Free vs Premium WordPress Themes

Posted on May 2, 2015 by in Editorial | 24 comments

Free vs Premium WordPress Themes

For as long as I have been a WordPress user the conversation surrounding free versus premium WordPress themes has been held. And just in case you’re wondering, that’s pretty much since the beginning. So it would seem that something so basic should have a final answer by now, right?

Perhaps. But so far, there have continued to be advancements across the WordPress ecosphere (themes, plugins, and core) that have continued to shift the conversation slightly this way, slightly that way, never fully landing on one side or the other.

A few years ago, I might have said unequivocally that it is always a good idea to go with premium themes. And if I’m honest, I probably still lean that way. I use premium themes for all of my own projects. However, a thought has been nagging at me for a while now and I can’t help but feel it has some merit.

That thought is this: with all of the great plugins out there, including page builder/theme customizer plugins, couldn’t one reasonably just amass the right suite of plugins and use a free WordPress theme as a starter base for their website?

The answer of course is yes, you could do that. Perhaps now more so than ever before. But whether or not its worth it would depend on the same thing as this decision has always depended upon: weighing the pros and cons. Which is exactly what we’re going to do (and more) in today’s post.

Pros & Cons of Choosing a Free WordPress Theme

As I mentioned above, it is possible to get by (even thrive) on a free WordPress theme. However, you will want to make sure that your needs are met after the following pros/cons are weighed and the guidelines below are met.

Free WordPress Theme Pros:

They’re free!  That point pretty much makes itself I suppose.

Conveniently located within your WordPress Admin under Appearance > Themes. As opposed to premium themes which require a third party shop or marketplace. Of course that’s not to say that you can’t find free WordPress themes elsewhere but as you’ll read in my guidelines below, you may want to avoid them.

Free WordPress themes tend to be compatible with a lot more plugins than premium themes. This is because all of the free WordPress themes in the official repository all have to meet certain standards to be approved.

They tend to be leaner than the popular “all-in-one” premium WordPress themes. So if you can find a free theme that meets your needs without providing all of the extra features that come with many high end premium themes then you may actually be better off.

If downloaded from the official WordPress repository, free WordPress themes will have undergone an official review process. This ensures a certain base level of quality and compatibility that you can depend on. Many premium themes choose to break WordPress development best practices in favor of more proprietary models, often without consideration of how this could negatively impact their users.

Free WordPress Theme Cons:

Free WordPress themes do not usually come with any kind of support. This can be a real deal breaker for many as it’s often necessary to troubleshoot a bug or aspect of a new theme. You’ll have to settle for general support via WordPress.org or theme user forums.

They also don’t update as often. Which isn’t a problem…until it’s a problem. It can be really frustrating not being able to update your WordPress install because it will break your theme. This can also lead to security vulnerabilities.

Most free WordPress themes are lacking in terms of user experience–for both site creators and visitors. This is felt most keenly on the backend. Many premium WordPress theme shops/authors put a great deal of effort into making the use of their theme enjoyable. Free themes tend to skimp in this area.

Free WordPress themes are more likely to be security vulnerabilities. This as mentioned above as part of the update con but there are other ways they can be liabilities in addition to a slow development cycle. For instance, some free themes are specifically designed to carry malicious code. This is why it’s always important to follow the guidelines I’ve included below.

Pros & Cons of Choosing a Premium WordPress Theme

Premium WordPress themes have a lot going for them, as you’ll see below. However, with all of the premium theme authors and shops out there (this one included) singing their praises, it can be difficult to put yourself in a place where you actually consider their potential downsides. Hopefully the points I make below will help.

Premium WordPress Theme Pros:

Almost all premium WordPress themes come with support of some kind; forum, email, phone, etc. This is a huge bonus for users of all skill levels. A lot of the time, learning how best to use a new WordPress theme is not so much learning this bit of code or that bit, but learning how the developers who created it think. Learning their logic allows you to figure more out for yourself; but sometimes a push (or several) in the right direction is a big help.

Generally, the quality of premium WordPress themes are much higher than their free counterparts. The reason behind this is simple. The revenue their theme generates funds their ability to make it better. For good shops/developers this creates a positive feedback loop where their products are continually getting better as more and more users come to use them.

Many premium WordPress themes come with advanced functionality. The good kind I mean. Such as advanced plugin suites (like WooDojo or Elegant Themes’ plugins) or advanced admin panels that make customizations and general site configuration a lot easier.

All aspects of design are usually much better with premium WordPress themes. From page templates to backend admin pages/menus. When you’re using your site day in and day out, good design goes a long way towards improving your productivity and maintaining your sanity.

Security is a huge priority for premium WordPress theme shops/authors. And they have the money to spend on meeting the high security standards of their customers (and the theme industry in general).

The update cycle with premium WordPress themes tends to be tighter and more responsive to changes with WordPress core and other important factors. This affects everything from small bugs to big security issues. There are a thousand little issues that can arise from an out of date theme. The only way to avoid them is regular updates, which premium theme shops/authors tend to be better at.

Premium WordPress Theme Cons:

Sometimes the price point for your favorite theme can be quite high and yet still require further licensing fees in years to come. If you’re just passionate about a hobby and not actually making enough money to offset your theme costs, a premium theme with monthly or annual licensing fees can seriously dip into your wallet.

Premium themes do not have an official review process. This means that premium theme shops/authors can ignore WordPress development best practices in certain areas. Sometimes this can cause minor annoyances, other times it can cost a lot more. Check out the premium theme buying guidelines below for more on this point.

Premium WordPress themes have a higher potential for “theme bloat”. Which is the natural trade-off that occurs with more features and functionality. This does not always mean you are getting a “slow” theme or website, but it’s more likely.

Your premium WordPress theme shop/author could discontinue their product. This, of course, is a concern for anyone using a WordPress theme. However, if a premium theme shop/author goes under and stops updating their products then you’re not just in for a lot of work transitioning to another theme but you’re also out of your money.

Guidelines for Choosing a Free WordPress Theme

If after reading the pros and cons above you have decided that you’d like to give a free WordPress theme a try, then I’d highly recommend following the following guidelines to make sure you negate as many of the cons as possible.

Only use a free WordPress theme from a reputable source. In fact, I’d recommend only using highly rated free themes from the official WordPress repository.

Make sure the theme author is active and updates regularly. When you are browsing themes on the repository, take careful note of the theme author’s past activity, reviews, etc.

Scope out your support options. Some shops or authors of free WordPress themes do offer support. This can be a huge help if you’re not an advanced user.

Choose something relatively new. For the author of a free WordPress theme to maintain an old theme they have to have a very large user base. Even if this is the case though, WordPress itself has changed and advanced. Newer themes will be designed to take advantage of that.

Quality Free Theme Examples

There are a ton of high quality free WordPress themes available out there. These are just three that I would use myself or hold up as good examples to compare other free themes to.

1. Twenty Twelve

TwentyTwelve

Twenty Twelve is a bit older but in this case that guideline can be bent. As the 2012 default WordPress theme with Automattic themselves authoring its safe to say that this theme will be kept up to date and following WordPress development best practices. On top of that, it’s a really great, simple design, perfect for customization. It’s layout works well for blogs or business websites.

More Information

2. Twenty Fifteen

TwentyFifteen

The Twenty Fifteen theme by Automattic is the 2015 default WordPress theme. It’s great for blogging and designed specifically for readability with beautiful typography. Because it’s the default and it’s by Automattic, it’s always going to be up to date and most if not all plugins will be made to be compatible with it.

More Information

3. Storefront

Storefront

Storefront is a free e-commerce theme by WooThemes. It was built to function as a free compliment to their most popular plugin (also free) WooCommerce. It’s responsive, flexible, and surprisingly powerful for a free theme. Plus, because WooThemes is so invested in this project it is always guaranteed to be up to date and compatible with the latest version of WooCommerce.

More Information

Guidelines for Choosing a Premium WordPress Theme

If you’ve opted for a premium WordPress theme then you are probably opting for a safer bet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still go wrong. To ensure that you end up with a great premium WordPress theme and not just an expensive mistake, I’d highly recommend following the guidelines below.

Gage your acceptable price point on your actual income. Or, at the very least, on how much revenue you stand to generate through your purchase. This is a note primarily for freelancers and businesses. If you need certain features/functionality to function as a business, then WordPress tools are insanely affordable when compared to other “enterprise” software. Get what you need and make sure you’re generating enough revenue to justify it.

Only go with the most reputable (and financially stable) premium WordPress theme shops and authors. There are a massive amount of developers out there who do not care about quality; they care about sales. Don’t fall for ads or persuasive copy. Read reviews, pay attention to reputation, and choose someone with a great track record for excellence. Oh, and it’s not a bad idea to check for their business vital signs too. A great product is only a great product for as long as it is maintained. If they go under then it’s all a wash.

Check out their support offerings to make sure they meet your needs. Just about every single premium theme shop or author will provide support as part of your purchase. However, not all support teams are made equal. You want to find the ones with a great reputation for customer satisfaction. There’s nothing worse than waiting around with your site down or looking bad while your support ticket goes unnoticed for days.

Choose a theme that actually looks pretty close to what you need. Otherwise, what’s the point of paying for a premium design? Unless of course you’re buying a builder theme like Divi or The X Theme, in which case it should be pretty easy to create whatever you need.

Don’t become blinded by features. Choose themes with portability in mind! This is such a big issue. Don’t let yourself get trapped by features that don’t port to other themes. If you are ever forced to switch themes down the line you will have a major headache on your hands.

Quality Premium Theme Examples

The three themes (or theme shops) below are ones that I have personally used and recommend to others. I should also mention WooThemes as their Canvas theme and suite of plugins is pretty great too.

1. Genesis Themes

Genesis

Genesis by StudioPress is one of the most trusted and popular theme frameworks with a stellar library of child themes available. While not a builder theme like the other two options below, you can literally do anything with Genesis with the right child theme and plugins.

Price: $59.95 (one time, unlimited license) | More Information

2. The X Theme

X-theme

The X Theme is (and has been since its debut) the fastest selling theme on the Themeforest marketplace. Unlike many gimmicky Themeforest themes that look great but don’t deliver, the X theme really seems to be standing up to the test of time. It’s a modular builder theme with child theme like “stacks” that provide four different starting points for various types of WordPress websites.

Price: $63 (single site annual license) | More Information

3. Divi / Elegant Themes

Divi

Finally we come to Divi and the Elegant Themes line of industry leading WordPress themes. Divi is a smart, powerful, flexible, and super simple theme to use. Even non-designers and non-developers can turn out amazing website after website with this amazing theme.

Price: $69/year or $249 lifetime | More Information

In Conclusion

I’m a big believer in making informed decisions because you’ve considered your options thoroughly, not because that’s just what everyone says you should do. Which is why I’m not one to blindly recommend that everyone buy a premium theme.

For many businesses and freelancers dependent on their WordPress website for income, having access to premium support, a higher level of security, and better design options out of the box will seal the deal for them. But honestly, even those WordPress users might be surprised with how far they could get with a quality free theme, managed WordPress hosting (for both speed and security), the right plugins, and some customization.

In the end, as I said above, it all depends on you and your preferences after all of the pros and cons a have been weighed against your needs.

What are your thoughts on free themes versus premium themes? Which do you use? Please take a minute or two and share your stories and opinions with the whole community in the comments section below.

Article Thumbnail via Dooder // shutterstock.com

24 Comments

  1. Great article Nathan. One of the cons for most premium themes is that there always seems to be quite the learning curve for each one. And not all of them are easy to navigate. As a web designer lacking in the areas of development, I found it hard to be cost effective playing with new premium themes all the time. That is why last year I made the decision to work exclusively with Divi sites. You can do just about anything with Divi with a little CSS knowledge (and the help of giving developers on occasion). I can now carry my own little toolbox of custom child themes so that when I start a new project, I have a foundation I can install in 5 minutes and with a little additional customization and content, I can produce a high quality custom theme at half the cost. And since its built on Divi, its completely expandable 🙂

    • With some premium themes you can wind up with theme glut and it only slows down the speed of the site.

  2. ^^^ I meant to say “half the expense” not “half the cost”. I can still charge for the premium custom website of course. 🙂

  3. I prefer use premium themes for support and advantatges.
    I was using Divi to develop a WP site and is very easy to make templates for pages, all what you want.

  4. I propose another factor to consider when choosing free themes, which is to recognize the benefit of choosing the free version of a theme that also has a premium version available. My reasoning is that the author author of a freemium product has a much higher incentive to remain fully invested in maintaining the quality of the free product when it’s a key sales tool for their premium product, plus they have a revenue stream that allows them to do so. And if at some point you need more than the free product can offer, the path to the premium product is smooth sailing. This is of course applicable to plugins too.

    • You would think so, but I’ve encountered a very large number of freemium developers who for some unknown reason refuse to tell you the difference between the free and premium versions.

  5. If you want a top of the line FREE theme go with Cyberchimps Responsive or the Responsive II theme they have.

    I also like ColorLabs Lensa if you need to do full screen images on the front page.

  6. I got a couple of free themes lately, made by Automattic, and are pretty neat. Are more than you need to start a website.

    For premium themes I don’t think the price is the issue. $100 is really not a big deal if you need extra features. Just think how much could cost if you are making them custom.

    But also I think that a lot of premium themes are overrated and offer no extra value.

  7. I would love to use Divi theme.according to my research best wp theme ever also price affordable.I don’t like free theme.thanks for cool stuff

  8. Great article. You really point out the most important pros and cons. As a full time web developer and owner of a small digital marketing solutions company, I have been struggling with this issue. When you’re building sites just for yourself, it’s easy to figure out what works best for you and go with it. However, when you’re building sites for clients who all have unique needs, it becomes a more difficult decision. I would love to work with just one theme for all my clients, but I’ve found this approach too limiting. Over the past year, I’ve been “testing out” free themes (with premium versions) as well as premium themes to determine which ones are easy to modify and customize. I’m putting together a list of theme “foundations” that I use for creating customized child themes to fully meet my clients’ needs. Here is the list of themes I’m currently working with:

    Free with premium version available

    1) GeneratePress – http://generatepress.com/
    2) ThemeZee Rubine – http://themezee.com/themes/rubine/
    3) Colorlib Sparkling – http://colorlib.com/wp/themes/sparkling/
    4) WooThemes Storefront – http://www.woothemes.com/storefront/

    Premium

    I just started using Elegant Themes after hearing about Divi. Here is the list of Elegant Themes I’m using:

    1) Divi – http://www.elegantthemes.com/gallery/divi/
    2) Nexus – http://www.elegantthemes.com/gallery/nexus/
    3) I will be adding more.

    Plugins I Like to Use

    1) Shortcodes Ultimate – http://gndev.info/shortcodes-ultimate/
    2) Shortcodes Maker Addon – http://gndev.info/shortcodes-ultimate/maker/
    3) WP Types – http://wp-types.com/home/types-manage-post-types-taxonomy-and-custom-fields/
    4) Tiny PNG – https://wordpress.org/plugins/tiny-compress-images/
    5) Yoast SEO – https://wordpress.org/plugins/wordpress-seo/

    Whit

  9. Of course I am a big Elegant Themes fan but I also use themes from Themify.me for premium themes.. Nice designs and good customer support.

  10. Hey Nathan,
    Another great article. However I would take exception to one of your comments:

    “Generally, the quality of premium WordPress themes are much higher than their free counterparts.”

    It has been my experience that some of the best coded themes have been free themes, while some of the worst have been premium themes! The most likely reason is that to qualify for inclusion in the Repository the free themes have to be approved by the ‘Powers That Be’, whereas premium themes don’t have anyone to hold them accountable.

    If people want to check the quality of themes, there is a free plugin in the Repo called “Theme Check” which will run over the code of the theme and give you a list of the potential problems. The cleanest coding I have ever seen was the themes from Catch Themes — they usually return only one or two minor problems at most, while a very well promoted premium theme which I won’t name returned over three PAGES of problems, most of them banned or deprecated commands!

    For the record, I use Elegant Themes (usually Divi) for sites we build, but have got no hesitation recommending any of the Catch themes to people looking for a free alternative.
    Terry

  11. Until today I wouldn’t think of paying for a themes when there are so many free ones. But I was on another forum and people were discussing themes, and all of the ones discussed were premium.

  12. One thing to keep in mind with premium themes: When a theme is updated to play well with the latest version of WordPress or to fix a security problem, you’re out of luck if you bought the theme without the option for lifetime updates! I recently upgraded my ET subscription to the one that offers unlimited updates for life because I need to be sure that my customers all have the latest version.

    I wish I could spend a day with one of the ET developers, showing hm or her all the annoying things about the ET themes I’ve used. Every one that I’ve used needs a few CSS hacks in order to meet my needs. A couple of quick examples: 13th floor; the menu items jump up out of reach of the mouse when you hover over them, so they are un-clickable without more mouse movement. This is incredibly silly. Of course, support has the CSS hack to fix it – but why is it that way to begin with? Also, the little ribbons on the posts in the Bold theme are too short to contain the date / time stamp that they are intended to highlight, so I came up with a fix. Every ET theme has annoyances like this, while the entire development staff is fixated on Divi. My hope is that once the Divi plugin is finished, that SOMEBODY will go back and REFINE THE OTHER THEMES!

    Having said all that, the ET theme package is, once modified, an incredibly impressive suite of themes. The only other theme I routinely use is the Headway drag-and-drop framework. My plan is to eventually use mostly that, along with the Divi plugin when it is ready to go.

  13. Thanks for putting together this article.
    I find the Automattic free themes are great to start with.
    I really like the Jupiter themes as well.

  14. I will come out and say it right now.. Genesis is completely over-hyped. The theme which is commonly pointed out as being the SEO theme is really not all that special and you could implement the same Schema Markup (and more) to your current theme.

    You can argue the security, but you should be preventing the attacks before they can even get to your server if someone is wanting to attack your server and they have reached it and landed on the page, there is not much a theme can do to save you. You should be using an htaccess blacklist and some sort of brute force protection and other tools.

    It seems like a lot of these themes did 1 thing well and that was marketing.

  15. now that i am used to premium support, i wouldn’t go back to a free theme without anybody to help me..

    it’s really time saving to know that whenever i have a request to customize something, i can count 90% of the time on php experts.

    When i count the number of times that ET support helped me, the lifetime subscription is already paid 10 times !

  16. Nathan, the same reason you get behind premium themes is the same reason we started our market place.

    Using Div has changed the lives of so many developers both experienced and not so experienced.

    With so many choices out there for premium themes – we wanted to demonstrate the value that could be gotten from Divi and using a premium child theme – developers like Geno, Melissa, Nathan and Tammy offer a quick, easy way to developing a great site AND utilizing the DIVI Theme as a base.

    And Sj and Dan with their Divi Module Editor and Divi Booster plugins – have literally saved people many, many hours – the value of premium plugins and themes cannot be under estimated.

    I wrote about the value of premium child themes on linkedin and feel that ‘other’ premium theme sites although offering awesome themes can and do over complicate things for the inexperienced user – of course to take on Terry’s view – nothing replaces a well coded WordPress theme – either from scratch or with the benefits of something like Divi and it’s leading edge page builder –

    Like so may people who are using Divi, we can’t wait to see what Nick and his team have up their sleeves using the fluent grid system in the next iteration of divi.

    Our desire to offer TRUE value on Premium Child Themes & Plugins article can be seen here.

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/our-desire-offer-true-value-premium-child-themes-plugins-palmer

  17. Another informative article. I can’t say enough good things about your blog and Elegant Themes in general. I have learned so much from it! Keep up the good work. And… I am in love with Divi 🙂

  18. For free themes, I like Vantage from Site Origin, and there is a premium version available for a small donation.

    Either version can be used to develop a professional looking theme and support, particularly for the premium upgrade, is superb.

  19. When I was new to WordPress I did what most new users do i.e. try to find all the free stuff. But you quickly realise their limitations.

    I have the lifetime package with ET now. I’ll say it’s more than worth the price. Divi is amazing and gives you high expectations which do deliver what they promise. The downside to Divi is when you switch themes you’re left with pages of horrendous shortcodes.

    Start as you mean to go on. If you’re developing in Divi make sure you intend to stick with it else you’ll be creating your website all over again from scratch.. unless of course you know something I don’t.

    • I think with the plans for the page builder to be a plugin rather than a built in facility, changing themes is going to be easier. I have found that most if not all themes have some idiosyncrasies when changing design and layout – what i particularly like about Divi is the fact that code is kept to a minimum.

      I am currently converting a web site to divi from visual composer and it is surprising how there are so many individual components and html you have to use to get the same display as in Divi.

      Example: Europe is the most legislatively challenging place in the world for any manufacturer of motorcycle clothing wanting to sell here, and that legislation is about to increase and become more heavily enforced! Not only is Europe one of the most complicated markets globally for motorcycle clothing, it is also one of the most lucrative for those that get it right…
      read more +

      I think as a wordpress developer who passes on the site management to the client – Divi is a perfect choice and the learning curve is so much shorter as you do not have to teach anything related to code.

  20. oops it took out the parenthesis…drat!

  21. As a development and especially a hosting company, I would argue the exact opposite of this point: “Free WordPress themes are more likely to be security vulnerabilities.”

    So many of the websites that we find that are infected on our servers are because a customer used a premium theme or plugin and then they did not keep up with/understand the ongoing licenses fees.

    Premium themes and plugins need to notify of updates needed regardless of license status.

    We’ve seen a bunch of sites infected via Gravity Forms because the “renew license” message was presented almost as a suggestion rather than “there are new (and important) updates available”.

    In a similar fashion, that’s how the Slider Revolution exploit became such an issue: premium themes masking, hiding, or breaking update notifications.

    Because premium themes and plugins want you to pay before notifying, users can look at a WordPress dashboard and think that all is right with the world, but in reality they could be running plugins and themes with exploits from years ago.

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