developers for free themes. Better yet, stick to those themes available from the WordPress theme repository. Straying off onto business’ websites puts you at greater risk of downloading something with malware in it. This is not to say that there’s a bunch of developers trying to steal your info.

Twenty Fourteen was created by core WordPress developers.
Twenty Fourteen was created by core WordPress developers.

The vast majority of developer sites out there offer legitimate themes. However, every time you download a free theme, you’re putting your own site at risk. You don’t know what kind of security measures the developer has in place, which means their totally good intentions could be mired by flaws that open their themes up for malicious code.

Unless the developer has a stellar reputation, avoid downloading from their site. The WordPress Theme directory is a safe bet, always.

Beyond security, it’s a good idea to review developers for their update schedule as well. Are their themes updated regularly, just on a whim, or not at all? You’re going to want to choose a free theme that’s updated when WordPress Core is updated.

Also, see if the developer offers support. Now, I wouldn’t expect full on, will-respond-in-24-hours style support that is customary with premium themes, but at least some level of support should be offered, whether that’s a forum, tutorial videos, or comprehensive documentation.

If you’re searching for a theme on the WordPress directory, it’s a good idea to check and see if the developer has an official website, too. You’ll want to download from those who have a professional presence online. It doesn’t always rule out the bad apples, but it’s a good start.

Step 2: Read Reviews

Once you’ve narrowed your options down to a handful of high quality developers, it’s a good idea to take a look at what other people have said about their themes. You can read the reviews right on the WordPress directory.

Twenty Fifteen review.
Twenty Fifteen review.

While the star rating isn’t always an accurate portrayal of how good the theme is (many good themes have no reviews at all), it’s a good starting point.

Another thing you might want to try is Googling the name of the theme to see if it’s been included in any theme round-ups or discussed in detail on a blog somewhere.

Step 3. Look at the Publication Date

You will obviously want to choose a theme that was published fairly recently. This will ensure it’s fully compatible with the latest version of WordPress. A theme can have an older publication date if it’s updated regularly. Just make sure the updates address Core update changes and on occasion offer new features. The last thing you want to do is pick a theme that’s stagnant.

Step 4. Evaluate Features

Does the theme do everything you want it to do? After you’ve gone through all the safety protocols I’ve outlined so far, that’s really the only determining factor left. The theme needs to do what you need it do and look good while doing it. It needs to look like all those great premium themes out there and offer enough features to keep you satisfied.

What features are you looking for in a free theme?
What features are you looking for in a free theme?

This is where you need to do some hands-on research. Download and install a few themes that catch your eye. Do they function well? Are they easy to set up? Most of the time when we think of features, we think of the front end user experience. But what about the backend? Do the themes you’re trying out offer a robust and intuitive experience for you, the site developer?

A common problem with free themes is a lack of customization options. Make sure the theme options panel gives you freedom over what your site looks like or at the very least allows for CSS customizations.

Step 5. Choose a Theme

After all of your reviewing and all of your considerations, it’s time to actually pick a theme. For clarity’s sake, here’s a handy checklist of what to look for in a high-quality free WordPress theme:

  • Is the developer well-known and reputable?
  • Is the theme available for download from the WordPress theme repository?
  • Is the theme updated regularly?
  • Does the developer offer decent support?
  • Does the developer have a website?
  • Does the theme have positive reviews on the WordPress directory?
  • Can you find reviews of theme online?
  • Is the theme included in theme round-ups?
  • Was the theme published recently?
  • Does the theme have features that meet your needs?

If you can answer “yes” to all of the above questions when evaluating a theme, you’ve likely landed on a winner.

Free WordPress Themes You’d Swear Were Premium

I realize diving into the search for a free theme can be a little overwhelming. There are just so many options!

That’s why I’ve put together a little list of free WordPress themes that meet the guidelines outlined above and look pretty dang slick, too.

  • Twenty-Fifteen

    Any of the default WordPress themes work wonderfully. They’re made by Automattic, so you know they’re legitimate and reliable. Twenty-Fifteen has a simple design that’s all about putting your content first. The aim here is to make it so your visitors don’t have to hunt for everything. Navigation is straightforward, the text is easy to read, and the layout is responsive.

    This theme is also translation-ready and can be customized to look pretty much however you want. Twenty-Fifteen is perfect if you don’t need a ton of features but want a clean theme for presenting your blog or simple business site to the world.

  • Customizr

    For this theme, it’s all in the name, really. Customizr is easy to set up but doesn’t skimp on the customization options. Not by a long shot. It lets you design your site in live preview, so you always know precisely what your site is going to look like.

    The customization menu lets you select from over 135 different options, giving you the flexibility to build any kind of site you want. And if you want to delve deeper, the code is well documented, so you can extend it with hooks to your heart’s content.

  • Colorway

    Colorway is another great free theme to consider. The design is so simple but really quite stunning to look at. It comes with a theme options panel for easy customization that can be used to customize the logo, backgrounds, footer, and analytics.

    It can be installed with a single click, includes dummy content, is responsive, and includes a full-width template and additional styles for individual pages. Colorway is great for personal and business sites, alike.

  • Socially Awkward

    Socially Awkward is a theme designed around social media, offering plenty of built-in social icons and share buttons to ensure you’re connecting with everyone on every network. It’s also ideal for displaying media hosting on social sites. You can post your own media, as well, of course.

    It’s responsive, includes multiple post format support and compatibility with the Custom Content Portfolio plugin. Plus, it looks pretty snazzy, too.

  • Saga

    Saga is a theme designed with writers in mind and it accomplishes the job pretty well. Makes sense since the designer is a writer, too. This theme offers gorgeous typography, a simple layout, and a structure that suits storytelling perfectly.

    It also includes customization options so you can make it look however you want and integrates with the Literary plugin, providing additional convenience to you wordsmiths out there.

  • Blogly Lite

    If you just want to create a personal blog but want it to look a little different than the millions of other blogs out there, Blogly Lite is a good choice. This free theme is lightweight and utilizes the theme customizer for ultimate control over your site’s look and feel. Change colors, change logos, change backgrounds—whatever you want.

    You also have control over the fonts used and you can customize the footer text with ease. Plus, the flat design is really current and appealing.

  • Perfetta

    Those looking to build a food-oriented site ought to enjoy the Perfetta theme. It’s ideal for café websites and includes all the features you’d need to build an intuitive and attractive experience for your customers. The theme is lightweight and responsive and includes a one-column layout for putting your content on display.

    This minimalist theme is all about your content, which will hopefully include pictures of delicious food. Yum!

  • Nictitate

    Another theme worth looking into is Nictitate. This theme is perfect for portfolio and business sites, offering all the flexibility you need to build a truly custom site. It’s built on the KOPATHEME layout manager, so you can select the precise layout you want for each page of your site.

    It also includes unlimited sidebar support, widgets, and more.

  • Parabola

    Parabola is a responsive theme that lets you customize just about everything. Seriously, you can customize the text and background colors, fonts and their sizes, site width, page layouts, and more. You can also show or hide certain design elements, include over 30 social icons, use shortcodes, customize a slider, and add or remove columns.

    Other features include multiple post formats, post excerpts, Google Fonts, eight widget areas, a magazine layout, a blog layout, featured images, and more.

  • Sparkling

    Still another free theme you might want to consider is called Sparkling. It’s responsive and includes a minimal layout that can be adapted to suit just about any purpose. It was built on Bootstrap 3 and includes a fullscreen slider, author bios, popular posts, social icons, SEO support, and more.

    It also has a theme options panel that allows for full customization of the layout, fonts, colors, and slider effects. Sparkling is also translation ready and compatible with Contact Form 7, Jetpack, bbPress, and WPML.

  • Arcade Basic

    Arcade Basic puts a strong emphasis on imagery, yet still manages to be lightweight. This theme is responsive and allows for full customization of the header, site width, page layouts, and more. It also includes post formats, Google Fonts, and works with Jetpack for the displaying of galleries with both tiled and jQuery carousel view options.

    Additionally, this theme is compatible with BuddyPress, bbPress, WooCommerce, and WPML.

  • Freak

    Don’t let its name fool you, Freak is a gorgeous theme that offers a parallax background in the header, and multiple customization options to keep you satisfied. It includes several blog layouts, a responsive slider, the ability to select the width of the sidebar, several menu bars, a navigation bar, search options, and more.

    It’s also been tested on all mobile platforms and looks great on all of them. This responsive theme is quite versatile and actually really surprised me with its lack of a price tag.

  • Evolve

    The last free theme I’ll talk about here is called Evolve and it’s designed for use on any kind of site. It’s responsive and includes a parallax slider, a post slider with many animation effects, and a solid Bootstrap-based foundation. You can customize many aspects of this theme including the logo, header, background, colors, and fonts.

    It includes FontAwesome icons, retina ready icons, CSS effects, infinite scroll, Google Fonts, image thumbnails, multiple blog layouts, 12 widget areas, custom widgets, social media integration, numerous navigation options, and more. It’s also compatible with WPML, BuddyPress, and bbPress.

For more free themes that seem premium, you’ll definitely want to check out our comprehensive list of free premium themes.

Step 6: Recognize Feature Gaps

Now just because you’ve selected a theme, doesn’t mean your work is done. Well, it can be if you’re totally satisfied with how your site looks and functions but odds are good that won’t be the case. In fact, odds are very good you’ll need to still do some tweaking to get your site to perform the way you want it to.

The space between the theme you’ve picked and the site you want is what I’m going to call “feature gaps.” Feature gaps are the things the theme of your dreams is missing. For instance, maybe you’ve picked a portfolio theme but it doesn’t support galleries on individual portfolio pages. Or maybe you’re building a resource site for your industry but the theme you chose doesn’t have forum capability.

In both of these cases (and many others) the feature gap can be closed completely with the use of plugins. Now, it’s important to not go crazy with plugins as they can bog down your site and open yourself up to security vulnerabilities. Even so, the selection of the right plugins can make all the difference in turning a site that is almost what you want into one that meets or exceeds the needs of your business and your audience.

Step 7: Choose Complementary Plugins

To close feature gaps, you need plugins. This will be a very individual process. Since I have no way of knowing what theme you’ll pick and what features it inherently includes, I’m going to have to make some generalizations here.

What follows is a list of plugins that are the most likely to round out free themes that come with a lot already but might be lacking a few of the bells and whistles you want.

  • Jetpack

    Jetpack is a pretty standard plugin that most WordPress sites use nowadays, but it’s worth mentioning anyway because it works so well at complementing just about every theme out there. It adds on modules to your site that you can turn on or off that allow you to add custom CSS, contact forms, infinite scroll, tiled galleries, and carousels. Plus, it allows you to post by email, embed with shortcodes, spellcheck, embed video, use shortlinks, add likes, publicize via social media, add subscriptions, and more.

    Jetpack is a little bloated, but it’s totally an all-in-one solution that I just can’t leave out of this list.

  • Custom Sidebars

    Another plugin worth checking out is our very own Custom Sidebars. This plugin lets you create as many widgetized areas on your site as you want through the addition of as many sidebars as you want.

    We have a Pro version available as well that lets you set widget visibility based on user roles, clone sidebars, import or export sidebars, full support, and more. The Pro version comes with a WPMU DEV membership for $24.50 per month or $19 per month by itself.

    Interested in Custom Sidebars?

  • Insert Headers and Footers

    The Insert Headers and Footers plugin lets you add scripts to anywhere on your WordPress site without having to delve into your theme’s files. This is ideal for adding things like the Google Analytics tracking code to your site, but it can, of course, be used for other purposes as well like affiliate tracking codes and more.

    This plugin is free.

    Interested in Insert Headers and Footers?

  • Global Content Blocks

    Global Content Blocks is a plugin that allows you to create custom shortcodes for inserting code snippets that you can use time and time again on your site. For instance, it’s ideal for inserting PHP or HTML forms, opt-in boxes, Adsense code, and more. The code snippets you create can then be inserted using shortcodes or by clicking a button that’s added to the TinyMCE visual editor following installation.

    Interested in Global Content Blocks?

  • CustomPress

    Our plugin for creating custom post types is a must for boosting the functionality of free themes. With it, you can create custom post types, custom taxonomies, and custom fields, which all around enhances the functionality of the backend of your site by a considerable margin. Most free themes don’t offer this level of customization and this plugin is a simple way to add full content management to your site’s capabilities.

    CustomPress is $19 on its own or $24.50 with a membership.

  • Use Any Font

    Since a lot of free themes lack true font customization capability, a plugin that tacks on this feature is a good idea. Use Any Font lets you do precisely that—use any font you want without having to dive into CSS. It’s easy to setup and use, includes font conversion within the plugin, allows you to upload the font directly, and accepts both TTF and OTF font formats.

    Nifty and totally free.

  • Easy Google Fonts

    Easy Google Fonts is another good choice for adding fonts, especially if you’re good with just selecting from the over 600 Google Fonts available. You can insert whatever Google Font you want without having to code a thing and it integrates with the WordPress Customizer seamlessly. You can even create theme specific font controls for easier administrative control later on.

    This plugin is also free.

    Interested in Easy Google Fonts?

  • Path Style Menu

    The Path Style Menu plugin gives you greater control over your menus. It offers a unique user interface that makes it so when someone clicks on a button, the menu items appear in an arc around the button. It can be used with submenus, too, and basically offers a more stylish way to present users with navigation options.

    This plugin costs $17.

    Interested in Path Style Menu?

  • WP Sticky Menu Plugin

    Another menu customization plugin is the WP Sticky Menu Plugin. It makes it easy to manage your menus through the creation of a “sticky menu” that sits atop any theme and offers users with additional options. It’s a quick way to add another navigational menu without diving into the code.

    It includes a responsive design, over 20 styles, a settings panel, a mega menu, animation effects, positioning options, documentation, and more.

    It’s available for $17.

    Interested in WP Sticky Menu Plugin?

  • Contact Form 7

    Adding on a more robust contact form than the one offered by default (or in Jetpack) is a good idea for most business sites and Contact Form 7 offers this capability and then some. This plugin lets you create as many contact forms as you want and allows for serious customization, including how the email looks. It includes Akismet, CAPTCHA and runs on Ajax.

    A definite must-have free plugin.

    Interested in Contact Form 7?

  • Optin Forms

    If capturing user data or getting people to sign up for your newsletter is a priority, you’ll need a way to add stylish opt-in forms. Optin Forms is a free plugin that lets you accomplish this with ease. You don’t need to know any code and it works with all the top email marketing platforms like MailChimp, AWeber, iContact, and GetResponse. It also comes with five form designs and you can customize the fonts, font sizes, and colors.

    Once created, you can insert your forms on any post or page using a shortcode. Optin Forms is free.

  • Login Lockdown

    Security is a feature missing from most themes, not just free ones. Login LockDown offers a no fuss way to reduce brute force attacks on your site by limiting login attempts. It does this by recording the IP address and timestamp of failed logins and after a certain number of attempts you specify, prevents further logins for a set period of time.

    Login Lockdown is free.

    Interested in Login Lockdown?

  • Sucuri Security

    For fuller security protection, you should check out Sucuri Security. This plugin covers all your bases from a site security standpoint and includes file monitoring, blacklist monitoring, malware scanning, security notifications, hardening, and post-hack options. And a firewall can be added on for a fee.

    Interested in Sucuri Security?

  • WP Smush

    Yes, it’s another one of our plugins, but WP Smush is a necessity if you want your site to load quickly. And since site speed is so important for the success of any site, reducing images sizes and better optimizing them for the web is a no-brainer. It uses lossless compression on JPEG, GIF, and PNG files. It can be configured to auto-smush your uploads or you can go in and manually smush files if you’d rather.

  • W3 Total Cache

    And of course, W3 Total Cache is a must. This plugin helps to optimize and streamline your entire site, which means faster site speed times, a higher search engine ranking, and a better user experience. It improves service performance, includes browser caching, and saves bandwidth. Also? It’s free.

    Interested in W3 Total Cache?

Wrapping Up

Believe me now that you can get by with a free theme without much hassle at all? Yes, it takes a little time and research, but that’s stuff you should be doing even if you go with a premium theme. If you can save a little money and still get the features you want—even better.

Do you use a free theme on your WordPress site? Has it worked out as well as premium themes? Did you run into any problems? Or, if you’ve typically gone with premium options, would you now consider using a free theme? Let us know your thoughts on the subject in the comments below.

Image credits: Henrique Pinto, Phil Whitehouse.