How to Choose WordPress Layouts (Themes) in 7 Simple Steps
Not all WordPress layouts (themes) are created the same. I’ve seen it before how much impact a theme switch can be. It had increased search engine visibility of some blogs to the point that they got a significant increase in traffic from search overnight.
Most importantly, good WordPress theme is able to make your web site or blog more usable, which increases engagements and conversions.
As they are different in one way or another, care should be taken when choosing a blog theme for your site. Educate yourself to pick the right one. It will be time worth spending because once you’ve done with it, you can use the same theme forever. Certainly you need to optimize it as you go but most likely everything will just be smaller tweaks.
So let’s cut the fluff and go straight into the process:
1. Define Your Goals
What are you trying to accomplish with this blog and specifically layout? Most bloggers have aesthetic purpose in mind, but this is also one of the biggest mistakes when choosing a WordPress theme.
Many newbie bloggers focus too much on the aesthetical end but forget the others. Only later they find the theme can’t grow with their blogs.
I was guilty for this too. Personally I went back to the drawing board and kept making the same mistakes before I realized that the key is in defining goals before moving forward.
What does the list of goals look like? Everyone has a different set of purposes she wants to accomplish with her blog theme, but here are some points to consider as a start:
- Maximize search engine traffic. Search engines still account for significant traffic for most bloggers, often as much as 40-60 percent or more. There are things you can do on your part to help search engine rankings of your blog pages. If one theme has been designed with search engine in mind, they require little to no modification at all.
- Increase RSS subscription. You can write strong copy with call to action to ask readers to subscribe on strategic places on your blog pages, but still a good design is able to display content feed in a way that any reader can’t miss. A well-designed icon which appears above the fold on the sidebar is common.
- Capture email subscribers. If you choose to build a list of email prospects and readers, you need to make sure you have ample of room on the sidebar to fit in the subscription form. The design has to be clean so the subscription block stands out.
- Reduce bounce rate. Bounce rate is percentage of single-page visits. If people left your site from the landing page, it may be that your navigation is confusing or they can’t find what they want quickly. Knowing which design is usable is part science and part art. You also need to adjust typography, content layout and components to reduce bounce rate, among other things. Page optimization is an entire science of its own, but you may increase stickiness by adhering to some general principles of good web design, such as cleanliness and proper spacing.
- Display and maximize ad revenue. For professional bloggers who choose to sell advertising space, certainly you want to be able to sell as many space as possible but at the same time keep your blog useful )without bombarding your visitors with too many ads). If your blog revenue depends on visitors clicking on ads, you also need to put them in strategic places. That usually is also a requirement from advertisers. Proper blog theme design may help you with this. A blog plugin can help you put the code on the blog pages, but you need good design to make the block stands out, not just by customizing colors.
- Conversions. Nowadays, blog software is not limited for blog only. You can turn a blog into a directory, content management system, or even mini site to sell products and services. It is possible to use WordPress, for instance, to create lead generation (namesqueeze or opt-in) page very quickly and add pop-ups and other features via plugins.
By now, you should realize how blog design may impact site traffic and revenue in many different ways. Not only that defining your goals is helpful to nail down what’s important to you, but also channelize your focus and effort on the right things.
2. Research and Investigate Your Options
After coming up with a list of goals or purposes that you want to achieve with your blog theme, now is the time to research and investigate available options. Again you may be looking at something else, but chances are your list will include one or more of the following:
- Design. You should not make a decision based on design per se, but who can resist browsing those sizzling designs, especially if they are free? If you have the technical skills to modify the themes, you can eventually fix sub-optimal themes. It’s just natural that people almost always start with design.
- Navigations and sidebars. Depends no what your site or blog has to offer, you may need top navigation bars. Bloggers who are looking forward to sell advertising space should aim for at least 2-column design. It rarely is a good idea to have more than 3 columns, including the content column.
- Redefining theme. Blog theme for professional bloggers means more than just a theme for the blog. It should also be thematically related to the niche or topic you blog about.
- Code structure. You don’t have to understand a lot of HTML and PHP to be able to identify if a theme has good code structure. From SEO perspective, the content should appear as early as possible in the document. It is possible to do so with a trick if you design with HTML tables (not likely with WordPress theme), but nowadays with CSS, placing the content block even before the left navigation bar is easy. After all, that’s what CSS is for. It offers flexibility to lay out content and adjust the styles of various elements.
- SEO-friendly tags. On-page optimization helps page rankings in search engine listings. With optimized code structure, it is possible to modify various tags to make them search engine friendly. If you don’t know how to do this, or if getting help from others is not an option, you need to check those tags and make sure they are optimized properly. (Learning how to modify those tags is not hard at all.)
If you have budgeted for blog design, you still need to be aware of the various things above. You don’t want to hand over the project entirely to the designer. Although they may know much more about web design, they don’t know about your audience. Most web designers also are not marketers, so their design may not help you achieve the goals you set in the first step.
3. Avoid Judging Merely by Appearance, Look Past the Icing
Sure, sleek design is eye candy. It is pleasing on the eye and at the very least you should be able to grab the visitor’s attention for a moment.
The thing is content is still the substance that is going to hold the visitors on your site. While design is important to convey your brand and help regular readers to recognize your site, by no means that is everything.
A basic blog theme has a header, content area and footer. Sidebar may be non existent, but in many designs, one or two sidebars are common. Four column designs are rare and it may introduce a lot of distractions to your blog.
Beyond design, you may want to look at the criteria above. But besides those, a blog theme also has details. From threaded comments to forms, tags representation, category listings, and so on. Some of these are just aesthetically pleasing. Others are necessary to help readers find their ways into your contents. After a while, if you post regularly, unorganized contents may turn into haystacks so navigational structure should be in place.
Now is also the right time to make a list of features you feel are necessary for your blog.
Refrain yourself from thinking about how to achieve what you want right now. Just list the features so you don’t lose them. If you want related posts in the sidebar or at the bottom of the page, this requires a plugin but it is still achievable. The later steps will address the technical issue.
If you want to manage your sidebar contents through widgets, make sure the theme also supports that. Some WordPress layouts include the ability to adjust various options through the Dashboard. This makes it very easy to customize without modifying the code or CSS directly.
4. Testing / Validating
When you find a free theme that you like, look for the demo. If you can’t find one, you can either 1) look for other blogs or sites that use the theme or 2) test it on your own computer — not production server.
You can search in Google for the signature (footer message) of the theme, or use the tracbacks or comments to find bloggers who use the theme.
If you want to test many themes, installing WordPress locally on your computer may be worth it. The benefit is that you will be able to load the blog with your own production data so you are able to see how it works for you when you bring it live.
For the latter, rarely is a design is perfectly compliant. Your goal is to clean up the theme code so it doesn’t produce errors that render your page unreadable. The cleaner the page, the better but less than 15-20 errors are acceptable — again as long as they are not fatal.
Note: Unfortunately you need to have some HTML knowledge to fix the theme. In this case you may want to look for supported theme, which provides you with answers if you have questions or problems.
5. Install the Theme
Ideally, you should test the theme thoroughly in a test environment but with your production data to make sure all features are working properly before you move to installing it on the production server.
Considering that you are able to switch back and forth between various themes, you may skip the testing phase and jump immediately to installation and activation.
If part of your requirements is to display related posts, now is also the time to install the plugin and setup widgets from WordPress Dashboard.
At this stage, try to break the theme by browsing randomly. The intention is to find a bug, if exists, before your visitors find it. If you test the theme before, this step should be a breeze.
Installing a theme usually involves uploading the theme to the wp-content/themes directory, unpack the archive, and go to the Dashboard to activate the theme. You can even preview the design before applying it. The preview appears in a smaller window, so to test it thoroughly you still need to apply it first.
6. Customize the Theme to Your Liking
As said above, if your theme includes an option page, you will be able to adjust various options easily. If it’s not, you need to ask a designer to do it for you, especially if what you want involves quite a bit of modification on the code level.
At the very least, perhaps you want to change the color scheme. Colour Lovers is my favorite site to find color palettes and patterns.
It is amazing how you are able to customize a theme to look entirely different from the original with a few adjustments. Of course, if you follow the steps above, you should not start with a news theme and try to modify it to video or magazine theme. Starting with the right base saves a lot of time, effort and money if you have to hire a designer to do it.
Believe it or not, blog design is an on-going thing. You can’t expect to pick one theme and use it for years without modifying something.
As part of blogging, you should continually test and track to increase conversions. Even if you don’t offer a product or service, you may want to test different web copy to see which gets you more subscribers. Often, rearranging the blocks may be all you need to improve conversion.
Only by testing you will know if a design is better than another. Of course, getting more traffic should also be an integral strategy for your blog but once you reach a level, you want to balance it with optimization to get the most out of the traffic.
Fortunately, changing a theme involves only modifying the theme file. You don’t need to change every single page like it is for typical web sites.
Picking a theme for your blog is fun. It still pleases me to apply different themes to my blog and see it morphs in designs. However, paying attention to usability and functionalities is necessary if you want to get the most out of your blog.
A good theme will optimize your content so search engines are able to crawl your pages better. It also makes your content easier to read. And when it comes to conversion, it emphasizes on your most wanted responses.
By taking the above steps, you will end up with a theme that may not be the prettiest, but most importantly, they are better in terms of usability (for readers) and conversions (for you) from 95 percent of the blogs out there.
Return to Free Blog Templates and Themes by BBU.
Return to Blog Tips for a Better Blog — Blog Building University.