Premium themes vs Free themes – Which WordPress theme is the best?


WordPress is amazing piece of software for many different reasons. One of these key reasons is its ability to render the same content in many different ways using WordPress themes. There are literally thousands of free WordPress Themes available in the WordPress themes directory and many more on other sites across the internet. There are also a number of WordPress premium themes which are usually purchased and have a more robust feature set.

Image of the WordPress Logo

Many new and even experienced WordPress users are often unclear on the difference between free and premium themes. Interested in understanding the difference and when you should chose a premium theme or free theme? Read on…

What qualities make a good WordPress theme?

Before I go into the details of premium themes vs free themes, let’s discuss what constitutes a “good” WordPress theme. I’ll focus on the features that most WordPress experts would agree are required in order for a theme to be considered “good” or high quality:

  • SEO Optimized
  • Fast
  • Support for sidebar widgets
  • Visually appealing/professional
  • Easy to customize
  • Up to date and current

Some free themes and all premium themes meet these criteria. Where they differentiate themselves is in the number of features they provide and the ease at which they can be customized.

Free WordPress Themes

As I mentioned, a quick visit to the WordPress themes directory will result in thousands of themes available for you, absolutely free. These are themes developed by various individuals and submitted to the gallery so they are freely available to other WordPress users. Some of these themes are amazing and very well done, others…well, not so much.

Many of the free themes on don’t meet these six basic criteria. Many of them are not easy to customize, and require knowledge of CSS and HTML to even do basic things like change colors or change the header. There are exceptions, and you can find free WordPress themes that meet all of these criteria and even have many features beyond these. The problem is that these free themes end up being very popular and used by many different WordPress sites which makes it difficult to make your site look unique.

Free themes can also be a little misleading. When you view a free theme on, unless you’re fairly technical and knowledgeable about the inner workings of WordPress, you can’t tell if a theme is good or not. The theme may look great, but may be slow, not SEO optimized or contain numerous bugs.

I always tell my kids, “Nothing is free” and this is true with free WordPress themes as well. Even if they meet all of the “good” criteria, free themes don’t include support. Meaning, if you have an issue with the theme or need assistance figuring out how to do something, you’re on your own. This is an important trade-off to understand and accept when you decide to use a free theme for your blog. Personally, I treat my blogs as a business. I take my uptime, performance and reliability seriously, and having support is a must for me.

Free WordPress themes work well for the new bloggers that are trying to minimize their upfront investment when starting a blog. Free themes can be a good choice to get the blog started, growing and earning money. Free themes are also good for bloggers not interested in earning money from their blogs or just using their blog as a personal journal. When choosing to use a free theme, be smart about the free theme you use. Do some research, read reviews, see if others are running it, then make a decision. The most important aspects are making sure the theme is SEO Optimized and fast.

For more serious bloggers, I would strongly recommend moving to a premium theme.

Premium WordPress Themes

Premium WordPress themes are the elite of WordPress themes. They are:

  • Highly SEO optimized
  • Very fast
  • Provide support for widgets and come with a number of prebuilt widgets you can use
  • Often include features not found in free themes, including things like: Featured posts, ad sections, custom page temples, landing page support, custom sidebars, author sections, featured image support (with thumbnails), and many more.
  • Visually appealing and most come with child-themes that are prebuilt and professional that you can use of of the box or as a starting point to customize your site.
  • Include features that make them very easy to customize without having to write any CSS or HTML
  • Come with full support and are well documented, including “starter guides”
  • Are upgraded frequently and kept up to date with changing trends

Premium themes are created and sold by software development shops that know and understand WordPress and design. Theses shops often include:

  • SEO experts that insure the theme is fully SEO optimized
  • Developers that know WordPress and understand how to optimize it for maximum performance
  • Designers that provide professional graphics and well blended colors for a very professional look and feel
  • Support teams that provide support via contact channels and private “member” forums

One of the critical aspects of premium themes that make me use them is that they are constantly updated and enhanced. For example, Authorship is very important to the success of you and your blog right now. The Genesis (premium) theme includes built-in support for Authorship and makes it simple to set-up. Another example is HTML5, which is the latest and greatest version of HTML that brings a number of new features to the table. Thesis 2.0 and Standard currently support HTML5, and Genesis will soon when Genesis 2.0 is released.

While there are a number of other premium themes on the market right now, but the three big players are: Genesis, Standard, and Thesis 2.0.

Which WordPress theme type is the best?

There really is no right or wrong answer and the deciding factors are really all about what is important to you. While I’m technical, I prefer to spend my time writing content, being active in social media and creating new niche sites to increase my income. I don’t want to spend my time writing tons of custom code to make a theme look and work the way I want. I would rather just spend the money for a premium theme. Of course others enjoy doing this, which is just fine.

My recommendation is that you spend time looking through the criteria I’ve outlined above, and determine what features and capabilities are most important to you. Then, use Google to research the various themes and try them out. This will allow you to make an educated decision and decide what’s right for you.

I would also suggest you visit some of the large and more successful blogs on the internet and pay attention to the themes they are running, the majority of them are built on Thesis or Genesis and do not running on free themes.

5 thoughts on “Premium themes vs Free themes – Which WordPress theme is the best?

  1. Hey Larry, other great wordpress frameworks include the catalyst theme and headway. I have used them both and they are incredibly easy to format and customize…more so than thesis or Genesis.

  2. We build our own custom themes, but going with a more generic premium theme may be a good place for many to start. There are also certainly many free themes that will get the job done if you don’t mind having a site that also looks generic. Just checked out the catalyst theme page, and am seeing a php warning right on the homepage. Not great for conversion rates.

  3. Hey @leodimilo:disqus There are a number of them out there and I just mentioned that I’ve personally had “my hands” on. I did try Headway back a year or two ago and found it really buggy. Catalyst I’ve read about, and seen and never used for any practical amount of time.

    I don’t like to mention anything I haven’t personally used and had success with. But thanks for mentioning those.

  4. As someone who ends up building about 10-20 WordPress sites a year, I’ll say my preferred route is going with a paid theme that meets a lot of the needs my client is looking for. After that, I’ll usually make some tweaks to get it where it needs to be.

    Don’t forget a lot of WP dev has to do with plugins so make sure any theme you use plays nice with your plugins and widgets.

    It also helps to know some code. Even being a “script kiddie” is good enough for a lot of the simpler sites.

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