Free WordPress Themes vs Paid Themes

Are free WordPress themes good enough? Maybe. Maybe not.

The vitality of the WordPress community is due in no small part to the excellent customizability and open-source nature of the platform. Nearly anything you want your website to do can be done using WordPress.

As a customizable platform, WordPress lets users change the look and feel of a website through the use of themes. A theme can change the appearance and layout of a site in seconds.

Some themes are provided by the community at no charge. These themes are provided on an as-is basis but are generally flexible enough to create a nice looking design.

Others are only available for a fee.

Free works. Why pay?

Especially for those who are just starting out, the tendency is to opt for something free over something paid. If the free version works, why pay? That’s the thinking.

In fact, that’s pretty solid thinking for anything in the beginning stages. At least it can be.

While buying a WordPress theme may seem like an extra expense to the new blogger, insisting on using a free theme may actually be problematic down the road. 

Questions to consider:

  • Do you need a paid WordPress theme to have a great looking site?
  • Does a paid WordPress theme offer tangible benefits over a free theme?
  • Are there any drawbacks to using free WP themes?
  • Are there any advantages to sticking with free themes?

The free vs paid WordPress theme debate isn’t new, and the answer may not be the same for all users – or for all projects. Is a paid WordPress theme right for you?

Free WordPress Themes

WordPress provides a free theme marketplace inside every WordPress installation. The official WP theme directory can be accessed from your WordPress dashboard by heading over to Appearance > Themes > Add New Theme

Free WordPress themes are a click away inside WordPress

While this isn’t the only place to find great free WordPress themes, it’s certainly the first place you should look. This is the official WordPress theme directory. Themes that appear here have been officially approved by the makers of WordPress and are guaranteed not to bring your site crashing down. 

Before a theme is added to this directory, it’s subjected to a multiple point inspection by the Theme Review team – very much like apps submitted to Android’s “Google Play Store” or the iOS “App Store.” These reviewers act as a buffer between you and anyone who would have you install a half-baked, non-functional theme that could damage your site or steal visitor data.

However, free WordPress themes can be found elsewhere online, and WordPress will accept any theme you choose to upload – even if it is not part of the official theme directory.

Pros of Using Free WordPress Themes

For many, free WordPress themes work just fine. But what gives free themes an advantage over paid themes?

Price is a deciding factor for many. For those who are just starting out, free is an ideal price. Why spend money on something you’re not sure will be anything more than a hobby? Many bloggers start with free themes and move to paid themes later, as their blogs grow and gain a larger following. According to CodeinWP, the average price for a paid theme is over $57. For someone just starting out and without much of a budget, a free WordPress theme may be ideal.

Free themes allow for cheap and quick experimentation. Imagine being able to change your paint color or knock down walls just to see what things look like. If you’re not happy with or tired of your site’s current look, switch it up in a few seconds. Head over to the theme directory in your WordPress dashboard and find one that looks good, click install and activate, and voila!

If you don’t plan to do much customization and just want something to apply and forget, a free theme may work for you. Customization options tend to be limited in free themes, but that can be a bonus for those who don’t plan to play around with options.

The official free theme directory is full of themes that are guaranteed to work. These themes have undergone rigorous testing by the WordPress team.

If you don’t like anything in the official directory, thousands more free themes can be found online at sites like Just Free Themes and MH Themes (and others).

Free WordPress themes tend to be basic and minimalistic which can improve the speed of your WordPress site. While this isn’t true of all free themes, it’s certainly something to consider as you browse.

Because they are basic, free themes tend to be very easy to use. There’s no need to learn what all the fancy widgets and options do – because there usually aren’t any.

Cons of Using Free WordPress Themes

Free is a great price, but free WordPress themes aren’t without their disadvantages, and there are solid reasons for choosing to buy a WordPress theme instead.

Free themes are usually limited and are more difficult to customize. Paid themes often have comprehensive options and menus for customizing colors, fonts, and more. Any theme can be customized by someone comfortable with coding or modifying CSS, but the average user won’t want to bother with such things.

If you want to be unique and stand out, a free theme may not do the trick. These themes have been installed on millions of sites and can leave yours looking rather “same-y.” While they can be customized to an extent, they don’t offer as much to help you stand out from the crowd.

A free theme isn’t come with guaranteed updates. No updates means your site could be vulnerable to security risks and incompatible with future versions of WordPress and your plugins.

Free WordPress themes often come with no support. If you have a problem, you’re often on your own. Support – if any – usually is available through public forums (like the WordPress forum) or from other end users. If the theme breaks or is no longer supported by WordPress, you’ll have to get help from other users who will hopefully be able to resolve your issue.

Free themes vary in quality. Some are badly coded and may not fully support all the features of WordPress. Some are simply broken and cause problems. Others are awesome, but not all are. Be sure to test any theme you install to make sure nothing is broken.

Licenses vary. What you can legally do with the theme may vary from one to the next. Make sure to read the theme’s license.

Why Do People Create Free WordPress Themes?

Unless you eat, sleep and breathe code, WordPress themes aren’t exactly easy to churn out. A lot of work goes into ensuring each component works with each other piece. Hours and hours must be spent planning and designing intricate layouts and integrating them with WordPress.

So why would someone be willing to create themes for free?

In order to demonstrate their expertise and skill, some designers develop WordPress themes for their own portfolios. These portfolios show prospective employers and clients that these designers are worthy of hire.

Providing free content is a great way to build brand recognition. A professional developer may create a few free themes as a way to get the word out about their work in hopes that others will pay for other services.

Some develop free WordPress themes to drive traffic to their own websites. Many free themes have footers or headers with credit links that are not easily edited by the end user. These links often point to the developer’s own website, giving them extra SEO link juice with Google, and other search engines.

Some free WordPress themes are limited versions of more complex, more customizable themes available for sale. The developers of these themes offer a free version in hopes users will want to upgrade to the paid version. These freemium themes offer enough functionality to entice users to pay a little bit to get the paid variant. Upgrading usually grants additional features, like better customization options or advanced layout tools.

Sadly, others create free themes with malicious code to infect websites, steal data and spam search results. This code may do something as “innocent” as creating a link to a joke website or as serious as stealing customer payment details. For this reason, it’s very important to thoroughly vet the creator of a free WordPress theme before installing it on a live site.

Where to Find Free WordPress Themes

The WordPress theme directory is special. All themes found in this directory have been thoroughly tested for compliance with the WordPress design language, code of ethics and more. Essentially, the makers of WordPress test each theme to make sure it works as expected and won’t break a live site.

If you’re looking for a specific feature, the WordPress themes directory has a handy, built-in search and filter.

Search for free WordPress themes right inside your WordPress dashboard

Of course, there are many thousands of themes not found in this directory. Independent developers sometimes choose to host themes on their own websites instead of going through the extensive theme review process required to be listed in the official directory.

Finding these themes is as easy as heading over to your favorite search engine and searching for free WordPress themes. 

Staying Safe with Unofficial Free WordPress Themes

Before you install any theme not vetted by the WordPress team, keep a few things in mind:

Free themes not listed in the directory may have malicious code that could compromise the safety and integrity of your site.

These themes may not look or function as expected due to poor design or code.

Unofficial themes may not be compatible with more recent versions of WordPress or your favorite plugins.

Whether you’re just starting out or have already done considerable work on your WordPress site, it’s best to play it safe. Never install an unofficial theme in which you don’t have 100% confidence.

Do your due diligence and thoroughly research any theme before it touches your live WordPress installation:

Search for reviews of the theme online. Has anyone else installed it? Did they love it? Hate it? Did it break someone’s site?

Install the theme in a testing WordPress installation (i.e. not your main website) and make sure the theme is authentic and safe using one of the many available plugins for this purpose: Theme Authenticity Checker, Exploit Scanner, Theme Check

Check the theme file for viruses with VirusTotal. This free tool will use multiple antivirus engines to scan any file or URL submitted and alert you to a possible infection. While a negative result here does not necessarily mean a theme is safe, this is a good step.

VirusTotal should be used to scan any free WordPress theme not downloaded from the official directory.
VirusTotal is a free, online virus scanner.

Advantages of Paid WordPress Themes

Generally speaking, we like to think we get what we pay for. As awesome as free themes can be, they generally offer very little in the way of customization and support.

Paid, premium themes on the other hand typically offer both.

Unlike their free counterparts, paid themes offer a bit more flexibility and peace of mind. If you buy a theme, you’re also paying for:

  • Support should anything go wrong
  • Updates to patch security holes and ensure compatibility with future versions of WordPress
  • More customization options
  • A smaller risk of being compromised by malicious code
  • Better odds that your theme will work with industry standard plugins like Yoast, Jetpack, MonsterInsights, etc.
  • A design that is more unique than a free theme.

If these things are important to you, a paid WordPress theme may be your best option.

Disadvantages of Paid WordPress Themes

As great as paid themes can be, they aren’t without their drawbacks.

Paid themes can be expensive. The average price of a premium theme is over $50 USD. If you’re just starting out, that’s not exactly chump change and is something to be considered.

Some paid themes require plugins that you may not have and may not want to use.

Too many options can make setting up and maintaining your WordPress theme more of a chore. While the ability to customize and change things to your liking can be good, having to wade through pages of checkboxes and settings may make your head spin.

Sadly, some paid themes are poorly designed. They may look great on the front end, but internally they’re a mess. Of course, you don’t know just how bad the mess is until you buy it. At that point, you have to either live with it or get a refund.

Only Buy WordPress Themes from Trusted Sources

Paid WordPress themes, like their free counterparts, are just a web search away. But, like their free cousins, paid themes should only be acquired from trusted sources.

A good theme seller:

  • Provides help as needed
  • Is willing to refund your purchase if you aren’t happy
  • Consistently updates the theme to ensure compatibility with future WordPress version and popular plugins

Before buying a WordPress theme, do a little homework.

Read reviews. Have others purchased this theme? How was their experience? Do they love it? Hate it?

Look for a refund policy. If you aren’t happy, can you get your money back? What assurance do you have that you aren’t going to be wasting your money?

Can you contact the seller easily? Is it easy to get in touch if you need help?

Does the seller respond to help requests? Do you see the seller responding to requests for help and ensuring buyers have what they need?

Trusted WordPress Theme Sellers

While there are many paid WordPress theme sellers on the web, I cannot and will not recommend any I don’t have absolute assurance can provide the level of quality and service I would expect.

If you’re looking for paid, premium themes, I recommend starting with these sellers. Obviously, if you don’t see anything there that you like, more are a simple web search away.

RocketTheme

RocketTheme provides templates for WordPress, Joomla, and the Grav CMS.

RocketTheme is makes beautiful paid WordPress themes.

StudioPress

StudioPress offers more than templates, but their templates are excellent. Many of my peers swear by them.

StudioPress sells paid WordPress themes but at premium prices.

Theme Forest

ThemeForest is one of the Envato marketplaces (alongside ActiveDen, VideoHive, CodeCanyon, AudioJungle, GraphicRiver, and 3DOcean). When buying from a marketplace like Envato, you’re afforded a few additional protections that you might not otherwise have. Envato allows sellers to sell on their platform, and if a seller doesn’t live up to his end of the bargain, Envato may get involved.

ThemeForest is a marketplace of theme sellers.
Read reviews, scroll through thumbnails and filter by seller.

Should You Use Paid WordPress Themes?

The decision to use a free theme vs a paid theme goes beyond appearance. A site using a free theme can look just as beautiful as one with a paid theme. Whether you opt for a free option or a paid offering depends more on your long term goals.

Free WordPress themes work well for those who:

  • Just need to get words on the web
  • Don’t care much how the site looks
  • Won’t need or want to customize much of anything
  • Don’t want to spend money
  • Don’t need help if something breaks

Paid WordPress Themes are better for people who:

  • Want as many customization options as possible
  • Are running a business site and want to stand out
  • Need support if something goes wrong
  • Want advanced features not available in a free theme

Whether or not you should use paid WordPress themes depends largely on you and your goals for your website. Are you building a simple personal blog? Then a free theme is probably best for you. Will you be building something more professional? Then a paid theme may be what you need.

Free vs Paid WordPress Themes

Should you buy a WordPress theme, or will a free theme work fine for you? Consider the pros and cons of each type: free and paid. Consider the type of site you want to build, and think about your long-term goals.

Even free themes can be made to look beautiful, and many offer even advanced functionality that is enough for the vast majority of users. If customization is your thing, though,

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