Before we get too far into this, let’s talk about what a WordPress theme is and how they work. That way, you’ll have a better idea of which features are important to your business—and why we’re so confident in our picks.
WordPress is open-source, which means anyone can contribute features and tools to the platform. So if you’re savvy with HTML or CSS, WordPress allows you to (theoretically) develop your own site from scratch without a theme. But since most of us didn’t take computer programming in school, the vast majority of WordPress site owners have to use a theme to build their site.
Site owners can then add themes to their WordPress site, which automatically loads the theme’s design, features, and rules. And because WordPress is an open-source platform, this code can be modified and adapted by site owners to create a completely customized site.
Here’s the problem: if the web designer has to update the theme’s code to fix a security flaw or improve performance on a theme feature, it resets all the customization on your site and you’re back to square one.
But don’t panic—web designers have drawn inspiration from parent-child relationships to create a solution.
Go with us for a second. Real-life children are created using a parent’s DNA, so they often look similar to their parent and adopt similar behaviors. Children refer to their parent when feeling unsure, and they depend on their parent for support. But children eventually grow up, go out into the world, and develop in unique ways that differentiate them from their parents.
Child themes can incorporate any or all of the functions coded into the parent theme (like an image gallery feature or email sign-up box), so they often look and function the same as their parent theme. But child themes don’t contain any of the coding that affects the function of your site. Functional code all lives within the parent theme, and anytime your site needs those functions, it refers back to its parent theme.
Typically, though, the coding for design elements lives in the child theme. That means site owners can use the WordPress Theme Customizer tool to change the code for their site’s colors, fonts, and layouts to create a completely unique, personalized site—all without touching the root code that actually makes the site work. This also allows web designers to fix and improve the code for your site without undoing all of your customization.
Here’s the main point: most WordPress themes on the market are child themes, which means you get support if anything on your site stops working. But it also limits your control over your site.
Alternatively, you can use a parent theme like StudioPress’s Genesis Framework or Elegant Themes’s Divi to get input over every aspect of your site. That said, if you’re not familiar with coding, you’re probably better off sticking with a child theme.
WordPress plugins are basically bundles of code that add a function (or group of functions) to your site. So if your theme doesn’t offer a feature you need for your site, you can add it to your site separately.
While designers generally try to create plugins that work with any theme (and vice versa), not all plugins and themes are compatible. So it’s usually a good idea to select a plugin-friendly theme, then double-check compatibility before adding new plugins. You don’t want to spend $35 on the Smart Slider 3 plugin, only to break your site because your theme wasn’t compatible with the new plugin’s responsive design.
Once you have the plugins you need (and checked that they’re compatible with your theme), you can start placing custom widgets.
Custom widgets are the elements you place on-page to give your website the features you want it to have. Think of it this way: the WooCommerce plugin gives you product search capabilities, but in order for your customers to use that feature, you have to actually place your search bar widget on your page.
With all that in mind, we tried to limit our recommendations to themes that incorporate as many vital features as possible. That way, you don’t have to comb through thousands of WordPress plugins to find one that’ll work with your theme.
*Responsive = adapts to fit smaller screens (like a smartphone or tablet).