Don’t buy the hype.
As I opened one of the many emails I receive daily concerning WordPress, WordPress themes, WordPress as a service, WordPress products, and everything imaginable to do with WordPress, I saw an article title that I see a lot, in some form or another.
n Reasons Why You Shouldn’t use Free WordPress Themes or Plugins
These lists, usually, are authored, usually, by theme shop developers, and the more I thought about it, their points are really marketing bunk. So I’m going to debunk them, because overall, it makes the free plugin and theme developers look like a seamy underbelly peddling themes from some back alley, where heroin addicted devs are trading their free themes for Starbucks cards.
Anyone who has been working around WordPress any length of time knows this stance is not true.
I’ll knock out the most common “reasons” you’ll read why you should only use premium themes and plugins.
“They’re poorly coded.”
The free themes (of which there 2,614 as of this writing) you find on the WordPress repository must pass a litany of requirements and are all personally screened by theme experts to make sure they conform to not only W3C standards, but WordPress’ own standards. In other words, their free themes are highly scrutinized and must pass tests to be admitted into the repository. You can look at the theme authors’ credentials, see user reviews, see when they were updated, see how many support threads have been resolved and more, for every theme.
Paid themes, a.k.a. 3rd party themes or ‘premium’ themes, do not have to be tested, approved, and are actually under less regulation than the free WP themes. None, in fact.
Point: Free themes. Bonus: over 2600 of them to choose from, searchable, saveable, and all in one place.
“There’s no support”
WordPress maintains a forum, which in itself is a master reference if you ever have a question. Additionally, there are entire websites devoted to WordPress issues, like Stackexchange/WordPress, WordPress Questions, and so on. Also, there is a Q & A ability for each theme author in the repo to interact with the devs if there are any questions or issues. Additionally, you can see how many help tickets have been opened and how many closed within the past few months, to get an idea of how involved the authors are, and the last time the theme or plugin was updated.
You don’t get any, or much, of that with paid themes. And to say you offer support is one thing. There’s no assurance it’s good support. Or the owner deciding to take a year vacation.
Point: Free themes
“Premium Themes are Original. All Free Themes Look Alike”
As pointed out earlier, there are over 2,600 customizable free themes, just on the WordPress repo alone. With the default options in the WP customizer, you already have a world of basic customizations available. If you know a little CSS, you can do anything you want with the stylesheet and JetPack-sponsored ‘Edit CSS’ module(which is surprisingly good), and don’t even have to build a child theme. (Which, of course, you always want to do if ever plan on updating your site, which is highly recommended). Jetpack, incidentally, has been downloaded 11 million times, and is totally free.
If you know how to build a child theme, or are willing to learn(You can learn to do it in a weekend), the world is your oyster. The only reason your theme would be a clone is if you can’t design, and if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter whether you have a free or paid theme.
Not to mention, do you know how many sites are running the Genesis theme? A LOT. And they’re pretty identifiable.
Tie: You’ll probably want to customize any theme you end up with, paid or free.
“If you want the ‘Latest and Greatest’ Features, You Have to Pay Up”
Apparently a good eCommerce plugin or using HTML5 or schema should cost you something. Don’t tell that to the guys at Authenticity, who make WooCommerce, or Mike Jolley, whose add-ons for WooCommerce are top-notch. Similarly, Yoast’s SEO for WordPress plugin, that’s been downloaded well over 11 million times, is as “cutting-edge” as most “serious bloggers” need.
“Free Plugins aren’t Secure”
There are paid plugins that have vulnerabilities, just like any software, and have had emergency updates issued in panicky emails, believe me. This is a matter of maintenance and frequent updates. This is true for free and paid plugins. This is where caveat emptor comes into play; you have to be the smart consumer and judge if the updates are good enough to let you sleep at night. You can look at the change logs and on the WP plugin repo, see right there when it was updated and all the relevant info.
In fact, here’s a little story. When the Thesis Theme, which is a premium theme which I believe cost me $79 when I bought it way back when, released version 2.0 in October of 2013, I asked the developer to see the change log, because the was no documentation on how to use it(which is a whole ‘nother story that works against premium themes), he told me “No” because he doesn’t keep stuff like that. I’m skeptical about that comment, to say the least, and if true, doesn’t make him look very thorough. So that’s something to consider.
“It’s Cheaper than Hiring Custom Coders”
Well, yes it is. That’s what “free” means. If the theme/plugin author wants to charge for them, they are free to do that, but using something offered free, in tens of thousands of varieties, is no reason to take a guilt trip. If you need a truly behance website or plugin, you shouldn’t be worrying about free vs. paid themes and plugins anyway.
Point: Free themes, for being free, and an extra point for the “Poor Me” card being played.
This is just an insult to some great developers. Many of the top WordPress developers have premium products available, but offer free ones as well. Justin Tadlock, WooCommerce, Pippin Williamson, ThemeShaper, and many others are as good as it gets, and whose products and work is highly regarded.
And to those thinking “these are the rantings of a cheapskate,” you are right, however I have, or have had, licenses to a host of premiums themes: Genesis, Thesis, Elegant Themes, Jobify, and more.
But the majority of themes I’ve built for myself, family members, or projects that clients don’t specifically ask for, say, Genesis modifications, I’ll build a child theme for a quality free theme every time. If I like the framework, and the history of the theme, I just saved myself a million hours of work, both past and future. The theme developer can take care of security patches, updates, enhancements, and a ton of stuff that I don’t have to worry about, while I can focus on customizing the appearance, performance and functionality. It’s a win-win, where I’m the one winning both times. I do this a bunch with the Stargazer theme, for example. And this very website is currently sporting a modified version of the free default WordPress theme, 2014.
If I want it even more bare-bones, it’s the Underscores theme, another free WordPress theme that’s high-quality, updated and secure.
So, save your pennies and go treat everyone to ice cream with the money you just saved. There is absolutely no reason to buy a premium theme, unless you have some financial interest in “Amalgamated WordPress Themes, Incorporated” or like to believe in fables.