How to find the perfect WordPress theme

We’ve seen it happen so often. You have a great blog, and at some point, you decide to go for a new look and feel. There are a couple of things you’ll look at, usually in the order: layout / look and feel, usability, and optionally, room for advertising. If the theme meets your needs in all two or three of these points, you might download and install it. If that sounds familiar, this post describes how to find the perfect WordPress theme!

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A theme has quite a few things to take care of, and a lot of themes miss out on these. This overview should help to keep you out of trouble when you’re looking for a new theme. If you’re thinking of installing a new theme, please give the following points a thought. Keep in mind; your new theme should be accessible, compatible, customizable, integrable and standards compliant.

Define your needs

Whether you are in the market for a free theme, a premium theme or want to hire a developer to build one especially for you, the first step is always the same: define your needs. Write down what the theme should do, now and in the future. You might not need an eCommerce shop at this time, but what about in a year from now? What should your site look like? Which pages do you need? What types of content are you planning to publish? Once you have a clear picture of the requirements, you have a better chance of finding your dream theme.

Find a trusted reseller or developer. How’s the support?

Should you build a theme yourself? Or will a general free theme do? The discussion on whether a premium theme is better than a free theme continues to rage on. Both sides have their merits. There are loads of crappy free themes, but there are just as many crappy premium themes. What you should do is find a reseller or developer that you trust. Look for social proof; how many reviews does a theme get? Is there an active message board? When did it receive its last update?

In general, every theme on WordPress.org underwent scrutiny, so they are safe to use. But that doesn’t mean they’re awesome. Theme resellers offer loads of premium themes in varying degrees of awesomeness. But just because you pay for them, doesn’t necessarily make them better than free themes. In addition to that, since you only receive the files when you pay for a theme, there’s no way to check the quality upfront. Despite social proof, it’s still a leap in the dark.

How flexible is the theme?

A static theme won’t do you any good when you want to change the page layout in a couple of months. Make sure to choose a theme that is flexible in its appearance as well as its functionality. Don’t choose a design that screams for full-width images when you only need a well-presented place to write your poetry. Check what happens to a theme when you turn off all massive images; does it still function? And is it possible to change colors, fonts and other visual elements? Many themes, like Total, come with a number of demo examples that give you an idea of all the different styles it can handle.

Your theme should have ample room for widgets, plus it should support featured images and offer multi-language support. Lots of themes have a page builder on board; these help you construct your bespoke layout. But, this is something you should be careful with because these could generate less than stellar code that hinders your SEO.

Which post and page templates does the theme support?

Another way to keep things flexible is for a theme to offer multiple posts and page templates. That way, you could start off using a basic template with a main content area and a left sidebar, but have the flexibility to change to a full-width content area or one of the many other options. If a theme has only two choices, that might become problematic in the future. Pick a theme with enough sensible templates.

Does it function as a parent/child theme?

Parent and child themes are a great combo. If you use any of the theme frameworks like heavy hitter Genesis, you know how powerful these are compared to regular themes. A child theme gets its functionality from a parent theme. So if you’re making changes to your child theme, the parent won’t see these. You won’t break the parent theme if you make a mistake. The same goes for updates; if you update your parent theme, which happens often, it won’t wipe the changes you’ve made to your theme because it’s a child and doesn’t contain the functionality.

Whether you need a theme framework depends on your needs. Almost all WordPress projects will benefit from a theme framework, but it might be overkill if you only need a tiny amount of its functionality and you know exactly what kind of theme you need.

Watch out for theme bloat

Many themes are bloated, and this will increase loading time. If the developer of a particular theme included everything but the kitchen sink, you might get a feature-complete product but an insanely complicated one as well. Try to find a theme that offers everything you need, instead of everything there is. Your theme should be lean and mean. See the next point.

Check site speed and mobile-readiness

In this day and age, mobile-friendliness is imperative. In addition to that, your site and its theme should load as fast as possible. Choosing a lean and mean theme will certainly help in this regard. Check the responsiveness of a theme and run a Google mobile-friendliness test. You could also enter the address of the theme’s demo site in Google’s PageSpeed tool to see if there are particular loading issues. However, this is just an indication, since you can only judge the real loading speed of your theme when it’s running on your server.

Is the theme’s SEO in order?

While Yoast SEO fixes a lot of WordPress’ SEO issues, a good theme helps a lot. Most WordPress themes will claim SEO-friendliness, but make sure to check it. Find out if the theme’s code is nice and clean or an intangible mess. Has it been updated recently? And will it be supported in the future? How many JavaScript libraries does the theme depend on? Does it support Schema.org structured data? If you’re eyeing a free theme, make sure there are no hidden links to the developer’s website, as this can hurt your SEO efforts. In general, keep Google’s Webmaster Guidelines in mind when hunting for SEO-friendly themes.

Is the theme’s code valid?

Many a theme author is more of a designer than a coder, and thus they sometimes hack around until it finally looks the way they want, without bothering to check whether the code they’ve written is valid HTML. If it’s not, current or future browsers might have issues rendering the content correctly. You can check whether the code is valid by using the W3C’s validator.

Test, test, and test again

Once you’ve chosen your favorite new theme, it’s time to kick it into gear. Start with a development setup to test your new theme through and through. Run every type of test you can think of. This might be a security check with the Sucuri plugin or a theme check with the Theme Check plugin. Load your site with dummy data from wptest.io to see if every element is represented and functioning. Run pagespeed and mobile-friendliness tests to see if problems arise. Fix the issues, or find a new theme.

Bonus checks

That’s just to get you going. There’s a lot of stuff you can check before you install your brand-new theme. Start with these three checks, if you will:

Hooks

WordPress plugins use so-called “hooks” to be able to perform their designated tasks. These hooks allow for instance to add extra output, tracking codes, etc. A lot of issues with plugins will arise for you when a theme author forgets to add these hooks. This is how to check for them:

1. In header.php, it should have a small piece of PHP code that looks exactly like this wp_head(); or this do_action('wp_head');, usually just before a piece of HTML that looks like this: </head>.

2. In footer.php, it should have another small piece of PHP like this wp_footer();, or this do_action('wp_footer');

3. In comments.php and/or comments-popup.php, it should have a piece of code like this: <?php do_action('comment_form', $post->ID); ?>, just before the </form> HTML tag.

Template files

Another wise thing to do when you’re changing themes is to compare theme files. If for instance, your current theme has an author.php file, which contains the template for your author profiles, and your new one doesn’t have that, that might be an unpleasant surprise when you install the theme. The files you should be checking for in your old and new theme:

  • home.php: the homepage template.
  • single.php: the template for single posts.
  • page.php: the template for pages.
  • category.php: the template for category indexes.
  • author.php: the author template, used when someone wants to find all posts by a certain author.
  • date.php: the date template, used when someone tries to look at for instance a certain month of posts on your blog.
  • archive.php: this template is used when either category.php, author.php or date.php isn’t there.
  • search.php: used when someone searches on your blog, a very important template to look at if you’re concerned about usability, and whether people can find posts on your blog.
  • 404.php: used when WordPress can’t find a certain post or page, this is a very important template file to have!

How is your theme handling titles?

You should check how your current theme is handling page titles in the file header.php. You can find it within the <title> HTML tags. If the title tag differs, you might want to check out why and what happens when you enable your new theme. Sometimes it’s for the better (for instance, because it turns around blog description and page / post title), but you have to make sure up front!

It will probably look something like this:

<title><?php bloginfo(‘name’); ?> <?php wp_title(); ?></title>
If it does, you’ll be a lot better to change it to:

<title> <?php wp_title(); ?></title>

Now Yoast SEO can take care of all the titles. We have a great article that you can read if want to know more about crafting good titles.

If your theme does all of this correctly, you should be quite ok. Good luck with your new theme, and if you have any tips on other things to check, please share in the comments!

Read more: Why every website needs Yoast SEO »

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28 Responses to How to find the perfect WordPress theme

  1. OsmPic
    OsmPic  • 3 months ago

    Suggest me a WordPress photography theme. Please

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 3 months ago

      The Elemento Photography theme looks like it could be a winner.

  2. Samuel Jacob
    Samuel Jacob  • 4 months ago

    I’m a full time developer and i loved using Fortuna v2.20. I used the same theme on many websites I created. The theme looks really cool and very flexible. The best part about this theme comes when I do website optimisation. Everyone can definitely give a try

  3. Melodies
    Melodies  • 4 months ago

    I am looking for an accessible theme. Must also be flexible. Any suggestions?

  4. digitaldesire
    digitaldesire  • 4 months ago

    The tips are really helpful for anyone confused finding the theme, Dont just go for Appearance when Speed and responsiveness carries weight too. Nice blog Btw! Keep those tips comin :)

  5. Vinod
    Vinod  • 4 months ago

    How should I choose a theme for my website? After disabling all plugins in my site, should I test the speed of the site (using Pagespeed insights) by trying out multiple themes and pick the one that’s loading the fastest on both mobile and desktop?

    Having said that, I’ve tried a lot already. In several cases, immediately after installing a theme, I see pagespeed scores in the range of 50-70 for both mobile/desktop. Should I ignore such themes? What would you advise? Would appreciate your detailed response on how to go about choosing the right theme. I’m looking to choose one that’s loading fastest on both mobile & desktop!

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      We’d recommend having a look at what our friends at WP Rocket say about speed metrics and such. They have a couple of great articles about what to measure and how to interpret the findings. I’d start here: https://wp-rocket.me/blog/pagespeed-insights/

  6. Sayan Samanta
    Sayan Samanta  • 4 months ago

    I’m also using the Genesis theme in my all websites. I’m also using Adsense in my some websites. Can you suggest how speed up my site?
    Thank you. Have a lovely day!

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      We’d recommend you looking at two things. First, make sure you’re using a dedicated WordPress hosting company and second, have a look at the caching plugin our friends at WP Rocket have created.

  7. Rachel Watson
    Rachel Watson  • 4 months ago

    I have been caught out with a theme with limitations. To change do I need to rebuild my page from scratch? I understand what you are saying about testing. If I build a new page how do I make that my new landing page without those 404 errors. I’m new to WordPress and not very technical. And yes I would love to sign up for a Yoast course but my new fledgling business is not very flush with funds yet.

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      I’m afraid I don’t have enough context here to properly answer you, but it’s very likely you may need to rebuild pages when switching to a new theme. If you’re using our Yoast SEO Premium plugin, however, you wouldn’t need to suffer from 404 errors with our redirection manager built-in.

  8. Gaby
    Gaby  • 4 months ago

    What themes do you recommend? Genesis? Divi? Etc?

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      We’re fans of how Genesis does things, yes. Furthermore, any new and updated theme you can find on WordPress.org that is Gutenberg ready should also be worth taking a look at.

  9. Elisa
    Elisa  • 4 months ago

    Where can I find help to find, select, install and test a new child theme? Also, the recent Genesis theme seems to change the looks of my site (negatively) in the preview so I did not dare to install it (yet). Is not updating your parent child theme risky?

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      Ideally, you have dedicated WordPress hosting that includes a staging area and with that, you could easily check out a different theme.

      If the recent update of Genesis negatively affected your theme – which it should never do by design – you should probably contact their support desk. Because indeed, not updating your parent theme is risky.

  10. Jason Ho-Ching
    Jason Ho-Ching  • 4 months ago

    Can you recommend some speedy themes?

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      Unfortunately, we can’t keep track of every theme out there with regards to speed (or any other metric), but I’d start with using Gutenberg ready themes and go for a minimalistic style first as well as check out this post about fast themes by the WP Rocket team.

  11. Neil
    Neil  • 4 months ago

    I’d love to see recommended themes or vendors that check all the boxes for Yoast.

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      We actually have this idea on our roadmap. No ETA available, however.

  12. Lawrence Morrisson
    Lawrence Morrisson  • 4 months ago

    Thanks for the article.
    As a matter of interest I used the suggested W3C’s validator to check yoast.com and it threw up a lot of errors and warnings.

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      You’re right, our site isn’t perfect, and, it’s a continual work in progress. However, we’re aware of those issues and understand their nature and impact enough to not be worried about them. We have lots of different templates, sections, and pieces, owned and run by lots of different people. We consciously trade speed and execution for perfection.

  13. Mark Trenner
    Mark Trenner  • 4 months ago

    Do you recommend any themes? I use Jupiter but it seems slow for the basic small business/blog website I have.

    • Remkus de Vries
      Remkus de Vries  • 4 months ago

      I’d start looking at the Gutenberg ready themes on WordPress.org. There are quite a few that fit the bill for your given need.

  14. Gloria Barr
    Gloria Barr  • 4 months ago

    I recommend Generate Press….very lightweight and their support is fantastic.

  15. Apoorvi Sharma
    Apoorvi Sharma  • 4 months ago

    Such a great article, very useful!
    But i have one question there! Is Paid themes are best or free themes.
    Please suggest!

    Thanks!

    • Hanneke
      Hanneke  • 4 months ago

      Hi Apoorvi,

      it depends on what you think is important. Do you need lots of options? Do you need support? Do you want a more unique layout? Then go with a paid WordPress theme. If you don’t really need al that, then you could go with a free theme.
      It’s all up to you! Good luck.

      Hanneke

  16. Yinkis
    Yinkis  • 4 months ago

    Hi thanks for the post! For me I prefer premium theme, we use premium themes for our clients even if they pay for less $. Thanks once again for the post.

    • Hanneke
      Hanneke  • 4 months ago

      Hi! You’re welcome and good luck!