If you’re just getting started with WordPress it may seem natural to assume that as long as a free WordPress theme looks like what you had in mind for your website, then it’s a good fit. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. That’s why in today’s post we’ve outlined a solid checklist of criteria that you can use to make sure that the free WordPress themes you’re considering is a solid choice. We’ve also listed what we believe to currently be the best free WordPress themes available this year.
What Should you be Looking for in a Free WordPress Theme in 2021?
With WordPress you get a free, extremely powerful, and impressively flexible platform for building websites, blogs, shops, and more online. But with that power and flexibility comes a certain amount of unavoidable complexity. Complexity that has increased over time and, if ignored, could not only provide a lack-luster user-experience for WordPress theme users but actually put their sites at risk of security breaches, search engine penalties, and myriad other issues or inconveniences big and small.
What this means in a practical sense is that if you’re looking for a WordPress theme (even a free WordPress theme) then you need to be sure that you’re getting a quality product that meets an ever rising standard of development as the WordPress platform itself matures.
In 2021, a good WordPress theme will meet these standards:
- Serious ongoing development – WordPress hasn’t become so complex that amateurs are unable to create and maintain quality tools and resources like themes and plugins. But it’s not easy. Not everyone capable of creating a theme is also capable of maintaining and supporting it at a sufficiently high level for it to be considered a good option for users.
- Good reviews and other positive social proof – this is the best indication that a theme author has been able to pass the first big filter of “serious ongoing development.” The longer they’ve been offering their theme and the more indicators of positive social proof the better. The most important being the number of five-star reviews, but also: number of downloads, “last updated” date (it should be recent), number of open support requests, and user community strength to name a few.
- Tight security – don’t worry, you don’t have the be a cybersecurity expert to be reasonably assured of your WordPress theme’s adherence to security best practices. The easiest way to do this is to download your free WordPress theme from the official WordPress Repository. This way you don’t have to worry about whether or not the theme you’re considering is reasonably secure. If it’s on the repository then it has already passed a reliable quality-assurance process. Above and beyond these measures, some of the best WordPress themes will actually contract WordPress security experts to independently audit their themes.
- Broad browser compatibility – if this isn’t clearly stated somewhere in the repository listing or on the theme author’s website, it’s always worth running some browser tests before committing to a theme. Especially if the theme does not provide you with easy-to-use responsive and mobile design options.
- Essential WordPress Plugin compatibility – the real power of WordPress is unlocked with Plugins; software designed and developed to extend what you can do with WordPress (like open an online store with WooCommerce) or improve existing core features (like optimizing your pages for search with Yoast SEO). See our list of essential WordPress Plugins for some great examples. And then, make sure that any theme you consider will actually work with all of the plugins that will be essential to your website.
- Compatibility with major page builders – if a WordPress theme is in the official repository then the good news is that it’s already compatible with the most widely used page builder in the world–WordPress’ native Gutenberg. However, there are more mature and advanced builders that a significant number of WordPress users still prefer to use instead of or in addition to Gutenberg. Starting with a theme that is compatible with all or some of the leading page builders like Divi, Elementor, Beaver Builder, etc. is a good idea.
- Translation and multilingual ready – Since the majority of the world does not speak English, a basic requirement of WordPress themes in 2021 should be that folks can use it in their own language. And, while they’re at it, be able to offer their content to others in multiple languages too.
- Accessibility-Ready – over the last few years there seems to have been an increased awareness of the importance of accessibility on the web. As our lives increasingly move online, the question of “can I interact with this website?” or “Ok, but how do I create a website?” can also be stated “am I able to participate in society equally?” Developers who’s themes have met a set of minimum accessibility requirements are able to label their themes “accessibility-ready” in the WordPress Repository
- Good user-experience design – this one is a bit tricky. Ultimately, what matters most is that you find the user experience good–not some reviewer. However, I’ve found that truly bad user-experience design tends to show up in the theme reviews and its general popularity. Beyond that, it’s important that when you are using the theme it makes sense to you, you’re able to locate key features easily, and achieve your design goals. This might require some testing on a local install with dummy content if you want to be really sure you like working with one theme over another.
- Meaningful support options – with free themes this usually means a community forum and documentation. Which is totally fine, if the documentation is up-to-date and robust enough to be helpful.
- High-quality responsive and mobile designs and/or design options – for years now responsiveness has been considered an absolute must for quality WordPress themes. And that’s still true today. However, we’ve moved beyond responsiveness as a feature being impressive. Now, not only should a theme be responsive but it should either be completely mobile optimized out of the box or provide design features that make optimization possible by the user.
- A pre-made design or design features that allow you to meet your specific needs – a good WordPress theme should consider deeply the design elements needed by its intended users to create a functioning WordPress website. For example, if the theme is for an online shop, it should include a deep integration with WooCommerce (or another ecommerce platform) and include consistent styles for any elements the plugin or service will add to the website. Such as shop pages, product pages, cart pages, account pages, etc.
As you can see, this is a pretty high bar. The theme authors who tend to create free WordPress themes that meet this criteria are not inexperienced amateurs. They’re either very talented and hard working amateurs or companies and individuals who use their free theme to add users to the top of their business funnel. Moving them towards the use of a premium product or service that adds significant utility to their free theme offering. This is a good thing! It means that their efforts are sustainable and you’re likely to get a better product, more supportive user community, better official support, and all of the other benefits couched in the criteria above.
10 Best Free WordPress Themes for 2021
If thinking through all of the above criteria while browsing endless lists of free WordPress themes seems daunting to you, we don’t blame you! That’s why we decided to put this short list together consisting of themes we checked against the standards we’ve just outlined. Unfortunately, not every theme listed meets every single criteria. However, we’ve tried to highlight those instances so you can make your own assessment as to whether it’s worth missing one thing in favor of something else.
1. Twenty Twenty-One
Every year WordPress.org releases a new free theme intended to showcase the improvements and capabilities of the platform up to that date. It’s an excellent tradition that provides a valuable resource to the whole community while also signaling where the platform as a whole is headed. The Twenty Twenty-One theme is no different.
This theme–in addition to checking every box on the criteria list above–is all in on Gutenberg; WordPress’ own native page builder / block editor. It’s very much a blank canvas approach meant to give you maximum control over as many design elements on your site as possible. Since that can be difficult to visualize before you’ve created a lot of stuff with it, Twenty Twenty-One directs users to Block Patterns which allow you to use pre-designed block editor elements with a simple click. Allowing users to create beautiful page layouts in seconds.
Storefront by Automattic is another example of a free WordPress theme who’s goal is to provide a valuable resource while also signaling what’s possible with WordPress. In this case, what’s possible with WordPress and WooCommerce–the leading ecommerce plugin for WordPress, also by Automattic.
Storefront, like Twenty Twenty-One, adopts a blank canvas approach. Functioning a lot like an empty container for your products so that you can add only the design elements that your site requires instead of removing default styles first. When you are ready to design your website you’re able to use the WordPress customizer, a builder plugin of your choosing, or a child theme. These options span from free to premium.
You also get to take advantage of deep integration with WooCommerce itself and it’s thriving ecosystem of products. Meaning form meets function in this free theme in a really powerful way for anyone who’s shop is of utmost importance.
GeneratePress is a free WordPress theme surging in popularity. They’re hyper-focused on speed, performance, and builder compatibility.
They have also gone all-in on the WordPress block editor, but they support other major builders too, like Elementor and Beaver Builder. Their Site Library shows what’s possible with all three options. To gain access though, you need to upgrade to GeneratePress Premium. The screenshot above shows a pre-designed demo from their Site Library built with the WordPress block editor. Pretty impressive! Users of GeneratePress are able to build designs just as unique and appealing. And if they can’t, professionally designed options are always available via an upgrade.
The only major criteria above we couldn’t verify is if GeneratePress is Accessibility-Ready. At this time the WordPress Repository would seem to indicate that it is not.
Neve by Themeisle is a feature rich, multipurpose, free WordPress theme. It’s a suitable theme for just about any WordPress use case, from ecommerce to blogging to small businesses and more. In addition to being Gutenberg ready with unique block styles, it also works with Elementor, Brizy, Beaver Builder, Visual Composer, SiteOrigin, and Divi. It should also be compatible with any well-coded WordPress plugin.
Where Neve seeks to carve out it’s own unique value amongst the competition seems to be in search engine optimization and page loading speed. It’s responsive and fully AMP optimized so that every page looks good and loads quickly on any device.
OceanWP is one of the most popular free WordPress themes in the WordPress Repository with over 700,000 active installs. And looking at it from the outside, it certainly looks like that popularity is well earned. It ticks all of the boxes for our criteria above. It also comes with 15 free website demos and 8 free extensions that you can use to kickstart your website. If you upgrade to their premium offering then you get an additional 88 demo sites and an additional 12 extensions.
The impression you get with OceanWP (and indeed many of these themes) is that you can get started for free and not have to worry about changing your core WordPress toolkit down the road, you can simply upgrade to the premium level to meet any new needs that may arise.
Astra has been a powerhouse in the WordPress theme arena (not just the free WordPress theme space) for years now and the numbers bear this out. According the official WordPress Repository Astra has an impressive 1 + million active installs! So what has made this free theme so popular?
First and foremost, it starts with a solid base of features and code quality. As with the other themes on this list, it ticks (almost) all of the criteria listed above. Unfortunately the one thing they’re missing is the Accessibility-Ready classification.
Beyond the essential criteria that Astra meets, it’s an especially good option for folks interested in creating a WooCommerce shop. Their integration with WooCommerce is deep and comes highly recommended by industry leaders in ecommerce. The Astra team also provide a large and growing library of website starter templates optimized for Gutenberg, Elementor, Beaver Builder, and Brizy. The screenshot above is actually of a starter site they offer built with Astra and Gutenberg!
Zakra by ThemeGrill is another example of a multipurpose theme with a huge emphasis on builder compatibility and pre-made starter sites. Aside from not being Accessibility-Ready it ticks all of the other criteria boxes we’ve outlined above. Making it an excellent option for a free WordPress theme.
It’s worth noting that among the builders Zakra is compatible with, including Gutenberg, there seems to be an emphasis on Elementor. Especially in terms of the amount and quality of starter sites available for it. This is of course great news for folks interested in Elementor, but if that’s not you for whatever reason then you might just want to make sure you’ll get all of the helpful resources you need to get your site up and running.
Blocksy by creativethemeshq is a Gutenberg first theme that works well with other popular builders too. It’s news starter site above is a great example of how they’re really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with Gutenberg in terms of complex dynamic layouts.
Under the hood the Blocksy team boasts an emphasis on “the latest web technologies.” With a focus on speed, minimal theme “weight,” and modern browser compatibility. The one key criteria that seems to be missing is Accessibility-Ready.
Responsive by CyberChimps seemingly does it all. Not only does it check all of our criteria boxes but they also support Schema.org microdata, bbPress, BuddyPress, LearnDash, Sensei and ALL major builders. All of their (15) free starter sites can be used with Gutenberg or Elementor depending on your preference.
Due to their deep Gutenberg integration and integrations with other powerful plugins, Responsive may be one of the most multipurpose of all of the multipurpose free WordPress themes on this list.
Kadence by Kadence WP may be last on this list but it certainly not least. A recent newcomer to the WordPress Repository (November 2020) it has roared onto the scene, acquiring 90 five star reviews and 30,000+ active installations. This theme, even on a list like this one full of really good free themes, seems to pack the most power and value into a free package.
In addition to ticking all of our criteria boxes, Kadence also offers features that usually live on the other side of a premium upgrade. things like a header and footer builder, global font and color controls, and deep integrations wtih a wide variety of powerful plugins for ecommerce, ecourses, and much more.
As you may have noticed from the list above, multipurpose themes with deep builder support and integrations with other essential WordPress plugins have come to dominate the WordPress theme market. Even when they don’t cost anything up front! Another huge trend is adding value with free starter/demo sites that users can jump-start their website building process with. That said, it’s easy to get distracted by a flashy demo. A WordPress theme truth as old as WordPress themes. So be sure to test the themes you are interested in and choose the one you feel most empowers you to do what you need to do.
Featured Image via HarisArtz / shutterstock.com