Free WordPress Themes? Forget it. It’s Over.

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I know I’m being controversial, but that’s kinda the point of this article; to create some discussion!

A couple of weeks ago I launched my second WordPress [theme], [b]. The response has been. Erm. A little flat. Question is why? The answer, I believe is because it’s becoming nigh on impossible for someone who isn’t one of the “big premium theme developers” to release a theme successfully any more. Let me expand.

There was a time when releasing a theme was great. It’d get a good bunch of attention from the whole WordPress community and you’d do well out of it. Then something changed. Everyone thought I could do that! And suddenly WordPress themes came pouring out into the wild. For the average user, it was great – they could just Google “WordPress Themes” and come up with thousands upon thousands of themes to choose from.

After that, something else changed too. Premium themes took off like a rocket (and a large one at that) as theme developers realised hey, I could make a theme… and then instead of giving it away, sell it! With sites such as Themeforest, it was so easy for just anyone to create and sell themes. So anyone did just that. They sold their themes. Some were more successful than others and very quickly certain leaders in the market emerged – for no particular apparent reason – and these leaders struggled to stay ahead, introducing the GPL licence onto their themes and creating affiliate programmes that splattered banners on a ton a blogs. If you want to get ccsp or network+ certification the our security+ training is right solution for you.

These leaders then consolidated themselves and haven’t really looked back since. Well, they did so a couple of times to rasp at the competition. But that was an exception.

But these days you’ll still often find free themes about although these themes will be often used to promote other premium themes. Sites such as, this one releasing free themes in an attempt to contribute to the community – it just doesn’t happen so much any more. For good reason too – the themes just go unnoticed and unloved. Unless they’re released by one of the “big developers” that is. Jeff from WPTavern on the topic:

I have to agree. Over the past two years of being involved in WordPress,  it’s been hard to find themes which come out of nowhere that are free which blow my mind in terms of doing something innovative. Instead, the innovation has been tied to either established commercial theme authors or new commercial theme businesses. I see the same names over and over again when it comes to themes. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right places for the free, inspiring innovation. I do keep an eye on the WeblogToolsCollection.com theme release posts which is the source for new theme releases and unfortunately, most of those themes seem to be on the same level as two years ago in terms of design, functionality, etc.

Taking a look at the big picture, I don’t see anyone routinely reviewing themes that are on the WordPress.org theme repository. Instead, I see sites writing blog posts announcing when one of these commercial theme authors releases a new theme along with affiliate links to that commercial theme business. This makes up a large percentage of the coverage that is presented to theme authors. The only way to change that is for someone who is dedicated to pointing out free, quality themes that don’t have a vested interest in any particular commercial theme business. Good luck finding that.

The future? It’s not looking good. The reason people made free themes was because they wanted to promote their blog. But that promotion just isn’t going to happen any more. So why bother? I believe some themes would do better if they were released as premium themes. And that’s not going to change. Free WordPress themes? Forget it. It’s over.

28 Responses

Comments

  • Andrew says:

    I agree, to a point. Let me ask you this: What was special about your theme?

    To be clear, I haven’t looked at it, so I’m not criticising, but most free themes have always been garbage. A significant number of so-called premium themes are also garbage. In fact most of the themes on the repository are not even worth the time downloading them let along trying them.

    Theme design has also moved on a great deal. A theme really needs to be a mini CMS in its own right to be worth talking about now. That takes a lot of time and effort and honestly few people manage to make something that really lives up to the market, or even comes close. I agree that without some promotional activity, and maybe someone in the spotlight like Jeff taking an interest, it is hard to get noticed, but if you are worth notice and make some noise I really do believe you can get there. Even now.

    • Alex Denning says:

      As the release page says, it’s a framework designed for developers and developers with a ton of easy to use and implement such as in post SEO options, different layouts changeable from the options page etc.

      A theme really needs to be a mini CMS in its own right to be worth talking about now.

      And that’s the trouble. What happened to themes getting recognised for looking great?

      • What’s the point of using a great looking free theme? If too many people uses it, then your blog has no identity.

        I agree with Andrew (Premium themes = mini CMS) and the great looking ones are good candidates for custom made designs, not themes.
        .-= Natalia Ventre´s last blog ..Reading, Writing and Running =-.

        • Alex Denning says:

          That’s another good point. The ‘popular’ themes are seen just about everywhere these days, so your blog has no identity using a really popular theme.

    • Well said. Couldn’t agree more.
      .-= Kevin Gilbert´s last blog ..WordCamp 2009 is here =-.

  • Epic Alex says:

    I think the problem here is like Andrew said. Basically, why spend hours and hours developing something then just to release it for free, when you can release it as a “Premium” theme?

    It therefore follows that free themes are often going to be basic. And in your case Alex, maybe the interest in your framework isn’t there because people always now expect to have to pay for something if it’s going to be worth using?
    .-= Epic Alex´s last blog ..WordPress Desktops =-.

    • Alex Denning says:

      It’s a very odd situation where something free is less successful than something not, but yeah. You make a good point and it’s something that I had seriously considered before releasing the theme.

  • Cosmin says:

    IMO, free WordPress themes will still be released.

    I agree, authors trying to promote their blog will slowly deviate from that. However, premium theme sites will continuously release free wordpress themes now and then, just as you said, to promote their business.

    The good part is that we will get more and more premium-like themes from professional authors, for free.

    Unfortunately, this means less competition – and competition is one of the things that drives creativity and quality in the free wordpress themes world.

    Although I hate doing so, I must admit you’re right (don’t get me wrong, I’m talking about the idea here – nothing personal)…
    .-= Cosmin´s last blog ..Free Error Pages from ThemeForest =-.

  • Bill Ludwig says:

    I fully agree and for the most part this is why we don’t release generic WordPress themes, free or premium. Instead we focus on creating custom themes built specifically for our clients needs. There just isn’t any return on investment creating free themes and no room in the market for a new premium theme. At least not without a substantial marketing investment.
    .-= Bill Ludwig´s last blog ..5 Keys to Managing Clients’ SEO Expectations =-.

  • Rebecca says:

    While the sharing of free themes is a wonderful thing, it’s also good to be paid for your work.

  • Hi Alex,
    It is true that Premium themes are very popular. But why? Simply because – most of the time – they are really better than free ones, and people prefer paying for a great theme instead of getting a boring one for free (some of the free themes from the WP.org site are so ugly and 2003 looking that even if you pay me, I’ll not use them).

    Personally I have no problem with the fact people makes money for their work. It is very cool, because we all need money, and I rather develop premium WP themes instead of obey the orders of a boring boss.
    Customers have to pay, but they are, in 90% of time, a really better work than before.
    .-= Jean-Baptiste Jung´s last blog ..10 wonderful fonts you can embed with Cufon and Sifr =-.

    • Alex Denning says:

      Hey Jean. Good to see you here :)

      It’s true that the repository has a lot of crap on it, but that doesn’t mean all free themes are awful, not to any extent.

  • JohnONolan says:

    Have you considered the face that they’re “premium” themes for a reason? No offense at all intended, but the quality of say WooThemes, is much higher than what you’ve done with Biblioteca. I don’t think it has anything to do with free or premium – the bar has been raised, and people are demanding higher quality, which currently only the premium guys are producing.

    Fair play to them.
    .-= JohnONolan´s last blog ..FreeAgent: Big Review + GiveAway =-.

    • Alex Denning says:

      Fair point. But what happened to quality free themes? Sure, I’m not the best designer in the world and nor was I trying to release the best free theme ever with Biblioteca, but I’m not the only theme designer out there. The bar has been raised and now days we seem to be following whatever WooThemes do. As you say, they are of a high quality, but that’s no reason to just ignore free themes, is it? The point I’m making is ignore free themes and they’ll disappear. You’ll now say look at the quality of free themes, but as people are ignoring them, you don’t necessarily know about these new themes. And unless the community as a whole starts noticing these free themes, the quality will continue to deteriorate and they’ll eventually disappear. And that’s my point. They’re not quite dead. Yet. But they could well be soon.

      • Barry says:

        In my opinion people aren’t ignoring free themes. Well, they aren’t ignoring good free themes, and that is the main point. As mentioned in the comments above, the bar has been raised to an extremely high level. So much so, that a person looking for a theme will look for high quality themes and ignore the less than satisfactory ones.

        Just look at the response Smashing magazine has with their free themes.

        I’m afraid it’s the same in the big wide world. If you want to be noticed then you have to produce exceptional work. Simply shouting “look at me, look at me I can do that too, but not quite as well” no longer cuts it because of the sheer number of people doing that and the superfluous noise they are creating.

  • On thinking further, I believe that in the last 2-3 years, the number of WordPress users have increased manifold. In this state, if the theme is good, there are likely to be many WordPress sites who will use the theme. Many serious bloggers, including me, wouldn’t like that. However, I think that your theme would do well, as it looks good.

    I believe that if the theme is good, it will eventually be used by many bloggers. It needs to be simple and elegant(read: super easy to install and configure) in addition to be being good looking.

  • Ivor says:

    Sorry Alex but I dissagree with you. Thet theme Biblioteca just fail standing out, first of all ‘Biblioteca’ means ‘Library’ and there’s nothing about it inside the theme, the concept of the theme is just a mess, I’m sorry but someone had to tell you that :P

    All the WordPress themes are increasing in quality – I’m talking about Free and Paid themes – is not just about a poor jQuery slider and thousands of options is about a beautiful site/blog with cool features. Just to give you an example: http://demo.wefunction.com/?wptheme=Magazeen also Css-tricks always release quality themes and those themes are really popular.

    So, Free WordPress themes are alive. Is not over at all.

    • Ivor says:

      PS: Your intention was the best I am sure, I’m a regular reader of WPShout – sorry if I sounded a little bit harsh talking about your theme.

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