Despite the ever increasing popularity of the premium variety, there are still plenty of high quality free themes available for self-hosted WordPress sites.
The best place to get one is from the official directory. You can also get free themes from trusted sources, such as WooThemes, FabThemes and ThemeGrill. However, be cautious of free themes from sites you stumble across during a Google search. Some come pre-loaded with malicious code and malware.
In this post, I’ll be looking at some of the simple things you can do to filter out the average and home in on the high quality free themes. I’m focusing on the official directory, but you could use these tips whenever you are sourcing a theme.
What Makes a Theme High Quality?
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the line between ‘average’ and ‘high’ quality. A brand new theme with fewer than 50 downloads could be one of the best themes around – people just don’t know it yet. Here are a few other factors that make a theme ‘high quality’:
- It meets the current standards for ranking on Google, including fast loading times and responsiveness.
- It has been around for a while and gained a positive reputation.
- It’s intuitive, easy to use and easily customizable.
- It’s fit-for-purpose and does what you want it to.
Now we have an idea as to what makes it high quality, here are five tips for you to use when judging free WordPress themes.
1. Number of Downloads
The number of downloads isn’t the deciding factor when determining the quality of a free theme, but it helps you to form an opinion. It’s fair to say that if you’re considering two themes, the one downloaded 75,000 times looks more attractive and may be perceived as higher quality than one downloaded just 100 times.
To find out the all-important downloads number, just scroll to the bottom of the theme’s page (on WordPress.org). You’ll see a graph showing the number of daily downloads and an overall total.
Below is the downloads chart for Zerif Lite, the top non-official WordPress theme in the Popular section of the WordPress Theme Directory:
2. Reviews and Ratings
This is probably the best place to dig around to find out what people really think about a theme.
You’ll see a ratings system on WordPress.org, which goes from 1 star through 5. The average rating should give a true reflection of opinion.
To add a rating and review a user must be logged in, so the opinions are likely to come from ‘real’ people. This adds a lot of credence to the numbers.
Read the 5 star reviews, but you can find out a lot of information from the other reviews too; especially one star ratings. Sometimes the reviewer is being utterly unreasonable, but other times, negative reviews reveal key information.
Take care to note the dates of the reviews, as issues from a few months earlier may have been fixed in subsequent updates.
If your theme doesn’t support review ratings, you can use rich snippets on your WordPress site.
3. Visit the Theme’s Forum and Homepage
Digging around these areas will highlight potential issues you may come across during the setup process and beyond. They’re easy to locate on most pages:
Each theme has its own support forum on WordPress.org, to which the theme’s author may or may not contribute. If issues are quickly resolved, you can breathe a little easier and have more trust in the theme.
Visit the site’s homepage to check out how easy it is to request support and contact the author. You want it to be as easy as possible.
4. Updates, Compatibility and Documentation
As you know, WordPress is forever evolving. A high quality theme will stay on top of updates and remain compatible with the current version of WordPress, so check the date it was last updated.
Look for decent documentation relating to using the theme. You may be able to access this via the theme’s homepage. If not, look for a ‘help’ or ‘documentation’ link somewhere within the theme.
5. Fit for Purpose
Will the theme do you want you want it to? If it doesn’t, you won’t view it as high quality.
For this reason you should look at the included features. For example, how easy is it to customize? Can you create custom post types? And so on.
You should also look way beyond the demo’s homepage, which is designed solely to sell the theme. Navigate through the demo and view the different layouts. Do they work for you?
As you can see from this list, there are plenty of ways to check if a theme is high quality without putting in much effort. And while it makes sense to follow the crowd and base your opinion on the experiences of others, by taking a chance and following your gut feeling, you may discover a high quality theme before anyone else.
What methods do you use to check for quality? Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments below.