How to Choose a WordPress Theme: A Beginner’s Guide

A theme is one of the most essential components of a WordPress website. It dictates how your website looks like and how visitors interact with your website content.  

If you’ve decided to build your website on the WordPress platform – congratulations! You will be joining a community of millions of users, supported by thousands of developers who continuously work to improve and develop new features for the platform. Because of this continuous support and development, you will have plenty of options when it comes to picking a theme for your website. This is a blessing, but it can also be somewhat of a mini headache since there are so many options.  

How do you choose a theme? What is the right pick for you? In this post, you will learn all about WordPress themes and what elements to consider when choosing a theme, so you can build a website according to your vision.

What is a WordPress theme?

Simply put, a WordPress theme is a group of files that work together to create the design of your site. These include template files, fonts, stylesheets, images, and possibly JavaScript files. All those files change how your posts and pages are displayed. Themes can control something as large as your site’s layout, or as small as the colors of your hyperlinks.

How do WordPress themes work?

WordPress websites need three essential elements: the WordPress core code, plugins, and themes. The free and open-source WordPress core provides a framework with essential features for creating a basic WordPress website, but customizing that site depends on a user’s choices of themes and plugins. 

Themes add additional code to the WordPress core, which changes the appearance and layout of your website. Every WordPress site needs a theme in order to function properly. Themes, along with plugins, allow you to control your site’s appearance and add specialized functions. Different combinations of these elements account for the vast variation in WordPress sites, from small personal blogs to the complex sites of large corporations. For instance, some themes also come with additional features designed to support specific niches, such as photography or e-Commerce. 

Changing your WordPress theme won’t change your blog content, pages, users, or other information stored in your database. Your theme only changes how all that information is displayed to your website visitors.  

How do you install a WordPress theme?

If you don’t know how to install a WordPress theme yet, let’s quickly go through that process in this section.

 
You can install WordPress themes directly from your site’s admin dashboard. You can find themes from the WordPress theme directory that comes with every WordPress installation. To add a new theme, in your left navigation, look for Appearances -> Themes. If you click on the + block, you will then be taken to the theme directory.

The theme section in your WordPress admin

The directory includes a library of free themes, as well as premium options. It allows users to search for themes by name or by specific features, such as color palette, layouts or even the purpose of your website. 

The WordPress theme directory where you can search for themes

To install a theme from the theme directory, simply select the theme you want and click “Install”. Once the theme files have been installed, activate the theme and begin customizing its features.

You can also download themes for free from a global community of WordPress users and developers from around the world. The downloaded theme will come in the form of a .zip file. To install a theme purchased or downloaded elsewhere, simply click on Upload Theme and upload the file to the installer on your dashboard and follow the same instructions.

You can install a downloaded theme by uploading it to your WordPress

If you want to change your theme, you can install and activate another one at any time—but that could pose some problems. A new theme may not display your content in the same way, and it may not integrate well with previously installed plugins or other features of the previous theme. 

How do you choose a theme?

The right WordPress theme for your website depends on many factors like the site’s goals, your skill level, and your budget. Ask yourself what the purpose of your site is. Be sure to make a list of the features your site needs in order to work the way you want. Then look at a theme and see if it offers such features. Is the theme responsive? Does it offer plenty of templates and customization options to work with? There are a lot of questions you should be asking yourself. In this section we’ll go over the important points you need to consider when choosing a theme.

Your site’s purpose

The most important thing when it comes to theme selection is to consider the purpose of your website. What is your website about? Are you building a personal blog, a portfolio site, or are you trying to sell your product online? If you pay attention when browsing the web, you’ll notice that different types of websites have different layouts and designs.

A news website will look completely different from an e-Commerce website, simply because their purposes are different. A news website may prioritize a page layout that enhances readability, while an e-Commerce website may have pages with many columns to properly display products.

To know whether a theme fits with your site’s purpose or not, you can add a filter when searching for themes directly on your site’s WordPress or on WordPress.org.

You can filter themes based on their purposes

Let’s say you’ve selected the e-Commerce filter, these are some of the options you will see. If you select education instead, the options you get will certainly be different.

Themes suitable for e-Commerce website

Keep in mind that many themes are multipurpose, meaning they can support a variety of website purposes. A theme for a blog may also support a portfolio site, while an e-Commerce theme may also work for a business website. In addition, some themes are designed to tailor to specific niches, like agriculture or wildlife websites. Developers usually state such information in the first few sentences of the description of a theme. Hence, you should always check a theme’s detail to see if it is suitable for your site’s purpose.

Next to that, think about what kind of features you really need for your site and check whether your theme supports that. For instance, if you really want to have an auto-playing video background on your homepage, then you should check to see whether your theme supports that or not.

Lastly, look for a theme option that reflects the essence of your brand and message. Consider colors, layouts, and fonts that reflect your niche and attract your audience. Some themes might be eye-catching, but hard to read—a particular problem with “dark” themes. Others might not convey the right message for your brand. Make sure your theme complements other aspects of your branding and the tone you want to convey.

Responsive is a must!

Did you know that over 90% of the global internet population uses a mobile device to go online? Statistically speaking, that means more than 9 out of 10 people use their mobile devices to browse the internet. Next to that, Google tends to show mobile-friendly websites on top in their mobile search results.

For somebody looking to build a website, this means that your website’s theme must be optimized for mobile users. Responsive themes (once called mobile responsive themes) can automatically adjust their layout for the best presentation on screens of all sizes.  

Nowadays most themes on the market are responsive by default due to the emphasis on mobile devices. But you should always check your theme description to be sure your theme is mobile-friendly. 

You can easily test whether a theme is responsive or not by resizing your browser screen. Your layout and content should adjust themselves to the screen width as you’re resizing. Next to that, you can use Google’s Mobile-Friendly test for a more thorough test. Just copy the URL of a theme’s demo page and paste it into the page. 

As we mentioned above, a combination of themes and plugins allows you to customize your site’s appearance and add specialized functions. Whatever theme you select, your site will almost certainly need plugins in order to add all the features you want. Now, you don’t have to use plugins, but they are such powerful and easy-to-use tools that they will make your life a lot easier. 

Some themes come with certain plugin features already installed. For example, e-Commerce themes might include product pages and shopping cart features. But you might find that you want more customization options or more elaborate features. If so, you can look for dedicated e-Commerce plugins such as WooCommerce which will surely provide more features than a theme ever could.

Next to that, make sure that your theme is compatible with key WordPress plugins for things like site security, comment management, and e-Commerce. Popular, high-quality WordPress plugins are frequently updated, so it’s important that your theme is compatible with the latest version and can accommodate updates as they appear.

Choose a theme that is compatible with your website builder

If you’re a beginner, there’s a high chance you’re exclusively using a page builder to build your website. It’s the advantage that we have nowadays – we don’t really need to have coding knowledge to build a working website.  

But did you know that not all themes are compatible with every website builder on the market? If you’re using the Gutenberg block editor to build your site, then most themes will be compatible because it is WordPress’s default way of building a website. But if you’re using a third-party builder such as the Bluehost Website Builder, you should really check if your theme of choice is compatible with such a builder or not. This is usually stated in a theme’s description. 

Choose a theme that fits your WordPress skill

WordPress themes are available for users of all skill levels, so it’s important to select a theme that is appropriate for your abilities. If you’re not a designer or developer, look for theme features and tools that allow you to customize and manage your site without editing its code. One of these tools is the page/theme builder. 

A theme builder lets you replace all or some of your WordPress theme with your custom designs. You will have more a lot more customization options compared to the default Gutenberg editor. If a theme has a builder, then you will see it being mentioned in the theme’s description.

Keep your theme light and simple

Many free and premium WordPress themes come with a wide range of flashy layouts, animation and eye-catching, fancy fonts. They may look exciting but can end up being off-putting to users. More often than not, simplicity is your best friend when it comes to website design. This is especially true if you’re just starting out with website building and don’t have a ton of experience.

Make sure your theme options and templates are clean and simple, so that it’s easy for you to maintain and easy for your visitors to use. Look for plenty of white space on post pages and room for visually striking images that don’t distract from your content. Choose themes with easy-to-read fonts and with enough customization ability.

A clean and simple theme usually corresponds with a light weight theme. While themes packed with high-quality images and effects are nice to look at, they are often very heavy. High-quality images often mean large file size, and fancy effects require a lot of code to work, both of which slow down your page performance. Simple themes are lighter, allowing your website to load much faster. And fast-loading sites are what Google really likes. If you really want, you can always add more design elements later by using plugins (or custom CSS if you know how that works).

Choose your theme based on reviews

WordPress currently powers more than 75 million websites worldwide, so take advantage of this huge community when choosing a theme for your website. A solid indicator of a theme’s quality is ratings and reviews provided by users themselves.

You can check a theme’s rating and reviews on WordPress.org by clicking “more info” in the theme directory. You should choose a theme with high active installation, many 4 or 5 star ratings and good reviews. It’s the same if you get your theme from a third-party marketplace, customer reviews will tell you if a theme is good or not. There are always some low rating/bad reviews here and there for any themes, even the best-rated ones. But if the number of bad reviews/ratings is unusually high, then you should really take precautions by reading the reviews or consider other themes.

You should check for ratings and reviews before picking a theme

Other interesting points you may want to consider

1: Is the theme SEO-friendly? The theme you choose plays an important role in your website’s SEO performance. You can have an amazing looking site, but if it’s poorly-coded in the back, your SEO efforts may suffer as a result. It’s a tough job to analyze your theme’s source code to determine if it’s well-written, especially for beginners who lack the knowledge and experiences. Instead, look for customer reviews to see if there’s any issue with SEO performance. Next to that, premium theme makers often state their themes are well-coded and optimized for SEO.

2: Do you need multi-language support? If you want to expand your website and include content for another language apart from your default language, you will need to choose a theme that is translation-ready. This is usually stated in the description. If you’re just starting out with website building, this may not concern you, since creating quality content for one language is already a tough job. But if your vision includes a multi-language website, then it is good to think in advance and consider multi-language support themes.

3: How long will this theme be supported? Since WordPress is regularly updated with bug fixes and new features, your website theme needs to be able to incorporate these changes as well. Not all themes receive the same support as others. Premium themes often receive longer updates and support than free ones. However, many highly-rated, popular free themes also receive extensive updates.

Free vs premium themes

There are thousands of free WordPress plugins, available both from the WordPress theme directory and numerous outside sources. If you’re just starting with website building, a free WordPress theme can provide essential functionality and compatibility with key WordPress plugins without additional cost.

Free themes are also high-quality themes. These themes must go through a multi-step approval process before being listed on the official theme directory. Next to that, free themes are usually built with beginners in mind. As a result, they are very simple and easy to use. Before approving a theme, WordPress developers make sure the theme can be used by beginners as part of their testing process

But free themes typically aren’t very customizable and offer little to no extra functionality. Free themes are not unique as well, since they have very few customization options, coupled with a high number of downloads (because they’re free). So if making a unique website is one of your top priorities, then free themes might not be the best option for you. Next to that, developers likely won’t offer upgrades or provide much user support.

All the points mentioned above can somewhat be resolved by purchasing premium themes. You will surely get tons and tons of customization options and added functionality. Premium themes typically do include regular updates, as well as other useful features. Next to that, developers are more willing to provide personal support tailored to the problem you encountered. After all, you paid for it, so you should receive more attention. Support cycle for a premium theme tends to run for 1-2 years. Prices typically range from under $25 to more than $100 for a completely unique custom theme, with the average price being $57.74. Websites such as Mojo Marketplace offers a good selection of premium themes for you to choose from.

For most beginners who are looking to build a website, we recommend sticking with the free themes first. They’re simple to use so you can take the first few steps into the world of website building. At the same time, it’s not as simple as eating candy. You still need to spend a lot of time exploring the various tools and options within the free theme. Once you’ve got enough experience and know what you’re doing, know what features you absolutely want for your site, then it might be a good time to think of buying a premium theme.

Some theme recommendations

Below are some of our picks for amazing free WordPress themes. They do have paid versions, but their free counterparts offer more than enough for you to work with.

Astra

Astra is one of the most installed, top-rated free themes in the WordPress theme directory. You can’t go wrong with choosing such a highly-rated theme. It is also multipurpose, so you can build your website with this theme regardless of your website’s purpose. Next to that, it has excellent third-party support due to it being so popular.

OceanWP 

OceanWP is another top-rated, theme with a high number of installs. It is also a multipurpose, lightweight and highly extendable theme. The difference between OceanWP and Astra is that OceanWP has a deep and tight WooCommerce integration, even on its free version. This makes OceanWP a great option for e-Commerce website, especially those with WooCommerce.

Chique

Chique is a free theme with a focus on fashion, particularly fashion blogs and fashion businesses. Visual attractiveness is definitely one of the strong points of this theme. It is light, responsive, and provides numerous layouts and customization options geared toward the fashion industry.

Final thoughts

Choosing a theme is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your website. The right theme presents your brand and message in the best light. It should be easy for you to use and maintain, and it needs to welcome visitors with intuitive navigation and attractive content. By keeping your site’s goals and your own priorities in mind, you’ll be able to find the theme that’s right for your WordPress site. 

Tiffani Anderson
Tiffani Anderson |
Tiffani is the Content and Social Marketing Manager for the Bluehost brand. She has a passion for creating engaging content, SEO and social media!

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