Ahhh, they keep making WordPress themes more and more complicated! Which one should you choose and which one is the best?!!! What features do you need and what marketing gimmicks should you avoid?
There are actually easy ways to tell which themes are good and why.
IMO, the best themes/frameworks are marketed to developers. The worst themes are marketed to end users. So take a look at their marketing…and ask yourself who you think their target demographic is? Experienced/professional wordpress developers or impulse-buying wannabe online-entrepreneurs with zero tech skills?
WordPress theme features that DEVELOPERS like:
- clean-coding, bloat-free
- easily extensible
- used by many developers, active community
- accessibility & smart archichecture
- easy to update over time
WordPress theme features NOOBS like:
- “no coding necessary!”
- tons of features, color & typography options
- every flashy effect you could ever want
- great for making money
- mobile-responsive, speed, SEO
- great customer support
What WordPress theme features are most important?
1. Nice Design
Clean, professional design, with a little personality (or at least allows you to add some personality). As long as it looks great or can look great with a little bit of effort, that’s all you need. No more than that! It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) need to be 100 great themes in one! It’s easier to start simple and add a little bit from there, than to start complicated and have to cut it down.
2. Clean coding
This is something you (as a non-coder) probably won’t be able to verify for yourself. You’ll have to ask around, read the reviews and see what other creditable developers are using it. Basically, good coding is done in an intelligent efficient manner and also in accordance to WordPress’ recommended practices. No shortcuts or strange hacks are made. Clean code runs fast and efficient, and also easy for other developers to work with. It’s kind of like how you organize your room. If you do it right, it not only looks good but other people can figure out where to find things quickly.
3. Compatible with many plugins
This is also known as “easily extensible” in that it’s easy to extend the theme’s basic functions with other plugins and add-ons. Generally, themes that are well-coded will be compatible with all other plugins (shopping carts, forms, pop-ups, caching, calendars, SEO, etc and etc). It isn’t just the coding that makes it play nicely but because the theme isn’t trying to do everything by itself. Most themes with plugin conflicts are because they aren’t coded-well, or lacking code, or simply too opinionated about everything. This is why you should avoid “all-in-one” themes; it’s because they try to do everything themselves and won’t function smoothly when you try to add something else.
4. Used by many developers
Yes, this is a HUGE FEATURE! Why? Because your website will always evolve over time. Your business may grow or break or change in other ways. You’ll always make changes eventually and one way or another, will have to hire someone to help you make changes. For this reason, it’s important that you pick a theme that many developers know (and love to use). It will make the site easier for developers to work with and less costly to make changes.
5. Following the latest trends (mobile-responsive, SEO, high performance, schema, etc)
These are things are important but the good news is you shouldn’t have to worry about them as much. This is because they should already be standard. And when something’s standard, it’s not so much a special feature any more.
What WordPress theme “features” should be avoided
This is the #1 reason why many WordPress themes are slow as heck. Too many users wanting one theme to be anything and everything to everyone. It’s not possible!
Developer-centric themes are bloat-free because they load only a few features if that. And the developers can then code in only the features they want. Themes marketed towards non-developers load every single feature right off the bat. That’s the only way to make it feature-rich without requiring users to code anything. And that’s part of why your themes take so much longer to load. They load huge JS libraries with everything when you’re only using like 2% of the features in there.
2. Flashy effects
This is another reason why many WordPress themes are slow. They load too many effects right off the bat. Sliders, counters, animations, etc and etc. This is ridiculous. It’s appealing to newbies who don’t know how to code or design, but scorned by experienced developers. Newbies don’t know how to design and don’t have any vision of what they want. So they actually design by “undesigning”, which means to start with a finished design and then take away or customize that. Professionals start with a blank slate and add to it. (This is why professionally-designed sites are usually much cleaner.)
3. “Great for everything…businesses, studios, making money, etc”
I think it’s really gimmicky for a theme to make promises of what it’s good for. That’s all design-related and nothing to do with the code quality. I think it’s ok if a theme aims to be one thing, such as a shopping site, or a corporate site, or a blog. But definitely not good if it claims to be good at everything. If anything, that should be a red flag to you that it’s trying to do too much. That’s like a jacket claiming to be the best jacket for all occasions.
4. Popular (has many users)
McDonalds sells more burgers than anyone else I know. Does this mean they have a good product? No, it doesn’t…it just means they have good marketing (and that they appeal to the masses, i.e. inexperienced crowd). The only popularity I care about is if the theme is popular with true WordPress experts and developers.
5. Great customer support
It’s not that this isn’t important but its that this feature is marketed to newbies and non-coders who think “great customer support” means the company will tell you how to do everything with your theme. I think a theme company should spend their time actively developing the theme to make bug fixes, increase compatibility with plugins, and finally…add features if necessary. What I don’t like to see is a theme company that spends more time on sales and customer support, that tells me active development will be slow. And that if there’s any development, it will be to make new themes to have new customers.
Anyway, what WordPress themes do I recommend? (These are my top 2)
- Genesis Framework and child themes (from StudioPress) – best coding and performance, highly polished designs, most popular among developers, active development with great support and user forums.
- GeneratePress – for the coders who love great performance and don’t mind coming up with their own designs. I don’t recommend this to newbies, non-coders or non-designers. It’s coded really well but requires some work to look like a polished theme.
- Of course, there are other great themes that I like as well but Genesis and GeneratePress are my general recommendations.
Really helpful article
This WordPress theme is by Studio Press?
The one I’m using right this second is not, but I am having my theme custom-coded on Genesis Framework. Should be released soon. 🙂
Great article. Thoughtful insights!
I just bought the genesis framework but haven’t bought any of their premium child themes yet. I don’t want to use Astra (due to their incessant bugs) or Generatepress (due to its dependability on only one developer). I want to start out as a new blogger.
Kindly suggest which option should I go for :
1) A premium genesis child theme + Elementor Pro/any other pro pagebuilder ?
2) Genesis sample free child theme + Elementor Pro/any other pro pagebuilder ?
I really don’t want to be dependant mch on page builders as I want to keep my site mobile optimized & speedy in the long run (by the way, thanks to your great articles on that aspect!).
Hope you can help.
Awaiting your reply.
Thanks for stopping by. You should pick whichever child theme is closer to what you need to do. If you have something really custom, starting with a blank one makes more sense. But if you find a child theme that’s already close to your end goal, starting with that would save a lot of time. I don’t like pagebuilders but I imagine Elementor, Beaver Builder, or Oxygen would be the top choices.
FWIW, GeneratePress is totally fine. Sure, it’s one man but one very talented and dedicated man. That’s more than I can say for big development teams out there that don’t take personal responsibility and have internal conflicts and overlaps/gaps in their work. GP is a totally solid theme. If you don’t want a pagebuilder and/or unable to custom code things the way you want, GP with its Elements and Sections features can you done in faster time. 😉
Thanks for the timely reply! It definitely tilts the scales in GeneratePress’s favour.
But then again, the next logical question of the choice between GP & Astra pops up. I tried seeing through the hype that the latest version of Astra has generated – read a few comparison posts including yours too (though most of internet is filled with biased & affiliate link ridden posts). There were some talks about GP being more lean coded and/or Astra being more prone to bugs but again, those were mostly on relatively new blogging websites with an exception of official generatepress forum. Unfortunately, that didn’t help me make a clear cut decision.
Can you please recommend me one out of the two themes if I need to choose one strictly from a long run point of view (picture the site filled with numerous plugins/lots of images (though optimized) ) & of course, as per your articles, good support & updation without breaking the site ?
Hoping to read your two cents on it.
Awaiting your reply.
I’ve managed sites on both GeneratePress and Astra. I love GP a hundred times more. Our in-house senior developer also hates working with Astra. Astra is a kitchen sink theme trying to add every and which function for all users without much thought into stability. It always has bugs from time to time. Conflicts with WooCommerce here and there. I don’t like it. I don’t like the company and their shotgun spray of new products and things every few months. I was a big fan, and tried them out by custom-coding with their theme on one of my sites and now I learned my lesson. It’s still fun to use for a simple site, maybe but I would never do it for a production site. GeneratePress and Genesis are so much superior.
Thanks again for the reply. I’ll look forward to both GeneratePress and Genesis!
Hi Johnny, WP newbie here. Was thrilled to find your website which really helped me logically sort out my priorities in building WP website. Thank you for all the dedicated work!
Aditya Nath Jha
I have been using Kadence since the past year or so, with proper optimizations and all and even with Ads loading on every page I get amazing speeds and design options in built are good. When I compare the GeneratePress free theme with Kadence free theme then Kadence wins everytime as GeneratePress free version is too barebones and forces the user to buy premium to make anything look custom/good.