One of the reasons WordPress is so popular for web publishing is because using it means it’s incredibly easy to change the look and functionality of your site. Time for a makeover? Just upload a new theme, activate it, and voila! You have a whole new site with all your content and pictures right where you left them.
Changing the look of your site might be as easy as clicking a button, but choosing the right theme is not so simple. There are many thousands of free themes available on WordPress.org, and many hundreds more are revealed with a simple Google search. And those are just the free themes. Paid – or premium – themes open up a whole new world of possibilities.
With premium themes, not only do you – usually – get a higher-quality, better written theme, but they also come with support you won’t find in the free versions. User forums, help desks, and extensive documentation are all a part of the premium theme landscape, where with free themes, you’re most likely on your own if you run into a problem.
If you’ve been using WordPress for a while, you’ve probably done a bit of theme tweaking yourself. Maybe you’ve poked around in the CSS and changed a few colors or fonts, or perhaps you’ve even added your own headers or changed the width of your sidebar. These are all pretty simple changes to make when you’re working with a free theme, since you can directly edit the core files themselves.
With premium themes, things get a little trickier – but for a good reason.
One of the advantages of using a premium theme is that they are frequently updated. There’s no need to worry if your theme will break next time WordPress has an upgrade, because responsible theme developers will update their files accordingly. All you have to do is update your theme.
But what if you’ve made changes? Your CSS tweaks will be overwritten, custom functions will vanish, and your site will revert to the out-of-the-box look of the theme when you first installed it. With a good premium theme, there’s no need to worry about that, because you never edit the core files at all. Instead – and depending on your theme – you’ll be working with either a child theme, or a few custom files that aren’t overwritten in the event of an update.
Child themes are probably the easiest to work with, and what many premium theme developers are using today. Child themes work by using the core files of the parent theme for most of the functions and layout, and adding custom files only when necessary. For example, if you like the look of WordPress’ Twenty-Eleven theme, but want two sidebars instead of one, you can build a child theme that includes a second sidebar without having to reinvent all the theme files. Just include the few files you need to get the job done, then call the other files you need from Twenty-Eleven. When Twenty-Eleven is updated, you can upgrade as usual without worrying about losing your customizations, because they’re actually contained within the child theme.
Obviously, you can do this with any theme, but with premium themes it’s even more important simply because they are so frequently updated. In addition, many premium themes are coded in such a way that editing the files can be a challenge. They may have custom functions built into the theme files, and their extreme versatility often means their construction is complicated. Better to use a child theme with only a few, simple files, than to have to decipher the intricacies of dozens of php files just to make a small change to your layout.
In addition to easily handling major changes through custom files or child themes, premium themes offer another advantage over free themes: support. Many premium themes like Genesis and Thesis have very large and active communities you can turn to for help if you need it. They also offer support in the way of actual help desks, where you can open a ticket and get your questions answered in a timely manner. That’s a huge advantage when you’re trying to get your site off the ground and just can’t seem to make some feature work.
VA Helper is built on the Genesis framework from StudioPress and we’re using the Freelancer Child Theme.