A Thoughtful Guide to Picking the Perfect Themes and Plugins for Your WordPress Site

A Thoughtful Guide to Picking the Perfect Themes and Plugins for Your WordPress Site

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First impressions are everything. And when it comes to your online “home” making a great first impression can make all the difference between your website being a total success or a complete failure.

It’s only natural that choosing the right theme and the plugins to go with it, are crucial parts of establishing your brand.

But choosing the right theme can be a daunting task. Considering the number of themes available, you can easily become overwhelmed and making a choice quickly turns into mission impossible.

In this article, I’ll shed light on how to choose the right theme for your website. I’ll also cover how to choose the right plugins to compliment your new theme by covering all aspects related to this decision-making process. 

So, What Makes a Good Theme, Anyways?

When it comes to selecting a theme for your WordPress website, there are a number of things you need to consider. Your choice shouldn’t be based solely on the looks of theme. Let’s check out the things you need to keep in mind when to choosing the right theme for your website.

The Price

Usually, the first thing many people think about when considering a WordPress theme is the price. There are plenty of free and premium themes available for WordPress so going with a free theme might seem like a no-brainer. After all, why would you spend extra money on something if you can get if for free? To answer that question, let’s briefly outline the differences between free and premium themes:

Free WordPress Themes

  • Simple designs
  • You obviously don’t have to pay anything
  • Customization options, such as changing fonts and colors, are usually limited
  • The theme author might stop updating the theme
  • Support is usually limited or non-existent

Premium WordPress Themes

  • Prices can range from $20-$100
  • Plenty of customization options, which usually involve more than just the ability to change the colors and the fonts
  • Support is always provided
  • Themes are regularly maintained and updated

So, should you buy a premium theme or go for a free one?

The answer ultimately depends on your preferences and site needs. There are wonderful free themes out there which feel like a premium theme in every sense, from being regularly updated to having general support. However, those are few and far in between.

If you don’t have many plans for customizing your website and just want a personal blog, then a free theme will probably do the job. But if you are a business owner, or you want to make serious money with your website then a premium theme is the way to go. Rather than focusing on the expense aspect, think of it as an investment in your business.

The Theme Has the Right Features for Your Needs

Is the theme responsive? Does it support a landing page? Will you need a sidebar or do you prefer a full-width layout? Does it have extra widgets in the footer? Does it support additional page layouts you know you might need?

These basic features are just of those you should be looking for in your choice theme.

A look at how theme features are typically presented.
A look at how theme features are typically presented.

Theme design best practice recommends that additional features and functionality such as sliders, galleries, custom post types, and such, should be kept separate from design. In layman’s terms, this means they should instead be provided via plugins rather than incorporated directly into the theme.

Does it Come from a Reputable Developer?

Who is the theme author? Is it a well-known developer or someone no one’s heard of? It’s pretty obvious theme developers have to start somewhere but choosing a theme from a developer who already has a number of themes (and downloads) under their belt gives you added peace of mind. Their themes have been tested and you can count on quality to some degree. This ensures you won’t run into problems immediately upon installing and activating the theme as well as further down the road when you start adding plugins.

Theme is Not Overloaded with Features

Having the right features you know you will need is crucial. But if the theme has a million other features that you don’t really need can lead to complications. If you know you will never use all those extra features, don’t settle on that theme simply because you might need it “some day.” Chances are, you won’t. Plus, choosing a theme that has too many features built in could mean getting locked into that particular theme, with no easy way to change things up in the future.

High-quality WordPress themes are updated on a regular basis.
High-quality WordPress themes, like our Spirit theme, are updated on a regular basis.

The Theme is Updated Frequently

WordPress updates rather frequently, and major WordPress updates usually involve a change in the way certain bits of code work. That’s why it’s crucial to select a theme that is maintained and updated frequently; otherwise, you run the risk of your theme breaking or not functioning properly once you update WordPress.

The Theme Has a Look That Meets Your Needs

Design plays an important role in choosing the right theme, of course. You should consider choosing a theme that closely matches how you want your final website to look. You should also keep in mind your niche and choose a suitable theme that works well within it. A corporate theme will look different than a magazine theme so keeping your industry in mind should definitely be on your priority list.

The Theme Allows Just the Right Level of Customization

Having the ability to customize the theme to match your brand is an important feature. Simply using a theme as-is means your website will look like every other website that uses the same theme as you.

Nearly every theme offers some form of customization but some theme authors provide you with countless theme customization options, all delivered through a custom control panel. While this sounds great in theory, too many options can make you overwhelmed to the point where you never finish your theme setup. Too many decisions can lead to stagnation.

With our Upfront theme platform, for example, just how much you customize your website is only limited by your imagination. You can drag, scale, position, customize and see every edit as you make them in real-time, making it not only easy to create a stunning site in no time, but damn fun to use. Whether you want to build a site with just a handful of images and some text, or a more complex site with full-width images, parallax, videos and sticky navigation, you can achieve just about anything with Upfront. There’s a bunch of gorgeous starter themes you can use and have fun customizing.

Upfront is easily my favorite builder on this list for two reasons: one, it’s easy to create a stunning site in no time, and two, it’s just so damn fun to use. Seriously, I could waste days building sites with this builder (and have…).

Upfront lets you drag, scale, position, customize and see every edit you make in real-time. It’s easy enough to build a simple site with some text and a handful of images, but the real fun starts when you add sticky navigation, full-width videos, parallax, mega sliders, Google maps… It usually takes time to add these kinds of elements to a site, but with Upfront it’s all built-in so it only takes a couple of clicks.

There are a bunch of gorgeous starter themes that you can use or simply wipe and rebuild. Seriously, with Upfront you’re only limited by your imagination – this builder is freaking cool.

 

Other theme developers only give you a few options for changing certain elements of your website from a selection of predetermined choices.

If design isn’t your strong suit, then a theme that gives you a small selection of carefully selected options to customize the design of your website is a great choice. If, on the other hand, you know exactly what you want and need a high level of control over your website’s look then a theme which offers a high degree of customization is the way to go.

Responsiveness & Browser Compatibility

In this day and age, having a responsive website is a must. There is no excuse for picking a theme that isn’t responsive.

Your choice theme must be responsive and mobile-friendly.
Your choice theme must be responsive and mobile-friendly.

On top of that, you should make sure the theme loads fast and won’t slow down your website as Google favors not only responsive websites but also those that load quickly. Make sure the theme has clean code, too.

On a related note, you should also make sure your theme displays nicely across different browsers and works as intended.

Browser cross-compatibility should be plainly stated as one of your choice theme’s features.

The Theme is Compatible With Third Party Plugins

Plugins are what extends the functionality of your website. Although WordPress themes should in theory work with nearly all the plugins, there are always cases where you might run into problems.

If you know you will run an online shop, make sure your chosen theme supports a plugin like WooCommerce. Similarly, if your website will need a forum or the ability to show user profiles, it’s best to shop for a theme that mentions support for plugins like bbPress or BuddyPress. If in doubt, contact the author of the theme and ask him about compatibility with plugins you know you will need.

The Theme is Translation Ready

If English is not your native language, you need to make sure your theme is translation ready. Likewise, if you plan on creating a multi-lingual website, your theme needs to be translation ready as well as support a multilingual plugin like WPML.

SEO is Included

Sometimes a theme might have all the features you want and the exact look you’re going for, but it has one major flaw: it generates lousy code. This dramatically affect your site’s SEO performance. Since it can be tricky to analyze the theme’s code if you are a beginner, it pays off to read the theme’s description thoroughly. Most, if not all, premium WordPress theme developers will let you know if the theme is optimized for SEO.

If there is no mention of it, you can always run the theme’s demo site through the W3C Markup Validation Service, which will let you know if the code is valid or not.

It Comes with Theme Support

Theme support is another thing to look for. Once you’ve narrowed down your list, it’s definitely worth spending some time investigating the pre- and post-sales support for the theme.

On some theme stores and marketplaces, you can access their support forums and customer communication areas. This gives you a great opportunity to see how long it takes them to respond to customer questions and requests for support.

It’s also a good idea to find out how you can get in touch with the support team should the need arise. Do they offer support via email, forums, or even by phone? Is the support 24/7 or is it restricted only to certain business hours? These are things you should know before you make a purchase.

Import-Ready Demos, Too

Last but not least, the biggest point of frustration for many people who buy a theme is the fact that once installed, the theme often looks nothing like the demo shown. It usually requires a few setup steps to get it to look like the demo. Be sure to check if the theme comes with import-ready demo content which gives you a nice starting point to work with. It’s a lot easier to setup your theme once you have a visual representation of what elements need to be changed.

Now that you know what to look for when choosing the right theme, let’s take a look at how to choose the right plugins for your website.

And What Makes a Good Plugin?

The number of plugins for WordPress grows every day. When it comes to WordPress, if you can think of a feature, there is usually a plugin for that. However, many people make the mistake of choosing too many plugins, or choosing plugins that don’t work very well  So how do you make sure you choose the right plugins?

Many of the qualifying factors for themes apply to plugins as well. Above all, you should make sure the plugin provides exactly the functionality you need rather than a similar functionality which you hope to modify. In most cases, unless you are familiar with the code, you won’t be able to tweak the plugin to do what you want. Likewise, many plugins are free but offer just the basic features.

The WordPress Plugin Directory is a great place to start your plugin search.
The WordPress Plugin Directory is a great place to start your plugin search.

There are also freemium plugins – plugins that have a free limited version and a paid version with more features. And there are also premium plugins with a whole range of features.

When choosing the right plugin, consider whether you will need those premium features or if you can get the same functionality from a free plugin. Here are a few other factors to consider:

How Old is The Plugin?

When it comes to plugins, consider how old the plugin is. If it’s been out for a while, there are fewer chances of you encountering a bug or the plugin not working. If the plugin is brand new, you could inadvertently break your website because all of the kinks haven’t been ironed out yet.

Reviews and Support

Like with themes, a plugin that has good reviews is a lot less likely to misbehave and cause problems with your site. It’s natural that plugins will have negative reviews but if all the reviews are generally bad, then you want to stay away from that plugin. Make sure to click on the reviews to read more, and read not only the good reviews but take a look at the bad ones too. Is it something minor from someone who completely misinterpreted what the plugin does or is it a legitimate cause for concern such as a plugin interfering with another plugin?

Also, make sure to check how often the plugin is updated. Poorly maintained plugins can not only make your website unusable, they can also be a backdoor for hackers into your website. Make sure to install only plugins that are updated on a regular basis.

Is the Plugin Lightweight?

A bloated plugin can seriously affect your website’s loading time as well as cause an unnecessary load on your hosting server. You can test the performance of a plugin with P3 or Plugin Performance Profiler and deactivate and delete plugins that are slowing down your website or creating additional load on your hosting server.

The WordPress Theme Repository is chock full of free theme options.
The WordPress Theme Repository is chock full of free theme options.

Evaluating Developers

 

I’ve mentioned a few times already, you need to make sure to choose a theme or a plugin from a reputable developer. But how do you know who is reputable and who’s not?

Use the star ratings and reviews to evaluate developers.
Use the star ratings and reviews to evaluate developers.

WordPress itself has a theme repository where you can download a large number of free themes.

In fact, it should be your number one stop of you decided to go with a free theme. When you click on a particular theme, you can see the theme ratings which range from 1 star to 5 stars.

 

Clicking on the number of stars will let you see all the reviews for that particular star rating. You can also add your own review and clicking on the author’s name will allow you to see all the themes by that author.

Further down, you can view the support forum for that particular theme which can be an excellent way to see how responsive the theme author is.

ThemeForest uses a literal checkmark to indicate themes have been quality-checked.
ThemeForest uses a literal checkmark to indicate themes have been quality-checked.

When it comes to premium themes, ThemeForest is the largest marketplace with a huge number of premium WordPress themes for almost any niche imaginable.

When you click on a particular theme, you can see the theme’s ratings as well as the author’s rating, and comments on the theme.

Reputable authors will always have a 4 or 5-star rating and in the case of ThemeForest and a checkmark that ensures quality was checked by Envato. They will also have a low amount of unresolved topics, the date the theme was last updated. They will also have quick response times which is crucial when it comes to theme support.

In a nutshell, make sure the theme’s author:

  • Has at least 4-star rating
  • Quick response times
  • Large number of sales/downloads
  • Low amount of unresolved topics
  • Good reviews

How to Choose a Theme for a Niche Business

When choosing a theme for a niche business you need to keep your company brand in mind as well as your industry.

Do you sell clothes for teenagers? Are you running a law firm? Are you building a magazine publication about video games? How do your competitors’ websites look? What features do they have in common?

Most premium theme sites have themes categorized by industry, which can make the choice easier but it’s worth writing down the things that are relevant to your niche and identify and select style elements that suit your industry.

A corporate looking theme is a great choice for a large law firm or a company but it won’t work well with family-oriented business or a clothing store for teenagers. Your company brand and strategy should play a key role in choosing a theme.

Picking the Right Plugins to Compliment Your Theme

Many top themes explicitly state they are compatible with the most popular plugins like WooCommerce, WPML, bbPress, BuddyPress and so forth. If you know ahead of time this is the type of functionality you will need, then knowing your theme supports those plugins out of the box is important.

The support for these plugins usually includes styling so the plugin seamlessly blends into your website’s design. Having support for special pages that the plugin might need in order to function as intended is something else to look for, too. A few examples include product pages, galleries, testimonials, etc. If the theme lists support for specific plugins, then you shouldn’t run into any issues with them and your best bet would be to select those plugins to avoid any potential issues.

Finally, make sure to choose only the plugins you really need as having too many can slow down your website.

How to Develop a Discerning Eye

The purpose of your theme is to make your website look good and show off your brand in all its glory. While design is a highly subjective matter and there are plenty of articles on the topic, there are a few things you can do to develop a better eye for identifying good designs.

Good design will have the following qualities:

  • A pleasing aesthetic. Is the overall site pleasing to the eye or does it make you want to hit the back button in your browser?
  • Easy to use. Can you easily differentiate between various items on the website? Is it easy to navigate or leave a comment? Can you easily spot a link in a block of text? Are CTAs easy to discern?
  • Be understandable. Do you understand what the website is about and it’s main purpose?
  • Do the colors used compliment each other?
  • Legible. Is the text easily readable with plenty of contrast between the background and the text?
  • Does the design have plenty of whitespace so as to not create a cluttered or “busy” look?
  • Is the theme responsive?
  • Different elements of the website such as the header, the body text, the comments, and CTAs are spaced out and laid out in a logical and intuitive fashion
  • The design elements such as background patterns don’t distract from the content

There’s more, obviously. But these are a few things you can pay attention to from the get-go to improve your design sense and to help you build an eye for detail.

Wrapping Up

Choosing the right theme and the right set of plugins can seem like a daunting task but once you are clear on the purpose of your website, the choice becomes easier. We hope these tips help you make the right choice when it comes to choosing a WordPress theme and plugins.

What are your favorite WordPress themes and plugins? What criteria did you use to choose a theme for your site? Let us know in the comments below.

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