Last updated October 17, 2018
You’re on a journey to find the Holy Grail – the best WordPress theme for your website. I salute thee, bold knight, wanderer on the web, seeker of great wisdom! It’s not an easy task, I warn you, but I am here to help you start.
This in-depth article sheds a light on all the qualities that mark a great (or bad) WordPress theme. Add to that a generous serving of useful examples, practical tutorials, tips & tricks, and further reading materials.
By the time you’re done reading, this article might just end up being your open sesame to any obstacles or doubt on your search for the perfect WordPress theme. So dive in, bookmark, comment and ask away, or skip straight forward to specific parts of the article if the need calls for it.
Table of contents
- Customizability and Flexibility
- Proficiency and Ease of Use
- Functionality and Features
- Loading Speed
- Price and Pricing Options
- Best WordPress Themes in 2018
As you can see from our table of contents, there is a lot to think about when selecting your theme, so let’s waste no more time and dive right into it.
Customizability and Flexibility
Can I change those buttons to green? No? Oh, snap!
Has this ever happened to you? You stumbled upon a great theme, downloaded it and started working on your website only to realize that you can’t change the color of the call to action button or that you can’t move the logo to the center of the menu. Then you deleted the theme and went searching for another one – only to find out you can’t easily remove the footer credits in this one. Rinse, repeat, and the cycle continues.
This means those themes were not customizable enough for your needs.
So, what does it mean if a theme is customizable?
Basically, it means you can change the looks of your website by using built-in theme options. In short, a WordPress theme is customizable if it gives its users a lot of options for editing any elements on their website. Customizability is probably the most important feature of a theme for most beginner to intermediate users who want tons of options without the need for coding.
More often than not, you will stumble upon a theme that looks great at first only to realize that you can’t change everything you want. This is mostly the case with free themes that have their own premium versions. Buying the theme gets you more customization options.
For more advanced users there are themes and plugins which allow changes to the css styles of certain elements.
IMPORTANT: Remember to NEVER directly edit theme files. Good practice suggests using child themes instead.
What makes a theme flexible?
A theme is flexible if it can be used for multiple purposes. Flexibility is critical to developers who build many websites per year. If a theme is flexible enough they can re-use it many times, which saves both time and money.
A high quality, flexible, theme has various different layouts to work with and is highly customizable. “Do you need two columns? Three? Sidebar or no sidebar? Horizontal or vertical menu? Great, we can do all that”, says the flexible theme.
This is the reason why creative designers/developers who choose a flexible theme can use the same theme to make a website for a sales landing page, a restaurant, sports club, school or pretty much anything else.
Here is a good list of some of the most flexible and customizable themes out there.
More serious developers work with frameworks for optimal performance and maximal customizability. Some of the most loved frameworks in our community are Genesis, Underscores, and Sage.
Proficiency and Ease of Use
How quickly can I get my site up and running?
In today’s world, the quicker and easier things are done the better. Building websites is no exception. WordPress is famous for its ease of use (user-friendliness) and proficiency – beginning from the famous 5 minutes WordPress install to setting up web pages in a matter of hours.
Ease of use or user-friendliness is a relative term, as no two users are the same. It all comes down to how intuitive the user interface and user experience are. Much of it comes down to preference as well, but there are some features that objectively make some WordPress themes easier to use and more proficient than others:
- Demo content and Pre-designed Layouts
- Page builders
- Additional plugins
- Support and documentation
Demo Content and Pre-designed Layouts
If you want to create a website in a matter of hours, you should definitively look for a theme that comes with pre-designed layouts. Just a few clicks and your whole page is set up!
How does that work? Let’s say you’re creating a landing page. If a theme has pre-defined layouts you will surely find one for a landing page and simply import it from the library with one click. You will instantly get a demo landing page filled with dummy content that you can replace with your own.
Page builders are drag and drop block editors that can REALLY speed things up immensely. Most page builders nowadays come with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) live composers as well.
I remember the time when you couldn’t simply create a page using custom layouts. Let’s say you wanted your page to have a header in one row, then a list of services distributed in three columns, followed by a two column layout for some products and their descriptions, and a four column footer in the end.
It’s a basic design, right? Not back then! To do so you had to download a special plugin and then use the shortcodes and text editor to create even the simplest page layout. And we didn’t even come to the elements part, like sliders, portfolios or menus for example. These all required their own plugins to run.
Luckily, those days are far behind us. The market is full of powerful page builders that will make your web designing process a breeze. No coding required! The best thing about them is that they come with a library of pre-designed layouts and elements.
You can download some of these builders separately or you can buy one of the many themes that include a drag and drop page builder.
IMPORTANT: Keep in mind that page builders are heavy and will slow down your site. Installing speed optimization plugins like Hummingbird helps immensely.
With the release of WordPress v5, the Gutenberg page builder will become a standard part of WordPress, so better get used to dragging and dropping things!
With great power comes great responsibility
Some themes come with a bundle of additional plugins. Although your first reaction might be “great, more options, more STUFF”, that can be a double-edged sword. After all, every superhero knows that with more plugins comes greater responsibility!
What do I mean by that? Well, some plugins will slow down your site. Here’s how to check which plugins are slowing you down.
Naturally, there is also a greater risk of conflict between plugins you’ve installed with the theme and plugins you’ve installed separately. Lastly, all those plugins will require constant updates.
Let me give you an example from personal experience. A couple of years ago, I created a simple website for a client using a theme that came with tons of required premium plugins. The client only paid for a one-time web design and was satisfied with the result. However, just a year later, some of the plugins started breaking the site. They required an update and subscription renewal. The cost of renewing all those plugins was greater than what the client had paid for the website in the first place! You guessed it, the client was furious.
Don’t let this happen to you. As a general rule of thumb, I would go with lightweight themes that don’t require any additional plugins to run.
Community, Support, and Documentation
Help, somebody! HELP!
In times of need, it’s very useful to have a large community, helpful and timely support, and comprehensive documentation behind your themes and plugins.
A large community indicates that a lot of people are using a certain theme, which means more tutorials, more pre-made elements, more specialized plugins, and in short – more solutions to potential problems.
When you’re stuck, you should always be able to contact support, and if they’re worth anything, they will answer in under 48 hours.
In your bold quest for the right WordPress theme make sure you check the reviews in the theme repository. Are there any issues experienced by multiple users? Are those issues resolved promptly? If the answers to these questions are unsatisfactory – run away! Check this comprehensive guide on how to pick a theme for more details.
Functionality and Features
The things you want and the things you must have
When choosing a WordPress theme you should probably start by figuring out what your needs are. Planning ahead and drawing a layout of your website by hand would help you a lot to determine what kind of basic features you require from your WordPress theme.
Note that when building a niche website it’s probably a smart idea to choose a niche theme, simply by searching in Google “best WordPress themes for + my niche”. Niche themes will often include functionalities that you would otherwise have to pay for separately.
For example, if you’re building a website for a local restaurant, choose a restaurant WordPress theme that comes with pre-built reservations, menus or online ordering system.
Here are some other functionalities that every decent WordPress theme MUST have:
- SEO Friendliness
- Responsiveness/Mobile ready design
- Translation ready
- Cross browser support
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. In the simplest possible terms, SEO is the way to get your site on the first page of Google without paying for ads.
For more specific SEO for WordPress information, take a look at these smart suggestions:
- Your Startup Guide to SEO: A WordPress SEO Tutorial
- 7 WordPress SEO Plugins to Get Your Site on Google’s Front Page
- WordPress SEO Tools for Every Budget
- SEO Checklist to Get Your WordPress Site Ranking Higher
- What You Need to Know to Conduct an SEO Audit in WordPress
Show beauty in all shapes and sizes
Responsiveness is not even an option anymore because Google started to rank websites based on Mobile performance first. Thankfully, most WordPress themes are responsive nowadays.
To learn all you need to know about Mobile SEO and Mobile-index first I highly recommend this Mobile SEO guide by Brian Dean at Backlinko.
In short, your theme MUST be responsive. Make sure it works on all devices (tablets tend to be forgotten and many websites look just awful on the tablet screens).
To preview how your site looks on different devices use this quirky tool:
More often than not you will need more than one language on your website. This is not a big deal when you have a translation-ready theme and good translation plugins.
A WordPress theme is translation-ready if it supports translation plugins (let’s keep it at this shall we?). The most popular high-quality translation plugins are:
WPML is the world’s most popular multilingual plugin, helping more than 700k websites translate their content. It is integrated with the most popular translation services, themes, and plugins, including WooCommerce. WPMU DEV members are eligible for a special discount!
TranslatePress – powerfull premium translation plugin for WordPressTranslate your WordPress site directly from the front-end, with full support for WooCommerce, complex themes, and site builders. TranslatePress is also a partner of WPMU DEV so we offer our members a substantial discount on purchase.
Polylang is a free plugin that allows you to create a bilingual or multilingual WordPress site. It is a free plugin that comes with fewer features than WPML or TranslatePress, but it does its job. For additional features, the PRO version is available.
For more information about translating WordPress sites, refer to these articles:
- How to Translate a WordPress Theme
- How to Localize a WordPress Theme and Make it Translation Ready
- How to Set Up the WordPress Backend in Your Language
- How to Localize a WordPress Plugin and Make it Translation Ready
- Collaborative Translations Now Available for WPMU DEV Products
- How to Translate a WordPress Plugin
- Top 6 Translation Plugins for Your WordPress Site
Not everyone is using Chrome
When choosing a theme and creating a website you need to make sure that it’s compatible with the most popular web browsers. Remember, there is a poor soul out there that is still using IE!
To make sure that everyone can access our website from different browsers (and different versions of their respective browsers) we should perform the cross-browser testing. You’d be glad to know that there is no need for installing different browsers – there is an easier way.
The easiest and free to use solution is Browsershots tool.
This tool will create screenshots of your website in more than 60 different browsers and operating systems.
The downside of Browsershots is that it creates still screenshots so you can’t preview animated elements, sounds, and videos.
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For more in-depth information about cross-browser testing check out how to make web work for everyone.
We don’t all see WordPress sites the same
The last but not least important functionality of a WordPress website we are going to cover is accessibility. A WordPress theme is accessible if it’s optimized for people using screen readers or other assistive technologies.
According to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) there are 3 levels of accessibility:
1. A, basic accessibility
2. AA, the worldwide standard, also used for government and public service websites
3. AAA, for dedicated software
WordPress.org staff are working hard on making WordPress themes accessible to everyone. They have created a handbook for best accessibility practices to better tackle this issue.
To check if a theme in the WordPress repository is accessible simply use the accessibility-ready tag.
Note that “Accessibility Ready” does not mean that the theme meets the WCAG guidelines AA-level. It means that the theme reaches the minimum standards that the theme review team has set.
Did you know that 40% of web users abandon websites that take more than 3 seconds to load? 1, 2, 3 – that’s it! Gone! If your page didn’t load, congratulations – you just lost four out of ten potential visitors.
Almost 80% of shoppers won’t buy from nor return to your site if its performance is lacking. Speed is also a major factor in Google rankings and Facebook Newsfeed rankings.
For more cool information on page loading speed, I recommend you check this infographic by KISSmetrics on Neil Patel’s site.
Page loading time is an essential metrics for any website. Creating a fast website is usually a very daunting task. Therefore, choose your WordPress theme wisely.
Is my WordPress theme fast? What is considered a fast site?
There are specific tools that measure site performance. WP Checkup by WPMU DEV is the ultimate free tool for the life-saving all-in-one speed, SEO and security checkup. In addition to fully analyzing your website, this tool offers instructions on how to fix specific issues.
Two other popular tools are Pingdom and Google PageSpeed Insights. Both are free and easy to use. Simply input the URL of the site you want to check and these tools will measure your site’s performance on both desktop and mobile devices. The website is considered fast if it scores above 85.
How to measure the speed of a WordPress theme (not site)?
To check if a WordPress theme is fast enough, you can try running a page speed test on its demo site. This isn’t a very accurate method because various demo sites have different page sizes and number of requests. Notably, some demo sites use caching to improve their page loading speed while others don’t, which also makes a big difference. Lastly, there is a considerable variation in page loading speed if you’re testing the same site from New York or London for example.
If you’ve already purchased a theme, or if you’re going with a free WordPress theme, you can run a speed test on a clean WordPress install (no content, no plugins, just the theme). That way you will get more accurate results. If your site still loads slowly, even on a vanilla WordPress, that probably means you have a terrible hosting service.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Choosing a fast WordPress theme is important, but the most important performance factor, according to the official WordPress speed optimization guide, is hosting.
More info on the subject of speed optimization for more advanced users can be found here.
Usain Bolts in the world of WordPress themes
For those interested in free themes, here is a solid comparison of fastest free WordPress themes by Gijs Hovens.
Many lists of fast WordPress themes floating around the web turn out to be utterly useless, as their authors have tested only their demo sites, which is comparing apples and oranges.
Price & Pricing
Finally, there is the ka-ching element. A theme may fly and do backflips but if it costs 1000$ per site you probably wouldn’t buy it.
On the other hand, a premium theme will often have “that special thing” that a free theme doesn’t provide.
Nowadays, the common practice for theme designers is to make a free or lite and Pro (paid) version of the same theme. For this reasons, we have many high-quality free themes to choose from that come with limited customizability and fewer features. Usually, a free version of a theme is “good enough” for simple websites but if you want more serious functionality you will have to pay for it.
Personally, I prefer to look at the value for money ratio. This is where a good pricing plan comes in place. In my experience, if you find a great multipurpose theme that you know you’re going to use more than once, the best bargain is to get a lifetime license for unlimited websites. Paying a little more for unlimited lifetime use of a WordPress theme can be smarter than getting yearly subscriptions as it saves you money in the long run. This is especially true if you’re setting the site up for a long-term client.
Best WordPress Themes in 2018 – Author’s picks
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. By now you’re probably eager to see which themes, builders and frameworks are our favorites. Here are our top picks:
3 OUTSTANDING Page Builders
Page builders on this list are all amazing products that make building WordPress websites much, MUCH easier. It pretty much comes down to personal preference when choosing between them.
- Free version available
- Excellent integration with the 3rd-party plugins and themes
- Most features and modules
- WooCommerce integration
- Best Mobile customization
- Customizable shape dividers – I absolutely LOVE this feature
- Elementor PRO is not GPL – no access to the source code (only the free version of Elementor is open source)
- No lifetime subscription
- Only front-end builder – some users, including myself, prefer backend drag and drop editors for better efficiency
- Free version available
- Multisite compatibility in PRO and AGENCY version
- Default White Labeling in AGENCY version
- Beaver Themer Add-On – complete customization of the entire theme (not just pages and posts)
- Clean code after deactivation
- Good 3rd-party integration
- Can’t edit CSS for individual modules
- No lifetime pricing plan
- Depends on additional plugins for optimal performance
- Huge community with great quality resources
- Live support
- A/B split testing
- Copy and Extend module styles
- Backend and frontend editor
- In-line editing in Divi visual builder
- Requires no additional plugins to run
- Unique pricing: Great value for money on lifetime ET subscription
- One of the best opt-in plugins: Bloom
- A bit glitchy visual builder
- No Multisite support
- Some pages are not easily customizable, like Archive pages or WooCommerce products
- ET – shortcodes can be very problematic when uninstalling Divi
TOP 3 Free WordPress Themes 2018
The themes on this list are well coded, multi-purpose, highly customizable, easy to use, fast to set up and fast to load. In short, they check all the boxes.
- More than 100k active installs
- Almost pure 5-star user rating!
- Top-notch support
- Astra is extremely lightweight which makes it one of the fastest themes you can find
- It’s super easy and fast to set up because it comes with pre-built free demo layouts (you have to install Astra Starter Sites plugin first)
- It’s super compatible with Elementor and Beaver page builders. In fact, the demo layouts are made with Elementor and Beaver builder
- Simple, clean modern design
- Great pricing plan for the premium version. The price of the Mini Agency Bundle is $169 annually and 499$ for a lifetime plan. That is great because it comes with the Ultimate Addons for Elementor or Beaver builder (your choice) for unlimited websites. In comparison, Elementor builder for unlimited sites costs $199 per year. You do the math!
Who is it good for?
Astra is best for users who want to set up a website very fast and on the budget. It’s recommended to use Astra with Elementor or Beaver page builder.
- 100,000+ active installs
- Almost perfect 5-star rating!
- Performance focused theme – speed, security, and usability
- Fast and diligent support
- Less than 30kb install! Extremely fast theme
- Premium version offers importable demos built with Beaver or Elementor page builders
- Hook element type for adding custom code
- Great value for money: 49.95$ per year for unlimited websites, with 40% renewal discount
Who is it good for?
- For more experienced implementers and developers who want a clean and fast theme to build their designs on.
Why Ocean WP?
- Active Installs: 200,000+
- Almost perfect 5-star rating!
- Great customer support
- Another very fast and easy to set-up WordPress theme
- 13 free and 21 premium demo sites available for import with Ocean Demo Import plugin
- Built with e-commerce webshops in mind. Some useful unique features: Native cart popup, floating add to cart top bar, off-canvas filter for advanced search through your shop.
- Good pricing plan ranging from 39$ for one site annually to 519$ for the lifetime unlimited sites
Who is it good for?
- Ocean WP is amazing for just about anyone, but it’s the perfect choice for online shops.
Combine these fast and functional themes with Page Builders for ultimate flexibility and customizability!
Top 3 Frameworks/Starter Themes
For maximum customizability, many developers choose to work with frameworks. Here are the top picks by our premium members:
At the End of the Winding Path
There is a vast number of themes out there and anyone could get lost in this jungle of possibilities and variations. Hopefully, we’ve equipped you with useful guidelines and heaps of ideas on how to navigate the stormy seas on your search for the Holy Grail of WordPress themes. After all, preparing and knowing what to look for is half the battle.
If you’ve discovered something helpful or interesting in this article, please share, tweet and comment. My puppy Arya will wiggle her tail and jump for joy if you do. Also, you would make my day.