It is important to remember that a WordPress website is comprised of:
- The WorldPress platform or engine,
- A theme that provides website structure, a general look & feel, and is often bundled with some functionality, and
- Plugins which provide additional functionality.
Each of these components are created independently by different organizations. Like any piece of software, each component may or may not be maintained, that is, updated to address bugs, security issues and to provide enhanced features.
Understanding that a WordPress theme is just one piece of the website, there are a number of aspects to evaluate before selecting a particular theme for a new website.
Since WordPress, the selected Theme and the Plugins are all created and maintained by different entities, there is no guarantee that an update on WordPress will be compatible with the selected theme and/or Plugins. For example, WordPress may release an update to address a newly found security issue or to provide a new feature, and that update may in turn break one or more plugins or the theme.
If the plugins and theme are being maintained, the author(s) will work on releasing an update to insure compatibility with the new WordPress release. If the plugin is not being maintained, the site remains broken until a new plugin is found as a replacement or a custom solution is built.
Thus, it is important to retest the site after each update to discover any incompatibilities. It is also important to select a theme and plugins that have a history of regularly updates and that work with the current release of WordPress.
Richness of Functionality
WordPress themes can be simple or they can provide numerous built in functions.
If a theme is simple, functionality can be added either through plugins. Simple themes are less likely to experience issues when WordPress is updated. Adding functionality through plugins allows selecting the functionality that best aligns with your needs. The drawback can be that the plugin may or may not be compatible with the theme, it may be updated in a different sequence, or it may not be updated. The plugin may not be tuned for performance or it may not integrate well with other plugins. During development, plugins are evaluated for a specific function – this does takes time and often requires testing to insure the plugin performs as advertised. In addition, to achieve the desired functionality, numerous plugins may be required thus increasing the complexity of site maintenance.
If a theme has rich functionality, the need for additional plugins may not be necessary or only a couple will be needed. Less research and customization is needed, thus saving time and the functionality is already known to work well together. Thus, the fewer the plugins, the simpler the site maintenance.
A good rule is to select a theme provide 80% or more of the needed functionality.
Construction & Performance
It also important to evaluate the theme’s performance. How well do the pages load? How are the pages constructed? How do these factors impact your user’s experience?
Google search engine looks at a number of pieces of a website’s construction (page load, number of calls to various types of code (CSS, scripts), image sizes, etc., and factors these things into its overall algorithm for displaying search results.
It is important to use online tools to evaluate a theme’s potential performance before selection and during development. Note: often times a theme’s demo version has been optimized and is not the same version as is available for download.
Behind the scenes: Using the theme
Often a theme will have a great looking demo and be rich with functionality, but once you look under the hood you find spaghetti.
In other words, one actually has to work with a theme to understand it’s strengths and weaknesses and whether it really meets the requirements.
Note: Many theme companies provide refunds within a short period of time after purchase. However, it still requires time to evaluate a theme.
The less the code that is customized, the less likely the theme is to break when either WordPress or the Theme is updated. There are many free templates or low cost templates that may be adequate. It is also important to look at the Theme company to review their track record on support and theme maintenance.
Each customization of the theme needs to be evaluated for ease of implementation both in terms of the complexity of the code adjustments and the magnitude of testing required to insure the theme retains is responsiveness and maintains its accessibility.
It should also be noted that customizations made to a theme can later be impacted by WordPress upgrades and plugin updates, thus, increasing the complexity of maintaining the site.
A WordPress theme should support the creation of a child theme. A child theme enables customizations (e.g., look and feel) that will not be overwritten when the main theme is updated. Dannay Consulting always implements a child theme with a WordPress website.
A theme should be responsive, that is, the content and design should adjust to display in a variety of devices including a phone, a tablet and a laptop computer. Its content and menus should adjust and be usable on each device.
Purchasing a theme from a company that has a good reputation for clean code, regular theme updates and good support can be invaluable. Most theme companies will offer a package that includes the theme, design files and 1-year of support that includes email and theme updates. Budget should be ~$200 for this package.