What You Should Avoid with Free WordPress Themes

By Lisa Sabin-Wilson

Although free WordPress themes are great, you want to avoid some things when finding and using them. As with everything on the web, themes have the potential to be abused. Although free themes were conceived to allow people (namely, designers and developers) to contribute work to the WordPress community, they’ve also been used to wreak havoc for users. As a result, you need to understand what to watch out for and what to avoid.

Here are some things to avoid when searching for free themes:

  • Spam links: Many free themes outside the WordPress Theme Directory include links in the footer or sidebars that can be good or bad. The good uses of these links are designed to credit the original designer and possibly link to her website or portfolio. This practice — a nice reward to the creators — should be observed because it increases the designer’s traffic and clients. Spam links, however, aren’t links to the designer’s site; they’re links to sites you may not ordinarily associate with or endorse on your site.

The best example is a link in the footer that links to odd, off-topic, and uncharacteristic keywords or phrases, such as weight loss supplement or best flower deals. Mostly, this spam technique is used to increase the advertised site’s search engine ranking for that particular keyword by adding another link from your site — or, worse, to take a site visitor who clicks it to a site unrelated to the linked phrase.

  • Hidden and malicious code: Unfortunately, the WordPress community has received reports of hidden, malicious code within a theme. This hidden code can produce spam links, security exploits, and abuses on your WordPress site. Hackers install code in various places that run this type of malware. Unscrupulous theme designers can, and do, place code in theme files that inserts hidden malware, virus links, and spam. Sometimes, you see a line or two of encrypted code that looks like it’s just part of the theme code. Unless you have a great deal of knowledge of PHP, you may not know that the theme is infected with dangerous code.
  • Lack of continued development: WordPress software continues to improve with each new update. Two or three times a year, WordPress releases new software versions, adding new features, security patches, and numerous other updates. Sometimes, a code function is superseded or replaced, causing a theme to break because it hasn’t been updated for the new WordPress version.

Additionally, because software updates add new features, the theme needs to be updated accordingly. Because free themes typically come without any warranty or support, one thing you should look for — especially if a theme has many advanced back-end options — is whether the developer is actively maintaining the theme for current versions of WordPress. Active maintenance typically is more an issue with plugins than it is with themes, but the topic is worth noting.

  • Endlessly searching for free themes: Avoid searching endlessly for the perfect theme. You won’t find it. You may find a great theme and then see another with a feature or design style you wish the previous theme had, but the new theme may lack certain other features. Infinite options can hinder you from making a final decision. Peruse the most popular themes in the WordPress Theme Directory, choose five that fit your criteria, and then move on. You always have the option to change a theme later, especially if you find the vast amount of choices in the directory to be overwhelming.

The results of these unsafe theme elements can range from simply annoying to downright dangerous, affecting the integrity and security of your computer and/or hosting account. For this reason, the WordPress Theme Directory is considered to be a safe place from which to download free themes. WordPress designers develop these themes and upload them to the directory, and the folks behind the WordPress platform vet each theme. In the official directory, themes that contain unsafe elements simply aren’t allowed.

The WordPress Theme Directory isn’t the only place on the web to find free WordPress themes, but it’s the place to find the most functional and safest themes available. Safe themes contain clean code and fundamental WordPress functions to ensure that your WordPress blog functions with the minimum requirements.

The WordPress.org website lists the basic requirements that theme designers have to meet before their themes are accepted into the directory. It is highly recommended that you stick to the WordPress Theme Directory for free themes to use on your site; you can be certain that those themes don’t contain any unsafe elements or malicious code.