navin johnson - designer, developer

The Paid v. Free WordPress Themes Myth Debunked

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.

“Quality Matters”

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.

navin johnson - designer, developer

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.

Michael Out.
account disabled

Oh, Google, You’re Screwing Me So Badly

This isn’t another post about Google changing their search algorithm and how site stats have fallen, like the internet is chock full of by people who don’t understand sustainable SEO. Just want to announce that first, because that’s the typical expectation with a headline like mine. This is my surprisingly poor involvement with them as their customer, using Google Apps. Which I pay them money for.

I have several websites hosted on WP Engine, you see, and as fine of a job as WP Engine does for me, they don’t offer email capabilities. Given the cost of their service, that’s curious, but not the issue here. As a remedy, I use Google Apps for my email accounts for my business and several other reasons, because Google seemed like a pretty reliable group of fellows. And although their constant tampering with UIs and their massive number of products is a little tiresome, it’s no worse than other problems I could encounter elsewhere. One thing about the web is that as it ages, no one knows what it’s becoming, exactly, so there’s quite a bit of experimentation, which is fine.

So last week my main account they manage for me was disabled, without notice. every attempt to acces it resulted in this screen:

account disabled

This prevents me from accessing my email, my admin dashboard, my analytics, Google Plus, my…well, everything associated with this account. So I begin the task of trying to fix this. That was 5 days ago. Please believe me when I say I’ve tried every method Google suggests to remedy this, and then some other creative ones on top of that. I finally received a response after posting my problem in a forum where I noticed some others had experienced the same misfortune. Finally, a rep from Google emailed me to apologize and get details about the issue, so I gave her everything I could.

I was told eventually in another email from Google the reason this happened was because my site looked like it was “targeted to be hijacked.” What?

I’ve asked for elaboration on that statement, but haven’t gotten a response, which is what I expected. Just another email, a day later, explaining Google takes my security seriously, apparently moreso than customer service, and to go off and create a CNAME record for them and report back and they’ll get to me sometime. Sheesh.

So here we wait…going on a week without service and no real explanation.

Has something like this happened to you with Google? What was your experience like? I must say, I’m glad security is such an issue, but Google’s customer service, other than a lot of troubleshooting web pages, is nil.

UPDATE: August 7, 2014. Well, it’s happened again. And again I can’t get in touch with anyone at Google. I’m going to go ahead and just link to THIS PAGE, which will open a Google support ticket, for next time.

homemade pickles

How to Make Pickles

Here’s how to make some good homemade pickles. An Australian acquaintance of mine claims his only experience with “pickles” are those flaccid, slimy green discs McDonalds puts on their “burgers.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, he states that they usually are memorialized by tossing them against the wall of the restaurant’s dining area rather than eating them. Sounds about right.

So, in a brief, random post, I’ll tell you how to make pickles. It’s one of those recipes that I have in my head, like boiling peanuts or chicken bog–all of these are southern staples–, so the ingredient quantities depend on personal taste, but I break it down so everything is easily divisible. This makes 6 jars because that’s how jars come boxed.

What you need:

Of course you need some good pickling cucumbers. Grow them yourself, get them at your farmer’s market, or ask some of your gardeny neighbors if they wouldn’t mind growing them for you, but use fresh cukes.

For the brine:

    A handful/bunch of dill
    6 hot peppers(you choose the heat level)
    12 cloves of garlic(I like love garlic)
    6 slices of an onion
    6 tsp whole spices (that’s what they’re called, or “pickling spices”)
    6 lumps of alum
    1 quart cider vinegar
    2 quarts of water
    1 cup of salt

Enough sterilized bell pickling jars or mason jars with clean lids. Usually six(6) 1 quart jars.

1) Wash the cucumbers.

2) Set up your jars and in the bottom of each of them place:

    1/6 of the dill
    1 hot pepper
    1 tsp of the spices
    2 garlic cloves
    1 onion slice
    A small lump of alum

3) Put your cucumbers in the jars. You’ll want to bring the brine(vinegar, water and salt) to a boil.

4) Pour into the jars, seal immediately, and that’s it!

wacom tablet intuos5

Going All In with My Wacom Tablet

If you use a Wacom tablet, you know how awesome they are. I have an Intuos5 (medium) and I cherish it. Basic usage of them is easy enough, but using them to their full potential takes practice. And more practice. Funny, the model name is Intuos(I presume a marketing spin on the word “intuitive”) and they aren’t exactly intuitive to use.

But learning to use them is very much worth it. Of course I’m saying that as someone who’s essentially being forced to use my tablet full-time. My wireless mouse began having hiccups, so I switched back to a wired Dell mouse, which was a piece of junk. So I’ve made the decision to just use the tablet for everything, which should yield some rewards. I use it for graphics programs, of course, but would switch around, and I’ve never really gotten a good grasp of all the controls and buttons, dial, and features tablets offer. Seems like a waste. It’s a waste. It’s like having a Porsche and never leaving the driveway.

My wrist is already thanking me. I’m becoming much more precise with a stylus. As someone who believes tools make all the difference, the versatility of this tablet blows a mouse out of the water. As a designer and developer, you have to master your tools. There’s no way around it.

Customizable buttons on the tablet and mouse allow you to do anything you want, and you can assign buttons for specific applications, so for Photoshop you can have them do one set of commands, then in Illustrator, another, then…well, you get the picture. And it’s wireless, so I can lay on the couch across the room and work if I wanted. But having it next to the keyboard is much more powerful, and together I’m finding a really great workflow. So, in this case, I’e got some nice lemonade from the lemons my mice gave me.

wacom tablet

Is your website from the "disco-era?"

Signs Your Website Needs Help

Always amazed at some of the things I come across when people come to me with website issues, some things always seem the same. Here are some of the most common issues I come across that need to be addressed pronto, which are very good signs your website needs help.

See if any sound familiar to you:

  1. Frankensites that are cobbled together. Passed from designer and developer to another again and again, there’s poor integration, poor security, heavy load times, outdated plugins and a host of other problems this situation causes.
  2. No social media. Or if the opportunity is there, it’s not used properly, if at all. Users can’t engage, can’t share, and as a result your traffic is stagnant.
  3. Flash. Don’t use it. Animated intros and other such annoyances are played.
  4. Tables. See above.
  5. Your call to action is clunky and ineffective. There’s a way to do this right, and a million ways to do it wrong.
  6. Basic site updates require a committee meeting. You really should be able to either update your site yourself or have a system in place to do it automatically. You shouldn’t be calling your designer or developer for every little thing these days.
  7. Your website isn’t responsive. Meaning it fails on tablets, phones and other mobile devices. You simply can’t afford to ignore mobile traffic, or your users will ignore you.

The right tool makes all the difference, and usually not only means an easier time, but is the flat-out difference between success and failure. Your website is a tool. Use the best, meaning the most appropriate and up-to-date, that you can. Don’t be serving your users disco music.