How to Choose a WordPress Theme That Won’t Break Your Budget—or Your Heart

This isn’t going to be one of those useless listicles about where to find WordPress themes; I’m not going to dazzle you with a Top 10 anything. And, this certainly isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy piece about our developer friends. Instead, we’re going to look at the complicated reality of the WordPress theme market—and how to choose a WordPress theme that won’t crush your soul.

Sound ominous? That’s because it is.

There are some beautiful themes out there that are an unholy mess on the backend. (Think: Cinderella with pre-Christmas Grinch heart.) Make the wrong choice and your more-expensive-than-predicted website will also be late for the ball.

Here are some things you’ll want to keep in mind.


Watch for WordPress theme red flags

There are an overwhelming number of commercial theme options out there—all promising to deliver a visually arresting website with time-saving, conversion-driving functionality.

So, how do you choose a WordPress theme that delivers on its promises?

For starters, keep an eye out for these red flags—flags that should signal your turn-and-walk-away moment.

Lots of “included in the price” third-party plugins

  • You’ll have to rely on the theme developer to make these updates when he or she updates your theme—meaning they’ll often be out-of-date
  • If the theme relies on many commercial plugins, you may also have trouble migrating to a newer theme when the time comes to modernize

Support forums that require a login

  • Login walls make it impossible to troubleshoot issues with regular web searches
  • They can imply that the developer has something to hide

Poor spelling and grammar

  • If you request support in English, a language barrier can result in additional back-and-forth, slowing the resolution of any issues you may encounter
  • Poor spelling and grammar amongst native English-speakers can also indicate not-so-great attention to detail

Complicated installation and upgrade instructions

  • Instructions that seem complicated could signal you’re in over your head (if the instructions require you to FTP and unzip files and you don’t know what that means, save yourself the time, money, and headache—and move on)

Developers that prioritize features over fixes

  • Developers too enamored by new gadgets and gizmos may rapidly roll out theme updates that break your site and result in unexpected development costs
  • The stability of your chosen theme should be its developer’s number one priority

Cautionary tale: We once implemented a client-chosen theme that went through two major releases in under 40 days. While the developer replaced many of the third-party plugins with better versions and restructured the theme to work better, he broke many sites that were using his original theme—including ours.

Not good.


What signals a solid WordPress theme?

Okay, so we’ve talked through the red flags. Great. Now, let’s take a look at what you should see.

A ticket system

A ticketing system implies that your prospective developer has an efficient process for collecting, processing, and responding to support requests.

Bonus points if they’re using an intuitive, well-known system like:

  • ZenDesk
  • Jira
  • Mantis
  • On-Demand
  • Bugzilla
  • Trac

An active, open forum

An active support forum can be tremendously helpful when you run into trouble—before and after launch. The reason: You won’t be relying solely on the theme developer for support. Instead:

  • You can search the forum for swift self-support
  • Other active users who’ve encountered the same issues can offer guidance

Active development

A conscientious developer will regularly maintain his or her theme, ensuring your healthy site.

If the theme you’re looking at is supported by just such a developer, you can expect to see:

  • Regular updates that seem to address reasonable bug fixes
  • The “dot-oh-one” update after a major release in the changelog
  • Quick updates with bug fixes after a big release

eCommerce plugin support

If you plan to sell products online, you’ll want to choose a WordPress theme that supports one of these eCommerce plugins:

  • WooCommerce
  • MarketPress
  • Cart66
  • WP eCommerce

The good news: Many themes offer templates built specifically for these eCommerce plugins, making setting up your store a snap. Watch for them if you want to avoid the added design and development expense.

WPML, Multilingual Press support

If you have a global presence and plan to deliver localized content, you’ll want to find a theme that offers WPML or Multilingual Press support. These plugins will enable you to efficiently create and manage translations of your site content.

What’s more, themes that have been tested with these plugins tend to be more robust, in general. (Whenever you see a theme author dotting I’s and crossing T’s like this, it’s a good thing.)

Lots of satisfied users

You don’t want to be the guinea pig, right? So, look for a large number of satisfied users.

On the WordPress Theme Directory, you’ll have visibility into how many times a theme has been downloaded, while commercial marketplaces ordinarily will indicate how many times a theme has been sold.


Tune out the noise

The web is inundated with Best WordPress Themes for “X” content. So much so, that it’s often hard to know what information provides real value and what’s uninformed fluff—or, worse, entirely bogus.

What should you ignore?

WordPress theme listicle blog posts

That’s right. The author of the “12 Best WordPress Themes for Vampire Bloggers” post you just stumbled into most likely hasn’t:

  • Thoroughly evaluated the themes it recommends — the article author simply doesn’t have that sort of time or expertise
  • Interviewed theme developers
  • Polled customers
  • Built test websites

Instead, they’re simply looking for specific features and ratings. (Heck, they’re probably cribbing from similar articles.) And, these “articles” are only slightly better than a blind Google search.

Marketplace ratings

You should most definitely take marketplace data with a grain of salt.

Commercial marketplaces do offer amazing WordPress themes by some really solid authors. Just keep in mind that these are marketplaces—the companies that run them do not have an incentive to be fair, they have an incentive to sell.

And, because the marketplace site wants their cut of the sale, they rarely cast their products or developers in a bad light.

I’ve had the most experience with ThemeForest, so I’ll point out some of the issues with that particular commercial WordPress marketplace.

Marketplace listings don’t indicate a measure of quality for the theme or support. Know this: Most sites are willing to list any theme that works, more or less. (Hopefully, not “less.”)

What’s more, “well documented” themes aren’t necessarily so. I’ve seen many ThemeForest themes classified as such that didn’t offer a shred of documentation. (For you theme authors: Your feature list is not “documentation.” Ugh.) Unless there’s a link to actual documentation in the theme description, you should assume it’s non-existent.

Oh, and here’s a tip: Ask a pre-sale support question and request the documentation before you make the purchase.

ThemeForest author ratings can be misleading. Consider this: A customer can’t rate an author on the theme page or the author page. Instead, they have to go to their own account, select the theme from their downloads, and then set a rating.

This kind of friction greatly reduces the number of customers providing author ratings and can skew the data.

Also keep in mind that theme ratings are not unbiased tests, but rather feedback from product users influenced by choice supportive bias — they are inclined to believe they made an intelligent choice.

You should also consider that ThemeForest reviews are largely five-star or zero-star—themes that weren’t able to generate enough ratings to warrant a star rating. That doesn’t indicate useful data.

Wordpress theme reviews on ThemeForest

WordPress theme reviews on ThemeForest aren’t terribly helpful.


Still, do the best you can and take a look at the one- and two-star reviews for any theme you’re considering. While the feedback is often posted by users who don’t understand WordPress or how themes work, skewing negatively, they can give you insight into the developer—and indicate the kind of customer support you’ll receive. (One popular developer responds to critics with attacks: “…your review is pointless…”)

At the end of the day, you’ll just have to be cautious and remember—you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.


Find a WordPress theme that sets you up for success

With all these dire warnings, things might look bleak. But people find good WordPress themes every day—and you can, too.

Just take your time to identify a theme with active developers, friendly and prompt support, and documentation you can really and truly understand.

Good luck!