WordPress Themes: Free vs. Premium? 9 Questions to Consider

There are thousands of free and premium WordPress themes available on the internet to the budget-conscious, but what differentiates them?  Free WordPress themes aren’t necessarily inferior to premium themes and there are some premium themes for which I wouldn’t waste good money.  Why is one theme free and another premium?  How do you decide which to choose? Use these 9 questions while looking at themes to help you decide.

1. Are Images Included With the Theme?

When you view the theme demo it will be full of images which most likely aren’t included with a free theme.  Sometimes these images are what really catch your eye and make the theme.  Even if the theme includes the images, they may not be royalty-free, meaning that you really need to pay extra to use the images.  But paying for a premium theme doesn’t mean you get the images either.  I had a client pay $159 for a theme, only to find all the images had copyright watermarks on them.

2. Does the WordPress Theme Include PSD (Photoshop) Files?

Themes are first created in Photoshop and then created in HTML for WordPress.  The PSD files will have images that you may need if you want to change the site.  Keep in mind lack of a PSD isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker – many modern designs are created almost entirely in CSS and there may not be a need for PSD files to make changes.  If you are working with a WordPress professional, they can advise you.  Very few free themes include PSD files.

3. What Extras Are Included?

Premium themes often include image sliders or carousels, contact form plugins, and specialized shortcodes.  Shortcodes are bits of code you can type into a post or page to add functionality like a button, columns, You Tube videos, etc.  The theme description will tell you what extras are included, so compare the list to what your needs are.

4. How Much Can You Customize this WordPress Theme?

Some WordPress themes, both free and premium, provide options in the dashboard for customization.  Low-end themes will allow custom backgrounds and changes to the colors of text and headers.  Higher-end themes can let you change each page individually, adding sections and widgets that previously were just available by hiring a WordPress professional.  These higher-end themes have steep learning curves, however, and you may need to hire a professional to get your site to look the way you want.  My favorite higher-end theme with lots of customization combined with an easy to use interface is Divi by Elegant Themes.  Mimo Themes’ Plus theme is extremely customizable, but is very difficult to learn to use.

WordPress Themes - Divi Theme by Elegant Themes

Divi Theme by Elegant Themes Customization Options for Pages/Posts

5. Is the Theme Responsive?

A responsive WordPress theme is one that adapts to look good on a computer screen, a tablet device and a smart phone.  Try viewing the theme demo on your smartphone.  It will look different than the full-size version, but should still be functional and good-looking.  This applies to both free and premium themes – these days all WordPress themes should be responsive!

6. How Old is the Theme?

Look at the date that the theme was uploaded and/or last updated.  That date should be no more than a year ago, preferably 6 months.  Standards are changing constantly and an old theme is not going to stand up well in newer browsers.  Older WordPress themes are less likely to be responsive as well.  This is very important for free themes, as they tend to get uploaded and then neglected.  There should be a good record of updates for the theme if it is more than a year old.

7. Will the Theme Automatically Update?

WordPress themes from the official WordPress repository will automatically notify you thought the dashboard when they need to be updated.  Themes from other other sources may not.  Some theme marketplaces like Elegant Themes and ThemeForest have a plugin that you can add that will check the status of your theme and trigger the WordPress update system when it needs to be updated.  I strongly prefer automatic updates – it is safer for security reasons and will ensure your template keeps up with technology.  If you are purchasing a template, make sure you check for limitations for updates.  Most license the theme for a year or so during which you receive free updates.  After that you pay a small fee to continue to receive updates.

8. What Support is Offered For the Theme?

Does the theme author have a site or is there a forum or support for their WordPress theme?  Check out the forums, if they exists and take a look at both the complaints and the responses.  If the author isn’t responding, fails to take action, or is plain rude you should run!

8. What Documentation is Available?

All premium WordPress themes should offer some kind of written documentation at the very least.  ThemeForest actually lists the kind/quality of documentation for each theme.  Don’t pay for a premium theme that doesn’t have documentation!  Additionally, if the theme offers customization options (see above) video tutorials are nice.  Divi by Elegant Themes has excellent video tutorials in its documentation.

Using these 9 questions will help you decide between a free and premium pre-made WordPress theme.  However if your budget supports it I strongly suggest getting a custom site created by a professional graphic designer and WordPress professional (like me!).  You’ll receive exactly the site you want and need and it will be unique to you – not a site that someone can look at and say “they used XXX theme”.

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