WordPress Themes: Why Free is Sometimes Best

13th August 2012


As I write this, WordPress has been downloaded more than 11 million times. That’s a lot of users, all needing a theme from somewhere. Some will, of course, always stick with the bundled Twenty Eleven theme and not venture any further. But for everyone else there is a decision to be made between trawling the free themes directory, going to a site like ThemeForest for a ‘premium’ theme, or getting a developer in to work on a custom build.

You might quite logically assume that a premium or custom-built theme is going to give you the best quality. After all, if you’ve had to pay for something, surely it will be produced to a higher standard than something someone was willing to give away for free? Well, er, not necessarily – sometimes labels can be deceptive.

Free WordPress Themes

The WordPress community wants to make sure that you get a good experience, so the process for submitting themes to the free WordPress themes directory is actually pretty stringent.

Each theme goes through a number of automated checks before being thoroughly tested. It has to meet a whole host of standards in terms of coding, and be completely compatible with the latest release. If it isn’t, the developer will have to amend their work until it does. Then even after it’s been accepted, users from all over the world will continue to test, review and grade it. Themes in the directory are also expected to be kept up to date, and you can see whether an existing theme has been modified to work with the latest version.

What this means for you is fewer debug errors, glitches and compatibility issues. Sure, not all free themes look so great, but there are enough out there to cater to most tastes. There are also plenty of ‘Top 50’ and ‘Best Free WordPress Theme’ lists on the likes of Mashable to give you a helping hand. What is important, however, is that you can be pretty sure a theme you’ve downloaded from the directory is going to work.

Advantages:

  • Free to use
  • Thoroughly tested
  • You can try out as many as you like until you find the right one
  • You’re free to modify any free theme licensed under GPL

Disadvantages:

  • You don’t get a unique look, unless you’re capable of making your own mods
  • You can’t guarantee you’ll get any support from the developer if you run into problems

‘Premium’ WordPress Themes

Premium themes are called so, but in fact all ‘premium’ really means is commercial, because you have to pay for them. These commercial themes often look great and promise tonnes of impressive features, but generally endure far less scrutiny.You will probably see some reviews by other users, but each seller will have different coding and testing standards.

There are of course hundreds of very well built premium themes out there and a whole host of reputable suppliers, but you need to do your research before you part with any money. Look at reviews, communicate with other customers in forums and find out what the supplier’s testing and updating policies are. It’s also a good idea to find out what support and documentation you get for your fee, because if something goes wrong you probably aren’t going to want to just buy another one and hang the expense.

In principal, commercial themes are a great option. They can offer a step up from free themes in terms of bells and whistles, but you need to make sure you know how to use them to take full advantage. You need to be savvy and do your homework.

Advantages:

  • Often inexpensive
  • Usually highly customisable without needing any coding knowledge, and come with lots of useful features
  • Most developers will provide documentation and support, but you need to check

Disadvantages:

  • You still don’t get a completely unique design
  • You can’t guarantee how well it’s been tested

Custom Built WordPress Themes

Then of course, you could enlist the services of a developer. If you’re doing this, it’s probably because you want something unique that fits with your brand. However, you should proceed with caution and be sure to clarify exactly what they’re offering. Will they be building you a custom theme solely for your use, or installing WordPress with a free theme and giving it a few tweaks?

If they’re using a free theme as the basis, it will’ve been released under GPL and should maintain any associated copyright notices of the original developer. They are allowed to modify it and charge for this service, but must also release their derivative work under GPL, giving others the freedom to use and modify it in turn. You should be absolutely clear under what basis your theme developer is working.

There are some fantastic theme developers out there, so make sure you find them and that you know what you’re getting. If you want a free theme modified that is of course fine, but this service should be clearly advertised as such and not as custom design or development. Don’t end up paying over the odds for something you could’ve got for free or at least very inexpensively. In my opinion if you are going to commission a custom built theme, it should be just that, and if you are commissioning the modification of an existing theme your developer should be explicit about that.

Advantages:

  • A bespoke design, unique to your website
  • You choose the functionality
  • The option of support and training from your developer, in most cases

Disadvantages:

  • Can be hard to find a reputable designer with the right skills
  • You need to take some responsibility for testing the theme before you sign anything off

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