When Free Themes (and Plugins) Are Better Then Premium Paid

If you are here looking for advice on whether to use a free theme, or to pay for a premium one, then I strongly recommend that you use the free wordpress.org themes.

Having said that, here are some other general points about your choice, and this post:

  • From now on, when I write ‘theme’, then I also mean ‘plugin’.
  • Never get your free themes from anywhere but http://wordpress.org/themes
  • Never pay for a premium theme without a recommendation from someone you know personally or professionally.
  • Always use a test installation of WordPress to trial run your theme

The best things about free themes

The worst thing about paid themes

  • They don’t have to stand up to any coding standards.
  • You are not guaranteed any support, let alone any more than you get in the wordpress.org forums
  • They prey on your lack of WordPress knowledge, making you think you’re getting something better. Because you haven’t picked a free theme!

So, now that I’ve hopefully frightened you a little bit away from premium themes, I’m going to immediately back-track a little. There are premium themes that are worth paying for. However, if you are here, trying to work out which ones they are, then you don’t have the experience to judge this for yourself. Your path will be one of pot luck.

When should you buy a premium theme?

Some of these points will overlap, but I’m including them all to try to help you get an idea of what to look for when you’re really adamant that a pre-built premium theme is your only solution.

  • When someone you know and trust recommends it.
  • When someone you have an established business relationship with recommends it
  • When a WordPress professional recommends it
  • When you have money to burn and aren’t particularly worried about whether your site actually works or is secure

The most common scenario is you’ve decided that your business is worth investing your hard-earned money in, you’ve realised that $25 is not going to get some magical theme that will propel your site into the FTSE500, and you want someone professional applying their skills. And so you hire a freelancer, and they recommend purchasing a framework, or parent theme.

The Framework Theme and The Freelancer

Freelancers commonly have a framework theme that they are intimately familiar with. It is a premium theme packed fill of functionality and options. They then take your vision and make a child theme, building your desired design whilst harnessing all the functionality.

Published by

TCBarrett

Open Source Architect (Web Geek)

14 thoughts on “When Free Themes (and Plugins) Are Better Then Premium Paid”

  1. Another major danger with premium themes is that many of them cram in a ton of bloat-code that should really be part of a plugin (sliders, custom post types, contact forms, etc). I try to use themes that are mostly design-only. Let plugins handle calendars and and everything “functional.” It’s a major pain to move away from a premium theme and have all your custom post types disappear.

    Thanks for the good reminder that price != quality.

    1. I have seen themes that are now ‘combo themes’ (?). They come with the caveat that they work with a specific plugin. The theme developer puts the portable bits in the plugin (post types, taxonomies, custom queries).

      I’m looking forward to wordpress.org adding/allowing this kind of relationship.

  2. While this article brings up great points, it is also one sided. Because the community will always try free products first, there is less evaluation of paid products within the larger community. For example, WordPress needs something like Yelp! for it’s paid products to crowd-source this important reviews.

    If we limit the scope of products that we recommend to that which is free, we are limiting the scope of product quality (capability, security, performance, interoperability, compatibility, accessibility, support, etc., etc.) to the economics of free and free-mium, which can only go so far. WordPress would not be what it is today without the involvement of money in all of the artwork, development, training, etc. that web professionals have thrown into it. Just ask Automattic about profitability! I gladly pay them reasonable sums of money for many of their WordPress.com features.

    1. I’m not limiting the scope to free, especially not in perpetuity. I have a subs-section “When should you buy a premium theme” right there in the article 🙂

  3. It’s a catch 22 when it comes to premium themes. It makes sense to stick with a reputable premium theme seller who does adhere to some sort of coding regulations. Hence ensuring a product with some degree of quality.

    But then the flip side of this is reduced competition. If we all stuck to a couple of the big guns, it is far more difficult for a smaller company to break the market (even with the same coding standards).

    That said, I’m a firm believer in a quality product will always sell. Especially with the wealth of social promotion available at little to no cost.

    All of this aside, from my experiences (and skillset) I steer clear of pre-built themes or over the top frameworks. I enjoy going down the custom route – much can be learnt and improve from project to project. The end result generally feels far more streamlined as well. But that’s just me, a designer/developer.

    1. It is true, it can be difficult to enter the market, especially as WordPress has so many participants already!

      But I do think that companies that would want to become a trusted premium supplier do have routes in. They can either target becoming a WordPress VIP. Or simply stay focused, providing a quality theme – people will find it.

  4. I find on a continuel basis that paid and free theme’s html structure isnt always as good as it can be and also the css is bloated, even over stuffed with js, but at the end of the day, paid or free, same issues unless you know what your looking at.

    1. You are correct. However, the point is that for the novice who needs to learn how and what to look for, using the free wordpress.org themes and plugins is a much better starting point than any other.

  5. I think you need to be careful in saying that free themes have free support. I think users still need to understand that free support is not to be expected but appreciated. Free theme developers have less of a responsibility of providing free support then the premium theme developers.

    I think premium theme authors are more likely to add more advanced functionality into a theme then a free theme developers. This does not need to be functionality that should be in plugins but also just support for things like customizer and plugins like jetpack.

    I personally have never set up a site on premium theme as it is difficult to find good ones. I think if you have the skill you should create your own.

    1. It is true that all(?) the support on wordpress.org is provided by volunteers. The experience of what they will get support for, and how to ask good support questions, and just generally moving out of the “novice” hole, is not something that you can guarantee by going to a random paid-for theme shop. It is catch-22, and hence why you should start with the well supported free web site 🙂

  6. There’s a lot of shitty themes, even in the theme directory which is subjected to theme guidelines. There’s a lot of crappy commercial themes. People recommend crappy themes to each other, so going based off a recommendation isn’t full proof either, unless the person is a highly trusted WordPress developer whose familiar with the code base. There are reputable people recommending crappy commercial themes and somehow these themes remain popular. Is sending people to free themes the answer?

    I think it’s bullshit. Free themes don’t enjoy free support. Somewhere it costs someone, whether it’s the theme author, or some other person’s time. If you are not savvy, just get a commercial theme from a theme shop that offers support – or pay someone to give you support on a free theme (preferably the theme author). It’s more supportive of the ecosystem. The problem is that people who rely on free themes and plugins for their business and then expect support to be free as well, it taxes the ecosystem and cultivates a ‘freetard’ mindset.

    Also, in the case of free themes, if you are relying on your site for business, you can’t afford to rely on support on the .org forums. If you get good support there, it’s good fortune, but it’s not a guarantee by any means. Weeks can go by in some cases before you get a good response.

    I know this post is supposed to be educational and I get it, but I feel it’s better to educate towards setting the right expectations and making people understand the value of the work involved. Just steering people toward free themes because it avoids users from buying the bad kind of theme, is sending the wrong message and paints a one-sided picture. Hell, I’ve tried free themes from commercial authors and they’ve sucked.

    If you’re buying a theme from a marketplace, yes, you have to be very discerning, because not all authors give support and some themes are really poorly coded. Are there free themes that are better than a bunch paid ones? Sure, paid doesn’t mean better. But let’s no throw the baby out with the bathwater though and pretend that using free themes are the panacea.

    1. I think that most people know what you know, would not be using my article for advice. The target audience is for those that don’t know exactly what you do. They either know nothing, or worse, have pre-conceptions about how things are.

      Guiding them towards a friendly place, that will provide support in some form (even if it is “you are in the wrong place”). A place full of other newbie people and the largest pool of WordPress experience (in the world?). It can’t be a bad thing, can it?

      I do finish off by pointing out that once you’ve out-grown the free themes, gained some experience and have a flourishing company with a bit of a budget, that you should, basically, hire a free lancer.

      The aim there was to steer the focus way from “which theme do I need” to “build a relationship with a WordPress expert”. Because their knowledge is a sound investment.

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