WordPress has swathes of free themes to choose from. That’s a boon for your photography business, because it gives you a lot of visual choices even if you’re on a tight budget.
And while it’s true that some free themes can be real stinkers, it’s also true that there really are tons of great designs that you can get at no cost.
But how do you separate the wheat from the chaff and pick a free theme that’s also a good theme? A lot of it relies on finding a look and feel that works for your brand and niche, but there are some general principles that apply to everybody.
In this post I’ll go over a few key things that you should check off when considering a free WordPress theme.
1. Reputable Source
Just as the Internet has some great people looking to create awesome stuff, it has some bad people looking to exploit you. People from both groups offer free themes – so you need to find the good guys and stick with them.
Your safest bet is to stick to prominent websites and companies. By far the most common place to grab free themes is the WordPress.org theme repository. All of the themes there are checked for malicious code, so you can be reasonably sure of their safety. The site is reliable.
A commonly overlooked way to find a free theme is to go to premium theme developers. While these companies focus their efforts on creating paid themes to generate revenue, some of them also release free themes and plugins.
Take, for instance, Graph Paper Press. We offer a variety of free themes and plugins designed to help creatives showcase their work at no cost.
If you can find a reputable and popular premium theme developer that also makes free themes, you’ve found a safe source. As a bonus, the free themes released by such companies tend to be of a far higher quality than the average theme on WordPress.org.
2. Safe Code
One key consideration when considering free themes is safety. While going to a reputable source is a good call, you can do more to verify the safety of your theme. It’s not a bad idea, especially if you’re unsure about the site that you downloaded the theme from.
There are (free) WordPress plugins that help you evaluate whether a site’s code is exploitative or not. When you download a new free theme, you should run it through one or more of these checks. I’ll recommend two plugins:
- Exploit Scanner: This plugin scans the files on your website to see if there’s anything suspicious hidden inside them.
- Theme Authenticity Checker: This plugin does much the same thing; searching the files of every single theme installed on your WordPress site to see if there’s any malicious code.
In case you’re still a little skeptical about whether this added step is really necessary, let me explain more of my reasoning behind this point.
The sad reality is that hackers will sometimes redistribute a modified (and vulnerable) version of a perfectly legitimate free theme. Modifying themes isn’t bad in itself, but those modifications can turn out to be malicious – giving hackers backdoor access to your site, or worse, your personal information. The original theme may be well-vetted and well-respected, but that’s exactly why these types of attacks are insidious:
- Some people just vet the name of a theme without considering the source or host of the theme download.
- This can be a trap if you download an impaired version of a theme that, on another website, isn’t compromised.
That’s why it’s critical to evaluate as opposed to just searching a theme’s name and stopping there. You should make absolutely certain that the theme’s source is credible by scanning it for potential problems.
3. User-Friendly Design
You shouldn’t become too enamored with the promise of free, free, free. While you understandably might not get a free design that’s on par with what the best premium themes have to offer, that doesn’t mean that you should completely compromise on quality.
When checking out a free theme, consider whether its design is conducive to a good user experience. You should think about whether it’s visually appealing, and you should spend some time navigating the site demo to see if the theme has an intuitive structure.
4. Good Reviews
With premium themes, the best companies will generally produce good designs, and you can judge a theme’s quality based in large part on your own evaluation of it.
You can and should of course do the same with any theme, but with free themes, you should place additional emphasis on reviews. Themes in the WordPress.org theme repository can be rated by users on a scale of 1-5 stars, and people can leave review comments.
You should consider these ratings and reviews because they can often alert you to potential bugs or issues. Free themes aren’t always what they seem, so seek out the wisdom of the crowd.
5. Many Ratings
You’re certainly welcome to download any free theme you’d like, so long as you ensure that it’s safe. But if you want to save time and rely at least in part on ratings and reviews, another aspect to consider is how many people have reviewed a theme.
This means considering raw number of evaluations in addition to the content of those evaluations.
If a theme has five stars, you might think that it will be fantastic, and it easily could be. But if those five stars come not from an average of dozens of reviewers, but from a mere one or two raters, then you should put less stock in the rating.
6. Frequent Updates
Good WordPress themes are updated frequently to change with the times. There are two main reasons why you should look for such a theme:
- Compatibility: Frequently updated themes maintain compatibility with WordPress core.
- Security: Frequently updated themes patch security issues and stay one step ahead of hackers.
A theme is an investment in your brand. While changing your theme can work well, it isn’t to be done lightly. That’s why you don’t want to be forced to alter your site’s design simply because a developer stopped updating a theme.
But that’s a danger with free themes. Since the developer isn’t being paid to continue work and support on the theme, they have less incentive to update it. This isn’t universally true, of course, but it is something thing to consider.
There’s nothing you can do to completely forestall the possibility that the theme developer will disappear, but the best insurance policy is to only download themes that have been updated recently – that’s a sign that the theme likely receives frequent updates, showing that the developer is engaged.
Responsive design is important. You need a theme that will resize and shift shape to fit any screen size, from huge desktop monitors to small smartphone screens.
Why? There are a number of reasons. Here are just a few:
- 67% of customers say they’re more likely to buy from a mobile-friendly website.
- Google recommends it as a best practice.
- It can reduce site bounce rate.
This is a crucial consideration because you might be tempted to gloss over when looking for a free theme. After all, you’re not paying any money, so can you really ask for responsiveness?
Yes – and you should. Responsive design is no longer out of the reach of free WordPress themes. Just check out this list of 30 responsive and free themes – and that’s from a year ago. Responsive design has only become more important since then.
Not all free themes are fantastic, but if you do some digging, you can find some gold. Even better, check out a premium theme developer like Graph Paper Press that offers free options.
When searching for the perfect no-cost theme, keep this checklist in line. It will make your life a lot easier down the road.
What other things do you consider when looking for a free theme? Have you found any free themes that you have fallen in love with? Let us know in the comments below!