When most people start out with WordPress, they use a free theme rather than pay for a premium, or “professionally designed”, theme. While this seem like a great solution, it can set you up for trouble down the road.
Most people use free themes because, well, they are free. Makes sense, right? Why pay for something you can get for free from almost anywhere?
Well, the problem is, free isn’t always free.
In fact, free can sometimes be very costly.
Here are some costly reasons not to use free WordPress themes:
Encrypted Code – Some free themes, though not all, have encrypted code hidden within them. Sometimes this is simply to place attribution in the footer and prevent you from removing it. (If you use a free theme you should ALWAYS leave any attribution links in place. It’s the right thing to do.) But how do you know it doesn’t include malicious code intended to capture information you’d rather keep private? How do you know what the code is actually doing on your site? What is the cost of having a security breach on your site? Certainly more than “free”. Plus, sometimes the encrypted code shuts your site down if you try to make changes.
That’s definitely not “free.”
Professionally designed, premium themes do not include anything “secret” in them that negatively affects the functioning or security of your site.
Sponsored Links – sometimes theme designers will include sponsored links in their themes. A sponsored link is one that the advertiser pays to have included in the theme – usually in the footer, though sometimes in the header or sidebar. The link may be one that is paid for outright by the advertiser, or it may be an affiliate link. If you are using your blog for business purposes, you do not want have to have any sponsored links on your site – except, of course, for the companies you choose to sponsor. Not only are built-in sponsored links often irrelevant, they can also be damaging to your business reputation – either because of the nature of the company being advertised, or just the appearance of looking “cheap” by using a free theme. There’s also the possibility that sponsored links will hurt your search engine ranking. Again, what is the cost of this to you?Certainly more than “free.”
Professionally designed, premium themes do not include sponsored links – or if they are included by default, they can be changed. Some companies ask you to keep in the attribution link, or offer you a discounted price if you do. You’ll want to check the terms of the license so that you know this in advance. Every company I’ve worked with spells this out very clearly on their sales pages. Either way, you can expect NOT to have encrypted links in the theme.
WordPress Upgrades – The beauty of WordPress is not just that it is easy to use, but that it is constantly evolving and getting better. This means frequent upgrades. With a free theme, there is no guarantee that your theme will continue to work with the latest version of WordPress. The theme designer is not obligated to keep their theme up to date. Some may do so, but many do not. If you are using a theme that stops working properly when you upgrade WordPress, what is the cost to you of having your site go down? Of paying someone to figure out why it is down? Of hunting around for a new theme? Of re-doing any customizations? All I can say is Yikes!
Professionally designed, premium WordPress themes will stay up to date – and/or will specify which versions of WordPress they are compatible with. Again, this will be noted on the sales page or license agreement, so if you read before you buy, you’ll know what to expect.
Getting support and guidance – Free themes may or may not have a related support forum. It all depends. And, of course, the designer is under no obligation to provide you any support or assistance. Themes aren’t perfect . Software isn’t perfect. If you aren’t guaranteed support when something goes awry, what will you do? How much will it cost you to hire someone for help? (You can bet it will be more than the cost of a premium theme.)
When you purchase a professionally designed, premium theme, support is generally included, unless the license says otherwise. While the degree of support varies from one company to the next, you should be able to get assistance from the designer or company when something happens. They won’t provide customization, or instructions on how to customize, but any reputable company or designer will provide support for pretty much everything else that is specific to the theme. And, unless they tell you otherwise, they will provide upgrades if the latest version of WordPress causes any kinks.
I have licenses to use professionally designed, premium themes from a number of companies. It sometimes seems like I’m collecting them.
Of all of them, I believe there are 2 companies that stand head and shoulders above the rest. I love the themes from these companies not just because of how well designed they are, but also because of how easy they are to use and the remarkable level of support provided by the company.
iThemes.com has a wide range of themes with a great deal of flexibility. One of their themes is even called “Flexx” because of how flexible it is. The level, and speed, of support is incredible. In fact, it’s so strong that a whole community has built up around this company. They also offer a whole section of free tutorials. iThemes themes are versatile, easy to use, and give you an immediate professional presence on the web. These are the themes I use most frequently with my clients.
StudioPress.com also provides impressive themes. I think the first theme license I ever purchased was from StudioPress. The support they provide is superb, and Brian Gardner, the founder, sometimes offers licenses in exchange for donations to the Susan G. Komen organization. He definitely walks his talk. (You may have noticed that a portion of all proceeds from this site are given to the Animal Protection Society.) Almost all of their themes (to date) have the look of a traditional website without all the design hassle.
And as of this writing, both companies offer life-time licenses.
All that said, I do think there are many very well-designed themes available under what is known as a creative commons license. Designers aren’t always sneaky – in fact it may be the rare exception.
I just wouldn’t want to risk it.
And the Creative Commons Organization is admirable in its commitment to expanding creativity and increasing “the body of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing.” I’m an advocate for supporting collaboration.
If you do need to use a free theme for budget reasons, or because you want to get the hang of things before you commit to purchasing a theme, I encourage you to use one of the default themes provided by WordPress, or only use themes you know are 100% safe. (I’m not really sure how you will figure this out, and if a client of mine uses a free theme, the responsibility is theirs. I do not verify the safety of any theme I do not endorse.)
Most importantly, though, you need to look at the cost of “free” versus the $59-$100 or so you would pay for a safe, well-designed theme.
© Copyright 2010 Nina East