Choosing a theme is one of the most important decisions you can make when setting up your website. The WordPress theme directory has long been the first port of call for WordPress users looking to style their site but questions have been raised of late about whether it’s the best option for site owners – and theme developers – to rely on.
A recent crackdown on the distinction between functionality and presentation by the WordPress Theme Review Team has put the issue of whether WordPress.org is still the best source of free WordPress themes under the spotlight. In this article, we’ll cover the background to the recent kerfuffle, consider if WordPress.org should still be the default destination for finding free WordPress themes, and draw your attention to some useful alternatives. Let’s start with some background!
What’s All the Fuss About?
An oversight during content migration is at the heart of much of the recent drama. As WP Tavern pointed out, the Theme Review Team have had an established policy in place for quite some time forbidding theme authors from defining the generation of user content. The rationale behind this is eminently sensible: users shouldn’t potentially lose data when changing themes.
Unfortunately, during the process of moving theme requirements from the Codex to their new home in the Theme Review Handbook, this requirement was left out. Chip Bennett posted a summary of the missing sections back in May, 2015. The particularly relevant section is quoted below:
Presentation versus Functionality
Since the purpose of Themes is to define the presentation of user content, Themes must not be used to define the generation of user content, or to define Theme-independent site options or functionality.
To cut a long story short, the upshot of all this was that themes were being reviewed inconsistently on WordPress.org for a period of time while two versions of the requirements floated about online simultaneously.
As the WordPress team (retrospectively) tightened up on inconsistently applied guidelines, many free theme developers naturally started to feel the pinch as previously accepted themes were suddenly denied and they face expensive additional development work to get things right.
Codeinwp went as far as to release a recent theme Parallax One for free, but omitted it from the WordPress theme directory entirely – largely in response to being singled out in the Theme Review Team’s original discussion of the matter. They covered the subject in some depth in their July transparency report. So what’s all this inside baseball got to do with you the site owner? Let’s move on to consider that.
Why Should Site Owners Care About Industry Wrangling Over Free Themes?
There are two takeaways from all of the above that site owners might be mulling over:
- Inconsistent standards have obviously been applied in the past on admissions to the official Theme Directory. This doesn’t just inconvenience developers, it potentially makes getting support for existing themes that fall foul that much more difficult. The idea that a theme can be valid today and struck off tomorrow is also worrying.
- Some legitimate theme developers such as have started listing quality free themes entirely separately from the official directory, so it’s obviously no longer the only show in town.
Add in the fact that many site owners will simply not really care about distinctions between presentation and functionality as long as a theme satisfies their needs and you can see why people might be starting to think about looking elsewhere for free themes. Let’s examine some of the options out there.
Alternative Sources for Quality Free WordPress Themes
A word of warning before you begin searching for free WordPress themes outside the cosy confines of the official directory: there is an extra level of responsibility on your shoulders in terms of assessment here. You’re stepping away from the extra comfort and security that having a dedicated theme review team offers you. With that caveat out of the way, let’s look at some solid free theme sources.
Hopefully by now you know that we offer free themes for our readers only! All of our themes have been created with secure and valid code, plus themes like Zero include premium features for free. We have lots of great free themes for business, blogging and portfolios plus live demos so you can see all of the theme features in action. Want more? Many of our themes have premium versions up on Creative Market that come with added theme customizer options and premium theme support.
JustFreeThemes lives up to the promise of its name with over 400 high-quality free themes listed, including favorites such as Zerif Lite and Lifestyle. Live and admin demos are available for most themes, so you can kick the tires before committing. You can also browse by categories such as blogging or e-commerce if you’re after a specific solution.
FabThemes looks pretty solid on first glance, with over a hundred stylish looking free themes on board. You can search by individual categories such as e-commerce and food, and the option of searching by color is also welcome. A five-star rating system is also incorporated to give you a little more insight into how individual themes have performed for other people.
On the downside, at the time of reviewing, preview options for all themes were out of action. Clicking on a preview link simply resulted in a 404. We’re sure that’s a temporary hiccup but, at the same time, it’s not a problem you’re going to run into on WordPress.org!
S5Themes offer a more limited number of free themes in comparison with the two previous candidates, but what’s there is high quality. You can select from categories such as blog and magazine themes, and a small forum section is available on the site for bug reports and general assistance.
Demo versions of all themes are available, but there is no rating system available that captures information on user feedback. S5 Themes are provided by Site5 hosting, so you know there is at least a solid business behind the free offering.
Should Site Owners Be Moving Away from WordPress.org?
If you’re in the market for a free theme, WordPress.org is still very much the leading source out there and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The three alternative free theme providers we’ve highlighted above offer genuinely interesting theming options, but they simply can’t compete with the depth of options on display in the official theme directory.
The amount of resources that go into making themes on the official directory high-quality, secure and compliant with best practices shouldn’t be underestimated either. While they all claim to review themes thoroughly, none of the alternative free theme providers has the sort of infrastructure in place that WordPress.org has.
We’d suggest a sensible strategy of reviewing the most popular free themes on WordPress.org first and then having a quick browse of our three alternatives above. That way you’re covering most of the bases in as short a time as possible, and giving yourself the best chance of finding a reliable free theme that matches your needs.
The recent fuss over acceptance criteria on WordPress.org was confusing. In the long run though, it’s a win for all concerned. WordPress.org has been forced to clean up their act in terms of standardizing acceptance criteria (good news for everyone ultimately), and independent free theme makers have been spurred to explore exciting new listings options.
Sites such as WPExplorer and the others mentioned above represent a genuine alternative for finding free themes but their inventory and review resources are naturally still a long way behind the official directory overall. For now, WordPress.org still remains the best overall source of free themes in terms of sheer quantity, but site owners are encouraged to check out the other options since you may find more features and better code elsewhere.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think WordPress.org is still the only game in town or have you started checking out alternative listings? Get in touch and let us know!