When it comes to finding a theme for a WordPress site, I often see the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. Here I’d like to share what I see the most, my advice for mitigating these issues and also how you can future-proof yourself as best as possible with your WordPress theme. As this is the most visual part of your site, typically site and business owners will divert their focus over to the best looking them. When aesthetics are the sole driver it can often provide blind spots when it comes to secondary functionality, such as SEO capabilities.
There is often three key areas I typically focus on when it comes to finding the right WordPress theme, that is at the point of selection carrying out a list of checks, optimising the theme even further once it has been deployed on your site and finally, how to try and keep your theme up to date and not fall behind the other new products being added to the marketplace.
Selecting the right WordPress theme
Identify the one you like the look of, but before you hit that buy button, carry out a few initial checks to make sure it will serve you the best over the longer term and through the lens of SEO.
1. Poor coding – ensure that the staging website is functioning correctly; if it doesn’t then this is likely for three reasons, firstly it is poorly coded and has some fundamental issues, secondary the developer who manages the theme doesn’t keep the code base up to scratch (or lost interest) and finally a genuine bug. If it’s the latter option, do feel free to raise it with the developer as these do happen, but monitor how long it takes to get fixed and ultimately – if you’re comfortable adding this bug to your site, especially if it’s core functionality. You can also see the patch notes when the developer has updated the website, this should give you some insight into what has been requested the most or are the key priorities when it comes to enhancing the theme over time.
2. PHP Version – always a code symptom of how well the code base is kept up to date, does it function correctly with the latest version of PHP? the reason why this is important is PHP version development often comes with speed gains and core enhancements, you don’t want to be missing out on these as it can make a big difference. PHP is one of my fixes on my website loading speed troubleshooting guide. I’d also recommend marketplaces for buying themes as you often get additional support through the merchant and the marketplace – you can of course look at a theme supplier’s site directly, take a look at their support forum or channels and see how long they take to respond, this should give you a good insight into their inner workings as an aftersales outfit.
3. WordPress version – similarly to the latest PHP version, it’s important to have compatibility with the latest version of WordPress. There are some occasions whereby the most recent version of WordPress has been launched and the developer may not have had a chance to enhance the theme code base; so do provide some small leeway here. If you are using a marketplace to buy a theme, look at the last time the code was enhanced (often defined by a date in the main marketplaces).
4. Reviews – Looking at customer reviews can also be a really valuable side to selecting a theme as they often provide insight into points of contention or bugs; be sure to look at reviews done externally and not under the sites ‘testimonials’ section as they are often selected and published. I would however, look at their testimonial page and find brands using the theme and then look on the website, occasionally I see brand advocates on a theme supplier website but when I check the site they have moved away from the theme onto another solution and I often email them an ask why (especially if the site I’m building is a major one that needs some kind of theme or function support.
Optimising your WordPress Theme for SEO
Now you have selected your theme and got it all set up on your website, let’s move our focus on how to squeeze the performance, even more, to help facilitate higher rankings in search engines.
1. Core asset handling – Here I typically run the theme images through a compression and webp tool (in a staging environment to make sure it facilitates it) – this squeezes performance on images which typically do not get reviewed. Most site owners I know will optimise media images they upload but neglect assets. This can also be the case for CSS files and JS – I have built a guide on plugins I use for WordPress SEO.
2. Plugin reliance – Some themes require secondary plugins to be installed to get the full functionality suite as the advertised and staged theme. This reliance on third-party plugins isn’t usually an issue but when you don’t install them I have seen some assets point to broken links and reliance sources – so ensure you have all the required plugins where applicable.
3. Google fonts – There are some providers that have an excessive amount of Google Fonts on your theme, some render Google fonts and don’t use them either. Some Elementor sites can have 5-10 calls for Google Fonts and only require maybe one for example. This isn’t exclusive to Google fonts and does also work with other third-party font providers. Try to keep these to a minimum, I typically sway between recommending locally hosted font, native font or Google fonts as a last case scenario.
4. Core theme features – Most themes are packed with out-of-the-box features to squeeze performance, from offering Lazy Loading to perhaps caching options. Be sure to spend time assessing the core capabilities of your theme and ensuring all performance settings are being used. Typically when you are missing functionality and need to add a third-party plugin, it can bloat the site over time, so I’m a big advocate of native code rather than third-party plugins – but that option does become viable if a theme is missing important SEO related features.
Future proofing and conclusion
When your theme is up and running, I’d certainly recommend heading over to my WordPress SEO Tips section, which builds upon this from a global position and not just a theme perspective. I’d also like to reaffirm a position that over the years if the theme becomes more and more of a bottleneck, do try and look for alternative suppliers, I’ve seen some sites hold onto a non-supported theme for years as they like the look of the site, but this opens up a wide array of issues over the longer term. There are also builders out there (like Divi and Elementor to name a couple) that give you complete control over the aesthetics of a site.
Underpinning the core elements of your SEO, keep everything updated in a controlled way. For example, I’d always recommend creating a staging site which is a carbon copy of your live site, then test updating to the latest version of plugins and theme updates; when you keep everything updated then you are harnessing typically the latest technology. Sometimes the updates can break things so if you’re working with a large website, I’d 100% recommend getting a staging site and not applying automatically apply updates to themes and plugins or being selective over the high and low risk ones, for example, a simple plugin can be automatically updated with low impact on the site but major version of WordPress to be done manually and tested.
If you have any further questions about your WordPress theme and its impact on SEO, feel free to drop me a line on this site or on LinkedIn/Twitter!
Also, don’t forget – finding and deploying a fast WordPress theme can be dragged down in performance by plugins, read the guide on SEO plugins for WordPress here. If you’re up and running with both plugins and theme – then checkout my overall guide on WordPress loading speed.