Choosing Themes and Plugins
There are thousands and thousands of plugins and themes in the WordPress repository. It can be kind of overwhelming.
- When browsing for plugins or themes in the WordPress repository (where WordPress takes you when you click on Add New) there are two criteria to look for before installing and activating them:
- The plugin or theme is rated four stars and up. There are many plugins and themes with lower star ratings that may work, but they may have lower ratings because they stop working, are too complicated for their own good, or have vulnerabilities. If a lower rated plugin is the only plugin out there that is going to do what you need, then try it out! Just be skeptical.
- The plugin or theme has a significant amount of active installs. The more active installs, the more people using the theme or plugin. A good start is to try to find plugins or themes with a minimum of several thousand active installs. However, newer plugins and themes may only have a few hundred installs. When the number of active installs is low, cross reference it with the star rating, and then decide from there. Again, you can try out any plugin or theme, but getting one that works the first time is awesome!
- When browsing for plugins in the WordPress repository look to see if the plugin has been updated in the last two years. This ensures that the developer(s) of the plugin are fixing bugs, keeping their plugin compatible with the current versions of WordPress, and potentially adding features requested by users.
- When browsing for themes in the WordPress repository try using the Feature Filter to narrow down your results. Know that the thumbnail picture of the theme is not always accurate. Many times developers will submit the theme with a picture of the site all built out and customized. These thumbnails can be misleading since more often than not when you first activate a theme your site is not going to look like the thumbnail. It usually takes a fair amount of customization to get your site to look like the repository thumbnail.
- When browsing for plugins and themes outside of the WordPress repository, see if there are any reviews on them. There are some really great themes and plugins out there that have not (yet) been submitted to the WordPress repository. Go ahead and try them, and just know you can’t really ever break your site! (Well maybe there’s like a 3% chance.)
Now..onto actually choosing a theme.
Sure, you can filter each theme by tags or features, but even then the results list can be large. It’s not that the task of setting a theme is difficult, it’s because I like choosing the visual tone, the aesthetic of my sites.
If aesthetics are not an interest of yours, then here is my quick advice for choosing a WordPress theme:
- Don’t waste your money on a premium theme. It’ll take up too much of your time trying to figure out how to use it.
- Pick a well-rated theme. 4 stars or above in the WordPress repository is a safe bet.
- Try to steer away from WordPress’s default themes as you don’t want your site to get swallowed up in the sea that is default WordPress sites.
- I highly suggest you include the term “responsive” in your searches (on Google, Bing, etc. but who uses Bing?) because the narrow down themes that should look good, or at least scale well on mobile devices. In addition, including “accessibility” in your search should bring up some themes that are better equipped to be accessibility-ready, which could have features such as higher contrast between the background and the text, toggles to make text bigger, and notifications when there isn’t alt text for a piece of media.
However, sometimes trying to choose a theme is like falling down rabbit-hole…which is perfectly understandable, considering there is so much undiscovered potential – fascinating colors, layouts, typography, etc. There are themes that are easy to customize, themes that have demo content, themes that use custom plugins, accessibility-ready themes, and there are child themes, which are offshoots of other themes! With all of the choices out there, it can become overwhelming to decide on a design for your site. The WordPress theme repository doesn’t have the best organizational structure and be somewhat difficult to narrow down specific features, so if you have an inkling of what you’d like your site to look like, search the keywords. “Minimalist,” “dark,” “grid layout,” “free, responsive,” whatever you’re envisioning. From there you will likely get a bunch of lists with themes that include some of those keywords. This is where the investigative work begins.
The lists of themes that may have qualities similar to your vision of your website are great for inspiration. You may even find a theme you’re happy with there. However, when I find a few themes I like across the lists, I continue to research them. If there isn’t a link to a live demo of the site, I find one. I want to see the theme in action. I wouldn’t say that screenshots lie…but most screenshots lie. The screenshots of themes are usually taken after every square inch of the theme’s potential has been used, which is not going to be a reality of many users.
In addition to seeing the theme live, I also want to know what people think of the theme. I’ll look up theme ratings with a search engine, or more specifically on a site like themeforest. Crowdsourcing can be very helpful (like Waze!) and if a WordPress theme has a lot of positive reviews, then it’s likely that the theme is easier to use and doesn’t have bugs. Contrastly, if a theme has a majority of one-star reviews, and the developers don’t appear to be providing support, then I’d wouldn’t try using the theme.
In the event that you find a theme you somewhat like, but aren’t entirely happy with, you can always customize it! Besides the customization options that come with the theme, there are a few ways to customize your theme even more, such as using plugins. In my opinion, the best way to use a theme as a starting point, and then turn it something into new, is to create a child theme. Child themes are the best to work with because you start with the parent theme (the theme you picked out), and then you change whatever you don’t like about it. Furthermore, whenever the parent theme updates, the changes you’ve made in your child theme will not disappear.
The last piece of advice I’ll share about WordPress themes and choosing one is to try hard to not get lost in the weeds. I’ve spent hours looking at themes for my sites only to have ended up back at a theme I thought was decent in my early searches. No site is perfect, no theme is perfect, but yours can look the way you want (although sometimes it takes some custom coding)!