My rant on Premium WordPress Themes

It’s been a while since I was thinking of writing about my experience with Premium WordPress themes. This post is not about criticizing a particular developer or theme company. It is about the way premium WP themes are built, marketed and sold. All of that is usually done in a wrong way by many theme developers and companies. Not to mention, themes by Elegant Themes, WooThemes or Justin Tadlock’s ThemeHybrid are great!

So, what goes wrong with most of the Premium WordPress themes in the market?

Almost all the themes in the market are sold with some flowery promises and some solid claims that they fail to fulfill. To list the most common ones:

  1. Search Engine Optimized
  2. Fast Loading
  3. Clean Code
  4. Theme Options
  5. Short Codes
  6. Lifetime Upgrades and Support

I have worked with hundreds of WP users who were using some premium theme from a marketplace or a theme company which ended up putting them into troubles. Every time I looked at the theme code, I found out how it was affecting the performance, search engine rankings and bloating the database despite of all their promises as above.

Best way to help out such users was to move them to reliable and rock solid frameworks like Thesis, Genesis or get some theme from WooThemes. Yes, even being into Thesis customization for years I have helped people move to Genesis or WooThemes. Reason, either they had a limited budget or they were short on deadlines. StudioPress offers a wide variety of themes to choose from and it helped clients save both on time and money. Same was the case with WooThemes. I never faced any plugin compatibility issues with either of these themes and hardly had to reach out to support forums.

Now, getting back to the rant! I will share my personal experience with all the points that I have mentioned above.

Search Engine Optimized:

This is probably the best way to market a theme. Who in this world wide web won’t like to get on to the first page of search results? Everyone would. So, all themes must be presented as “Search Engine Optimized” even when they are not.

I got a request to make few tweaks to a site and client also wished to know if there is something that could be done to improve search engine rankings. Though I am not an SEO expert, I have fairly good knowledge of how things should exist. I had a quick look at the theme structure and was surprised to see that so called “Search Engine Optimized” Premium WordPress theme was using H1 tags for all the headings on front page and inner pages. H1 tags with font size attributes and I wondered why they didn’t use H2, H3, H4 tags? Right from slide titles,  section titles to post titles everything was wrapped in H1 tags. Even the footer widget titles had H1 tags. And I have nothing more to say about it.

Fast Loading:

Another promise that goes hand-in-hand with Search Engine Optimization.

Your site loads fast that means Google loves it and so does your visitors.

With all beautiful looks and cool scrolling, sliding effects many themes load a lot of stylesheet and JavaScript files in the HEAD section. Affecting the loading time to a great extent. Talking about use of CSS sprites is a dreamy thing.

This particular WP theme claimed it to be a fast loading theme. But, it had a slider on front page, rotating testimonials and a smooth scroll navigation for recent blog posts. To my surprise, all these used different JavaScript code and files. Slider was built using FlexSlider and I see no need of using anything else for testimonials or blog post navigation because FlexSlider itself is capable enough of handling all these.

Clean Code:

Well, most users don’t really care about this because they hardly need to dive into code. Even when they get stuck they prefer hiring a developer. And these premium themes then become a pain for other developers. Their code is neither well indented nor commented. You need to keep browsing some 3-5 different function files and figure out what’s where.

Clean code is yet another dream. I worked on a theme that was purchased by the client from a marketplace. Looking at the theme files, I was amazed that it had tens of files which I never ever heard of. Some files created additional tables in DB. Some had option settings, others had custom post types and what not. There was no reference of what’s where. No documentation that described the theme structure and all the custom functionality that came along. Spending time on making the changes and fixing it was completely useless. Finally, I helped the client make a switch to Agency theme by StudioPress.

Theme Options:

This is something very appealing for every user because it looks like they have complete control over the theme’s look and feel. Theme options allow the users to change colors, font styles, background patterns and a million other things. But, that looks good only till you get your hands dirty playing around with million options trying to figure out the best combinations for your site design.

Here is what WP.org says: 

Great software should work with little configuration and setup.

And every theme developer MUST go through this section on WP.org. Here is a sneak peek of what I am referring to:

Decisions not Options

When making decisions these are the users we consider first. A great example of this consideration is software options. Every time you give a user an option, you are asking them to make a decision. When a user doesn’t care or understand the option this ultimately leads to frustration. As developers we sometimes feel that providing options for everything is a good thing, you can never have too many choices, right? Ultimately these choices end up being technical ones, choices that the average end user has no interest in. It’s our duty as developers to make smart design decisions and avoid putting the weight of technical choices on our end users.

Theme options create confusion for users in the first place rather than adding the convenience of customization. Many themes don’t even care about using data validation and sanitation.

My most recent terrible experience was with a client using a Hotel theme with booking engine for his website. This theme had “Room Types” controlled by Theme Options in a strange manner, then the featured image for each “Room Type” was controlled by another option even when there was an “insert image” option available for Room Type’s settings. Moreover, this theme created extra DB tables to keep track of bookings.

Short codes:

An attractive incentive for users to showcase their content using accordions, sliders, tabbed content sections, colored buttons, info/alert boxes and lot more. All that looks good only till the user continues to use the existing theme. What if he/she needs to make a switch to other theme? Go back and edit all pages, posts?

This article by Justin Tadlock sums it up.

Lifetime Upgrades and Support:

Let’s get practical here, lifetime upgrades and support depends on the product life-cycle. Theme companies end up with so many themes in their collection that they eventually stop developing/upgrading some old themes and that’s the end of product life-cycle. So, lifetime upgrades and support is a flowery promise. While there are many developers who like to stick with their promise and continue to provide regular upgrades for their themes. It’s all about how lucky you get to pick up the right theme from the market.

There is a huge scope of improvement in many premium themes in the market. While some themes have already reached a maturity level with rock solid, well documented, optimized code and these are the themes that work really well, adhere to the promises that the developers/companies make and get all the love from customers and community.

If I were to build a theme, I would make it a “Zero Options Theme“. Install it, activate it, use it. 

If you are a WP user, developer I would love to hear your thoughts about WP themes.

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{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Mohit Pawar January 1, 2013, 1:13 am

    Puneet,

    Good one.
    Many of your observations are spot on.

    WP themes in general are also more bloated these days if you compare to early days.
    I have been using WP since 2005. At that point and for many years after than WP was used for blogging. And then came WP focus on scale and giving more to users. This helped many – but not the majority. Because majority of users still do not want to use WP as CMS – they just want a simple blogging tool.

    Sliders and other gimmicks do not help – they hurt in fact. I guide a big brand with their technology and digital efforts. One of their websites (100,000+ uniques per month) used a slider on homepage. I asked the in-house to remove it. A static home page with single focus did a ton of good for conversions.

    Back to WP focus to compete with full blown CMSes like Drupal, EE etc. – it will continue to bloat. They may write “Great software should work with little configuration and setup.” But ultimately they need to compete with other players – that is how they are positioned now.

    And that is why people who know dev are moving to static site generators like Jekyll.
    Of course – there is no excuse for bad code and processes. But such people will continue to exists.

    It is up to people like you – who know and care – to create right environment – by writing, connecting and educating. This piece is a good start :)

    Wish you a great start to the new year :)

    - mohit

    Reply
  • Jason HJH January 12, 2013, 10:15 pm

    I’m considering getting a premium theme. Do you have any recommendations if I wish to avoid coding and am willing to pay fairly for a service that works? SEO-optimised etc. (I don’t expect it to bump me to 1st search result naturally because I think those depends on the keywords you choose, etc)

    Reply
    • Puneet January 30, 2013, 4:40 pm

      Hi Jason!
      Pick a theme that fits your requirements. You can go for Thesis 2.0 or Genesis. Both these themes are known for their SEO features. Or if you are looking for some other options then you can also consider themehybrid.com

      Reply

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Hello!

Puneet Sahalot I am Puneet, a freelance WordPress developer with over three years of experience. I build websites and blogs using Thesis framework.

I built the first responsive Thesis 2.0 skin and was featured on WMPU.org. When not writing code, I love traveling and clicking photographs. Read more.

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