How NOT to Pick a Mobile-responsive WordPress Theme

Wild, Wild West 1970s TV show scene

How NOT to Pick a Mobile-responsive WordPress Theme

As a solopreneur communications strategist I needed to update my website to a simple, responsive WordPress theme with an attractive portfolio layout.

Little did I know that the marketplace for WordPress themes has become the Wild, Wild West. There are thousands upon thousands of WordPress themes (templates) available. And there are a lot of dogs with bad coding out there.

Here are some lessons about picking a good WordPress theme, so you can learn from my horrible, horrible mistakes.

1. Decide on key factors that will make your site work for both you and your users.

In setting parameters, I decided my theme needed to

  • be mobile-responsive,
  • portray my portfolio attractively to prospects,
  • easily accommodate the look and feel of my existing site, which I wanted to retain,
  • be simple to administer,
  • not look outdated in two years, and
  • be intuitive for users to navigate, including those not familiar with the fixed (sticky) header and parallax scrolling effects that are so popular.

2. Look at competitors’ websites.

A web developer offered me this advice and I wish I’d taken it. This is probably a good way to steer clear of the loads of WordPress themes that are poorly coded, hard to work with or not compliant with SEO best practices.

You probably have colleagues you admire or business competitors you want to best. Select some that are roughly the same size as your business and snoop on their website themes.

Do this by looking at the CSS coding (cascading style sheets). Right click anywhere on the site page and select Inspect Element or properties. Then search the page for the term “stylesheet,” and look for a link that shows the WordPress theme.

For my old site, I had the EcoPro theme. Here’s how that theme showed up in the CSS under Inspect Element:

<link rel=”stylesheet” href=”/wp-content/themes/EcoPro/core/css/reset.css” type=”text/css” media=”screen”>

Here’s another site, with the Photo Me theme: <link rel=”stylesheet” id=”reset-css-css” href=”http://pktguitars.com/wp-content/themes/photome/css/reset.css” type=”text/css” media=”all”>

3. Shop for WordPress themes you like, but vet them carefully.

ThemeForest is one place I looked. It houses over 5,000 WordPress themes, and I know one independent who likes one she found there. But I know another who had a problem with a theme literally breaking. That site had to be completely rebuilt using another theme. And the theme I initially chose there also had insurmountable problems. (Read more posts in this series to learn why.)

THE STARRED RATINGS FOR WORDPRESS THEMES DON’T ALWAYS MEAN WHAT THEY SAY. The theme I chose had five stars, and it ended up lacking basic conformity with Google search preferences.

Just because a theme looks pretty doesn’t mean the coding is done properly. I wish I’d either followed #2 above or found a theme on Template Monster. It seems to be a reputable resource and one of my clients is happy with the theme we selected there.

Instead, my approach was to Google “best wordpress themes for consultants.” On the several lists that came up, many of the themes were dated or no longer being supported, but there were a lot I did like. I narrowed it down to about a dozen candidates for further review. Here are some that made it to that list:

  • dePosito  Very close to my favorite but seemed to lack client testimonials option. Very clean, intuitive navigation.
  • Converio  Testimonials located right by projects, good portfolio layout, Woocommerce compatible.
  • Decente  Liked this one, but no testimonials, no vector graphics, couldn’t find reviews.
  • Zerif Pro   Among my favorites, nice parallax format.
  • Bold Launch  A really attractive parallax theme, but I didn’t like the testimonials format.
Bold Launch theme screenshot

Bold Launch theme look and feel

To narrow this list, I looked beyond beyond just look and feel and considered how fast the live demos loaded. If that seemed slow, I took it as a sign it was likely too “heavy” a site for my purposes, probably loaded with lots of functionalities I didn’t need. Then I looked at support factors.

4. Make sure the theme offers great tech support.

If you’re not an expert at WordPress, or you don’t know html, just hire someone to build your site. You won’t be sorry.

If you ignore this advice, then pick a theme that provides really good customer support. Let me say that again in bold: if you’re a novice at web development, hire an expert to do it. Or at least pick a theme that provides really good customer support.

During my DIY rebuild Round 1 (because woe, yes, there were two rounds), there were two dozen or more coding problems that cropped up that the limited theme documentation didn’t provide answers for. And while there was a help forum, there was no way I could make time to wade through all the discussions for answers.

There were phases of work on my website rebuild when I was emailing back and forth multiple times daily with ThemeMotive customer service on basic and custom coding questions. They were always helpful and usually got me to a solution. It was invaluable to be able to email the experts. And all their advice was free.

To get a sense before you buy how good the theme is at customer service, look beyond the number of stars on the Buyer Rating. Read the Comments discussion and see if there are any glaring issues that lots of users are having. On ThemeForest, it’s in the sidebar:

Where to see comments when buying WordPress theme

You’ll see how well tech support appears to be resolving requests, like troubleshooting coding snafus and answering dumb questions from the likes of people like me. Also look at what support is included:

What tech support the WordPress theme offers

Finally, be aware that many customer service teams are offshore. If so, some tech support will be using English as a second language. Also, work hours and days will be different. At first I found this to be a positive for me, since I was working on my project a lot on Sundays which was Monday where my theme’s tech support was, in Poland. Later it was a huge negative, when it came time to explain what was wrong with their code and try to get fixes.

5. Factor in user experience and back end issues.

After I identified the themes I thought would work best, I ran four by a WordPress and UX expert and asked for her recommendation. My finalists: dePosito, Converio, Modern Business and Quince.

Here are some of the key UX and web development insights I wouldn’t have thought of that the web developer pointed out, or that I learned the hard way as I added new content.

  • Choose a theme with page templates, elements (like icons and boxes) and fonts that you’re happy with. You want a decent number of options—not so many that the choices are overwhelming or so few that you won’t have choices on future content. The closer the theme is to what you can really use, the better. During my rebuild I learned that customization of themes is difficult for a novice to do and costly and time-consuming to hire a web developer to do. Even just changing a font can require custom code. Plus it means you’ll probably need help updating custom code later whenever site updates are done by the theme developer.
  • Find a theme with a portfolio presentation you like already built in, instead of requiring a bundled plugin. It makes it less likely you’ll have code conflicts/problems whenever the theme get updated. And make sure the portfolio layout is simple to navigate. Some layouts require users to click on the title or excerpt of a case example to get through to the detailed page versus having the entire tile be clickable. Some click through to a slideshow that isn’t obvious to navigate back from. Some have a hover effect that can be confusing to some users.
Portfolio tile non-hover

Portfolio tile non-hover

Portfolio tile hover

Portfolio tile hover

  • There are lots of slideshow options like Revolution Slider, Visual Composer and others that are built into WordPress themes. They give you lots of versatility, but they are not always that simple to use or have little glitches. (My original sliders using Revolution Slider “jumped” a bit visually on some devices when I tried using the Ken Burns panning effect, for example.) If you can’t live with the slideshow tool built into the theme, ask a web developer what the simplest solution is for your purposes. And be aware that to update the plugin you may have to go through the theme’s page instead of through the WordPress plugin interface.
  • A footer with multiple widgetized areas is nice looking and gives you lots of options in what information to list there.

 

Footer with four widgetized areas

Website footer with four widgetized areas

  • Ask a web developer if the code looks clean (not “heavy,” or loaded with too many options that could slow things down, or make it more likely there will be future code conflicts).

After some but not an overwhelming amount of research I settled on a theme. Cue drum roll. My final selection was: Converio.

Drum roll

Drum roll courtesy of my son Drew (center, in 2004)

This drum roll should have segued from a cheery snare to an ominous kettledrum. Because just before launching my new site with Converio, testing revealed basic flaws in the coding and structure of the site that meant my new site was performing WORSE than my existing site. Read my next posts to find out what I wished I’d known beforehand.

Merry Ann Moore
merryannmoore@gmail.com

I'm a comms pro who brings the romance and excitement of digital to the old standbys. Like just picking up the phone and calling a reporter after retweeting a story. I cover the waterfront (communications strategy, content marketing, web content, branding, email marketing, more) but don't pretend to be an expert in it all. After work, I'm probably cycling, walking the dogs, chaturanga-ing or watching international soccer or the USWNT. Pet peeve: overuse of the word "passionate" in every business profile you read.

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