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16 Tips to Review Before You Buy WordPress Themes

What criteria should be considered by purchasers before they buy WordPress themes? Buying a theme should be an informative decision and not one based solely on emotion or esthetics. We theme developers, and our themes for that matter, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. From new theme creators to established WordPress firms, we all have our own pros and cons. Knowing if these pros and cons match your buying criteria is important for turning that theme purchase into a successful website or blog. Before you hit the buy button, make sure that new WordPress theme is worth the purchase.

Online Shopping: Add to Basket ImageWhen I started using WordPress I didn’t know any PHP or CSS at the time, so I looked for themes with oodles and oodles of options, colors, bells and whistles. I quickly realized all of this “stuff” came at a price and my websites were slow and hated by search engines and users alike. I also purchased themes on emotion without paying attention to criteria items like browser compliance or developer support.

Flash forward multiple years and I know own a WordPress firm that creates themes for sale and custom themes for bloggers and businesses. While I’ve advanced my expertise and our team has developed into a theme-producing machine, we all make mistakes and many times it is due to lack of knowledge and not intent. As theme developers we want to make products that make people happy, but you can’t make everyone happy because you can’t be the right solution for every buyer.

The WordPress community has become a lot more sophisticated and I’m constantly amazed at what my colleagues can produce. With that advancement comes an increasing adoption of WordPress and our user base is growing exponentially. With that growth comes lots and lots of new WordPress users who are looking for themes. There are novice users who really don’t know what questions to ask and what buying criteria to consider when making a WordPress theme purchase. They jump over terms they don’t understand and focus on look alone. This is a mistake.  I’ve recently encountered some of these users via our theme store, so I thought I would create a list of purchase tips for newbie WordPress users.

Criteria to Consider Prior to Purchasing Your Next WordPress Theme

1. What are your esthetics needs?

First and foremost you have to make sure the theme matches the look and feel you want and need. I used to think you could morph a premium theme into what you want with just a little tweaking. I’ve realized that is not so easy.

We have four professional graphic designers that create the design for our custom and stock themes. They’re professionals and they see the world in a different way than everyone else. They keep things cohesive and beautiful. When an average person starts to hack the theme and move things around, the beauty starts to be degraded and the theme loses the original intent.

When selecting a theme, know that you can tweak colors and some other things but that a major overhaul (particularly layout) is best left to a design professional. Take the time to find a theme that meets 80% of your visual, layout, and content needs.

2. Do you need a website or blog based theme?

Some WordPress themes are designed to accommodate blogs and some are designed for full-blown websites. While you can take a theme designed for a website with a blog and convert it into a blog only site, it is difficult to do the opposite.  Expecting that you can convert a blog theme into a professional company website is a step towards disappointment.

If you need a theme for a website, then search for WordPress themes that specifically say they are for business, corporate use, or a CMS.

3. Do you want a WordPress theme that is well established with lots of users and/or theme downloads or brand new on the market?

There are pros and cons associated with buying both new themes and older themes. New themes will provide freshness, but they may also come with a few bugs. We developers try and think of everything a user will do or want, but thousands of plugins available, it is impossible. Without doubt, there will be bugs and/or options that we forgot.

Older themes will have much of this worked out so the theme should come with fewer bugs, lots of options coded in, and custom CSS code to accommodate popular plugins. The negative to older themes is you will look like everyone else using it. The Striking theme from Kaptinlin is a great example as it is a very popular WordPress theme.  Kaptinlin is a virtual rock star at theme support and his theme has lots of options built into it. Over 12,000 users on Themeforest.net have downloaded the WordPress theme since it was first introduced in October of 2010. This means it is possibly in use on almost as many websites. I can spot a Striking website from a mile away. Even with all the options, many website using Striking all look alike or at least very similar. This isn’t Kaptinlin’s fault, as he is a good theme developer.  It is just the nature of stock WordPress themes.

Deciding how much uniqueness you need should certainly be part of your decision factor. If your new website or blog must look and feel fresh, plan on selecting a newly released theme or consider having one custom built for you.

4. Does your future WordPress theme need to work with the most current version of WordPress?

First, let me start out by stating you should always have the most recent version of WordPress installed. From functionality to security, keeping up with WordPress updates is important. That being said, some older themes may not support the newest versions of WordPress.

With each major release of WordPress comes new functionality. With new functionality come potential issues with older themes. An example of this is navigation menus, which was a theme feature introduced with Version 3.0 of WordPress. Older themes may not support this feature, which is a problem. A bigger problem occurs when a theme is so old it produces multiple concurrent issues when the user upgrades to the newest release of WordPress.

While most themes should support the latest version of WordPress, it is absolutely something you should verify prior to completing the purchase.

5. Does the theme support basic WordPress functions?

You may think I’m crazy for even bringing this up, but there is a reason.  The “glass half full” kind of girl that I am always thought all themes supported core WordPress features. The truth is that this is an incorrect assumption.

I have an SEO client I am working with right now that has a theme so poorly coded it is killing me. It lacks basic elements like proper spacing, ordered bullets, featured images for posts, commenting, and on and on. The creator of the theme just doesn’t know WordPress as much as he should. I don’t think he intentionally left these items out, but they are in fact missing.

Prior to buying any premium WordPress theme, make sure the theme supports core features like: WordPress menus, widgets, multiple sidebars, featured images, blog page beyond that of the home page, individual posts, author boxes, commenting, 404 page, sitemaps, etc.

6. Do you need your theme to offer multiple layouts and columns?

Again, don’t assume your theme has multiple layouts and will accommodate things like full width pages, one or two sidebars, columns within content, etc. Review the theme description and demo to make sure the theme layouts will support the content you want to create.  Also verify the theme has widgetized sidebars and that the sidebar content isn’t hardcoded into the theme.

7. Does the theme’s navigation support your website or blog’s content?

Before you start looking for the perfect theme, decide if you need one menu or two menus. People many times use one menu for pages and secondary menu for categories. Do you need footer navigation or footer widgets with links? Is the navigation bar long enough to accommodate all your primary menu options? Some are not and I’ve even fallen into this trap with one of our designers. She created the nicest theme and it wasn’t until we were building it out that I realized the menu bar was way to small for the average amount of links people would need.

Learn from my mistake and consider your content sitemap and navigation requirements before buying your new theme.

8. Does the theme offer call to actions for the home page and/or sidebar?

I’m a huge proponent of call to actions. I want every stock theme and every custom theme we build to have these available. Every website or blog wants the visitor to do “something”. You have to have a cohesive design with built-in options for call to actions to work well and look professional.

Before selecting your theme, figure out what actions you want visitors to take and document them. Then while theme shopping, make sure your theme can support your list of visitor to do items.

9. Is the theme SEO friendly?

While WordPress is SEO friendly by default, not every WordPress theme will adhere to SEO best practices. Clean, optimized theme code is important for achieving the best search engine rankings possible. Quality code and solid design architecture make it much easier for search engines to digest your content and present it to searchers.

WordPress SEO guru Yoast, encourages theme buyers to validate their theme includes the following SEO fundamentals: displayed taxonomy descriptions, excerpts on archive pages, breadcrumbs, proper anchor text for post titles.

Yoast also warns buyers against themes that include: site name forced into title tag, static meta descriptions on pages, static robot tags, use H1 for the logo on every tag, place sidebars above content, hide links in the theme beyond theme creator.

Some of the discussion will be overkill for new WordPress users. The bottom line is you should make sure your theme developer mentions SEO and discusses why their theme is SEO friendly. And if you buy a new theme and simple SEO plugins like All-in-One SEO don’t work, replace the theme because you’ve got way more issues than you realize.

10. What level of support will you require?

Theme support can be available by phone, email, video tutorial, instruction manuals, forums, etc. The theme developer’s workload, sales, and sale price will determine what level of support is offered.

I try an answer all presales questions, but can only do so via email. I do not have the bandwidth to respond via phone.  We also provide instructions for set up in our online forum as well as answer questions from users. We do not provide video tutorials, because well, I hate to watch videos. If you are a brand new WordPress user and you really need videos, then you should consider this and you buying decision.

Another point to note is that some developers offer no support. Themeforest.net sells themes by some coders who have day jobs and they simply don’t have the time to provide forum support. Not only should you pay attention to the availability of forum support, you should also look to see if the forum is answered promptly. In my mind a day is prompt, but a week or month is not. StudioPress won my heart with their forum support. Not only do they answer forum questions, they have WordPress experts like Ron and Andrea on staff to do so.

If you are a brand new to WordPress and expect you’ll need a lot of hand holding, make sure you select a theme developer that offers lots and lots of support features.

11. Do you need presales or post sale access to the developer?

For people like my sister, this is not relevant. She’ll buy a theme and if she doesn’t like it or if she struggles with it, she’ll just move onto a new one. She would never contact the developer. But I think she is an exception to the rule. Other people want to be able to ask questions prior to the purchase and might want assistance after the purchase has been made.

In some cases, buyers may want the developer to make customizations to the theme or even ask the developer to set it up for them. We get these types of requests all the time. Many users either don’t have the time to configure the theme and add content or want a custom color option created for them. We’re happy to make these changes or set up your website for an hourly consulting rate, but we also have a team of people that can support it.

If you fall into the category of people that want additional/paid support, make sure you can figure out who wrote the theme and how you can reach them before you make the theme purchase.

12. Is there any positive or negative feedback that you can review?

Be careful here, because internet users have the ability to stay anonymous and this breads crazy comments that are many times unfounded. If buyer feedback or reviews are available, read through them thoroughly. Look at both positive and negative feedback. Look for trends, plugin conflicts, complaints, etc.

But be careful to remember that there will never be a 100% happiness factor.  Take Peerapong for example. He’s had 41,989 sales on Themeforest.net and has a strong 5/6 rating. He isn’t making everyone happy, but he is doing a really good job at making the majority of his users happy. Years ago I bought one of his themes and his support was excellent, so I believe the 5 of 6 happy people and not the 1 out of 6 unhappy people.

13. What level of browser support do you require?

The more browsers a developer supports, the more development and support time will be required. For this reason, we find older browsers, like IE5 or IE6, painful. Many theme developers will not support these older browsers due to the excessive levels or support and coding needed and their inability to support current design elements.

If you need support for older browsers you need to make sure that your future theme is designed to accommodate such requirements. Before deciding what you need, know that requiring older browser support will limit your theme choices immensely.

14. Do you need a fixed width or responsive theme?

Responsive design is another word for mobile friendly. While lots and lots of WordPress themes are now designed to be responsive, not theme is responsive and you need to be clear on your mobile needs.

Our responsive themes will adapt to browser sizes based on popular devices like Androids, iPhones, and iPads. We code and test each WordPress theme to automatically resize to mobile devices at 240px, 320px, 480px, and 768px.  We’ve picked these sizes because they are common devices and because they are what the major WordPress coders utilizes for responsive design testing.  Some users will want additional support for lesser used mobile devices and this should be thought through and documented prior to searching for themes.

Before falling in love with any theme, make sure you’ve decided if responsive design is a requirement and if it is, determine what level of responsiveness is needed.

15. Does your new theme need to support monetization and ads?

We’ve designed themes with and without ads in mind. Accommodating ads makes a difference in the design and overall layout of a theme.

Our Elsa theme, for example, is a girly blog theme that was designed with the most popular ad blocks in mind. Most female bloggers use ads as a revenue stream so we knew the theme should support such features. The ad units were part of the design document and we literally crafted the theme around the ads.

Rasmus, a corporate theme, is a completely different story. While you could insert ads into Rasmus, it really wasn’t designed to accommodate ad units so there isn’t a lot of real estate available. Rasmus is primarily used for business websites and most business doesn’t advertise on their websites.

Before selecting your new theme, consider how many ad units you need and what size of ads you want to display. If wide enough, sidebar widgets can be morphed to accept many ad sizes. Headers are a completely different story and if you need a leaderboard ad (728 x 90), make sure your theme offers space to accommodate it.

16. How simple or complex does the theme need to be for you to be comfortable using it?

Ease of use is highly dependent on the buyer’s WordPress expertise. Buyers of our themes typically have a background with the Genesis Framework so they find our widget based home pages easy to use. This week I had a buyer who was brand new to WordPress tell me he was confused over the home page and didn’t get it.  I realized he had never used a theme that had a widgetized home page and he also didn’t read our instructions.

While some users love the idea of flexible content placement through, others can find it completely overwhelming. It’s best to buy a theme that has enough options to accomplish your goals but not so many set up options that you’re left dazed and confused.

Final Suggestions on WordPress Theme Purchases

I had originally planned on having this post be “20 Purchase Tips to Review Before You Buy WordPress Themes”. I only made it to 16 because it is already much to long, I’m tired of writing, and I’m sure you’re tired of reading. I’m hoping my 16 tips will help provide enough guidance to give you pause before you buy that next WordPress theme.

While our community is great, we cannot produce themes that will make 100% of our buyers happy. Do your homework before buying any WordPress themes so it is a good purchase for you and a good sale for the WordPress developer. Help us help you by knowing your requirements before you fall in love.

If you take away nothing else from this blog post, make sure you make a list of your theme requirements before you start reviewing available themes. Yes I’m saying this again because it is that important. Take emotion out of the purchase by making sure the theme is the best option for your full list of requirements and not just something that caught your eye. With any purchase, an educated decision is the best one you can make.

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More Stories By Rebecca Gill

Founder and President of Web Savvy Marketing, a Michigan based internet marketing firm that specializes in website design, organic SEO, social media marketing, and WordPress consulting.

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