Choosing the right theme for your blog is a BIG decision and if you get it wrong it can be a BIG headache to change (I should know, I’ve done one theme change and I really, really don’t want to have to do it again anytime soon!) Here’s how to choose the right theme for your blog…
Choosing the right theme for your blog is more than just choosing a pretty design – the right theme can also boost your SEO, make your blog more user friendly, boost your traffic and help you make more money.
So how do you choose the right theme for your blog?
I am going to take you through the exact same process I went through when I chose my theme for my two blogs (I also have a food blog: easypeasyfoodie.com), share with you the considerations you need to make (which are so much bigger than just what your blog looks like) and help you make that all-important decision.
But first let’s take a step back…
What exactly is a blog theme?
I often describe a blog as a car (with the URL being the car, the hosting is the garage, WordPress is the engine…) and your theme is like the bodywork AND the paint job AND the extra flashy styling touches.
The problem is a lot of bloggers think choosing a theme is just the paint and the flourishes, and they don’t realise (‘cos nobody told them) that it’s also the bodywork – and as we know the bodywork makes a huge difference to the performance of a car…there is a reason why a Ferrari doesn’t look like a Fiesta and it’s not just to make the Ferrari look prettier!!
Your theme can potentially have a big effect on the performance of your blog, from how easy it is for your visitors to navigate, to how much it makes them want to browse other pages, to how easily you can get them to sign up to your newsletter… it can also have an impact on the security of your blog, your SEO, your site speed, how easy it is for you to do various things on your blog… and the list goes on – we will have a look at all of these things in this post.
Free versus paid for theme
This is the biggest consideration of all. It is true you can get hundreds of themes out there for free, so why pay for a theme? The answer is because your theme makes such a huge difference! It’s true that, if it were just about making your blog look pretty, then there are some very attractive looking free themes out there… so why bother paying?
But as I’ve shared above, it’s so much more than just the way your blog looks. Free themes lack the features and functionality of a paid for theme and will hold your blog back in so many ways. Free themes will make it so much harder to progress and do well with your blog, they will present you with many headaches and restrictions and can end up looking very amateurish.
Here’s the cold honest truth. If you start your blog with a free theme, you will at some point want to upgrade to a paid for theme and changing themes is a headache. It’s not impossible by any means, I have done it successfully… buuut it was a long job and, believe it or not I am STILL fixing things that went wonky in the move (not because new my theme is bad, not at all – I love it, just simply because the two themes were so different… and I am a terrible perfectionist!).
If you possibly can, buy a professional theme from the outset. That way you should hopefully be covered… and if you choose well, (like if you follow this guide!), you shouldn’t ever need to change… or at least not for a really long time… and until you are rich enough from blogging to pay someone else to do it all for you!!
If you are currently on a free (or paid) theme and looking to change themes, then this guide will be just as relevant to you too – and will hopefully mean you won’t need to change another time!
The good news is you can buy a good theme for under $100, that will set you up for many years of blogging. So, let’s look at the features…
What to consider when choosing a blog theme
There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a blog theme, and if you are just starting out you almost certainly won’t have thought of all of them. You might not quite know what you want yet, and that’s OK – just go for something that offers a lot of flexibility, so your blog can adapt as it grows.
So, what should you consider?
Home page – Static or traditional blog?
In the olden days of blogging, your homepage was a simple list of your blog posts, in reverse order with your latest post at the top. (see my blog page for an example of this). And this is still possible and one that many bloggers still opt for. And if you are just starting out and want to keep things simple, this may be a good way to go…at least to start with.
However, this is not the only option any more. You can now buy themes that will allow you to do so much more with your home page – and since your home page will almost certainly be one of your most trafficked pages, simply having a list of your latest blog posts, maybe with a photo and a short blurb, is something of a lost opportunity. Especially if you want to grow your email list, or sell products and services, or just highlight different blog posts or areas that you cover.
Neither of my blogs have the traditional list of blog posts type home page. Easy Peasy Foodie, which is built on the Divine Theme*, has a home page that features my latest posts, but also feature posts and pages, a nice clear email list sign-up form, and recent posts from a variety of different categories. I want to give people a flavour of what they can find on the blog and convince them quickly that there is something there for them – lots of delicious pictures of food also means there’s a good chance my reader is going to click on at least one recipe that catches their eye!
Productive Blogging, on the other hand, which is built on the Refined Theme*, has many more features on the home page – I have an announcement bar, a hero image (which I can link to any post or page I choose), an email list sign-up and a hugely flexible section where I can put almost anything I want: featured posts/pages/products, testimonials, details of products, services or categories, videos – really, the limit here is my imagination! Below this main section I also have the option to feature a more traditional blog layout, so I can have the best of both worlds!
What both my themes offer, and what I really recommend you look for, no matter which theme you choose, is flexibility. Even if you are just starting out and all you really want is a traditional blog layout at the moment, bear in mind that in the future you might want more options and by choosing a flexible homepage, you are future-proofing your blog, meaning you are much less likely to need to change your theme in the future.
Another huge consideration is the existence of, and quality of, support documentation for your new theme. It’s no good having an all singing all dancing beautiful theme if there’s no guide as to how to set it up to look as great as the demo, and how to change it around to personalise it to how you need it to look.
The quality of support documentation varies enormously from theme to theme… so if you find something you like, make sure you check out the theme documentation / help guide BEFORE you hit that buy button!
Great theme documentation* is one of the reasons I chose to go with Restored 316* for both my blogs. They have amazing step by step set up guides, video tutorials and loads of extra resources and blog posts on how to customise the theme to make it exactly how you want it. Honestly, even if you don’t decide to go for a Restored 316 theme, it’s well worth just checking out their set up guides and theme documentation anyway, as I am sure it would be a big help even with another theme!
It’s also really helpful to watch/read theme documentation before you buy, as it gives you an idea of which features are customisable easily and what you can’t change easily (unless you want to code it yourself or pay someone to make tweaks that is).
With that in mind another thing you should look for in a blog theme is flexibility – and this is why it is worth digging deep into the theme documentation. What can you change? And what is fixed? Can you change colours? Fonts? Other design features? How many widget spaces are there? This is where a paid theme comes into its own, normally there is a much greater degree of flexibility in a paid theme compared to a free one, where the options are often much more limited.
The problem with an inflexible theme, is not only that it won’t allow you to customise your blog as much as you would like, but also that your blog will end up looking like everyone else’s blog who has that theme. It’s not the end of the world, but it does look a bit amateurish if your blog looks like a carbon copy of a load of other blogs out there.
Of course, it is inevitable with any theme that your blog will look a bit similar to every other blog that has that theme, and in time you may want to think about getting a designer to customise it more for you. But that’s for the future!
Space to put your newsletter sign-up form and styling for that form
Another huge consideration, getting email subscribers and growing your list is super important, but so often themes don’t give enough space for this. When you are looking at a theme you are interested in, ask yourself: how many places does the theme provide for putting a subscription box, and is there styling to make that sign up form look beautiful and match the rest of the design?
These days having a sign-up form just in your side bar is not enough (mobile now accounts for over 50% of page views for most bloggers, and on mobile the side bar either gets buried at the bottom of the page or disappear totally) – look for a theme that allows you to put a newsletter signup in some or all of these places too:
- Sticky announcement bar at the top
- Home page
- At the end of blog posts
- On a landing page
- And of course, the side bar too!
And don’t just think about positioning, but also styling. Email service providers vary but sometimes the signup boxes they provide are a bit basic and clunky, and might look a little out of place on your otherwise beautifully styled blog. The good news is some themes come with styling for the sign-up forms and helpful documentation as to how to set it all up, as well as customisable colours so you can make your sign-up form stand out and match your branding.
Another thing to check for is if your chosen theme has a built-in category index page. This is especially important if you are a recipe blogger – so you can create a recipe index, but very useful for any blogger, as it gives you a way of showing all your categories and posts in an easy to read and navigate format – great for readers, great for getting extra pageviews and great for SEO too.
Want to see some examples?
Here is my Recipe Index on Easy Peasy Foodie
Here is my Category Index on Productive Blogging
I love how the Restored 316* category indexes have so much flexibility too. You can arrange things exactly how you want them, have as many or as few blog posts as you want in each section, choose whether you want just photos, photos and title, or photos title and blurb, choose the size and shape of your photos and choose exactly which categories or tags to highlight.
Whatever theme you choose make sure it has a category index and enough options, so you can set up your category index exactly how you need it to be.
READ MORE >>> A beginner’s guide to SEO for bloggers
Look and feel
Obviously, this is important. But you might be surprised to know it’s not the most important feature. Remember most themes, especially paid for themes come with a whole host of styling options – you may be able to change colours, fonts, design elements, rearrange features and so on. So that actually the flexibility and ability to customise your theme is way more important than what it looks in the demo.
So, before you buy, check out the theme documentation and find out what you can and can’t change and think more about the elements you want in your theme rather than the specific look and feel of the theme demo, most of which can be easily changed to suit to your requirements and branding.
That said there are often a few elements that you can’t change (easily – obviously you can change almost anything if you pay a designer or learn how to code!) – the things that usually don’t change are things like dividing lines, boxed out bits, icons, symbols, backgrounds and the overall layout. Sometimes the fonts can be a bit tricky to change too. So, if there is something you really don’t like or are hoping to change, check out the theme documentation first or email the theme designer to find out how easy (or expensive!) that part is to change before you buy!
Another place to look and see what kind of options there are is the footer area. Often premium themes will come with one or more widgetized areas in the footer area. You may be able to place your Instagram feed here, another newsletter signup box, a search bar, your social media icons, another ‘about me’ section, featured posts, awards and more. Think about what you may want to put here and make sure your chosen theme has enough options to allow you to do everything you want with this section.
Another hugely important concern is menus. How many menus does your theme allow you to have and where does it allow you to put them? Most themes will allow for at least 2 menus – typically one above and one below the logo, but really good themes will have multiple options. For example, the Refined theme*, that I have used for Productive Blogging allows me to put menus above and below the logo, but also to the left and the right and there’s a menu option for the footer too – that’s a lot of flexibility!
Ability to sell products and services
Do you want to use your blog to sell products and/or services? If so check your theme is set up to make this easy and look pretty! For example, most of the Restored 316 themes* are set up to make it simple and easy to sell through the Woo Commerce plugin and are styled to make the shop part of your website match in with the rest of the website. Many of them also have the option to feature products on your home page too.
And if you are just starting out and have no products or services to sell at the moment, just remember that might not be the case forever. By choosing a theme with a shop option/styling, you are future-proofing your blog and won’t have to change theme if/when you decide you do want to sell from your blog.
This isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ this is ESSENTIAL! Google’s algorithm favours blogs which look good on mobile. If the mobile version of your site does not look good, or worse if there is no mobile version of your site (eeeek!), then you will not do well on Google. And most bloggers get at least half their traffic from Google – so if you have a poor mobile site, you are saying goodbye to A LOT of potential traffic!
A good theme site will allow you to look at the demo content on computer, tablet AND mobile to see how it looks on each device. Make sure you are happy with the way your chose theme looks on mobile as well as full screen.
Support and updates
You really, really want to make sure that your theme designer is on the ball, updating where necessary and is supportive if you have a question or something goes wrong. A really good way to test the latter is to email the theme designer BEFORE you buy: ask them a question or two – you are bound to have a few – and see how they respond… and how quickly they respond. Obviously how a designer responds to a pre-sales question is no guarantee of the support you’ll get afterwards, but it’s at least a good indicator if things are bad. If you email them with a pre-sales question and they take forever to reply, their reply is unhelpful, or they just ignore you, then I’d avoid that theme. You want someone helpful, friendly and quick to respond if you ever have a problem!
Reviews and recommendations
Of course, another great way to find out just how good a theme is, as well as how helpful the designer is, is buy reading reviews of that theme and/or asking in Facebook groups etc.
If you have your heart set on a theme, do make sure you check out the reviews of that theme – a good review will highlight the good and the bad. Is the good everything you hoped for? Is the bad things you can live with? And is the support good?
Alternatively reach out to other bloggers who have that theme (either directly or via Facebook groups) and ask them what they think, pros/cons etc.
Obviously, this is NOT the most important consideration, but it is a small consideration to take into account. If you buy a theme and love it and you recommend it to people, you could earn a few pennies by asking your readers to click on your affiliate link. It may not be much (though some affiliate schemes are surprisingly generous), but every little counts, no?
So on that note, I am an affiliate for Restored 316 because I would honestly, hand on heart, thoroughly recommend their themes – in fact I couldn’t imagine using anyone else’s, I just love them so much. If you click on my Restored 316 link* (or any of the other Restored 316 links in this post) I will get a small commission if you go on to buy a Restored 316 theme – thanks so much in advance!
Also, if you are having trouble working out what theme is best for you, R316 has this fabulous quiz which will help you choose*.
And if the idea of setting up your own theme gives you the heebie jeebies (it’s not that hard – honestly!) then Restored 316 also have a selection of fab set up services – starting with a basic package where they will just set the theme up for you as per the theme demo, and going right up to creating a bespoke website that is perfectly suited to your needs. Check out the Restored 316 web design services page here*.
Have I missed anything?
What do you consider to be the most important features of a blog theme? Let me know in the comments below!
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*This blog post contains affiliate links, this means if you click on a link and go on to buy the product I recommend, I will get a small commission, but you will not be charged a penny more – thanks in advance!