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How to Choose a WordPress Theme That Sets You Up for Success

Everybody's been there – you have this great idea for your site, you're getting ready to launch, and then….three hours later you're still browsing through the thousands of free and premium themes trying to find the perfect one!

In this post, we're going to make that process a little bit easier by giving you a guide for how to choose a WordPress theme for your site.

Obviously, one of the most important considerations is whether you like how the theme looks. But this guide isn't just about design – we'll cover everything you need to consider when choosing a theme that will set you up for success in all areas of your site.

Let's dig in.

9 Tips on How to Choose a WordPress Theme

Below, we'll cover nine tips on choosing the perfect theme for your site...

1. Prepare a List of the Features and Design Elements That You Need

Before you jump into choosing a WordPress theme, you'll first want to do a little thinking about what you're actually hoping to get out of your theme.

Here are some important things to consider:

  • Niche - what niche is your website in? Is it a personal blog, a fitness website, a recipe blog, etc?
  • Design style - what general design style do you want? Do you want a minimalist black/white design, a bold colourful design, etc?
  • Design elements - are there specific design elements that you absolutely need, like a sticky header or an off-canvas sidebar?
  • Layout - what layout do you want? Do you want a horizontal or vertical header, a single-column or multi-column layout, etc?
  • Integrations - are you planning to use any specific plugins that you need the theme to integrate with? For example, WooCommerce for an eCommerce store or LearnDash for an online course.

You can always change your mind later on if you like a theme that doesn't meet your initial requirements. But having some of these ideas in mind will help you narrow your search and also help you choose a theme that can do everything you need.

2. Pay Attention to the Basic Details (Reviews, Update Dates, etc.)

Before you get into the more in-depth considerations, a good basic filter for any theme that you look at is to consider basic details such as:

  • User review ratings - most people give five stars to themes that they like, so a "good" theme will usually have close to a five-star rating.
  • Last update date - you want to make sure your theme still receives regular developer maintenance so that it stays compatible with the latest versions of WordPress. A good way to check this is to browse the last update date. There's no hard rule, but you'd usually expect a well-maintained theme to have received an update within at least the past 2-3 months.
  • Popularity - looking at popularity can give you some insight into the "wisdom of the crowds". Of course, this isn't perfect and there are lots of awesome themes that aren't especially popular (mainly because they haven't been around as long). But it is another piece of useful information in your search.

Most theme directories make this information easily accessible...

WordPress.org puts it in the sidebar:

ThemeForest splits the information between the header and sidebar:

If you're buying directly from the developer, you might not be able to see user reviews, but you should still at least be able to check the last update date.

3. Don't Think You Need a Niche Theme

In the past, the WordPress theme space was dominated by niche themes.

If you were creating a food blog, you used a "food blog theme". If you were creating a gym website, you used a "gym theme". If you were creating a travel blog, you would use a "travel blog theme". And so on…

Over the past few years, though, that has changed and now most developers have moved more towards the idea of offering a single multipurpose theme with dozens or hundreds of demo sites.

So now instead of a separate food blog theme, a separate gym theme, and a separate travel blog theme, you just have one single multipurpose theme that offers importable demo sites for all those niches.

If you're choosing a theme in 2021 and beyond, you'll probably want to start your search by looking at these multipurpose themes instead of jumping straight to niche themes. That brings us to another point...

4. Browse All the Demo Sites

As we mentioned above, most themes nowadays include multiple importable demo sites across a range of different niches, so you shouldn't base your decision on a single demo site.

Basically – just because you didn't like the first demo site, that doesn't mean you won't love another one.

For example, consider this demo site:

Demo site

And now consider this demo site:

And one more for good measure:

Those designs are totally different aesthetics in completely different niches – therefore it must be a different theme, right?

Nope! That's the exact same theme (Astra) and those three designs are only three of the hundreds of different demo sites that it offers.

5. Look at the Theme's Design on Different Devices

In 2021 and beyond, pretty much any WordPress theme you look at is "responsive", which means it will automatically optimise its design for the device that a visitor is using. For example, someone on a MacBook will see a desktop-optimised design and someone on an iPhone will see an iPhone-optimised design.

However, just because a theme is responsive, that doesn't automatically mean you'll like how it looks on mobile devices.

Most people only browse a theme's demo site using their laptop – but this can be an oversight because around half of your site's visitors will probably be using a mobile phone.

So, make sure you like how your theme looks on all devices.

If you're using the Chrome browser, an easy way to test from your computer is to use Chrome Developer Tools, which lets you preview your site as different devices:

Or, you can use a tool like Responsive Design Checker – just plug in the URL to the demo site:

6. Test the Theme's Performance and Bloat

This is one of the trickiest parts of choosing a WordPress theme because it can be tough to analyse a theme's performance if you're not a developer. However, it's also important to consider because your theme can play a big role in how quickly your site loads.

Additionally, you can't just trust the marketing copy on this one because even bloated themes will still advertise themselves as "performance-optimised".

There are a few different ways that you can test a theme's performance, depending on your knowledge level and the theme that you're considering.

If you're looking at a free theme, you can install the theme on your own test site (if you feel comfortable doing that). For premium themes, or if you're not sure how to set up a test site, you can also test the developer's demo site.

To collect the actual performance data, you can use a free tool like WebPageTest and also consider running it through PageSpeed Insights.

If you see hundreds of HTTP requests, 4+ MB page sizes, and lots of issues in PageSpeed Insights, you might want to pick a different theme as those are signs of bloat.

If you're not sure how to test performance, we'll also share some really good lightweight themes to consider near the end of this post.

7. Look for Compatibility With Plugins You're Using

We mentioned this earlier in the first section about making a list of the integrations that you need. But if you are planning to use a specific plugin, make sure that:

  1. Your theme integrates with that plugin.
  2. You like how your theme's integration works.

For example, if you're planning to use WooCommerce to make an eCommerce store, check if you actually like how your theme's product, shopping cart, and checkout pages look.

This will help make sure that you don't have any surprises when you go to start using your plugin.

Another important compatibility consideration is page builder support. If you want to use a drag-and-drop page builder instead of the native Gutenberg editor, it helps to have a theme that offers "page-level controls" so that you can control the "canvas" for your page builder designs.

With page-level controls, you'll get options for each post or page that let you change the layout, disable elements and more. Here's an example from the popular Astra theme:

8. Only Use Your Theme for Design – Don't Look to Themes for Features

When you're picking a WordPress theme, it's tempting to look for a theme that does everything you want in one package. For example, if you're creating a review blog, you might look for a theme that has its own built-in review box feature.

However, this is actually not a good idea because it violates a basic WordPress best practice:

  • Themes are for design.
  • Plugins are for adding features.

The problem with using themes with built-in features has to do with lock-in. If the feature comes directly from the theme rather than a companion plugin or a third-party plugin, you will lose that feature if you ever change themes in the future.

It's totally fine (and even encouraged) for a theme to bundle in a plugin to add a certain feature. For example, if you import an eCommerce demo site, it's normal for themes to install the WooCommerce plugin.

The only problem is when the theme adds the feature by itself without installing a companion plugin – that's not good because it essentially locks you into using the theme forever.

9. Don't Worry About Free vs Paid Themes

Finally, there's the debate between free vs paid WordPress themes. If you're building a serious WordPress website, you might feel like you're almost required to pay for a premium theme.

If you read other posts, you might see people saying that paid themes are "better" or "more secure" or "faster-loading" or "have better code quality".

This is not true – there's no inherent difference between free themes vs paid themes – they're all just a collection of code. You can find many free themes that are faster, have more design options, and are just generally more flexible than premium themes (and vice versa, of course).

Basically, if you find a free theme that you love and it does everything you need, you should feel totally fine to use it.

With that being said, one clear-cut advantage of buying a premium theme is that you get access to premium support. Some developers do support their free themes, but usually not in as much depth.

If you have no idea where to get started with your theme search, here's a great list of themes that are all multipurpose, lightweight and super flexible.

Basically, you can use these themes to build any type of website and they'll set you up with a quick-loading site:

  • Astra - the most popular non-default theme of all time at WordPress.org. Very lightweight and comes with hundreds of importable demo sites for various niches.
  • GeneratePress - lightweight multipurpose theme. However, you only get importable demo sites with the premium version.
  • Neve - another lightweight multipurpose theme with lots of free importable demo sites.
  • Kadence Theme - a newer multipurpose theme that's quickly growing in popularity thanks to its flexible options.
  • OceanWP - a very flexible multipurpose theme. Not quite as lightweight as the previous four themes but still more performance-friendly than your average theme.

All of these themes are available for free at WordPress.org and also offer premium versions that unlock more customisation options and demo sites, along with premium support.

How to Test a New WordPress Theme

If your site is already live, you shouldn't test different themes on your live site because it might affect the experience of your visitors and otherwise cause issues with your live site.

Thankfully, many WordPress hosts now offer staging sites, which let you create a duplicate copy of your site in a safe sandbox. That way, you can test out the new theme with all your existing content, but without affecting anything on the version of your site that's receiving traffic.

If you're hosting with our Onyx managed WordPress hosting, we include a staging feature that you can learn about here.

Find Your Perfect WordPress Theme Today

In this post, we've shared nine tips to help you choose the perfect WordPress theme for your site, along with some recommendations for some great multipurpose, performance-optimised themes to get you started.

Put these tips into practice and enjoy your new theme. And if you still have any questions about picking a WordPress theme, reach out in the comments!

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