There is a CMS (content management system) major league but it has only one team – WordPress. As of this month, more than 25 percent of all websites and 48 percent of sites using a CMS are WordPress. Furthermore, WordPress is gaining market share at an impressive rate.
In WordPress, a site’s content (text, images and video) is separate from its “looks.” The looks (design) are provided by the “theme” being employed. Themes are software applications made to run on WordPress. In theory, you can change the theme and it will not affect the content – although it often will affect the way the content is displayed – sometimes with undesirable effects.
I tend to think of themes as being in three groups:
No matter what type of theme you choose to use, you need to make sure that the theme developer will continue to support the theme (fix bugs, issue updates) beyond the launch date of your website. Unfortunately, any theme can be glitchy and temperamental, depending on whether the theme developer followed WordPress best practices for theme development. Be sure to choose a theme that is widely used, has been updated recently, and will continue to be updated going forward.
There are a number of free WordPress themes available that typically provide a very utilitarian framework for displaying content. Although they can be limiting in terms of options, heavily used free themes are typically proven and stable.
Premium themes are the largest group of WordPress themes. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them for sale. Typically premium themes are more robust and offer more configuration options than do free themes. Popular premium themes sold by established theme developers tend to be purchased many times over and are therefore updated often and stable. Premium theme authors typically will fix bugs and issue software upgrades.
Custom themes are developed for specific websites (or industries) and are often beautiful and impressive. The biggest problem with custom themes is that individual developers must maintain them. Often a developer is hired to create a site but is not paid to continue to support his/her custom theme. Inevitably the theme breaks and the user is left with no means to fix it. If you’re contemplating a custom theme, ask a lot of questions. How long have you been developing themes? Will my theme be sold to anyone else? How often do you update your custom themes? What will you charge me to fix the theme if it breaks after the warranty period?
A malfunctioning custom theme is by far the most common problem in our industry. It seems like people consult with us every week to help them fix a broken theme. There have been a number of instances where a custom theme was such a mess that we had to tell customers that it would be cheaper to start over with an off-the-shelf theme.
Please keep in mind that web developers can customize free or premium WordPress themes. Essentially they can alter the theme to meet the needs of a specific situation. To guard against losing custom changes and elements, it is better to create a “child theme” that is subordinate to the main theme. All customization can be performed within the child theme and will be preserved when the theme is updated.
Customizations performed without the use of a child theme are dangerous because when the theme is updated by its author, the update can overwrite the customization done by a web developer and can cause the theme to break or unexpectedly alter the website’s appearance.
Our advice is pick a free or premium theme from a reputable theme developer that comes as close as possible to meeting your design needs, and then pay someone to customize it via a child theme, as necessary. If your needs are not met by an off-the-shelf theme customized with a child theme, make sure that your custom theme developer will continue to be available to fix any problems that may arise and issue software updates for the theme going forward.