Tips for Choosing a WordPress.com Theme

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I’ve recently been working with two different clients. One is an author wanting to upgrade from her adequate (but static, and a bit dated) website, the other is newly self-employed professional in a specific niche, and needing a web presence.

Both wish to be able to manage the sites themselves without having to call on a web designer or other tech help when they want to update the content. Neither is quite ready for a blog – at least to start with (I’ve persuaded them of the long-term benefits of having a blog, but first things first).

There were some similarities in the design brief: both wanted a ‘clean’ look, the ability to use their own image(s) in the header or masthead, the ability to use to a specific background colour. Both were looking at WordPress.com as a starting off point, mainly for its low maintenance aspect and to keep costs down. A hosted site at WordPress.com can always be ‘converted’ to a self-hosted WordPress site relatively easily. (For more on this, read my previous post about hosted versus self-hosted blogs.)

One of my first directions was to take a look at the range of WordPress Themes available. Were there any Themes they liked the look of? Personally I find it useful that you can browse by colour, or style, or industry, or even layout (number of columns and so forth). You can choose from Free Themes only, or All Themes (including those you pay for). The Theme Library is a whole bunch of goodies, and fun to explore. Or so I thought.

But both clients had the same reaction. They couldn’t choose. They couldn’t see past the fact that they were blog themes. All the examples shown were blogs, not websites. And there was TOO MUCH CHOICE. 

I should be used to this by now, but it still takes me by surprise – clients are much happier if I basically decide for them. I have three or four Themes I tend to suggest if the client has no strong preference. These are basic, clean, almost bland in their default form, but they allow for a certain amount of customising, and their look and layout suits what many people want from a website (as opposed to a blog).

So here are my tips for choosing a WordPress.com Theme, if you’re starting from first base and are a bit overwhelmed by the choice on offer:

Selecting a WordPress Theme

Click on the Theme name for more details

1) Read the detail – when browsing Themes, hover over the Theme thumbnail and click first on the Theme name for more information. This will bring up a page of detail about the Theme, examples and more. Do this before hitting ‘Live Demo’ and certainly before clicking on ‘Use this Theme’ – only click this when you are sure, as it will replace any current Theme you are using. If this is your first foray into Themes then it’s less drastic.

Look at the list of Features a Theme offers, they can vary widely

Different Themes offer different features

2) Layout – do you have any preferences about where the main menu should go? What do you think about a 2-column layout – with the sidebar on the right, or left? Do you want the option of a ‘magazine’ layout, with blocks of content on the page? Would you be happy with a large, deep masthead? Check out the Theme’s features. This is where you’ll see all the options. Some offer more than one menu, some have one-, two- or three-column page layout options, and more.

3) Images – don’t be put off by a Theme just because it appears to be image-heavy. The images are often optional, and Themes are shown at their best when populated by beautiful photos.

Gazette Theme

Don’t be put off by an apparently image-heavy Theme, or a Theme Name

4) Logo – some Themes have a logo in place that can’t be changed a great deal, others allow you to use your own logo.

5) Colours and font styles – what are you able to change? Some Themes offer 2 or 3 ‘palettes’ to choose from, and they might allow you to upload a custom background. But more likely you are stuck with the colours you see in the demo. Same goes for font, line height and other styles. However, if you upgrade you can modify these (see below).

6) Check out examples – some Themes offer a link or two to actual blogs or websites using the Theme. They can be useful to see, and help you envisage the Theme ‘in action’. For example, the Hemingway Rewritten Theme shows six example blogs.

7) Try it – if this is your first Theme, just try one and see how you get on. If you find it doesn’t offer the features or flexibility you’re after, or there’s something you don’t like once you start using it, you can always change to another Theme. Build some trial time into your launch, if you’re planning a launch … a few weeks gives you time to try before making a final decision. And it’s one of the fun things about WordPress.com – a makeover is only a couple of clicks away.

If you find a Theme you like but want to customise it to a greater extent that the Theme allows, you have a couple of options.

CORRECTION: the Custom Design Upgrade is no longer available outside of the Premium hosting plan.

The first is to pay for the Custom Design Upgrade, currently $30 a year. This gives you access to more options, such as a custom background, more choice of fonts, and bespoke colours. It allows you to make alterations to the CSS, or stylesheet – this does require a bit of know-how, but it means you can really make the Theme your own.

However, since September 2014 WordPress.com has included the Custom Design upgrade in its new Premium hosting plan, along with other upgrades such as VideoPress (video hosting), No Ads, a custom site address, increased storage space and email support. The Premium package currently costs $99 a year,

CORRECTION: although it’s being offered to new UK customers for £85, which is a lot more than $99. A tax on UK customers?

which I think represents good value and it’s what I now recommend to WordPress.com clients. You can compare the different hosting plans here.

What kind of blog hosting is right for you?

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What will you make?

Every blog is hosted somewhere on the web. Your options are either to have blog hosted by the platform provider, for example Blogger, Tumblr or WordPress.com ( a ‘hosted’ blog), or you can download blogging software (available from a number of providers) and have it hosted by a web host of your choice (‘self-hosted’).

The most common ‘self hosted’ blogging software is WordPress, but there are others. WordPress can be downloaded from WordPress.org (note the different web address!) WordPress is ‘open source’ which means anyone can alter it. This is both a good and a bad thing, as individual developers have the power both to enhance it and to break it.

One way to think of hosted versus self-hosted blogs is that a hosted blog is a bit like Lego building blocks – you can choose what you build but the bricks and other elements come in set sizes and shapes. This can limit your creativity but it does mean you can create a decent looking house, with the doors and windows already pre-made, quickly and easily. A self-hosted blog, on the other hand, is more like Play-Doh – you can bend, shape and style it into just about whatever you want, if you have a bit of skill and imagination. But it’s up to you to make it happen.

Benefits of a hosted blog

  • Basic version is free, although there various optional paid ‘extras’
  • Large choice of templates available
  • Very quick and easy to set up and maintain
  • No security issues to worry about
  • Reliable hosting (unlikely to ‘go down’ – but then again, you never know – see ‘benefits of self-hosting’ below)
  • Comes with a default address such as ‘yourname.wordpress.com’ or ‘yourname.blogspot.com’, but you can use your domain name if you wish
  • Easy to change templates if you get tired with the look
  • Hosted blogs are part of a large ready-made community of blogs and it’s easier to find and connect with others on your chosen platform

Cons

  • There are limits to how much you can customise templates or themes, especially within the free versions
  • With WordPress.com there are various ‘upgrade’ options, but they can add up: for example, to have your own domain name is $13 a year and if you want to customise a theme (template) the ‘custom design’ upgrade is $30 per year. (Whereas if you use Blogger you can customise the template for free, if you have the technical know-how)
  • Your content is your own, but there’s nothing to stop the blog host pulling your site or changing the terms without notice, so do regular backups of your content to your computer or cloud space.

Benefits of a self-hosted blog

  • You (or your developer, should you choose to employ one) have complete control over the design, including for example making your widgets match the overall design
  • You can choose your web host, and that means more choice of service level and pricing
  • You can have whatever functionality you require via plugins (bits of software you can install that work with the WordPress software). There are plugins for everything – from integrating your blog with a mailing list, improving security, running an ecommerce shop or serving adverts.
  • Many web hosting companies are geared up towards hosting WordPress software and offer ‘one click’ easy installation

Cons

  • You are responsible for keeping the software up to date – not just WordPress itself but any themes or plugins you install. Failure to do this can result in security breaches and your site not working as it should
  • The full version of WordPress may be more than you need, and you have to make a lot of decisions about things which come as standard in the hosted version

If you’re looking for a simple ‘out of the box’ blog and aren’t too worried about having a super-bespoke look and feel, if you’re not offended by having a blog address that includes the name of the hosting company, if you’re not really interested in running ads, or hosting video or having an online shop, then a basic hosted blog may be perfect.

If on the other hand you hanker after a blog/website with a unique look and some custom features, are happy to spend a bit of money in return for total control over what you can and can’t do, are confident about buying web space and aren’t phased by talk of ‘plugins’ and ‘configuration’, then you may want to go for a self-hosted solution.

Many, many high-profile writers opt for WordPress.com or Blogger.com and swear by them. So it’s not a question of starting with the ‘beginner’ version and working your way up.

Then again, one of the joys of a blog is that it’s not a big deal to start over on a different platform or template, as you can export/import all your content fairly easily. Sometimes you don’t know for sure what you want until you start, and sometimes your needs or tastes change over time.