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.
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.
The “big three” in the WordPress theme marketplace space are:
- ThemeForest: Think Walmart. Massive selection and cheap prices.
- Mojo Themes: Think Target. Still focused on volume.
- Creative Market Think Etsy. Handcrafted and more expensive.
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”.
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:
- Customers are voting with their feet. You’re looking at the themes people have bought the most. A great place to start.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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)
- The Theme Foundry (that’s us!)
- Elegant Themes
- Graph Paper Press
- Obox Themes
- Okay Themes
- Organic Themes
- Theme Hybrid
- Theme Trust
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!
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