I like to think of a WordPress site in terms of something we’re all familiar with — the place we live.
Every house, condo, or apartment needs a location, the land it sits on. Then it needs a foundation. After the foundation is poured, the entire structure is framed in. Add exterior walls and a roof, and you have an enclosed structure.
In website terms, the land is your domain name and hosting. The foundation is WordPress itself. The theme would be like the framing, and plugins make up the roof and exterior walls.
So the theme is absolutely necessary. It frames your site, giving it size and shape. Without it, visitors can’t view your site, so you must have one.
Every WordPress installation includes at least one free theme. Starting in 2010, WordPress has introduced a new theme each year. As I write this, WordPress has just released TwentySeventeen.
There are thousands of themes available, both free and premium (paid). Each has its pros and cons, but generally if you’re starting a website as a business, look at premium themes.
The theme provides instructions to WordPress about how to display your content. This includes elements like:
- size and style of header
- color scheme
- image sizes and placement
- sidebar placement
- footer design
The theme you choose will depend on lots of different factors, including your subject area and your audience. Your theme must be:
- Mobile responsive
- HTML5 ready
Do not consider any theme that doesn’t meet these basic requirements.
That’s because mobile devices are rapidly overtaking laptops and desktops in web searches, and Google downgrades a site that’s not mobile friendly. In fact, if your site is not mobile responsive it may not even show up in the results when someone searches on a mobile device.
Similarly, HTML5 is the latest set of browser standards. If your theme is not HTML5 ready (or compliant), it won’t be able to take advantage of the newer standards, so your users won’t enjoy the best possible experience on your site.
While choosing a theme can be fun and exciting — like decorating a new home — keep in mind that it will also be part of the infrastructure for your business. It must be solid and dependable. Review any theme you’re considering with a critical eye, paying close attention to the designer’s overall reputation and the theme’s security and technical support.
As you explore the theme options for your site, you’ll likely come across the phrase “theme framework.” A theme framework includes the functional components of a theme, while the design and layout parts of the theme are included in a corresponding “child theme.”
As an example, StudioPress started with the Genesis Framework, then added child themes. For the theme designer, this is a very practical way to work and develop new offerings. For a user, using a theme framework and child theme means you can tweak and customize the look of your site to your heart’s content.
Other advantages to choosing a theme framework include:
- Site security — framework developers are more likely to update their code regularly, and to keep the underlying code clean and free of malware
- Performance — frameworks are more likely to be optimized for speed
- Support — developers of premium frameworks can afford to put high-quality technical support in place
Some theme frameworks offer drag and drop customization, but most allow you to customize and make changes through a series of menus.
Recommended Theme Frameworks
There are many excellent standalone themes. You may find that the perfect theme for your business among them. Be aware, though, that any customizations you make could be overwritten when the developer releases an update.
Some developers handle this well. For example, Elegant Themes provides a customization interface they call “Theme Options.” When you make your changes via the theme options interface, they’ll be preserved when you update. WooCommerce makes standalone themes as well as the WooCommerce framework and its child themes. Changes you make with their interface will stay in place when the theme is updated.
Other designers are not as helpful. Therefore, you may need to create your own child theme which you then customize. If you’re not familiar with CSS and PHP, you’ll likely do better choosing one of my recommended standalone themes or framework/theme combinations.
Where to Find Themes
You’ll find thousands of free themes you can access within your WordPress dashboard. Click Appearance > Themes > Add New to see thousands of available themes.
They’re organized into sections:
You’ll also see
- Feature Filter
Toolset is a tool for developers.
The Feature Filter displays four columns. Choose features you want your theme to have, then click Apply Filters for a list of themes that include everything you’ve checked off.
Search lets you search for themes by keyword.
All themes in the WordPress repository have undergone a review, so you’ll know they meet minimum standards. When you click on a theme, you’ll see a brief description and star rating. To see more information about a theme, go to WordPress.org, click on Themes, and search for that theme.
Now you’ll see additional information, including how many times the theme has been downloaded, how many sites are actively using it (“active installs”), and its star rating. You’ll also see how many users have reviewed it, and you can read their reviews.
If a theme has a 5-star rating, but has only received three reviews, it’s likely the reviews came from people involved with the project.
Under the rating, you’ll see the theme’s support record. Look carefully here — if there are a large number of unanswered support requests, you’ll know that if you use this theme you can expect to be on your own.
Note: If you try several themes before settling on one, you should uninstall the rejects. However, it’s a good idea to leave the newest default theme to use for troubleshooting if your site experiences problems in the future.
You can go to any major search engine to search for WordPress themes, but if you don’t narrow your search you’ll come up with an unmanageable number of themes. A search for “free WordPress themes,” for example, generates over 53 million results.
If you do find a free theme you want to check out, see if it’s also listed in the WordPress repository. If it’s not, it may be that it couldn’t pass even the most basic scrutiny, so it’s best to leave it alone.
A search for “premium WordPress themes” on Google yields more than 13 million results. If you want to look beyond the premium theme designers we recommend, look for articles that feature the “best of” themes. For example, “The Best Premium WordPress Themes,” or “Best Themes for Freelancers,” shows you a number of different themes. Just make sure they meet some set of objective criteria and aren’t merely a collection of affiliate links!
As you research themes, you’ll likely run across several theme distributors or marketplaces. The best known of these is Theme Forest. Be very cautious choosing a theme from one of these marketplaces. Check to see what sort of scrutiny they do before listing a theme, and what recourse you have if you have problems with the theme.
It’s preferable to buy a premium theme or framework directly from the designer rather than using a marketplace. Just be sure the designer has a top-notch reputation for quality and security. Both Elegant Themes and StudioPress, for example, hire a third-party security firm to audit their themes and offer quality technical support.
How to Install a Theme
There are two easy ways to install a WordPress theme. If you’re choosing a theme from the WordPress repository, you can do it without leaving WordPress. If you’re installing a premium theme, or a theme you’ve downloaded from another source, there will be a couple extra steps.
Inside the Dashboard
To install a theme that you’ve found inside your WordPress Dashboard at Appearance > Themes > Premium Themes or WordPress.org (free themes) simply select the theme and click the Install button.
Next, you’ll see a screen that looks like this.
Click the Activate link to make this your active theme.
Upload a Theme
If you’ve found a theme outside of the WordPress repository — a premium theme you purchased directly from the designer, for example — start by following the designer’s instructions for downloading it to your computer.
After you’ve downloaded the theme, log into your WordPress Dashboard and select Appearance > Themes > Upload.
Click Choose File and navigate to the file location on your computer where you previously downloaded the theme. Note that the theme you downloaded should be in the form of a .zip file. Do not unzip it!
Select the theme file, then click Install Now.
You’ll see a screen similar to the one above. Click Activate.
If you’re using a theme framework with a child theme, you’ll need to install each separately. Install the framework first, but do not click Activate. Then install the child theme and click the Activate link.
How to Uninstall a Theme
There’s no reason to keep a lot of themes installed. Your site will run more smoothly and use fewer resources if you delete themes you’re not currently using. However, it is a good idea to keep one simple and dependable theme (TwentySeventeen) installed to use for testing and troubleshooting if the theme you’re using develops problems.
Uninstalling a theme is very simple, and it doesn’t matter whether you uploaded it or installed it directly from the WordPress repository.
In your WordPress Dashboard, select Appearance > Themes.
Here’s a site with three installed themes: Extra and Divi from Elegant Themes, and TwentySixteen. The active theme is Extra.
To delete Divi, hover your mouse over it, then click Theme Details. Notice the Delete link in the lower right-hand corner. Click the link.
Next you’ll see a box asking you to confirm the deletion. Click OK.
Now you have only two themes installed.
How to Customize a Theme
There’s no one-size-fits-all set of instructions for theme customization. Every theme design has its own group of customizations and handles them in different ways. Consult your theme’s documentation to find out about all the different customizations available to you.
Keep in mind, when you’re working with a theme, that your primary menu is located at Appearance > Customize. This screen is known as the Customizer. While the customizer includes Menus and Widgets, you can also go directly to Appearance > Menus and Appearance > Widgets.
This is your site’s name and tagline. You’ll find the same information in Settings > General. If you’re making changes, you do not need to change it in both places.
Some themes let you easily change the overall color scheme, as well as colors of the:
- Page background
- Main text
- Secondary text
When you click the Select Color button, a dropdown appears with the color picker. It shows the current color, and the corresponding hex code color value (in this case, #ffffff). You can easily change it back to the default for that preset color scheme by clicking the Default button.
To choose a color, type in the hex code value, or choose one of the preselected colors at the bottom of the tool. To select a custom color, use your mouse to move the slider on the right up or down, and to grab and move the selector circle you see here in the upper left corner, and moving it around until you find the color you want.
Click Add New Image to select a new header image for the site. Well designed themes will include a message here, telling you the preferred image size. You should prepare a header image to the exact dimensions specified for best results.
No image size is specified here. Once you click Add New Image, select the image you want to use in the background. With the image selected, additional choices appear.
If you choose an image that’s too small, it’ll be hidden behind the page unless you tile it (i.e., make it repeat to fill all the available space). You can also center the image, or have it float all the way to the left or all the way to the right. Specify whether it’s fixed (stays in one place all the time) or scrolls as the user scrolls up and down the page.
The Customizer also lets you work with menus and widgets, and specify whether you want to use a static home page.
The advantage to using the Customizer instead of the individual menu items is the page preview on the right-hand side of the screen, which shows the changes you make in real time. If you try something and don’t like it, you can see it and change it again right away.
When you’re finished making changes in the Customizer, remember to click the Save & Publish button at the top of the screen, and then close the Customizer.
How to Use Menus
The Menus area of the WordPress Dashboard is where you create all the navigation for your website.
Navigation is one of the most important pieces of your website puzzle. If it’s good, users will be able to find what they’re looking for quickly and easily — ideally within three clicks. If it’s bad, users will be frustrated and annoyed and won’t come back.
Before you start creating menus, invest the time you need to plan carefully. That’s the hard part.
Once you have your plan in place, creating the navigation menus is easy.
Click Appearance > Menus. You’ll see a screen that looks like this:
Type the menu name, then click Create Menu.
The name can be anything you want. I chose “Main Menu” for my most important navigation.
You can create menu items from:
- Custom Links
Note: before you can create a menu, you need to already have the pages, posts, etc., that you will link to. If you haven’t yet created them, take a few minutes now to make them. For our purposes right here, you can just create a new post or page, add the title, and hit the Publish button. Then come back to the current screen.
Once you’ve created a menu, a second tab appears, labeled Manage Locations. We’ll look at that shortly.
Look in the Pages box on the left. There are three tabs along the top — Most Recent, View All, and Search. By default, Most Recent is showing. Click the other links to View All pages or to Search the list of pages.
Add a check next to each page you want to add to the new menu, then click the Add to Menu button.
Here’s what your navigation looks like so far.
Let’s say you’d like Technology to be in a submenu under Portable Careers.
Making that happen (if your theme allows submenus) is simple — just drag and drop.
Notice that Technology is now labeled as a sub item.
Also, note on the right that each of these menus links to a page.
To expand the item and show more options, click the little down arrow on the right. You’ll see a form that looks like this.
Let’s say I want the navigation to say “Careers” instead of “Portable Careers.” I can make that change here, in the top field. I can assign a Title Attribute, and I can also use this to move the item to a different spot in the navigation. And if I want to delete it from the navigation, I simply click the Remove link and it’s gone.
To rearrange the order, I can drag and drop, or click to open an item and then click to move it up or down in the hierarchy.
You can add specific posts to the navigation menu in the same way. Open the Posts box on the left by clicking the arrow, then select the posts to add.
Do the same with Categories.
You may have noticed I skipped over the Custom Links option, but I haven’t forgotten it. Click to expand and you’ll see this form:
Use custom links when you want to link to a page that isn’t a page, post or category on your site. For example, if you want to link to a page that’s not part of this site, you would enter the URL in the first box. In the second box, name it, then click Add to Menu. Notice, when you add it to the menu, it’s identified as a Custom Link on the right, just as other items are labeled Page, Post, or Category.
Now look at the Menu Settings section at the bottom of the menus screen.
If you check the first box, WordPress will automatically add all top-level pages (in other words, all pages that aren’t identified as sub pages in your hierarchy) to the menu. This is fine if you have only three or four pages, but if you start auto-adding pages you can end up with a real mess.
Next, notice an item labeled Theme locations. This tells you where your theme has created a place for a menu. With most themes, there are two: the Primary Menu, which, as we’ve seen, runs across the top of the screen on the right, and the Social Links Menu. This is lets you add links to the social media platforms where you regularly post, and where you’d like your readers to follow you. The theme displays them at the bottom of the page, on the right.
Some themes allow up to three custom menus. In addition, you can use widgets to place custom menus in the sidebar or footer.
For example, you could create a menu that includes all your categories, and place it in the sidebar.
Once you’ve created your menu(s), click the Manage Locations tab at the top to tell WordPress where to display each menu.
Your theme may have additional customization options.
WordPress Basics for Bloggers Series
- What Is WordPress
- How To Get Started With WordPress
- How To Use The WordPress Dashboard
- How To Use WordPress Themes (you are here)
- How To Use WordPress Plugins
- Understanding WordPress Site Security
- WordPress Blogs: It’s All About The Content
- How To Optimize WordPress For Speed
- How To Prepare Your Blog To Build Traffic From Search
- How To Prepare Your Blog To Build Traffic From Social
Next Steps For New Bloggers
- Validate your blogging idea and create a plan using the Blogging Startup Planner.
- Follow the steps outlined in How To Start A Blog: The Ultimate Free Guide.
- Use the Ultimate Blogging Planner to plan your blog content and strategy for the coming year.
- Use the Blog Promotion Checklist to get maximum visibility to your blog posts each and every time.