WordPress is by far one of the best, if not the best, blogging platform available today. Its ease of use and thousands of theme and plugin options make the possibilities almost endless. The power and versatility of WordPress means it can be used for everything from a personal blog to a Fortune 500 website. At the same time though choosing just the right theme or plugins from this vast sea can be confusing and daunting and most often you will end up trying multiple options with varying results. This post is going to assume that you already have WordPress hosting setup and configured.
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Choosing A WordPress Theme
So you just installed WordPress, and you are now asking yourself what next. The first step to getting going is selecting a theme. One of the greatest benefits of WordPress is that there are thousands of readily available themes scattered across the Internet. Some are free (many directly available right from the WordPress.org website) and some are “premium“, meaning you will have to pay anywhere from a couple dollars to over a hundred dollars depending on what your goals are. With so many options to choose from, how do you go about selecting the right WordPress theme.
What is your blog’s purpose?
The first step in choosing a theme is knowing what the purpose of your blog is. I know this sounds a little silly, but stop for a second to think about what you plan to blog about. Is your blog for personal or business? Are you selling a product or service? Do you want to build a community around your blog? Are you posting random thoughts? Is it to showcase your photos or videos? Or is it a combination of articles, videos, photos, and whatever else?
How you answer these questions will ultimately help you narrow down your search for the right theme.
If you have already started looking for a theme, you have probably already seen the term responsive used to describe some of the themes. If you are wondering exactly what it means when a theme is responsive, it simply means that the theme will automatically adjust the look and feel of the site based on the device you are using (i.e. desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile). Since your readers will most likely visit your site from a multitude of different devices, it is highly recommended to have a theme that will look just as good on a mobile phone as it does on a desktop.
With the thousands of themes available it is inevitable that some will be designed by developers with years of experience designing and programming WordPress themes and some, unfortunately, will be developed by “first-timers”. While this is by no means a discount to the efforts or quality of work of first-time theme developers, not being taking the time or being familiar with all the nuances of WordPress development can lead to poor design or poor coding. So how do you tell ahead of time? Look for themes released by developers who actively support and engage with the community using their themes. You can also look for developers who are actively developing new themes.
But what does this all have to do with a theme being “SEO Friendly”? Properly structured code and use of HTML elements allows search engines to easily navigate and understand the pages of your blog. In turn having a properly developed theme will only increase your search engine visibility.
Free vs. Premium Themes
Deciding whether to use a free or premium WordPress theme can ultimately come down to whether you are willing to spend the money or not. My personal recommendation, is to purchase a theme. A premium WordPress theme will usually come with some access to the developer, whether via email or phone, for support issues. Also, because others have also spent money on the same theme, the developer has more incentive to continue to develop and support that particular theme. This is not to discount the quality of some of the free themes available, it is only a general observation. In addition, premium themes tend to have many more features and are much more user-friendly in terms of getting your blog to look the way you want it to.
On the flip-side, some premium themes can tend to be a bit more complex and difficult for the novice to use. This is more true with themes that designed for businesses or with magazine/newspaper appearances. The developers tend to pack so many features into the theme that navigating them all can be a labyrinth of settings. However, if the purpose of your blog is directed at these markets I reiterate my suggestion for a premium theme as you will have a much better experience and your readers will thank you.
As you sort through the available themes both free and premium there is no doubt you will be overwhelmed with the number and variations of features that each theme offers. So what do you look for here and quickly weed out the ones worth further exploration? First, go back to the answers to your questions regarding the purpose of your blog? What is your goal and who is your audience? For example, if you plan on primarily sharing videos or photos with your readers you are going to want to look for a theme that is optimized for displaying them. On the other hand, if you are looking to create a site for your business and use WordPress to manage the content of that site, you will want to find a theme that is geared towards that.
The quickest way to narrow down the themes based on features is to only focus on the themes within the category of readers you are looking to target. Once you have the themes available narrowed down by the category it will be a little easier to begin sorting through them. Look at a bunch to get an idea of what is available. Check out the demos (Pro-tip: if you are on the WordPress.org site looking for themes find the link to the theme’s homepage and use the demo there. The demos available through the WordPress.org site don’t always tend to work properly and can give a false idea of what the theme is or how it will look.).
As you search through themes you will notice headlines like “100s of shortcodes” or “unlimited widget areas”. Shortcodes are essentially quick ways to embed code, photos, media or other options directly within your posts or theme. Shortcodes take the guess work out of having to figure out formatting or having to modify the underlying code to get the look you want. If you know your site will be embedding content from around the web, you may look for themes that support or have added shortcodes for embedding things you find on the Internet.
Widgets are chunks of code that also perform a pre-defined function. If you look down the right-hand side of this blog you will see things like Categories, Pages, or Tags. These are all widgets. WordPress comes with multiple widgets pre-installed and many plugins add additional widgets that you can use within your theme. This theme has 7 widget areas that I can insert any widgets into. A widget area can contain many widgets. For example, the right sidebar of this page is one widget area with many widgets. On the other hand the footer of this page includes 5 widget areas.
Unless you want a plain-text blog you most likely will want a theme with a few widget areas and some shortcodes.
If you are targeting photos you most likely want a theme that is Retina-ready, however, that is not a absolute necessity as there are plugins that can assist you with this if you find a theme that is not.
Post Types and Post Formats
This is one of the most often confused terminologies in WordPress that I can think of. A Post Type is a very specific format for a “post” and often times refers to what you may not associate a post with. For example, the JetPack plugin that comes with WordPress allows you to insert a contact form into your blog. When someone fills that contact form out they are actually creating a post to your blog. The form is a post type and the resulting contact request is a post of that type.
On the other hand, a post format is simply a variation to the formatting of a specific post. WordPress includes 10 default post formats (Standard, Audio, Aside, Chat, Gallery, Image, Link, Quote, Status, and Video). WordPress allows you to customize the appearance of a post to your readers based on a post format. So for example, a video post format will be optimized for videos, whereas a quote post format might only show the reader the quote as there is no need for a title or anything else.
Each theme handles post formats differently. Some have specific formatting for each post format, while others will include some and not others, and others will only support a standard post format (i.e. just a text post). Having a theme that is able to support and format multiple post formats can be valuable, even if you do not think you need it right away.
Self-hosted vs. WordPress.com Hosting
The choice of a theme is also limited by where your blog is hosted. If you are self-hosting, then your choices are vast. If you are using WordPress.com for your hosting, you will be limited to themes that are available there.
Without knowing the purpose of your WordPress site and without knowing if you are looking for a free or premium theme it is tough to make a specific recommendation for your use. If you are just getting started, my suggestion is to look through the free themes available directly through the WordPress.org theme gallery. Take a look at some of them and download a few. Play around with them and get an idea of what you like and don’t like. This will assist in better understanding the feature sets available and will give you experience with installing and configuring a theme.
A Responsive WordPress Theme
If you are looking for a simple theme for your blog that is responsive and easily customized, I suggest The Boot. The Boot is the theme I am using on this blog. It is designed for an individual blogger. Fonts, colors, and layouts can all be easily configured through the WordPress Dashboard. The best part of The Boot, is that I developed it for myself and I continue to build upon the core. I am offering it inexpensively at $15 and you will have lifetime upgrades/fixes as well as direct access to me through email for any and all support questions. Looking for a little extra? I also offer a package deal that includes the theme as well as 2 hours of hands on customizing and assistance via phone/email to get you started. Check out the features and Get The Boot Today!
This is the first post in my How to Use WordPress series. The next post will cover installing your new theme and selecting/installing plugins. In the meantime, the floor is open in the comments below for any questions and discussion. If you liked this article please let me know here or follow me on Twitter @jeffmould.
For help with WordPress if I can suggest a helpful book that got me started with WordPress development: Professional WordPress: Design and Development
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