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Uncovering the best WordPress themes (free or paid)

by Drew Strojny on January 7, 2014 / 14 comments

A girl searching for the best

Finding a theme can be intimidating. With so many choices, how do you uncover the best WordPress themes?

We’ve been working with WordPress themes since 2008 here at The Theme Foundry, so we’ve got some relevant industry knowledge and plenty of experience. Let’s talk about where to look for WordPress themes, and how to find the best themes when you get there.

It’s important to note, I’m only going to be discussing self-hosted WordPress.org themes in this post. For hosted WordPress themes, head over to the WordPress.com theme directory and marketplace.

Where to find the best WordPress themes

You’ve probably already been to Google, and quickly realized it’s a nightmare to organize reliable information on finding the best WordPress themes. Let’s cut through junk and try to make your life easier.

There are two places you can find themes. The first is marketplaces and directories. These are big aggregators of themes. Think of them like app stores for WordPress themes. They come in two main flavors: free and commercial (paid). The second place is independent WordPress theme shops. Think of them like your favorite local coffee shop or clothing store. Most of these are commercial, and some even list their themes in marketplaces and directories.

We’ll discuss free directories first, then commercial directories, and finally we’ll round up the independents.

Free directories

The WordPress.org theme directory is the biggest and most official place to find free WordPress themes. In fact, it’s the only free directory we’re recommending in this review. The WordPress.org directory has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts of the past few years. This is mainly due to a huge effort by the theme review team. Each and every theme in the directory is now reviewed and meets specific quality and security standards.

Filter your way to something better

The easiest way to find the best WordPress themes in the directory is directly from your WordPress dashboard. Sign into WordPress and navigate to Appearance → Themes and click the Add new link at the top of the screen. Now, click the search link (without filling anything in). You’ll be taken to a search results page. Now choose Keyword from the search drop down and type “responsive-layout” into the field. You’re now looking at your best choices in the directory.

Wait, why is this filter so important?

With the explosion of mobile devices a responsive website is a must have. Anyone developing themes in 2014 should be using responsive web design techniques. This is a fast way to separate the wheat from chaff. By choosing from this select list of themes you’ll ensure:

  • The theme is relatively new (past 3 years or so).
  • The developer of the theme is using the new standard for developing websites today.
  • It will work great on tablets, phones, and computers.

Overall, it’s a great way to start finding the best WordPress themes in the WordPress.org directory.

Important note for WordPress 3.8

With WordPress 3.8 there is now a Responsive checkbox under Layout on the Feature Filter screen (when you first click Add New). As of this writing (January 2014), the filter is very new, so it won’t return that many results. I’d recommend using it more and more as time goes on. For now, you can use the above mentioned method in combination with the new filter.

Check for freshness

Once you find a theme you like it’s important to find out when it was last updated. Recent updates mean someone is routinely fixing bugs and improving your theme. Copy the name of the theme and search for it with Google. Look for the WordPress.org search result (should see ratings stars next to it). When you click through, you’ll see Last updated: in the sidebar. Make sure you’re theme has been updated sometime in the last year. Anything older than that may be abandoned.

Now that we’ve learned how to find the best WordPress themes in the free WordPress.org directory, let’s move on to some of the commercial directories, otherwise known as marketplaces.

Theme marketplaces

The “big three” in the WordPress theme marketplace space are:

Marketplaces are a good place to search through large amounts of themes. The available selection of themes really can’t be beat. The downside — they tend to be flooded with low quality themes. This can make searching more difficult.

To cut through some of the cruft, you should always try to use the responsive filter trick mentioned above. If you’re using Mojo Themes, they’ve got a clickable filter for responsive themes. For the other two, you’ll need to perform an actual search for “responsive”.

ThemeForest

After filtering to show responsive themes you’ll want to use the Sort by filter and choose Sales. This will give you the best selling themes (by volume) in the marketplace. This gets you results that matter for two reasons:

  1. Customers are voting with their feet. You’re looking at the themes people have bought the most. A great place to start.
  2. You’ll likely get better customer support. These best sellers are going to have more sales, customers, and money. This should give them more resources to provide ongoing support for the product.

Don’t forget to check for freshness in the last update box found in the sidebar.

I’ve generally found ratings on ThemeForest to be mostly useless, as most everything in this high seller category has 4 – 5 stars. It’s likely ThemeForest weights ratings to the high side to encourage click throughs on search engines. This gets more people clicking through to ThemeForest products, but it isn’t much help when you’re trying to find the best themes. I was incorrect in assuming that ThemeForest was doing something suspect to weight the ratings. It looks like that is not the case as Chris has kindly pointed out in the comments.

Mojo Themes

Once again, filter out the responsive themes with a quick search and then use the Sort by sales filter to find the best selling themes.

One of the things I don’t like about Mojo Themes is the lack of last updated information. In some ways you’re flying blind. To get around this limitation look at two things:

  1. Changelog: You’ll find this tab just under the main theme photo. You should see some decent activity (at least 5 versions) here (assuming the theme wasn’t just released). If you do, you know the author has been fixing bugs routinely.
  2. View work: Click the view work link in the sidebar. Then, find look for Website in the left sidebar. Click through to the seller’s website and looks for some activity and signs of life. This will give you an idea of what type of support you can expect to receive.

Creative Market

This is definitely the smallest of the major theme marketplaces. But, a smaller collection is easier to browse and you could probably flip through the whole thing in under an hour. A couple things you’ll want to pay attention to at Creative Market:

  1. Comments: Each theme has a section for comments (scroll to the bottom). Check to see how responsive the theme author is within the comments. If you see some good responsiveness, it’s a good sign they’ll be helpful post purchase.
  2. Profile: Click the author’s name / brand in the right column and then look for the Website in the right column on their profile page. Click through and take a spin around their site. You’re looking for some recent activity, some kind of documentation, and some clearly defined policies.

Independents

Think of these as your local shops. Many of them also sell themes on these marketplaces, while a few are completely independent (as we are here at The Theme Foundry). Dealing with independents can be tricky, because there is quite a bit of variance in the support and theme quality. It’s important to note, most of the smaller independents have a commercial angle, and many of them are literally one or two person operations. Here’s some important qualities you should be looking for in an independent theme shop:

  • Support: Do they have support? Does it look like it’s active? It’s important to know that you’re going to get great support.
  • Active updates: How often are they updating their themes? Frequent updates show a commitment to fixing bugs and improving quality.
  • History: How long has the theme shop been in business? Is it a fly by night operation, or have they been around awhile? Keep in mind, there is nothing wrong with buying a theme from a new company, you just need to understand the risks involved.

I’m not going to go through a list of every independent theme provider. Instead, I’ll offer a few that I know meet the criteria above. The isn’t about design quality or other intangibles. I’ll leave that judgement up to you.

In alphabetical order (after us of course)

By no means is this an exhaustive list. Instead, it’s a list of independent theme shops that I know meet the criteria mentioned above.

One other thing to consider — most reputable independent theme shops will have some kind of refund policy. Having a strict “no refunds” policy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something you should be aware of. Here at The Theme Foundry we offer a 30 day satisfaction guarantee.

Go forth and find the best

Hopefully we’ve given you a good head start in narrowing down the best WordPress themes. Now it’s your job to find the perfect theme for you. If you’ve got any other tips or ideas for finding the best WordPress themes, let us know in the comments!

Enjoy this post? Read more like it in Tutorials.

14 Comments

  1. Gary Neal Hansen

    Thanks for this post — just the issue I’m pondering.

    The next question for me (and I’m hoping you might have links/tutorials/posts/videos to share) is “How hard is it, once you have a blog and install a theme, to tweak its appearance?”

    What does the theme look like “out of the box”?
    What kinds of changes can one make without hiring a programmer?

    Seeing more real life blogs and websites using your themes would help in this, but knowing whether the variations are done by the blog owner or a professional seems key. I’m not a programmer, but have a year of blog content I’ll be transferring to wp.com to wp.org soon.

    Thanks!

  2. Drew Strojny

    Hey Gary!

    Thanks for stopping by. Great questions. It really depends on what you want to do. Most of our themes come with some really basic customization options, like background color, accent color, etc. This lets you personalize the theme, while still taking advantage of the design we spent time testing and perfecting for you. We recently wrote a tutorial on how to customize a WordPress theme that you might find helpful.

    To see what a theme will look like “out of the box” after following the theme documentation you can look at the demo sites for each individual theme.

    I might recommend checking out our new Basis business theme. It comes with a page builder that gives you the power to create some custom layouts.

    We’ve also got some “real life” examples of sites on our customer stories page. If you have any questions about whether or not a site has been customized just drop us an email. We’re happy to answer any questions and even provide more specific examples.

  3. SuperThemes - Wordpress Themes

    Thank you for this usefull post Drew. We created SuperThemes.com to help people to find the right theme for their website… feel free to add us to your list :-)

    To complete your post, there is a major issue that is very difficult to manage for users: security. A lot of (especially free) themes are vulnerable. That’s why it’s very important to choose well-supported themes…

  4. Drew Strojny

    Thanks for stopping by! Right now, we don’t have plans to update the list, but I appreciate you letting us know. Also, good point about the security.

  5. Dan Zarzycki

    Another good point to make when choosing premium themes is consistently updated themes that take into consideration user feedback and add new features based on that feedback. Slocum Themes meet all of the above criteria and provide updates based on user requests.

    Also, their theme support is right here in America.

  6. Chris

    Hi Drew,

    Just wanted to offer a correction – you state:

    It’s likely ThemeForest weights ratings to the high side to encourage click throughs on search engines.

    As an author on the Envato Marketplaces, I can assure you the the product ratings are not weighted. The product rating is a pure average of the customer ratings from 1-5 stars. 10 5-star ratings and 10 1-star ratings would produce an overall rating of 3 stars. Numerical ratings are provided to the nearest hundredth precision (4.61) and star ratings are rounded to the nearest half star – for example, a product with an average of 3.4 would be rounded up to 3.5 stars, while an average rating of 4.7 would be rounded down to 4.5 stars.

    You can confirm this by averaging the distribution of ratings graph on any product page.

    While I do agree with your point that the ratings aren’t as useful as they could be, suggesting that they are somehow manipulated by ThemeForest to artificially inflate ratings for search engines or to mislead customers isn’t accurate. I know you just mention it in passing – but I feel that’s actually a pretty serious accusation to make. And while there are many things that could be done better on ThemeForest, I’ve never witnessed Envato engage in any deceptive practices.

    Anyway, good article on navigating the WordPress theme landscape, which can be pretty daunting to newcomers :)

  7. Drew Strojny

    Thanks so much for pointing this out Chris! I really appreciate it. I’ve updated that part of the article to more accurately represent the facts.

  8. Goran

    Nice list of WordPress theme providers. I personally use ThemeForest most of the time, but lately it has been hard to find great looking and unique themes, since most of developers (at least the top selling ones) are creating multipurpose themes with the same icon sets, similar headers and even same/similar shortcodes.

    That’s why it is nice to remember that there are other theme makers on other places with the same of even better quality.

    Thanks :)

  9. Jason William

    Interesting post. You have listed nice list of wp theme websites. Themeforest currently has the huge collection of wordpress themes. For free, themehybrid would be the choice.

  10. Sagar Desai

    Hey Drew,

    Many times it happened, I liked any WordPress theme, installed it and later came to know many of settings were not possible which I required. But this is really a nice collection of WordPress theme. I will definitely try some of them.

    Thank you very much, keep sharing..

  11. Mary

    Hi Drew,
    Have wordpress theme providers ever been compared based on quality of support? I need a new theme from someone who can respond within 24 hours to issues that may occur.
    With the company I am using, and this company is high on your list of best theme providers, I have provided my private password to three different support staff, because they asked for it, and NONE has followed up with any help whatsoever. Does that seem acceptable in your view?
    Mary

  12. Drew Strojny

    Hey Mary!

    We aim to provide 24 hour support in our [Help Center](https://thethemefoundry.com/support/) M – F, and I don’t think you’re out of line expecting that sort of response time for your theme. I know I’m not setting a good example with this long wait on the reply to your comment, but I promise you we’re much faster in the Help Center :)

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