(UPDATED June 19, 2015)
If you’re using WordPress for your business site, you know there are a gazillion options out there for themes. But how do you know which one is the best for your small business and for you as the site owner?
Bottom line – there are a number of solid themes that will get you the aesthetics you want and technical options you need. There are just a few questions you need to ask yourself first.
If you’re new to WordPress, you might be wondering what a theme is. Let me explain: if you think of WordPress as the engine of your website (so to speak), then the theme would be the paint job and basic structure that make it work for you and stand out from the crowd. It’s what determines how your site will look and function for your site visitors… and you.
The beauty of using WordPress and themes is that you can switch up the look and feel of your site easily, from tweaking your existing theme to changing to a whole new look. Your actual content isn’t affected by most themes – it just changes the way it looks on the page – so you’re free to keep the way your site looks up to date as times change and your business grows and evolves. And no matter what theme you use, it doesn’t change the way to create pages, posts, widgets, etc., or the way you manage your site. It’s what makes WordPress a great choice for most independent business owners over any other platform.
There’s a lot more involved in how it all fits together, but that’s the simplest way to explain it.
Now, there are free themes, and there are premium (paid) themes. I’ll kick this off by saying that as a serious business owner, you want a premium theme. Why? Because your business is important, and you want to know that your theme is being kept up to date by a dedicated development team, to address security issues, new WordPress core features, and other things ‘web’ that change over time. It’s an investment in your business, not a cost. If you’re blogging for purposes other than business, then maybe this isn’t as critical, but as a business owner, the last thing you’d want is to cheap out on a free theme and then have your site crash a few months down the road because the developer is no longer supporting or updating it, or worse, that your site gets hacked. No site = no income. Premium themes can be kept up to date and evolving because their developers are getting compensated for their work. And their good work is critical to your business’ success.
It’s worth the minimal cost – don’t cheap out!
How to Pick the Right Theme for You
You’ll see various business coaches and bloggers recommending specific themes – and there’s a reason for that. Based on their own experience and their business model, the recommendations make sense. Some run support programs and having all their clients using the same theme allows them to provide great value and a consistent message. If you’re in that situation, working with a specific coach who is recommending a specific theme, I’d advise you to go with their recommendation. But if you’re not a client of one of those coaches or bloggers, you’ve got more options!
Here’s a checklist of things to consider as you’re researching a theme for your business site:
- Is the theme backed by a solid development team? Does it have good support? Most free themes won’t offer support or inconsistent support (because really, who could afford to?), so that alone is reason to purchase a premium theme. Nothing worse than trying to do something with a theme and having no one to ask. Developer street cred is easy to check in the About Us section, a quick Google search, and user forums, if you can access them as a prospective buyer (some allow access and some don’t, which makes sense, considering members are paying for access in many cases and it wouldn’t be fair to allow access for free – but some do). If you can access forums, look for the quality of interaction, see how many posts don’t have responses, and be doing a few searches for reviews. You can (and should) also do a search for reviews for the theme. If you do look at reviews, there are a few things to keep in mind: 1) some reviews that show up in search results are REALLY outdated – check the dates and don’t bother reading anything older than the last 6 months or so, as themes and theme support can change quickly; 2) many reviews are by affiliates who get a commission if you buy the theme via a link from their site – not necessarily a bad thing as most of us would never recommend something that’s awful to work with, but something to keep in mind; and 3) everyone has their ‘favorite’ theme, and some REALLY love their favorite theme and think any others are garbage. Don’t let that sway you…
- Does it provide good SEO options out of the box? Most of the top premium themes have excellent SEO options built in for you to use, as well as the fact they’re ‘coded’ in such a way that the search engines find them easy to work with.
- Does it look close to what you want your site to look like, out of the box, or does it require major customization to get it looking decent? This is important and where a lot of people get hung up. Depending on your situation and the type of information you’ll be sharing, you may want a theme that you don’t have to customize much. In other cases, you may want site that’s extremely customized, so those themes that have fewer ‘out of the box’ design options probably won’t work without a lot of custom CSS work (which, of course, will be an investment in either time for you or funds to hire a developer). Check to see what customizations come with the theme by default – some are very limited with regard to colors and fonts an layouts available without knowing how to use CSS (the ‘code’ used to style the site) or PHP (which ‘codes’ the functionality and the layouts and page templates, etc.), and some have unlimited options. That said, customizations don’t have to be costly to hire a developer to do for you if you know what you want. There are also quality plugins available for such customizations as Google fonts that you can add to your theme to allow you to play with fonts without knowing any CSS. Feel free to ask the sales team of the theme you’re checking out to be sure it has what you want.
- Is the cost in your price range? Most of the premium themes that are worth their salt run in the range of $40 to $80 or even more.
- Is it a one-time charge or are there annual renewal fees? Annual renewals may sound like a pain, but they allow the developer to continue developing and supporting the product. You don’t expect to work for free, and neither should quality theme developers.
- Do you have the time and skills to make customizations yourself, or will you be hiring a designer to do the initial set-up for you? Again, the themes that come styled ‘out of the box’, with a few pre-set color and layout options to choose from, will be quicker to get up and running for someone with no web design background. You’ll still need to do customizations like uploading your logo, etc., but generally the choices are quick and easy. The themes that are more ‘framework’-based, without any pre-set styles, are a lot more flexible, but to get your site done quickly and looking the way you want it will probably require the assistance of someone who knows the framework inside and out. After all, you’ve got a business to run and your time and brainpower is better spent doing what you do best!
- Is the theme ‘responsive’? With the explosive growth in the use of smart phones and tablets, built-in ‘responsive’ styling is pretty much a given now with most premium themes, but some do it better than others. Be sure to check it out and ask the question if it’s not blatantly obvious.
In my time working with WordPress, I’ve tried all sorts of themes. Some are horrific to work with (read: tearing your hair out, nothing is obvious, totally absent – or worse, cranky – support, etc.), and others a joy. Some are incredibly flexible and make otherwise complicated designs quick and easy, while others are lovely and even powerful, but very limited in the choices you have for customization without a lot of extra CSS and PHP work.
Based on that experience, these are the themes I’m currently recommending to my clients. Each client will have different requirements to consider, but if you’ve worked through the questions above, you’ll have a solid idea of the type of theme that going to work for you:
- Elegant Themes – If you’re looking for beautiful, more ‘artsy’ design and layout, Elegant Themes is a solid choice. It’s also the most economical of the bunch! I’ve been using Elegant Themes themes for almost six years and they’ve always been quick to provide answers to support tickets, and are constantly developing gorgeous new themes (check out what Divi can do). All the available themes are responsive. The proprietary ePanel editor can be a bit of a learning curve, and the new Page Builder takes some time to get the hang of, but once you spend some focussed time playing with it, we think you’ll find it works beautifully. If you like the flexibility of Divi (it’s one of the main themes I use to develop new sites), just keep in mind that currently the built in font options are somewhat limited, and changing padding and margins, etc., requires custom work, but can be easily customized by someone who knows CSS. elegantthemes.com*
- Studiopress/Genesis – Studiopress is the grandpappy of WordPress theme developers (Genesis is the theme framework that the Studiopress themes are built on). Solid support, ongoing development and updates, and professional, clean designs. The only con seems to be that the themes themselves are rather limited out of the box, so if you’re looking for a theme that offers a lot of options with regard to fonts and colors and layouts without having to know how to customize with CSS and PHP, Studiopress may not be for you. But if you just want a simple, professional looking site that you can be confident follows all the latest standards and aren’t worried about a lot of custom fonts and colors, or you have a developer who can help you tweak it, this may be the ticket. Of course, anything can be done with any theme, but if you’re wanting to avoid a lot of custom ‘coding’, again, you’re relatively limited. Most themes have been updated to be fully responsive. studiopress.com*
- Salient - I’ve just recently started working with this theme on behalf of a client, and am not quite ready to recommend with without reservation, but am so far quite impressed with the ease of use. Support seems fairly robust, and the theme functions well so far. Salient Theme
- ThriveThemes – A newbie on the block, and one I’ve only been working with since early spring 2015, but wow, what a game changer! A fully integrated theme and plugins for building your online business, complete with split testing, reporting, and a FULLY WYSIWYG builder (that’s the game changer part, and one I know a lot of clients have been looking for). They have the fully integrated theme and builder/landing pages/leads package or you can purchase Thrive Landing Pages or Thrive Leads separately, depending on your needs. Support has been fabulous, too (though we haven’t needed them much due to their exceptional documentation, which is always a good sign). There’s so much here that it would take me a whole other post to get into, but if you’re looking for a theme/leads capture/split testing and landing page solution that you can manage yourself, take 5 minutes and check out Thrive. The only caveat I can find so far is that because Thrive stores its designs outside of the WordPress database, if at any point you stop using ThriveLeads, for example, you need to extract your page content from the WordPress database itself (which you may need assistance with if you’re not a WordPress techie) rather than it just reverting to the standard WordPress editor. Sort of a pain, but you would have a similar issue with pretty much any other landing page software if you stopped using it. We’re fully supporting this software based on what we’ve seen so far in just the sheer flexibility and value for the price. Well worth a quick visit: thrivethemes.com*
So that’s about it! As I mentioned, there are a number of things you want to keep in mind when picking a WordPress theme, but if you do your homework, are realistic about your technical skills AND what can be done with a theme ‘out of the box’, and choose a theme from any of the providers above, you’ll be hard pressed to run into any problems in the long run. If you’d like to chat about themes more or discuss your specific business situation and what might work well for you, let me know in the comments below, or fire me off an email! We’ve worked with all of the themes listed above extensively and know them well.
* If you like what you see and end up purchasing a theme license via the links above, I receive a small percentage as commission. It doesn’t sway my opinion though – I’d recommend these themes even if I didn’t…