When a visitor lands on your website, the first thing they see is how your website is laid out, how it looks, what colors and fonts are you using, and so on. In other words, the first touch point for your visitors with your business happens through your theme, then through your content. Therefore, if you're thinking about changing your current WordPress theme it's imperative that you'll need to invest substantial effort into selecting the perfect one.

I've put together an actionable list of questions you should be asking yourself to unveil the most important aspects and elements that will help you better assess if a WordPress theme is the right fit for you.

I see your impatience here, so... let's get started!

1. Do you know what features your new WordPress website needs?

Scouting for a new WordPress theme often happens on thin ice, as you're challenged to make a difficult decision factoring in many different things and, ultimately, affecting your budget. That's why you should never start such research without a list of the main features you need your new WordPress theme to include. If you really want to be the best student in town, go the extra mile and order your preferred features based on how important vs nice-to-have they are.

Here are some rough guidelines that will help you populate your list:

  • Must-have features are those your new website will absolutely need to have as they're directly connected to your business needs. These are your non-negotiables.
  • Nice-to-have features are the cherry on top, namely any feature that can be removed at any time without having any negative impact on how your website addresses your business needs.

Having such a list of features (needs vs wants) will empower you with a more efficient way towards your research for a new theme. Of course, there are other important elements to look for in a WordPress theme.

So let's keep going....

2. Is the theme actively supported and updated by its developer?

Like plugins and other pieces of software, also themes need constant maintenance to keep working as smooth as possible with WordPress. When researching a new WordPress theme, the very first thing to look at is whether it has been properly updated and made it compatible with the latest WordPress stable release. In other words, you should check whether the theme developer puts constant work into the theme you're interested in. As WordPress developer and Codeable expert Nathan Reimnitz explains:

There are thousands upon thousands of WordPress themes available today. If you just started looking, it’s possible that you could find something quite old, something that perhaps the developer is not actively working on (or updating) anymore. If that’s the case and the developer isn't keeping up with the latest standards, things could quickly break which would end up becoming quite frustrating for both you and whoever is in charge of maintaining your website. Keep in mind, WordPress is a living piece of software, it's ever-changing, so it’s especially important to double check that you’re not kicking off your next project with dated software.

For a good theme provider, keeping a theme up-to-date is just half the story. Documenting all the changes, bug fixes, and improvements in a readable format is the other half. If a theme has been abandoned by its developer, there might not be anyone at the other end to provide support or able to answer your questions. And, don't forget, old pieces of software are always less secure.

When considering a new WordPress theme, the first element you should consider is, therefore, to always look for well-documented, updated, and supported themes. One of the places you can start looking for well-documented themes is ThemeForest. The platform, which is the biggest marketplace for WordPress theme as of today, has a wide range of well-maintained themes available making the first move a little simpler.

And that opens up to the next element on your list to be considered.

3. How unique do you wish your new WordPress theme to be?

Theme marketplaces are surely an interesting starting point, at least for browsing through thousands of themes conveniently or to find cost-effective products. However, you must keep in mind that with selecting a theme from a platform like ThemeForest comes a burden that not all business owners are willing to live with: your website could end up looking similar to many other sites on the internet.

It's at this point that you should decide if you're fine with these similarities, if not you must start defining to which degree you need/want your theme to be unique. Starting from an off-the-shelf theme isn't a bad idea per se, in fact, it could help you screen a lot of different themes based on their aesthetics and features in very little time. And buying such types of pre-made WordPress themes is the very first step of a common strategy towards a more customized theme.

Nathan points this out in quiet detail:

Selecting a premium theme or a pre-made theme could be a more efficient way for you to get your vision into an actual product. That’s true both from a financially as well as from a time-consuming perspective. So now you need to ask yourself: 'Do I want to hire a designer to craft something beautiful, unique and exactly the way I want? Or, am I okay starting with something off-the-shelf and then customizing it to fit my specific needs?' Personally, I don't think there's a right or a wrong answer there, but that answer will most likely boil down to your budget for the project.

How unique and customized your WordPress theme can be is strictly connected to your budget. You'll see how.

4. Does your new WordPress theme fit your budget?

Budget is another important factor to consider while choosing a theme and there are a number of factors that come into play when considering a new theme. As a rule of thumb, the more customizations and features you want, the higher your budget will have to be. Nathan further explains the point:

Just because you’ve selected one of the most popular one-size-fits-all themes, doesn't mean we can't get the site to look the way you want. As developers, we have complete control over the frontend display of your website. This is why I’d advise low-to-mid budget clients that selecting a premade theme is a good idea. I mean, it would certainly be in your best interest not to reinvent the wheel, especially if you're trying to do this as cost-effectively and efficiently as possible. The disadvantage of selecting a premium/pre-made theme is that (at least initially) you’ve got a little bit more of a cookie cutter site going. What I mean by that is that, initially, your website might look strikingly similar to other websites.

We covered in the past how much a custom WordPress theme can cost you. Here, I'd like to share a more down-to-earth budget range that will help you better understand what's the most likable options you'll be facing when engaging with a WordPress developer:

  • if your budget is below $5000, you'd be better off buying an off-the-shelf theme that will be then customized by your developer.
  • if your budget is above $5000, you'd be encouraged to go with a fully-custom theme.

As Nathan highlights:

Often times on Codeable, we see projects with sub-$5,000 budgets will end up starting with some kind of pre-built theme as it's a more efficient way to get the base in place. Greater budgets (beyond the $5K mark) will provide us developers with enough time to create something custom, a truly one-time solution for you. That's not a hard rule though if you were to come to me needing a small brochure-style website and you’d decided to do something completely custom, it’s not to say I couldn’t do that for you for less than $5,000. As with all things in life, there’s always an exception to the rule. When in doubt ask your developer.

5. Does the theme have a built-in page builder?

A page builder is an essential tool for a non-technical user to make it easier for them to construct or re-configure the layout on their website. Visual Composer and Beaver Builder are two of the most well-known WordPress page builders you might have heard of. Will you need a tool like that? Well, page builders are useful to DIY website managers, those people who want to be able to change their layout and add/remove elements on the page without the need to rely on a developer each time.

This isn't a deal breaker when deciding on a new WordPress theme yet is something you should ponder over, mostly if you want to keep your costs to a minimum (as you won't need to ask a developer to make changes on your behalf). As Nathan points out:

WordPress allows you to customize and change a lot of things on your own, and that’s true even if you are not a developer and even if you don’t already have one of these nifty page-builders installed. But, there's certainly more you'll be able to do as a non-technical user (non-developer) once you’ve installed a page-builder. The page builder will do the heavy-lifting (writing the code for you) and all you have to do is use their simple drag-and-drop user interface to make the changes you desire. If your goal is to interact with (or pay) a developer as little as possible while simultaneously handling more website updates on your own, then using a page builder will help you achieve this.

Be warned, though, that the more control on changing things in your theme and website, the higher your chances to mess things up. Didn't the old saying "With great power, there must also come great responsibility" teach you anything?

6. Is the theme responsive and mobile-friendly?

Given how important this aspect is to every WordPress website, I want to mention it again, even if nowadays it might sound a trivial truth to many...

In 2018 (and beyond), your website will be visited and accessed from all kinds of devices with mobile devices currently sitting atop this list. To provide every user with a seamless experience, no matter which device they’re using, your theme must adapt to their screens and keep the main features - if not all - running properly. For more information on responsive design, I’d suggest reading this thread on StackExchange.

Your current website should already be responsive, but if you need more reasons on why that's crucial I just want to let you know that starting in 2018 Google will finally switch to a mobile-first index. Specifically, this is how Google explains it:

Currently our crawling, indexing, and ranking systems typically look at the desktop version of a page's content, which may cause issues for mobile searchers when that version is vastly different from the mobile version. Mobile-first indexing means that we'll use the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they're looking for.

7. Is the theme translation-ready?

Next thing to look into is whether the WordPress theme you're interested in is translation-ready, which means it supports multiple languages other than English and it usually includes a subfolder with language files. This aspect is important for those who are providing their content in different languages or to those who will build a network of websites (Multisite) to promote user-friendliness.

Another next thing I'd like to suggest is to check if the theme is multilingual-ready. There are lots of websites these days that are offered in multiple languages. And if yours falls into that category, the translation-ready feature should definitely be on your radar. If you’re not sure whether your theme is multilingual-ready or not, be sure and ask a Codeable developer, they’ll help you make a better-informed decision about your next WordPress theme choice.

8. Does the theme have most of the features you need?

Remember the checklist I strongly suggest to compile at the beginning? Well, when considering and browsing through WordPress themes you can be easily overwhelmed by the abundance of options and features they provide. Since your goal as a business owner is always trying to find the best and most cost-effective solution available, opting for a theme that has the most features you're interested in is a no-brainer. This will be a budget-friendly decision too, as you won't need your developer to develop all of the most important features for you from scratch. As Nathan clarifies:

One thing that I frequently suggest to my clients is for them to check whether or not their desired theme has ALL of the features they're looking for. If it doesn't, then they’ll need to prepare themselves to spend more time and (of course) more money in order to develop their missing, yet desired, functionality from scratch.

Wrapping up

No one wants an ugly website, well, at least not unless having a horrible website is part of your overall business goals to get your business into the 2019 Guinness Book of World Records. I'll bet that's not the path you're willing to take your business in through, right?

Having an aesthetically beautiful website lacking core functionality that will help your business make money, is a big failure as well.

That's why you should always start with a list of all the features your theme (and website) will need to have before starting any research or in Nathan's words:

Don't do this the opposite way, where you start looking at themes and then trying to figure out how to use their features in your business. This is a surefire way to get yourself a bloated website that delivers a poor experience to the end-user.

The crowded world of WordPress themes availability might give you the incorrect idea that finding your new WordPress theme is an easy task. But it's not, as finding the perfect theme is more of a business decision, rather than a "cosmetic" one with superficial and little value.

This blog post features Nathan Reimnitz who is a top performing WordPress expert with an amazing reputation amongst his clients and colleagues on Codeable. Apart from being a rockstar freelancer, Nathan also gives back to the freelance community at large through his writings on his blog, and many other well-regarded online publications.