One of the biggest overlooked problems with Word Press really isnâ€™t a fault of WordPress: bad themes.
Because it is so easy to modify a theme, to customize the look, many people do- and then post their theme for others to download. Doing this can be an act of kindness- or have some ulterior motives- such as including a link back to the theme builders site- or even semi evil- by including code that delivers ad words proceeds to the theme builder.
In general, people who post themes have good intentions and there are a lot of very good themes out there. But- what are the deciding factors that make a theme good or bad?
This is not meant to be a comprehensive look- just some examples of what can and canâ€™t go wrong with a theme.
Here is the most important tip for theme builders: check your theme on multiple platforms and browsers. We’ve had some problems with the theme “modern” which we use on this site- in some versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer (or “Exploder” as it is sometimes called -because it doesn’t display W3C standard code correctly) and the theme “jillij” which we love- but has problems as you can see from the comments on the link.
One major problem with theme builders is that they often find a theme they like and then tweak it to their liking without thoroughly knowing what happened before. Itâ€™s sort of like the communication game â€œTelephoneâ€ where you start with a long sentence and whisper it to the person next to you, who then does the same- and by the time it pass through a dozen people it may not mean the same thing. Themes can go through a horrible genetic mutation process, from just minor changes to images to accidentally deleting important tools and then being morphed again. A version history- or at least an acknowledgement of where a theme builder started would be a huge help.
We are in the process of building a list of best themes for WordPress- by evaluating themes we believe do the best job or offer the easiest to customize. Watch this site for more on this soon.
Feature sets: there are a lot of â€œtoolsâ€ in WordPress for a theme builder to utilize- some are totally worthless. My personal peeve is against the calendar- it takes up valuable screen real estate to inform readers what dates you posted on. The good thing is itâ€™s easy to remove from the sidebar- but itâ€™s a leftover from the early days of blogging when everyone was trying to push frequency over quality.
The next three are coding issues and are ranked on how easy to hard they are to spot:
Easy to spot:
A theme (probably left over from 1.2) that didnâ€™t support Permalinks (the ability to click on a posts headline and get a static URL that will always point to that post).
A little harder to spot:
A theme that didnâ€™t tell you there were more results in your category than the default number shown by your settings in options. You may have 100 posts in that category, but it will only display the first 10 results with no way to see the rest. To find this out- you need more than your default number of posts shown in a category.
Hard to spot- and literally makes WordPress worthless:
The theme, Blue Horizon, generates search results for Google that are identical- instead of showing the actual contents of the post- it puts your blogs tagline in the content area. See the screen grab below (click to enlarge)
It took a while to figure out where the code was in the header.php file to fix this- and we had to install the Google Site Map plug in to even identify the problem- since the site would only index one page and stop (a total negation of the best reason to use WordPress).
NOTE: I may have jumped the gun on pointing the blame to Blue Horizon- it may have been caused by a plug in- Keyword generator- that didn’t work- but- as I was probing the header of Blue Horizon- I still came upon some mystery code in the meta data: “WordPress, themes, templates, Odyssey, Gemini, Fuiyama, Maximus,Trident, Vesuvius, sports betting and arbitrage, web, blog, web log, design, web standards, valid xhtml, CSS, 505, accessibility, useability, 508”
So- there are still things to be wary of in a theme.
There are nuances to every theme and you have to choose wisely. Some people who can code a little HTML like to have their site have a set number of static pages. The theme Coffee Cup is one of these themes. However, if you use this theme and keep adding pages without coding the links to match your pages, no one will ever be able to get to them. This is not a bad thing; some people donâ€™t understand the value and power of the Category tool in WordPress and try to make everything a page instead of using posts effectively. See http://blogosopher.com/?p=41 and http://blogosopher.com/?p=2 I will probably post another post that is specifically about this subject soon.
Iâ€™ve seen themes that leave out categories- one of the most powerful features of WordPress, and link category support (the highly praised Connections theme left out link categories at one time- I havenâ€™t checked lately).
Great coders also annotate their code. These are instructions in the code telling you what the code does. While many of you will never look into the theme editor window- or muck with a theme (not available on wordpress.com hosted solutions) for those of us tasked to do so, good explanations of what the code is doing is a huge timesaver.
While itâ€™s easy to pick a theme based on looks, thatâ€™s like buying a kit car that looks just like a Ferrari but is really a VW under the fiberglass.
Hopefully, this post will help you evaluate what makes a good theme- and maybe even push a few theme authors to be more careful about what they leave out and to closely document what theyâ€™ve done.
For a more technical explanation of WP theme design focused on the hosted WordPress.com solution see http://lorelle.wordpress.com (this isn’t the full link if you print this out.)
Here is a long piece explaining the parts and meanings of a WordPress theme: