Over the past month, 404 Tech Support has been in transition. It was certainly not the plan for it to take that long. For a few weeks before I made any changes, I shopped around for themes. Most premium themes are now offered as responsive, able to transition gracefully to devices with different widths – from desktops to tablets to smartphones. I was hoping to move to a responsive layout and unify the site instead of having a separate mobile theme. Mostly, I was unhappy with how my previous theme could change the width of the main content area which then allowed images and embedded video to break out past the container and overwrite the sidebars.
While WordPress.org and other sites offer a great selection of quality free themes, I was also willing to pay for a reasonably priced premium theme. I ultimately paid for three.
My criteria for choosing a new WordPress theme included:
- Not built around/require images
- Disqus integration
- Featured image not used for multiple purposes
- Customizable homepage
- Easy updates
After browsing, searching, and demoing for weeks, I had concluded the template I was looking for was considered a ‘magazine’ layout. I didn’t want just a traditional blog but at the same time I don’t produce enough content each day or across enough categories to keep the page looking fresh for a full magazine theme. Many themes had a great layout where you could have multiple categories on the homepage. I liked that idea because I wanted to pull out Media and Tech Headlines from the main loop. The idea behind that was two-fold. I wanted to be able to post media more frequently without pushing down my quality articles at the same time. Secondly, I wanted the less frequent tech headlines to be able to stand on their own for a little while. When I looked for themes that could support this concept, I usually saw other problems that would have reduced pageviews. Pagination doesn’t exist for a lot of magazine layouts to direct the visitor to more articles within that category. I think it’s just common sense and particularly important for getting people deeper into your site. Since I was also looking at responsive themes, this meant I had to do a lot of testing across my other devices to see how I liked the theme at different widths.
Another problem I run into with a lot of the themes comes from their dependence on images. With technical topics, there are not always great images to go along with the article. A theme demo with lots of images is certainly eye-catching but it probably means it’s going to fall apart once it meets my content. One particular problem I’ve seen is when the theme uses WordPress featured images for multiple locations in multiple dimensions. I have rarely had luck with finding the same popping results as the demo. Large, high resolution images seem to be a hard fit but smaller images are manageable.
Why did I pay for three premium themes? I got a little lesson in the WordPress premium theme marketplace and they charged tuition. I browsed tons of marketplaces and considered different frameworks like Genesis and Thesis, and seriously consider Bones for future development. The first theme I tried, Fleximag from Mojo Themes, worked out ok but it was not compatible with the Disqus comment system. The developer responded that Disqus wasn’t tested with the theme and it could be implemented if there was enough demand for it. Meanwhile, the theme offered native WordPress comments or Facebook comments. Not using Disqus wasn’t an option for my site since it was one of the most effective ways to stop spam comments. My take-away was if the theme differentiated from the standards with something as simple as comments, there could easily be a headache lurking further down the road.
My next theme was a premium theme but I didn’t have to pay for it since I won it from the developer’s Twitter giveaway. Aegaeus is a responsive business theme also on Mojo Themes. It also worked out well enough but it had a few quirks. Since I already had a lot of content, the theme behaves differently than if I was creating all the content fresh. For better or worse, the theme offers a lot of customization. Unfortunately, those specifications get set during the post creation or update. Unless I went through and updated my 1700+ posts, the right sidebar would not show up and if I wanted to change them in the future, it would take another pass of each post. The featured image was also included at the top of each post and it stretched the image to fit the width of the main content area, resulting in some very large images at the top of posts. Ultimately, it felt like I was shoehorning a business theme to fit my magazine vision.
With a little more time, I combed through ThemeForest, a marketplace for WordPress themes. ThemeForest is like eBay or Amazon’s marketplace, it just facilitates connecting seller and buyer. They aren’t responsible for theme development or support. That being said, it’s hard to decide on a theme when a developer doesn’t have many products and a theme doesn’t have many reviews. I liked the look of Effective News on ThemeForest but couldn’t recommend it after setting it up. The theme did not “collapse” correctly on smaller displays so the menu looked horrible and didn’t work. The support was lacking but the final straw was some theme bloat. All of the customizations and tweaks to the post layout was held in the custom fields. This led to dozens of custom fields for each post. Changing the theme in the future was going to mean a lot of clean up the longer I waited. I actually reverted back to Aegaeus while I shopped around for that reason.
I tried some free themes from ThemeHybrid, a theme site with a strong reputation in my opinion but didn’t find a perfect fit. I was getting tired of spending money and being disappointed with the resulting “premium” themes. I had been doing my homework – checking out the live previews, looking at the code behind it, and reading all the documentation offered but I was still finding disappointing little surprises. Some marketplaces like Templatic allow you to setup a test site and those were very helpful. Being able to see the admin console of a site and set something up was exactly what was needed. Unfortunately for them, the demo allowed me to find the little flaws that wouldn’t work for me before I spent any money. Finally, I gave WooThemes a second look. I initially looked at them because they have a good reputation but I didn’t find anything in that first pass. After weeks of researching themes I had refined my vision (and perhaps settled a bit) so on the second look, I spotted the Canvas theme and the Currents theme, two of WooThemes’ responsive magazine themes.
I played with the Canvas and Currents demos and preferred Canvas. I read the documentation and watched the theme’s video tour until I was satisfied. I bought my final premium theme and set it up. A little burnt out on the whole process, I was satisfied with Canvas because it met all of my criteria. It doesn’t have the flashiest front page but it is lean, clean, customizable, and could be adapted. The front page can fit more content into it thanks to its layout. It is responsive but oddly didn’t have a means of making embedded videos responsive. I used the plugin Advanced Responsive Video Embedder to solve that problem. Beyond that it was fast and organized. It showed the meta information for a post well compared to many of the themes I had seen that did not have such a post-centric view. The Finally, it also supported child themes. I’m not at the point of designing my own themes but I tend to make customizations over time and a child theme makes updates painless while retaining your customizations.
I used the WP Filter Post Category plugin to exclude Media and Tech Headlines posts from the main loop. I used the sidebar area to include those posts by category using the TW Recent Posts Widget plugin. I’m pleased with the results but certainly feel free to poke around the site and see what you think.
The next major WordPress update, version 3.6, was slated for a May 20th release but has obviously missed that deadline. Should I wait for WordPress 3.6 before changing themes? It made me a little nervous to change themes before an update but after going with the WooThemes Canvas theme, I’m much more confident that WooThemes will release a quick update if one is needed given their reputation for support.
So, the moral of the story seems to be that finding the perfect WordPress theme can be difficult. You are certainly better off if you have the talent and knowledge to design and develop your own theme tailored to your needs. By making a list of requirements for my site, I was able to sift through a lot of the premium themes out there. Despite doing all the research I could from the public facing demos and information sheets, I still got a few lemons in there. Some times it was my needs but other times it was the fault of the theme. I’m not happy about wasting the money and the time trying to customize each one but there isn’t really a great process for returning digital goods, so I understand the refund is a lost cause. Most notably, I am just grateful to have a theme I am finally happy with and the experience provides the motivation to write this post. Hopefully, it will help somebody else through the purchasing process and thinking through what matters to them with a new theme. Responsive web design brings new adaptability to the web but it also means more to test before purchasing and selecting a theme.