For WordPress users especially, there are just so many choices that it can be overwhelming. And to complicate matters, there are a few different types of themes and a wide variety of quality.
To start with, there are three basic types of themes: free, premium, and custom designs. For WordPress there are literally thousands of free themes available. Some are very high quality, and others are horrible. Since anyone can develop and distribute a free theme, you'll have to be very careful about the choice.
Premium themes will cost you an upfront amount, say $75, and then you will own the rights to use that theme for your blog. The licenses of different themes vary, so be sure to read the details before making a purchase. Premium themes ideally are of higher quality than free themes, and they will be used by fewer blogs, so yours will be a bit more unique.
If you want to go a step further than a premium theme, you can have a designer/developer create a custom theme for you that will be completely unique to your blog. This, of course, is the most costly option, but there is still a great deal of variety in price and quality from one designer to the next.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Theme:
The first thing you want to decide is what type of budget you're working with. A blog theme is a big decision, so I'm not suggesting that you make price your number one factor in determining what you buy, but you need to know if you have the possibility of buying a premium theme, paying for a custom design, or if you need to stick to a free theme.
If your blog produces no money for you and you don't want to pay for a design, you can immediately eliminate premium and custom themes and focus only on free themes.
On the other hand, if your blog does produce income and you want to do the best job that you can with the theme to increase what you're able to earn, you may want to consider going with a custom design that will be most effective at meeting your needs.
If your blog produces moderate income or if it currently produces nothing but you're hoping to improve that, you may want to focus your search on premium themes. You can get a very high quality theme (like the ones seen here at Templamatic) for very reasonable and affordable prices. Typically you can get a much better theme than you could for free, with only a small investment.
Price shouldn't be a huge factor if you're considering two specific premium themes. There may be big differences in quality and only $20 difference in price. However, I think it's helpful to start your search by narrowing it down to the specific type of theme that you want and that you can afford.
A common trend right now in theme design, especially with premium themes, is a magazine-style of layout. However, a magazine-style approach is not a good fit for all blogs. In fact, the typical blog that is updated a couple times per week will usually benefit more from a traditional blog theme rather than a magazine-style theme.
If you publish something new every day or several times per day, or if you have a wide variety of topics from a few different authors, a magazine-style may be a good fit for you.
Now that you know whether you want a free, premium, or custom theme, plus you know if you want a magazine-style or a more traditional blog theme, you've narrowed down your focus and you can start going after the right one for you.
Number of Columns
Most blog themes either have two or three columns. Magazine-style themes don't always fit into one of these categories, but most blog themes will. If you have a lot of content that you want to contain in the sidebars (including advertisements) a three-column theme may be best. Otherwise, the space for the primary content is more important, so going with a two-column theme will allow more screen real estate for the content.
Do You Want to Customize Yourself?
Some bloggers are comfortable with making some customizations on their own. If this is the case, you may want to look for a free theme or a premium theme that gives you a nice, attractive layout that you can work from. With the right theme as a starting point you won't have to make major customizations. Changing the color scheme or adding a unique header can make a big difference, and both are very simple. If you're not interested in customizing the theme you should look for one that is ready to go for you right out of the box, with no changes needed.
Do You Need Support?
Most premium themes will come with some type of support, but free themes will have a very wide range of support available. Some free theme designers will provide strong support, while others will provide none. The more popular themes also have a good bit of documentation available online from other users if you get stuck. If you won't need support, this is a non-issue. However, if you may need support at some time in the future, this should factor into your decision.
Hopefully your blog will grow over a period of time. You may want to consider if a theme will allow you to include new features or new additions to your blog. Some themes will really only allow you to showcase typical blog posts, while others will have better options for adding pages, sub-pages, more categories and archives, etc.
Of course, if your blog grows you can always get another theme that will meet your needs, but it's nice to know that you won't outgrow your current theme too quickly, especially if it's one that you're buying.
Many themes now are widget-ready, which means you can easily drop new items into the sidebar and rearrange the sidebar contents. If you're not comfortable with altering the coding in the theme, this is something that you should look for. If you are comfortable working with the theme files, this probably isn't much of an issue since you can make the wanted changes yourself.
The heart and soul of a blog is the content itself. Some themes provide better readability than others. I suggest that you pay close attention to the readability of any theme that you are considering, and if it is not optimal, keep searching for a better theme.
Of course, you'll want an attractive theme. With all the other details you're considering, don't forget to gauge the overall appearance of the theme and how it will look for visitors. If you are paying for a premium theme or a custom design, ideally you should be getting a higher quality design than what you could get with a free theme.
Search Engine Optimization involves much more than just the structure of the site, but a poorly designed theme can cost you valuable exposure in the search engines. Most free themes are very poorly optimized, and in most cases the theme designers give very little consideration to SEO. This can be difficult to evaluate before buying or downloading the theme, but if possible you'll want to see how the issue is addressed by the designer. Some theme designers will explicitly state that the theme is built to be search engine-friendly, and they may even give some examples of what has been done.
Using a popular theme can be both good and bad. On the negative side, lots of other bloggers will be using the same theme and you may have difficulty standing out. On the positive side, there may be more support available because more people are using the theme. You'll need to evaluate your goals with the blog and determine if using a popular theme will help or hurt your chances of reaching your goals. In most cases, I would say it's a good idea to avoid the popular free themes unless you are going to do some customization.
What's Your Opinion?
What factors do you consider when choosing a new theme?