WordPress is popular for a lot of reasons: it’s versatile, easy to use, and it has a supportive and helpful community.
And the fact that it’s 100% free doesn’t hurt! Anyone can start a WordPress.com blog without paying a cent.
Of course, for more flexibility and complete ownership of your blog, as well as a more professional appearance, you need to invest in your own domain and WordPress web hosting.
And the same goes for themes. A new or casual blogger will be just fine with a WordPress.com blog, or with sticking with free themes indefinitely.
But if you want your blog to have a more professional appearance, you may want to consider investing in a premium WordPress theme.
It’s true that both free and premium themes run the gamut from low- to high-quality, and they each have their pros and cons.
But using free themes comes with certain risks – and they may cost you more than they claim.
Free WordPress themes: pros & cons
The main benefit of free themes, of course, is that they’re free!
There are a few other benefits, too:
- Themes on the WordPress.org directory are easy to install. Themes that are listed on the WordPress.org directory can be easily found and installed with one click right from your dashboard.
- Free themes are generally simple and easy to use. There are no advanced features to configure, so setup is usually quick.
- You can try themes out and change your mind without wasting money. If you don’t like it, you’re not losing anything by switching to another theme.
But there are quite a few possible downsides to using free themes.
Of course, every developer and theme is different, and there are some high-quality free themes out there. Unfortunately, they’re in the minority.
- Aren’t unique. Your site will look like MANY others across the web, and visitors might confuse your site with others using the same theme.
- Are unsupported, so you’re on your own if you need help with any problems that arise.
- Are usually simple and basic and don’t include advanced functionality, so you may need to invest in premium plugins for special features instead.
- Are more likely to be abandoned, leaving you with an out-of-date theme that’s incompatible with the latest WordPress updates or your favorite plugins.
- Can include unwanted code, such as footer links to the developer’s site, or even spammy links.
- Are sometimes designed to be purposely difficult to modify, by hiding files in nonstandard places, or encrypting or obfuscating code so it can’t be modified.
- Can be dangerous and unsafe, possibly spreading malware or viruses. This is rare, but it’s still a risk.
Free WordPress themes can harm your site
It’d be great if all free WordPress themes were provided by designers and developers who just wanted to share their creations, practice their craft, or publicize their services.
But that’s unfortunately not always the case.
Sometimes, free WordPress themes are released with more malicious intentions:
Developers who are looking to hack into WordPress sites might release a theme that makes it easier to hack sites that install it, by creating “backdoors” in the code that they can easily exploit. Or, black-hat SEOs might create a theme that injects spammy links into your website that are difficult to remove.
Some themes use tactics to obfuscate or encrypt their code so that it can’t be read, making it difficult or impossible to get rid of the spammy links or malicious code. This can leave your site to be penalized by Google, possibly removed from search results entirely.
To be on the safe side, if you decide to use a free theme, stick with the WordPress.org directory, and choose a theme that’s been updated recently with good reviews. Consider using a service like Sucuri to make sure the theme is safe and won’t damage your site or your visitors.
Should you invest in a premium theme?
If you’re just getting started with WordPress, or you aren’t sure yet what kind of look or features you want in a theme, it might be a good idea to start with a simple theme from the WordPress.org directory.
But if you’re concerned about having a professional-looking website that stand out from the crowd, I’d highly recommend investing in a premium theme. This is especially true if you’re looking to blog professionally, or are blogging for a business.
Of course, like free themes, the specific features and benefits will depend on the individual theme and developer.
But in general, premium themes:
- Include customer support, so you can get help installing and customizing the theme and resolving any issues that arise.
- Are well-coded, which can affect your SEO in various ways. Well-coded sites tend to rank higher in search results for various reasons.
- Have more advanced features. Premium themes often include extras like drag-and-drop interfaces, premium plugins, easy customizations, etc.
- Don’t look the same as every other WordPress site. You might share a premium theme with a dozen other sites, instead of a thousand.
- Are updated more often, so they’ll stay compatible with the WordPress core updates and your favorite plugins.
- Are safer and won’t have malicious or hidden code.
How to choose a premium theme
Just because you’re paying money for a theme, that doesn’t guarantee it’ll come with all the benefits listed above. It’s also possible (though less likely) for premium themes to be abandoned, poorly coded, or have poor support.
It’s just as important to perform due diligence when deciding on a premium theme.
To choose a good premium theme:
- Make a list of your requirements. Do you need certain features for your website? Many premium themes come with advanced features or even include premium plugins you might need for your site.
- Browse premium themes. Try a reputable marketplace like Theme Forest, or consider a framework like Genesis.
- Research the developer. Take some time to check out reviews of the theme developer. Are they reputable? How long have they been around? How is their customer support? Reach out to the developer to ask any questions you might have.
- Review the pricing structure. Some premium themes charge a one-time fee, while others might charge an ongoing membership fee. Carefully read the terms and make sure you know exactly what you’re getting for the price.
With a premium theme you usually have access to better support and on most occasions, more features.
That said, there are some great free WordPress themes around. Just make sure that you download them from a trusted source like WordPress.org.