This guidance for evaluating website themes divides various factors into three categories: mandatory, important, and optional. Mandatory factors include things like responsive design and developer reputation. Important factors include browser compatibility and certain blog elements. Optional factors include page templates, demo data, and compatibility with common WordPress plugins like WooCommerce.
As I stated in Website Builder Platforms: Best Options for Small Businesses, I consider the WordPress content management system (which should not be confused with the WordPress.com platform) to be the best option for organizations that need to upgrade or build a website, especially if they want to be able to manage some content and design updates themselves.
WordPress software can be considered the engine that powers a website, but to fully realize its potential, you'll need acquire and install what's referred to as a theme. Website themes are a way to "skin" websites - that is, they enable you to create a certain look and feel. But their functionality can extend well beyond that to enable you to also customize various features and functions.
Building on our recommendations in Website Upgrades: 5 Essential Considerations, I thought it might be helpful to share our guidelines for selecting website themes. Even if you've hired someone to (re)build your site and will not be evaluating website themes and selecting one yourself, this guidance can help you ensure that the person you've hired does his/her due diligence and uses the best available theme as the foundation for your site.
It's probably worth noting that some professional website developers - particularly those with strong coding backgrounds - will have a different point of view and may advocate different standards than what I propose. They may prefer simpler website themes with fewer built-in bells and whistles due to concerns about "code bloat" that can slow sites down and/or make them less optimized for search engines. I believe that if the criteria below are met, the code will be clean and elegant. Regardless, for most smaller and simpler websites, a small amount of code bloat is not likely to be a significant concern.
Though our experience is primarily with WordPress website themes, the recommendations that follow should also be helpful for organizations that want to use the Drupal or Joomla content management systems.
Where to Find Website Themes
The WordPress content management system comes with a few default themes, but most organizations don't stick with them. For people who want something more, WordPress provides a theme directory of almost two thousand free website themes they have "checked and inspected." You can also buy website themes directly from theme developers, website theme marketplaces, and membership-based sites (e.g., StudioPress, Mojo Themes, Themeforest, Elegant Themes, WooThemes).
Though its reputation is mixed due to the fact that it's an open marketplace, we've had good experiences with the themes we've gotten via Themeforest (which is part of EnvatoMarket). In fact, the developers of the two themes we've used the most (DynamiX and Total) have been great.
The details of the recommendations that follow are based on the information provided via Themeforest (e.g, theme specifications and live demos). Other outlets for website themes may not provide the same level of detail; however, you should be able to ask the sellers or developers about specific features and factors you're interested in. If they can't provide satisfactory answers to your questions, you should probably consider another website theme or seller.
Website Themes: Mandatory Factors
All website themes should...
- Be new, but not too new. Recently developed themes are more likely to incorporate the most modern web design features and are less likely to contain junk code. But you want to make sure the kinks have been worked out so your site isn't part of their beta test.
- Be current and regularly updated. The theme should be in synch with the latest version of the WordPress content management system (currently 4.1.1) and should have a fairly recent update. Frequent updates can be a pain, because they require you to monitor and manage the software regularly, but that short-term pain is worth the long-term benefits.
- Employ responsive design and be retina ready. These two factors mean that your website - and its images - will be automatically optimized for all screen sizes and types.
- Be built using HTML 5, which is the current standard. You want your website built using the best possible tools.
- Be optimized for speed and SEO (search engine optimization). These indications are signs that the code is clean and tight.
- Offer maximum customizability, including colors, fonts, skins, headers and menus, top bars, footers, etc. The customization options should be both global and page specific.
- Include modern functionality like sitewide search, a sticky menu bar with a redirect button for long pages, and navigational breadcrumbs (which actually isn't that new).
- Include modern design features like some kind of slider capability, both full-width and boxed page design options, accordion, toggle and tab page elements, social follow icons/links, and a range of buttons and calls to action. Although specific features can be provided via plugins if they're not built into the website theme, having them built in is an indication that the developer is striving to create a state-of-the-art product.
- Integrate or be compatible with Visual Composer. Especially if non-technical people are going to be adding content and managing the website once it's (re)built, a good editor like this is critical.
And the website theme developer should...
- Provide strong written documentation, video guides, etc. that help users get started, find answers to their questions, and troubleshoot when they run into problems.
- Have a strong reputation, as evidenced by the number of marketplace sales and customer ratings. Number of website themes developed may also be an important criterion, because it's an indicator of experience, but it's less important than sales and ratings.
- Offer regular ongoing support. Ideally, this would be via a support forum on their own website, but it can be provided elsewhere as well. The key is that they're committed to helping their customers be successful post-purchase.
Factors That Are Important, but Not Critical
Factors that are also worth considering when evaluating website themes include...
- Compatibility with different browsers, especially older versions of Internet Explorer. Many of your potential site visitors will not be using the latest browsers, and you want to make sure they still have a good experience.
- Whether the live demo is intuitive and easy to navigate - because if you can't make sense of the demo, you may not be able to build a user-friendly website.
- The ability to create custom error pages, so you can control the experience someone has if they enter a bad url or try to access a page that's no longer available.
- The ability to upload native audio and video. This is a relatively recent WordPress feature that the theme should support.
- How the blog is set up, including features like contributor profiles, related posts, metadata displays for posts, commenting capabilities, and social sharing options (many of these features can be provided via plugins if they're not built into the website theme).
Factors That Depend on Individual Circumstances and Preferences
For some organizations, the following factors may also be important when evaluating website themes...
- Whether the website theme is WPML ready, which is useful for sites that have international audiences and are going to be built in multiple languages.
- Additional design features like parallax page design as an option, multiple column layouts, a drop panel, mega menu capability, dynamic widgets, multiple sidebar options, call to action banners/buttons, FontAwesome icons, and content animations.
- Prebuilt page types and the ability to create templates, which can be used for things like work portfolios, service pages, team member profiles, testimonials, etc.
- Downloadable demo data that enables you to design the site without having to put your own content at risk.
- The ability to create custom post types, and/or different options for how blog posts are displayed (e.g., grid, list).
- Compatibility with common WordPress plugins like WooCommerce (for online sales), BuddyPress (to create an online community), bbPress (for discussion forums).
From a support perspective, you may also prefer a theme developer whose primary language is the same as yours, and/or one who works in a nearby time zone.
Final Thoughts on Website Themes
The factors listed above are not equally important to everyone. I recommend creating a spreadsheet listing the factors you want to use to evaluate different website themes, specifying exact criteria (e.g., three menu style options) and applying weights to each based on their importance. To help narrow down the range of available website themes to something more manageable, I suggest searching on a factor like responsive design and then eliminating any website themes that don't meet some of your mandatory criteria (e.g., Virtual Composer integration).
Of course, even if a website theme meets all the factors listed above, it may not be the right one for you. We have several themes that meet our general criteria, but I still strongly encourage all clients to check out the live demos themselves and subject the themes to the "Goldilocks test" so they can find the one that's "just right" for them. No one else can decide which look and feel best reflects your organization, brand, and preferences.
Do these factors for evaluating website themes make sense to you? As always, I welcome your feedback. What questions has this piece raised for you? What would you add to, change, or delete from the recommendations provided?