A WordPress premium theme (loosely defined as a theme that must be purchased) can give a quantum leap to your website with very little cash down (themes are usually in the $25-$40 USD range). While most premium themes are beautifully designed and excellent value for money, make sure to do some homework first – they are most definitely not created equal.
WordPress, and its themes, are really just a collection of PHP, HTML and CSS code, the same code responsible for most websites online today. Web code is very versatile, and the same feature can be implemented in an infinite number of ways. “Good” code is a very subjective judgement, and even an individual developer’s code and style will evolve and grow with their experience and taste. As the WordPress tagline says, “code is poetry”. This versatility is what allows WordPress theme developers to implement their ideas according to their own style, desires, knowledge and abilities – and this is why premium themes (and any original theme from a developer) deserve some special attention.
There are two main sources of WordPress themes on the Internet: WordPress.org’s Free Themes Directory and, well, everything else. The major difference between WordPress.org and the rest of the Internet is that themes submitted for inclusion on WordPress.org have to go through a fairly rigorous evaluation of code quality and best practices before being accepted. You will never find a premium theme on WordPress.org, as another requirement for inclusion is that the theme be freely available for download. This means that any premium theme you purchase may not have gone through any sort of third-party evaluation. That’s right: the only guarantee of quality you can get for WordPress themes will not apply to any theme you have to pay for.
Because there are no requirements regarding features, compatibility or code quality, premium themes are often as different as night and day. A lot of the work I do is customizing premium themes for clients, and every time I open up a premium theme from a different developer, it’s like walking through C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe to a new world. Unfortunately for the client (who is paying by the hour), this often means that the first hour or two are spent just getting the lay of the land, so to speak: going over any available documentation, spelunking through various files and their admin panel, just to see how this particular developer decided to do things. The possibilities are as varied as creativity itself, and a certain amount of understanding is required before being able to make changes in a responsible way.
The way I choose to make these changes will be greatly influenced by the way the premium theme has been built. WordPress has a feature, or functionality, called child themes, which can roughly be described as the ability to make a theme that piggybacks on another theme; this avoids having to rip apart the original theme’s files. The main advantage to using child themes is that because none of the original theme’s files are affected, automatic updates to that theme still work. Whenever possible, it’s always best to make changes to a theme by creating a child theme; unfortunately premium themes can be built in a way that child themes won’t work properly. This will force changes to be made to the premium theme’s core files, meaning any updates may overwrite the customizations; this leaves the client with the uneviable choice of either never doing updates to their premium theme (sometimes a security risk), or possibly having to call the developer again to redo the customizations whenever the updates overwrite those changes.
I live in Quebec, which brings up another important point with regards to themes, both premium and from wordpress.org – internationalisation (sometimes called simply “i18n”). I often make sites that are in French and English, and to make this work, the code has to be written using certain functions that will allow a translation plugin to hook in to the text. If the developer of your theme comes from a unilingual (particularly English) country, their code may not have been written with this in consideration. If not, and you need your site in multiple languages, it will mean having to rewrite every part of theme code that outputs any text to the screen; potentially a big job, that cannot be done with a child theme (meaning all the unfortunate consequences of above).
What questions should you ask premium theme developers (or any WordPress theme developer, for that matter)?
- Would your themes pass a review by the WordPress Theme Review Team?
- Will a child theme work properly with your themes, or are there limitations/consequences to using a child theme?
- What forms of support do you provide to your customers? How quickly can I expect a response to support issues?
- Optional: Are your themes i18n-ready?
- Optional: Do your themes adhere to the WordPress coding standards?
At first glance, you might think that adhering to the WordPress coding standards would be important (heck, it sure sounds important). Coding standards are simply one defined way of writing quality code for the sake of consistency between multiple contributors; perfectly acceptable code can be written in many different ways, so if you find a theme that satisfies all your other requirements, go ahead and get it. There are advantages to themes that meet the standards, however: for one, when you hire a WordPress professional that codes to the WordPress standards themselves, they will write more consistent code faster if working with a theme that supports those standards. You can both save money and feel confident that the code in your premium theme or child theme is of the highest quality.
Most premium theme suppliers are brilliant, creative designers and coders that take pride in their work, and make some of the most stunning themes available for WordPress. It’s usually premium theme developers that are pushing the WordPress envelope when it comes to adopting new technologies, and often they provide a level of individual support that may not be available to wordpress.org theme users. It still blows my mind what you can get for a website with WordPress and a $40 premium theme. Just remember to ask the right questions before buying, so you can reap all the benefits of your premium WordPress theme purchase.
Note: Matt Mullenweg, co-creator of WordPress, recently weighed in on the challenges of premium themes (in the context of the recent TimThumb vulnerability). Check out his post, and get further details of the TimThumb episode at WPCandy.