2010 WordPress Theme Buyers Guide – Part 1

Ok boys and girls let’s kick things off on Part 1 of our 2010 WordPress Theme Buyers Guide. Today we’re going to explore what we think it the single most important question you must ask yourself when considering buying a wordpress theme:

What type of wordpress theme is right for my site?

You might think the answer to that question is obvious. But think about it for a minute. There are literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of wordpress themes out there – and they come in all shapes and sizes – from bog standard simple free themes to custom handcrafted high end themes that will can cost a fortune – and then everything else in the middle! How do you know which theme is the right one for your website? The purpose of Part 1 of the theme buyers guide is to explore the different types of wordpress themes out there and give you some guidance with this most important decision. We’ll take a look at the main types of wordpress themes which have evolved in the wordpress ecosystem in recent years, we’ll outline the key criteria for wordpress theme selection and hopefully throw in a few other things to consider to help you make the right decision.

Exploring the different types of wordpress themes – all themes are NOT created equally!

Bet you thought a theme was just a theme eh? Well think again – all themes are NOT created equally. One of the greatest things about WordPress is the wonderful ecosystem and community which has developed around the platform over the years. This community and diversity means that there are many many wonderful designers and developers who wish to share their contributions with the general public and/or make their contributions available commercially as premium themes. the only downside to this is the amount of choice can be staggering and paralysing for those who just want to spruce up their blog and find a theme that meets their needs without much hassle. Invariably such diversity means that some themes – free of commercial – will be far superior in quality to others (again both free and commercial.)

If we stand back and look at the ecosystem from 50,000 feet (tip of the cap to GTD’s David Allen!), we can identify and group most wordpress themes into the following categories:

  • Open Source (GPL) wordpress themes
  • Premium/commercial wordpress themes
  • Open Source/Free wordpress theme frameworks
  • Premium wordpress theme frameworks
  • Custom wordpress themes

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Open Source wordpress themes

Open Source / Free wordpress themes can be found everywhere. WordPress itself comes built in with a number of open source themes which we all know and love (or hate depending on your point of view!) It should also be noted that there is a difference between Free themes and Open Source themes. While we won’t get into the technical legalities of the differences between the 2 here – let’s just call a spade a spade and state you should always make sure that if you’re using a “free” wordpress theme that it’s actually open source and doesn’t come with some other catch like encrypted source files or dodgy links with tracking codes back to other third party sites. There is an excellent plugin that will let you check the authenticity of a particular theme over here. Let’s take a quick look at the main advantages and disadvantages of open source wordpress themes:

Advantages of open source themes
  • They’re free! Yip that’s right they won’t cost you a red cent!
  • Diversity – There are some pretty unique free themes out there that cater for some pretty unique niches – chances are you’ll find a free theme that either matches your niche exactly or comes pretty close. In addition the quality of some free themes is excellent and on a par if not better than some “premium” themes. For free themes, you should probably stick to the main WordPress.org Free WordPress Themes Directory to be assured that you’re not getting a theme with any nasties contained within it. Smashing Magazine also releases some outstanding free themes from time to time. You will also find countless list style posts all over the web with the “20 Absolute best free wordpress themes that we can’t believe are free” type posts which will broaden your horizons beyond these 2 key resources. Buy buyer beware, make sure you check out credibility of the source you’re downloading from before you dive in headfirst.
Disadvantage of open source themes
  • Lack of originality – The direct consequence of free themes being free mean you will see them everywhere. If you don’t have the design/technical skills to customise a free theme to meet your needs your website is going to blend in with the countless other websites out there using the same theme.
  • Poor Quality – While this is not unique to free themes it’s certainly a bigger problem with free themes – quality can be poor. Just like the piano – it’s easy to design a wordpress theme – but difficult to master a really good one.
  • Dodgy/Nasty encrypted themes – This is perhaps the most concerning emerging trend with free themes. Many free wordpress theme sites simply take copies of what are quite legitimate theme and embed their own tracking codes, malware and encrypted nasites on the unsuspecting user. Again, be sure to you the authenticity checker when in doubt.

Given the above, it’s always great to have the option to use a free theme when budgets are tight or if you want to get a simple hobby blog up and running without spending a lot of time or money worrying about making it look unique. Once you’re up and running and can justify the expense you can take a look at premium/commercial themes that will take your website to the next level.

Premium/commercial wordpress themes

Premium or Commercial wordpress themes are normally sold in one of 2 ways:

  1. Pay one off fees
  2. Membership/Club subscriptions

Paying one off fees for a single theme or bundle of themes can work really well when you find a single theme that you know will be sufficient for what you need. You pay for theme up front for a one time fee and it’s yours. Bear in mind that while you’re paying for the theme there will be others who will also be buying it so you will still not be getting a 100% original theme. More on that later.

Paying for Membership/Club subscriptions to specific theme clubs can work really well if you’re a designer/developer who builds lots of blogs/websites with differing needs on an ongoing basis. That way you get access to lots of premium themes for your subscription. Some premium theme clubs such as Woothemes have built up their own loyal following and produce excellent and diverse themes from great designers and developers on a monthly basis. We’ll be dedicating a separate post to premium theme clubs in the next week or two so be sure to stay tuned for that.

Advantages of premium themes
  • Professional Grade Design and Coding – Superior Quality – While this ain’t always the case, by and large premium themes tend to be of a higher quality than free themes. You will generally find that the really good theme shops invest a lot of time in producing stunning designs that can be applied to a wide variety of blogs/websites.
  • Theme Options – Easy Configuration – Premium theme shops generally invest a lot of time to provide additional theme options which is a major bonus that a lot of free themes don’t provide. In many cases this means you can change your site logo, basic colour palette, unique custom sidebar widgets etc. without having to touch any php, HTML or CSS.
  • Support – Many premium themes are actually released under the GPL open source license and will charge you for ongoing support. Support can be invaluable to you to solve the little bugs which can pop up from time to time which can be freustrating to solve with free themes when there is little or no active support.
Disadvantage of premium themes
  • Still not unique – For the really popular premium theme shops you will spot their best selling theme pop up quite a lot.. You’ll also find that some premium themes are not that easy to customise if thety utilise their own custom functions and options.
  • Diversity – A big bug bearer of the premium theme market at the moment is that many premium theme shops produce fairly conventional themes that in some cases all begin to look the same.
  • Commercial license restrictions – A word of warning for those looking at buying premium themes. There are some wordpress theme shops who choose to implement quite stringent licensing terms on their themes meaning you need to be sure to check these out carefully before buying. Examples of these licenses would include limiting use of the theme so a single domain. The progressive theme shops (who we actively promote and advertise here on themesforge) offer their themes under the GPL license. This means that while you still need to pay for their themes, they are free to use on as many domains/blogs as you want after the initial purchase. This is a topic we’ve covered before and it likely to dominate the wordpress theme community for some time yet.

If you’re curious to learn more about trusted commercial/premium theme developes be sure to checkout the official Commercial WordPress themes directory.

Open Source/Free wordpress theme frameworks

WordPress theme frameworks have been around for quite some time but are beginning to gather some momentum in the community of late. The wordpress codex and Smashing Magazine will give you a good primer in what they all about. Our personal favourite theme framework has always been thematic from Ian Stewart over at themeshaper. Ian actually just joined Automattic, the company behind WordPress itself and will be bringing much more to themeshaper.com from within Automattic in the future. WordPress theme frameworks tend to suit those who have the skills to build wordpress themes. They can speed up development work by giving you a solid platform upon which to customise and extend an existing parent theme via child themes. Needless to say, the vast majority of theme frameworks are open source and we would definitely advocate going with an open source theme framework.

Premium wordpress theme frameworks

One elephant dominates the premium wordpress theme frameworks room and that is Thesis. In addition to being a theme framework, Thesis is probably the single most commercially successful wordpress theme so far. Thesis has been incredibly successful because it gives bloggers and website owners a lot of control over the look and feel of their websites without the need for serious design and development skills. That’s a real major plus to someone who wants to have their own unique blog but can’t afford to invest in a commercial wordpress theme.

Another recent addition to the Premium wordpress theme frameworks market is the Genesis Theme from Brian Gardner over at StudioPress. Brian has done a great job putting together a fabulous framework that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of something like Thesis but provides a really strong foundation for building out your own website or blog. Genesis is also getting it’s own marketplace meaning you will be able to buy child themes from right within your WordPress Admin area.

I have to say I do love these 2 premium theme frameworks. Thesis does have concerns around the fact that it’s not GPL – which somewhat limits your usage of it. However, if you’re only concerned with a single blog/website then this is probably something you shouldn’t worry too much about. Genesis on the other hand is GPL.

Custom WordPress Themes

If you can afford one – this is definitely the way to go. You want your website to stand out from the crowd and not suffer from the all too familiar “cookie cutter” feel of a lot of wordpress powered sites. Cost is always the biggest factor when considering getting your hands on a custom wordpress theme. Cost can range from $300 – $600 for a basic customisation of an existing theme to include your branding right up to $5,000 – $10,000 for more advanced themes including dynamic functionality and wider web development services. If you’re really serious about building a business website powered by WordPress then I would say that hiring a skilled pixel pusher who knows WordPress inside and out is an absolute necessity. If you’re just trying to get a basic hobby or side business blog off the ground then feel perfectly content to stick with the free or premium wordpress themes.

Any decent web agency or freelancer will almost definitely have heard of and worked with WordPress. Rather than providing recommendations here I would suggest you seek qualified theme developers in your area that you can work directly with if you need to meet and discuss requirements in more detail.

Stay tuned for Part 2

We’ll be posting Part 2 in a few days which will look at Premium themes in a bit more detail. We’ll review the heavy hitters in the premium theme marketplace and provide you with an idea of the kind of prices you can expect to pay when you purchase a premium wordpress theme.

You stay classy!


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