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How to Buy a WordPress Theme

How to Buy a WordPress Theme

Continuing on the theme from our Open Source post (like the post on How to Hire a Freelancer), I wanted to share another how-to that I thought might come in handy.  That is, if you are so included, how can you buy a pre-built WordPress theme and not have the experience subtract years from your life?  Ask anyone who has bought a pre-built theme and, most likely, you will hear harrowing stories of maddening frustration.  Themeforest, which I *believe* is the largest marketplace for such things seems to take a lot of heat, in particular, for selling frustration as a product.   In my opinion, that does not tell the whole story, and as such, I think there is some value in telling the story that it is actually possible to buy a pre-built theme and come out the other side unscathed.

Like the Freelancer post, this one might seem odd coming from a responsive design and development agency.  Would I love theme buyers to purchase a balls-out, custom-designed and developed WordPress site from us?  Well, of course.  But, sometimes that is just not possible.  Sometimes things like budgets, or timelines, simply get in the way.  Or, sometimes you simply need something, anything, “up”.  Startups, in particular, seem to find themselves in this very conundrum.  On average, custom websites take weeks (if not months) to complete.  Sometimes, there simply isn’t time and another option is needed.

Plus, sometimes, although the perfectionist in me is loathe to admit it, good enough is good enough.  Would a custom site always be best?  No, not when there are other needs that should be served first.  That is, if you have $20,000 to spend on a kick-ass custom site, or on perfecting your product, put the money into the product (and then, buy the $20,000 website when you do it from profit from your awesome product).  The website is only the platter, after all, not the main dish.

For the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on Themeforest specifically.  This is the site I have the most experience with, and it is also the one I hear denigrated the most.  Personally, I think a lot of the flack Themeforest takes is due to simply a few bad apples, as well as their position as the top-volume theme seller.  First place will always be a lightning rod for negative criticism.   But, there are LOTS of other options out there, but I have to think this advice will apply to most (large) theme marketplaces equally.

Now, a couple of caveats.  First, the obvious question someone has to be asking.  That is, “Is a $50 theme from Themeforest as good as a  custom website?”  For most people, no.  In fact, for most people, it’s actually hell no.   The beauty of the web is that is offers customization, down to every pixel, and thus allows sites to be a multi-layered, complex integration of expression.  Plus, one of the big things the web has introduced is the idea of experiential brands.  That is, more often than ever, what people think about your company, or your product, is intimately derived from the experience around it.   And, for most companies, a big part of that experience is their website.

Plus, the math of thinking a $50 custom theme will serve all of your needs is sort of silly.  Custom websites cost what they do because of the value they create.  We could work on websites for years, tweaking and tweaking, making them utterly incredible and insanely effective.  But, we would have to charge several hundreds of thousands of dollars for them, so the value would not hold up.  Conversely, we could build every website off of a template, with only minor modification, have it done in a few hours, and charge $250 for it.  The value would not hold up here either.  For most businesses, their websites are drivers for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of business, and it just does not make any sense to try and run all of this though a $50 machine.   Additionally, there is sort of a pay now or pay (much more) later dynamic with websites.  That is, even though that $50 theme can get you off the ground, by the time you start adding things to it, the complexity of making the theme bend toward something it was not built to do can end up costing much more.  I hear this story from clients, quite often, about one of their happiest days being the one where they got to stop using (and maintaining) the pre-built theme they purchased, precisely because it was such a nightmare.  Most of the time, these stories sound like a cautionary tale.  Caveat emptor and all that…

OK, OK, enough of the warnings.  Clearly, I have a bias towards custom design and development, but again, even I understand that there are times when a pre-built template makes the most sense.  And for those times, here are my tips for how to do it safely.

Know Your True Risks, Time and Money

Most often, professional themes are purchased in order to save time, money, or both.  It is important to know, though, that just because this is the intent, it does not always work out that way.  Where people get themselves into trouble can usually be assigned to too key areas, specificity and inflexibility.    That is, pre-built themes are great when you need to get “something” up.  The problem comes in when that “something” can only be one specific thing.  That is, you are trying to make a pre-built theme be a custom site.  That is sort of like buying a manufactured home only to start immediate renovation construction on it.  Pre-built things are great if you can just plop them down and use them as they are.  Trying to make them bend a certain way will usually only create frustration and delays.

Which is what brings us to thinking about time and money.  If these are your reasons for buying a pre-built theme, stand on them.  Don’t trade them away on customization, or just needing every little detail to be just so.  Save the time and the money for the custom site you will build later.  Use the pre-built theme for what it is, a way to get started.  Wanting something better is a healthy tension to have.  Nothing will ever be perfect, and if you want your site to be much more than it is, the odds are that you will get there, if you start small/simple.

So, looking at a pre-built theme, how do you know how much you can safely change?  Well, that is a little different for each theme.  But, in simple terms, think about it like buying a house.  Changing colors (e.g. paint), is not terribly hard.  Changing structure (moving wall around, adding/subtracting rooms, etc.) is often MUCH harder.  The key is to find a theme that works, especially in its layout and structure, without any major modification.  Things like colors (assuming they are not embedded in complicated graphics) and fonts are easy to change.

Sort by Rating

The problem with buying pre-built themes is you never know what they are like to work with until you plunk down your money and install it.  You can hedge your bets a bit, though, by always sorting theme lists by rating.  Because, at least this way, you have some sort of qualitative filter you are running things through.

The way most theme sites work is show you the newest themes first.  This is problematic.  New themes, although all fresh and shiny, haven’t been tested by the crucible of actual use.   I would imagine that buggy/craptastic themes have a short shelf life.  Too many one-star ratings, even when sorted by date, and the theme will not sell.  By sorting the themes by rating, you almost automatically remove these types of themes from consideration.

Read the Comments

This is my favorite thing about Theme Forest.  Because, here, I can see what people are saying about a theme (and, not just the people who rate things).  To me, this is a truer view of what problems the theme has caused and how they were fixed.  Maybe this is just knowing myself, though, in that I am FAR more likely to participate in the comments than actually rate a theme.  But, maybe that is just me.

The most telling thing about the comments is the silence.  That is, are there numerous problems reported (or, just the same problem over and over) that are never answered by the author?  If so, then that is a big red flag.  Or, even if they are answered, are the answers terse and/or unhelpful?  This is important to know.  As a purchaser of a pre-built theme, your support will often come down to how friendly your particular theme vendor is.  As such, it behooves you to ascertain this ahead of time.

Look at the Changelog

When I have purchased a theme, I like to make sure that I am not buying version 1.  I want to find a theme that has some staying power, that can remain relevant past an initial release.  To me, this not only shows a mark of quality, but also shows me that the theme actually does what people want (and, that is actually works).   What I specifically look at in the changelog, though, is what has been fixed in each version.  Did it take multiple fixes to solve a problem?  Are the versions really close together or far apart?  The main thing that I am looking for isn’t so much that the theme isn’t buggy, but more importantly the theme author knows how to fix things in ways that doesn’t bork the theme.  Multiple, rapid-fire updates (one right on top of another, often fixing the same issues) shows me that the updates are not terribly smooth, and could very well be breaking things.

Features Can Work Against You

WordPress is am amazing platform, especially in its extensibility.  With as open and modular as WordPress is, a crafty developer can make it do all sorts of amazing things.  However, like most things, there is often a big difference between can and should.

I know it can be a little counter-intuitive, but making WordPress do things it is not designed to do (e.g. more than the “normal” functions of a blogging and/or content management system) can have odd side-effects.  In my experience, the more “app-like” a theme is (that is, the more things it does above and beyond “normal” blogging/CMS things), the more failure points it has.  Features might sell more themes, but the reality is that anything above and beyond what you need the theme to do is just a waste at best, and potential failure points at worse.

Case in point, we worked with a client who used a pre-built theme with a TON of features.  Without getting too deep into the weeds, these features were called by “function” names inside of WordPress.  Basically, these functions control all of the core functionality of WordPress, plus anything else you add on to it.  Anyhow, a couple of these function names ended up being used by WordPress in a future update.   So, you had a situation where a WordPress update comes out, the client installs it, and their whole site comes down with a server error.  The client cannot even get into the back-end of the site, all because these function names were fighting one another.   To make things worse, the theme author was not longer supporting their work.  So, for this client, they had a completely dead site, without any backups to go back to.  Their site was dead in the water for three weeks until they got a replacement theme built and up.  This created a ripple effect for them that lasted for over a year.

Look at the Author’s Other Work

Most good theme authors hang around for a while.  If you find a theme you like, the reviews are good, and the comments and changelog are healthy, check out the other work the author has done.  Are the other themes as well-regarded as your theme?  Have they been around for a while?   Have they sold a lot of themes?  Clearly, someone selling over a million dollars in themes either knows that they are doing, or is flooding the marketplace with TONS of garbage.  Sensing the latter should not be terribly hard (and, I doubt that Theme Forest would let these types hang around).   People who are good at what they do tend to stick around.  It is the hacks who always have to keep moving.

To sum up, buying a pre-built theme is not a never-ever sort of affair.  Like most things, if you adjust your expectations, remain flexible, do your homework, and look at it is simply a version of your site (rather than the end all, be all) pre-built themes can solve some specific problems.  And, if one of those problems is just getting a site up so that you can get going, that is a problem very much worth solving.

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