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WordPress has become an increasingly popular Content Management System (CMS) since it was first released to the public in 2003. Its flexibility, ease of use, and constant updates make it a solid choice for many different websites, both small and large. It is estimated that 20% of all self-hosted websites are powered by WordPress and it boasts over 63% market share among all CMS platforms.
The formatting, interaction, styling, and organization of a WordPress website are all based on the Theme, a collection of files that interact with the engine and database that power WordPress. Depending on the Theme, features can range from the ability to change color schemes to adding extreme full-page graphical elements. There is a Theme available for every website need.
What To Look For in a WordPress Theme?
With all the different options available, it makes it easier to find a Theme for your website if you have a few guidelines in mind. While there may be specific options that you are looking for based on the purpose of your site like a magazine or forum, there may be other considerations to take into account.
Consider Your (or Your Team’s) Technical Ability
When considering what WordPress Theme to implement, the first consideration should always be the level of technical ability it takes to add posts and pages to your website. If you are an individual that consistently maintains your site by yourself, you need to be sure that either you are able to understand how the Theme works, or be able to spend the time learning it.
In an organization, plan for what individual or department will have hands-on access to the WordPress interface. Make sure they have experience with WordPress – DEV department members may not get the nuances of layout, and graphic designers may not be able to find settings that would make their design choices feasible.
Some themes have so many different options available that creating and editing anything more than a text post can become overwhelming. If this is not what you are looking for, try to find simple themes that are focused on the basic WordPress platform instead of adding too many bells and whistles. The default themes Twenty Twenty and Twenty Nineteen are solid performers with clean layouts.
An important part of any theme is the way that it formats the layout of your website. If it doesn’t look good, what’s the point?
Where the navigation sits, a splash screen or hero image, or even the way that thumbnails sit over excerpts of the linked blog post, are just a fraction of the differences in how a WordPress theme handles the content that it translates.
When looking at previews of a theme, it is important to understand that you will not see the same thing that they advertise once you enable the theme on your WordPress site. The posts may look the same other than a few color choices, but the pages (especially the home page) will not have the same level of customization that their examples do.
To attain the same visual level as their examples, you may need to download a set of pre-configured template pages and edit them with your own content. If you have the technical ability, you will be able to recreate (or surpass) their examples without templates, just don’t expect your pages to look like their examples out of the box.
Customization can be important for many WordPress users, and as Theme coding has become more advanced, so have the different options available. Prebuilt layouts are very popular, as is the ability to use shortcodes to insert specific options in layout design.
The most common “value-add” for WordPress Themes is usually the addition of a plugin or two, generally an image slider or page builder. Do not choose a Theme solely on the basis of these being included! There are many free plugin options available for both, and if the theme that includes them is a paid version that suddenly drops support, you will not be able to renew any paid license for the bundled plugins.
Other advanced options may include built-in compatibility with popular add-ons such as WooCommerce, AAWP (an Amazon Affiliate advertising platform), and other plugins. Basic themes may need coding customization to be able to use these plugins because of the back-end code required to make them work.
Page Builders and Block Libraries
WordPress is built on a simple premise; enter data into the appropriate area, and the engine will translate that into code that shows on a browser. It has, however, always been open to plugins that add additional options to its core functionality. Two different options, page builders and block libraries, have emerged to help website builders add features they would otherwise have to code by hand.
WordPress Page Builders
Page builders add an additional level of control to the WordPress platform, allowing you to go beyond the current Gutenberg editor limitations with drag-and-drop functionality and advanced layout possibilities, sometimes allowing pixel-level definitions of where layout segments will appear on the page.
At first glance, the idea of a page builder is very attractive. The ability to easily add content in a specific layout without any coding knowledge sounds fantastic, but without really knowing the limitations of your specific page builder, it may not turn out as you expect.
Each page builder plugin has to adhere to certain coding rules within both WordPress and browsers like Chrome and Edge, so they cannot act as a fully-fledged piece of desktop software. Limitations on server speed and memory can also limit page builders since they run off the same server as the website does.
Some Page Builder Examples:
In addition, without specific settings or coding modifications, a page builder can add additional loading time to a page or post. Google uses page speed as a ranking factor, so this is something to pay attention to.
WordPress Block Libraries
With the advent of the Gutenberg Editor, WordPress has switched from the original Visual Editor, where content editing was performed in one region, into many different blocks. This has allowed programmers to create ready-made blocks to add functionality and formatting that would have been previously added via shortcodes.
You can add block library plugins to your WordPress installation for added features such as Google Maps, full-width hero images, recent posts with thumbnails, or simply adding more formatting options to headers and content text.
Some of the most popular block libraries are:
If you do not need the drag-and-drop functionality of a page builder, you might consider using a block library instead. If you have the development skills available, building your own customized blocks is also an option.
Selecting and implementing a WordPress theme can take some time to get right, so don’t try to rush it. You may end up testing multiple themes before nailing down one that is perfect for your website.
For help with page design and formatting, page builders and block libraries can add additional functionality to WordPress, but try to avoid packing too many 3rd party tools into your installation. The additional code can slow down your site, creating a poor user experience, and potentially keeping it from ranking as high as possible.