Understanding how to pick the perfect WordPress theme and then how to customize that theme to your website’s specific needs is a crucial step in setting up your website. This article will go over what you should consider when choosing a WordPress theme, and then several methods of customizing your theme to fit your exact needs.
What is a WordPress theme?
Beginners can often get confused by the difference between a theme and a template. Templates are part of a theme and cannot be installed individually. Template files also only control one page or one section on a page, while themes control the design on your entire site. Most themes have separate templates for individual pages (home, contact, about us, etc.), headers, footers, comment sections, and more. Free themes are available on the official WordPress theme directory, while premium themes can be purchased individually from third party developers.
How to Choose a WordPress Theme
With the thousands of options available to you choosing a theme can feel overwhelming. Because WordPress is used to host all kinds of websites not all themes will cater to your market. Finding a theme that fits your needs is crucial. Most themes come with a lot of customization options, and while these may look great at first if they are coded poorly it can make changing your theme or incorporating plugins very difficult and may lock you in to that theme. Additionally, a lot of themes may have flashy features or complex designs that look good but will actually slow your site down significantly. We’ve compiled a list below of some of the things to consider when you are choosing a WordPress theme.
9 Things to Consider When Choosing a WordPress Theme:
Lots of colors, complex layouts, flashy animations, and an abundance of features are all things that can draw your attention and make a theme look appealing at first, but most of the time you don’t need half of those things and they end up slowing your site down or getting in the way of user experience. This doesn’t mean that you want to look for a theme that is bare bones and offers nothing extra but take the time to think of what your site truly needs before getting distracted by all of the flashy themes available to you. Look for a design layout that supports your goal and for something that is visually pleasing while being easy to navigate.
Responsiveness isn’t optional anymore; responsive themes adjust your site across differing screen sizes and devices. Because so much of today’s web traffic comes from mobile devices, having your site be mobile friendly is essential. If a theme isn’t responsive then it shouldn’t be used on your site, regardless of how many other redeeming qualities it may have. The easiest way to test if a theme is responsive or not is by resizing your browser screen and watching how the theme adjusts accordingly.
Your users aren’t going to be all using the same browser, and while your theme may look perfect on the browser, you’re using some features could be broken on other browsers. This is where compatibility comes in. Most WordPress theme developers test their themes rigorously by using sophisticated browser compatibility tools, but this is not always mentioned under the plugin. You can always run some basic tests yourself to make sure your theme functions across multiple browsers. When checking compatibility, yourself be sure to also check different browsers in mobile view before making a final decision.
When it comes to plugins, they are the true power behind your WordPress site. Plugins make it possible for you to do anything you want with your site. While the number of plugins available to you is seemingly endless, it is important that your theme supports at least all of the popular plugins. If you’re not sure whether a particular plugin is supported or not, you can reach out and ask the theme developer about it directly.
Translation & multi-lingual ready
A lot of WordPress sites are not in English, and not everyone visiting your site will speak English either. You may be creating your website in a different language to begin with or have plans to create a multi-lingual site in the future. Either way, make sure your WordPress theme is translation ready and supports any lingual plugins you may need.
Page builders are plugins that allow you to create page layouts within WordPress using a drag and drop interface. Many premium themes come with page builders pre-installed, and some of these pages are used by that theme developer exclusively. Using one of these page builders to create pages can produce a lot of extra and unwanted code. If you ever switch the theme, those pages will then require a lot of cleaning up. You could purchase page builders separately to avoid your page builder being tied exclusively to a theme or look for a theme whose theme builder is widely used and supported among other themes.
A free WordPress theme is great and could have everything you need to kickstart your site. However, one downside of going with a free theme is that there is no guaranteed support. While some developers provide incredible support for free themes, many free themes have no support option at all. If you mess something up, you may be on your own to fix it or needing to hire a third-party developer to work on your site for you. Look for themes that offer support or go with a Premium theme that will guarantee support and offers detailed documentation with one year of email-based support.
You may not know it, but your WordPress theme plays a huge role in determining your website’s SEO. A good-looking theme can still generate poorly coded HTML, and poor coding can drastically affect your site’s performance and SEO rating. It can be difficult for beginners to analyze a theme’s source code, which is why many premium theme developers purposefully optimize their themes for improved SEO. If you would like to take a look at the theme to determine if the page generates proper code, you can use the W3C Markup Validation service. However, please note that this tool will generate many warnings that don’t need to be worried about.
Ratings and Reviews
Another great indicator of a theme’s quality is the ratings and reviews provided by other users. If the theme is sold on a third-party marketplace, you will be able to see customer reviews. For free WordPress themes, you will find the ratings section just below the download button, giving you easy access to what other users think of any given theme.
How to Customize a WordPress Theme
Before you start diving straight in and making changes to your theme, it’s important to understand the different methods of customizing a theme, and when you need to customize a theme at all. If you want to merely add more functionality to your theme, simply install a plugin and no customization is necessary. You can use the Customizer tool in your WordPress admin screens to customize fonts, colors, and possibly the layout depending on your theme. If you’re working with a page builder theme, you can use the page builders’ features to customize the design of your site. A framework theme allows you to customize your theme by using one of the available child themes, along with using additional customization via the admin screens. If you’re comfortable with code and the theme is specific to your site, you can go in and edit the theme’s code directly. If you want to edit the code of a third-party theme you will need to create a child theme in order to do so.
Do you really need to customize your theme?
Sometimes you don’t need to customize your theme at all and instead just need to install a plugin. Themes dictate the design and layout of your site; the way that it looks and how it displays content. If you are looking for additional functionality, a plugin is needed. If you find yourself wanting to edit the code of the theme itself, ask yourself if you will want to keep that functionality given you switch themes in the future. If the answer to that question is yes, then you should code that functionality into a plugin and not into your theme.
Customizing your theme via admin screens – how does it work?
The fastest and easiest way to customize your theme is through the WordPress Customizer. You can access this in one of two ways: when viewing the site click the Customize link in the admin bar, or within the admin screens click on Appearance > Customize. Different themes will obviously have different customization options, but newer themes seem to be adding more and more customizations all the time. If you find a theme that you like but isn’t quite right, customizing it may give you the exact layout and design that you’re looking for.
What is the theme editor and why should you never use it?
Within your admin screens there is something called the Theme Editor that you may have noticed by now. This gives you access to the files in your theme so that you can directly edit them. Don’t. Even if you feel more than comfortable with coding, editing these files is a very bad idea. First of all, if you have a third-party theme any changes you make here will be lost the next time you update your theme, and your theme needs to be kept as up to date as possible to avoid security breaches. More importantly, however, if you make a change that breaks your site it won’t be tracked within the theme and the previous version of the file won’t be changed, meaning you could irrevocably break the site. And that really is as bad as it sounds. If you absolutely must edit the code in your theme, you can do so using a code editor and you should never edit files on your live site until you’ve tested extensively on a dev site.
Using page builders to customize your theme
Page builder plugins are designed to make customization easier. Just make sure that the page builder you download is compatible with your theme. One of the most popular page builders is Elementor, but you can also opt for other alternatives. Page builders use a drag and drop interface to help you edit your posts and pages, making editing your theme a walk in the park.
Best Practices for Customizing WordPress Themes
Customize without using code
Only edit with code if absolutely necessary. Customizations via the Customizer and admin screens or customizing through plugins are almost always a viable option and should always be tried before coding edits into your theme.
Use a dev site to make any changes
Any changes that you are implementing should first be placed on a dev site where you can play around with customization options, test for any errors or broken pieces, and then fix any bugs before implementing the change onto the live site.
Make sure customizations don’t impact accessibility
Accessibility matters and messing around with customization can sometimes impact your site’s accessibility. Be sure to double check that your accessibility hasn’t been compromised and that all accessibility features are still active and functioning well.