Stop! Do Not Buy That Commercial WordPress Theme

Client: “I’m really looking forward to starting this project, we’ve needed an new website for a long time.  By the way, I’ve purchased this incredible theme so we can jumpstart the process”

Web Designer: “Oh! Well…we’ll have to take a look at that” (Drops head to desk)

Let’s look at few of the problems when clients go theme shopping

Feature Match

As web designers, we begin assessing and identifying the key needs of your business from our first conversation.

  • What are your goals?
  • Do you need to highlight products and services?
  • Reach new markets?
  • Generate leads?
  • Build a mailing list?
  • Who are your current and potential future customers?
  • What will create trust and confidence in leading them to do business with you?
  • What is your overall marketing plan?
  • How are we addressing Search Engine Optimization and Social Media?
  • What navigation scheme makes sense for you?
  • How many different page templates do you need?  What unique types of content do you have?

An effective website is going to prioritize the key marketing goals of your business.  When clients are theme shopping they are rarely looking at the the functional and structural approach of a design, how flexible it is, and how it may or may not grow with their business.

Those Visual Aspects

Commercial themes can be incredibly sexy.  That’s a comment we hear often “That’s hot!, very sexy, big wow factor!”.  Now, let’s be honest, is your business sexy?  Do people seek you out for that wow factor?  Unless you are a record label or a rock star, 3D sliders and elaborate designs are probably not what your potential clients are seeking from you.

Logistical Problems

We agree, that slider is amazing!

Now, do you have professionally shot wide angle images (that crop well) that tell the story of your business?

You’re also going to need a dozen or so professional images to fill out all those feature and content boxes.

What are you going to put in all those boxes?  Good question…this theme isn’t really mapping very well to your business, is it?


One of the worst trends that has developed in commercial themes are pages and pages of options settings so this theme can do everything but wash your dishes.  This sounds like a great idea, until you realize it takes 2 days of configuring and watching three videos to make it do what the demo does.

The Nitty Gritty

Code.  Four letters that can be your best friend or your worst nightmare.  The quality of code in commercial themes range from absolutely excellent to stunningly bad.  That little change you want could be a no brainer or it might be hours of sifting through spaghetti code trying to figure out what somebody did.  Then we need to look at whether the theme is following WordPress best practices…is it using the new menu system?  Does it manage Jquery properly, or load it four or five times?  What happens when WordPress has a key update, does the theme get updated as well?  Is there a track record of support by the theme developer?

So Commercial WordPress Themes Are Bad?

No, not at all! Commercial WordPress themes can be a great option for sites when selected for the right reasons, and with the help of your web designer.

In our experience, the best choice for purchasing commercial themes are the established frameworks like StudioPress and WooThemes.

Clients often look at the available themes and don’t see a clear fit, not realizing these themes offer base frameworks that can have literally any design and features added.

Why is this a better choice than shopping for a theme visually?  These themes are put through their paces from a code and feature perspective, both by dedicated teams and their sheer popularity.  They offer clean code, excellent documentation, SEO options, and are always in sync with WordPress’s latest features. There can also some very good themes available on sites like Themeforest, but the trick is knowing which ones they are and how they fit your website goals.

What Should You Do? Theme Markets As Inspiration

Rather than purchasing a theme, make notes about themes you like, site features, color schemes and features that catch your eye.  Keep these handy to discuss with your web designer, they will be thrilled to have reference material for your design ideas!

Do you agree? Disagree? Comments are welcome.


  1. says

    I agree in that clients should only use Themes as a guide to a “look & feel” for your site or to identify functionality that they would like. They are generally not qualified to understand the functionality and implications that a theme (and framework) provide.
    That being said, some of the themes available are fantastic to work with (woothemes being one of my personal favorites). However, our studio delivers solutions for our clients. We are not “theme implementers”. We have avoided this label without actually trying to. In general, the client that purchases a theme and then wants to hire a firm or contractor to implement it for them usually has already attempted to do it themselves and failed. So now you are hired to pick up the pieces (and usually at a very minimal budget). If we work with a theme, we generally choose it for our clients.

  2. David Caron says

    I believe that most people’s website could benefit greatly with a jumpstarted wordpress theme. The issues that we run into is that they are then limited by the theme designer’s framework when they want to extend their website’s functionality. Small businesses can always go with a $25-45 theme however they should also be aware that they are going to be paying more later on when they are a larger more stablished company. Paying twice is never fun in my book. This is why we create plans and strategies first and code and design second. Thanks for the article!

  3. David says

    I don’t see a problem with using a premium theme. You should add too. Using these themes saves no end of time which can be spent on creating great content, rather than spending time making a website look great. Last I read, search engines don’t care for looks, just personality.

    @David Caron – Regardless of whether a small business pays once or twice. It’s a chicken and egg situation, because not every small business can afford to pay out $’000’s in the beginning. And not every small business will out grow their website.

    • dkinney says

      David – if you read the article, you would see that I am in no way against premium themes. What I am not in favor of is clients purchasing a gee whiz Themeforest theme that is no way shape or form a match for their needs, and may not be sound or efficient codewise.

  4. says

    Amen! Excellent post.

    My heart is in custom website design. Without question I know it is the right way if a budget can afford it. It is the only way to really make sure a website is doing everything it can for you and not just giving you an interim fix.

    I have recommend people to a number of times, but I always caution them on the possibility of option overload. Having 100 options sounds great, but as you point out, customizing the theme or making a tweak within 30 CSS files give you nothing but gray hair.

    • dkinney says

      So true Rebecca. My heart is in custom as well, but I always want to find a solution for every budget. Unfortunately picking the theme first is a bit like cooking in handcuffs.

  5. Nik says

    Agreed, paid themes can be a great starting point, but unless the designer is sat with you while you’re writing the marketing plan, they will never be perfect.

    Paid themes definitely have their place as you say. I often like to make sites myself, and I’m certainly no designer or coder and I’ll often use whatever suits, whether it’s paid or free. Not to mention I think that the Genesis theme is one of the best creations for those with an interest in making WordPress sites without any technical knowledge.

    Regarding your point, when I hire a designer/developer I’m not just paying for their time. A good one will factor their expertise into the overall package. Giving them inspiration is great, but saying “I want that theme” is stifling their abilities to achieve the overall goal, so you’re effectively ripping yourself off, as few designers will cut their prices just because you’ve supplied the theme. On many occasions, the price will rise as they’re carrying out modifications or repairs.

    I definitely agree with David Caron, “…we create plans and strategies first and code and design second”.

    Really enjoyed the article, this is my first visit to the blog and I’ll definitely be coming back for more.

  6. says

    I agree. Also there’s a new trend–guys like Copyblogger want to lock you into their “design framework” which is almost like selling your soul to the devil.

    The greedy frameworks will have your designer jumping through more hoops than necessary, it’s a lose-lose for everyone but the framework owner and his minions.

    That’s why this blog post is so important–this needs to be exposed. Also there’s never enough “hooks” to make advanced changes work within whatever fantasy the framework owner lives in. These restrictions are only necessary in the sense they further empower the framework owner.

    As far as sliders, if they rotate automatically, try switching tabs and take a coffee break. When you reopen the tab, check for rapid-fire rotate (like a wind-up toy) can look unprofessional in my opinion–I see a lot of blogs have this problem.

    • dkinney says

      Hi PJ – I’m not sure we are in total agreement here, but that’s cool too. One of the things I like about Copyblogger’s “design framework” aka Genesis is that you can move in and out of it without a lock in at all. Advanced changes on that framework are pretty hard because you have to learn the system and it could be more intuititve. I’ve built very complex sites and was still stymied for a while, but recently I have carved out the time to learn it in depth.

  7. says

    Twice, I’ve bought a “premium” theme with the intentions of modifying it for my use (once for a site I was designing for a non-profit, once for my own site). Each time, I’ve abandoned the “premium” theme (and the money I spent for it) and gone with a free theme with extensive documentation and an enthusiastic developer community. I’ll never buy another theme again.

  8. says

    I usually pick out 5-10 themes to send a client. That way I can filter through options myself. If they do not like any of those then I will provide more options but if they haven’t found any by then it’s probably time to raise the budget to custom web design.

    I will only do a theme site for someone that has really simplistic needs. I tell them we can make minor changes (colors, some layout changes, etc). If they need custom programming, you need a custom web site.

    • dkinney says

      Hi Chad, WordPress SEO is best accomplished with a plugin like All in One or Yoast’s SEO plugin. The big benefit of these is that your seo settings and data is portable when you change themes. The key thing to check either a template or custom theme for is compatibility with these plugins! If the theme is properly coded, it is never an issue.

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