Guide To Choosing The Right WordPress Theme

This is a guide to picking a WordPress theme and is aimed at developers who have a mid range knowledge of HTML and CSS.

Modifying and customising WordPress themes is nothing new; it was quite common for developers to repurpose a design that was already close to what was needed – much of the groundwork having been taken care of by the original theme. However, today both the complexity and availability of themes has changed and so this process isn’t quite what it was.

The process is this:

  • You buy a premium theme from the marketplace which suits the task in hand (or your client wants to use)

  • Set up the site and figure out how it works

  • Ask client for feedback, what changes they would like and which parts they might want to customise the look and feel of.

  • Final result is a responsive modern, cool looking website packed with rich features such as galleries, sliders, portfolios, possibly special grid editors such as Visual Composer, Page Builder and more – maybe…..

However, this is not the best or most structured way to approach a web project, although for a client with a very limited budget and would like like the best website for the budget, this might be a feasible option.

Code Quality

The problem here is quality. It’s not possible to know how well the theme is written, how clear and structured the code is until you really start reviewing it in detail or trying to fix something that is broken. Some of the themes may look cool, but some have very poor code that could lead to slower page load times, more resources (such as CSS and JS) being loaded and more importantly, could have gaping security holes resulting in a compromise of your website.

Responsiveness and Mobile Friendliness (or Unfriendliness!)

Check to see whether any content is present in the HTML but not being displayed on mobile. If so, then this is likely to be content that is hidden for mobile devices, but including it in the page means it will still use many of the same resources i.e. memory, cpu etc, even if those features are never used!

So when you review a WordPress template – just what are you looking for? Here are the top things we typically see:

  • Many excessive links to Javascript (JS) resources in the head section – no bundling or concatenation. Ideally, you want to gather these together and render them at the very bottom of the page just above the closing tag

  • Image sliders and components that include many media files auto loading and autoplaying can be a problem for many mobiles with limited speed, bandwidth and resources. Ideally these should be lazily loaded using AJAX after everything else in the page is complete

Mobile Navigation

There are some quite differing opinions when it comes to mobile navigation, most themes will typically include some kind of pop-out ‘hamburger’ type menu, but this may not be the best in all cases. Some sites are simple enough (if you only have a handful of pages) that you may not need a navigation at all beyond a simple select dropdown.

Performance

Commercial themes, and particularly the premium ones should be bundling and concatenating all stylesheets to serve these as a single resource which will significantly enhance the performance of the page loading speed. There really is no excuse for not doing this as there are several solutions.

Web Accessibility

Producing semantically accessible HTML today is a must. In the dim and distant past of previous HTML versions, this was tricky to do reliably in a way that covered all elements. Today, there really is no excuse for not including ‘alt’ tags for images, using headings correctly in the order of their priority (i.e. H1 being post or page title, H2 being subtitle and so on). Even today, we see many modern, premium themes where the default heading for page name is an H2 or H3, which basically presents an unnecessary roadblock for SEO where you really want your most important topic to be H1 for maximum influence in the search engines.

Dashboard / Back End Usability

How developers can choose the best premium WordPress themeUnfortunately, in most cases you won’t know how the WordPress back end / admin dashboard panel looks until you buy it. Some themes will have a live online demo, but very few of these will let you log in to see how the editor uses the theme. The challenge here, is if the client finds it too complex to work with, it may also not be easy or feasible to fix any of the usability issues without redeveloping large sections of the theme, defeating one of the main reasons for choosing one in the first place – to save time!

Confusing or Complex Widgets

Widgets are a fantastic feature of WordPress, being ultra flexible is both their greatest strength and weakness. It’s possible for a developer to create a specific widget for each section of the page. If their naming conventions don’t make it obvious where the user should edit certain items, this may quickly become unmanageable. It would also not be a simple task to switch out these widgets with other technology to try and simplify it.

WordPress Shortcodes

Shortcodes are a great way to give the editor the power to embed very complex functions and features without needing too much WordPress-PHP development. However, there are some downsides: knowing what shortcodes are available and what they do. It’s easy to turn to shortcodes as an ‘easy developer option’ to avoid the need to (for example) create a Visual Composer element that allows the user to easily pick the element they need, and retain full control over the look, feel and behaviour as they add it to the page.

Visual Composers and Editors

We personally prefer these as options where the client may have a few different components they would like to embed. They are visual, and easy to use for the end editor. However, they take significantly more development time to implement as a developer. It also means more styles and scripts potentially need to be loaded, and some complex custom PHP code to help marry the bits together.

WordPress is of course a fantastic content management system (CMS) and we have deliberately detailed all the negative things you may find on a premium theme you buy in this post – but there are lots of great themes out there, and in reality most are quite easy to work with. These are just some of the points to be aware of when buying a premium WordPress theme.

If you need further help building your WordPress website or developing your bespoke WordPress theme, why not get in touch with our Simplepage team today?