Free Theme or Premium Template

Free or Premium Theme? Or a Custom Template?

There are thousands of ready-made themes for common content management systems. Whether for WordPress, Joomla, or Typo3 — many of them are look pretty good at first glance. But the devil’s in the detail: Oftentimes, you can’t see right away if the themes are

  • fast
  • functional
  • customizable

or not. That’s why I want to use this post to give you a brief introduction to the world of themes.

What Is a Theme?

Themes are also known as templates. This is the preferred terminology in the content management systems Joomla and Typo3. In WordPress on the other hand, they’re generally referred to as themes. WordPress also happens to be the website content management system with the largest number of ready-made themes. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter if you call it a theme or a template, any reasonably proficient website owner will understand that you’re talking about (pre-programmed) designs.

Themes are the interface between the file system on the server and the content management system used to edit and save the content and settings of your page in a (MySQL) database. So your theme is responsible for your website’s look and feel and merges design files (so-called style sheets) with your content to provide the finished website, blog, or web shop. It also determines the look and usability of your website. The theme’s compatibility is also responsible for the loading time and the SEO.

There are three types of themes:

  1. free themes
  2. paid ‘premium themes’
  3. custom themes

All of these themes may be developed professionally, but not necessarily so. The quality of a theme greatly depends on the theme programmer’s level of skill and their budget. A good theme straddles the divide between a unique design, the required functionality, and top performance.

Do You Need a Premium Theme?

Premium themes may sound good at first, but aren’t necessarily better than free themes: They’re just as likely to have bugs as a free WordPress theme.

Premium themes generally offer a greater level of support than free themes, but this may not always turn out to be the constructive help you need and expect from time to time. Support for premium themes is often just as bad as for free themes. Take the extremely popular Enfold theme for example: It only offers a help forum, but no way to ask questions directly — although you’re paying for a premium theme with support. Many free themes provide a comparable level of support. If a theme doesn’t cost you anything, then support via a help forum is fine, but if bad support comes with a price tag attached, I’d generally advise against a premium theme.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Free Themes

Free themes usually have the advantage of being very lean and of being developed for a very specific purpose. As a result, they’re often very fast, but on the other hand, many of them are pretty inflexible.

There are hardly any quality standards for free themes, so you’re downloading the proverbial pig in a poke. You won’t know how suitable your theme actually is until you start setting it up.

The Problem with Premium Themes

The same applies to premium themes: Before you start setting it up, it’s hard to tell how good a theme really is. However, most theme marketplaces have quality requirements that authors have to adhere to before their themes can be published. On the marketplace themeforest, for example, nothing goes online before being thoroughly checked beforehand.

But then you also have the problem that premium themes are usually completely overloaded with different features. Developers or providers do this to provide the greatest possible degree of customization, so they can make as much money as possible off of each theme. But the amount of data required for this can unnecessarily slow down your new website, blog, or shop. That’s why one of the first things you do when you test a free or premium theme should be:

Use tools such as Google’s Page Speed Insights to find out if the theme is considered fast. To do so, open the demo of the theme, close the frame with the ‘purchase’ button (if applicable) and copy-paste the URL onto the speed test page.

Enfold Demo Screenshot
Remove the frame (upper right corner) before testing, screenshot from kriesi.at

Ideally, it should score at least 85 points. But since most theme previews aren’t optimized for performance with a cache, there may be cases where a PageSpeed of 75 is sufficient to achieve 85 points with an active cache.

AI also recommend testing how the theme is displayed on mobile devices (e.g. smartphones): The Mobile Friendly Test by Google tests whether the search engine recognizes the ‘responsive design’ as such. The selected theme should be 100% “mobile-friendly”.

The speed and mobile-friendliness of your theme also have a significant effect on its SEO-friendliness. But there can also be incompatibilities with the metadata if the theme doesn’t support SEO Plugins and tries to provide its own SEO — which often misfires. The best thing is to test it yourself: Without setting up the theme and the SEO plugin, you can’t really tell if a ready-made theme really works the way you want it to. In some cases, you may have to tinker with your ready-made theme to make it compatible with your SEO plugin.

Which Features You Really Need…

… obviously depends on your individual needs. To give you an objective means of comparison when researching themes, I recommend that you note down which features you really need, what else is important and what is nice-to-have. The best approach is list the important points in a multi-column table, make a shortlist of themes in a row, and then tick off the points that apply to each theme. Take your time researching and don’t just pick the first theme that comes along.

If you can’t find a theme that exactly fulfills your requirements, you should be aware that every customization of an existing theme takes time (both for free and premium themes). Depending on the quality of the theme and the required modifications, it might even be quicker and easier to develop your own theme. Because programmers and designers have to find their way around the theme first and that can take a while.

Arguments in Favor of a Custom Theme

Developing your own theme isn’t rocket science. Even with my modest programming skills and a bit of help from our developers Christian and Felix, I managed to build our own site from scratch: I can program CSS style sheets and understand a bit of HTML, PHP and JavaScript code when I see it.

The biggest advantage of having a custom theme is already suggested by the adjective: you can design and develop it precisely according to your individual needs. That way, you can achieve maximum individuality, performance and search engine optimization.

I would always recommend having your own custom theme. Because every ready-made theme looks mass-produced to me, and I think it’s a bad idea for a company’s image to present oneself unprofessionally online. It’s just like one of the cheap business cards that you get for ‘free’ from shady online printing services — they just look amateurish and f***ing terrible.

Tips for Custom Themes

So ideally you should create a custom theme. Since I’m most used to working with WordPress, here are a few tips for the WordPress CMS — but other content management systems work in a similar fashion:

The best way to start is to use a ‘blank’ theme such as underscores.me. These mostly unstyled themes have the advantage that they’re already optimized for WordPress and are very lean, so that they’re easier to customize and optimize for performance that a ready-made WordPress theme.

If you like, you can add a visual editor such as Visual Composer or Elementor to the blank theme. We don’t use a visual editor on our own page because all of our employees have at least some coding skills, and without it we save an extra little bit of loading time. Our WordPress Framework that we use to provide websites via the Munich-based advertising agency Commosso, on the other hand, features a visual editor to assist even beginners in creating multi-column and multimedia content.

Theme Marketplaces

There are countless platforms and marketplaces where you can download and license pre-programmed designs. The most important of all the platforms is the official WordPress Theme Directory. As far as I know, other CMSs don’t have an official directory. TemplateMonster and themeforest offer thousands of premium themes for all major CMSs.

What do you think about free, premium and custom themes? Let me know in the comments!

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