WordPress Themes: Time for a Reboot?

The best thing about WordPress: It’s an open-source platform, on which anyone with some coding chops can build something dazzlingly beautiful and stunningly useful to fill just about any website requirement.

The worst thing about WordPress: Ditto.

There are thousands of WordPress theme coders out there, creating bazillions of themes. The trouble is, many of the themes they produce are poorly designed, poorly coded, and poorly documented. The result is a glut of low-priced themes that are buggy, non-secure, difficult to use, and all but impossible to maintain. Website owners and their site visitors are then confronted with a bad experience, and the WordPress brand and community suffers for it.

Saving WordPress from Itself: A Modest Proposal

The sheer volume of poor-quality themes is crowding out the serious, professional theme shops whose business models center on providing quality products for website owners who recognize that their websites are not just an expense—they are investments in their businesses. There is little that can be done about that without eviscerating the open environment that is the heart and soul of WordPress. But there are some things the community can do to improve the overall quality and prevent the WordPress platform from devolving into irrelevance. None of these suggestions is a quick fix. They require thought, discussion, consensus, and yes, resources.

  • Enhanced rating scheme: The simple five-star rating system on WordPress.org doesn’t provide enough information to a website owner to understand the technical quality of a theme. Certainly, customer reviews and ratings are important, but customers often do not possess the technical knowledge to determine, for example, if a theme has bloated, inefficient, or non-secure code. A dual rating scheme might be helpful here: The existing one for customers to weigh in on aesthetics and usability, and another for coding professionals to rate a theme’s technical quality…similar to the “Editor Ratings” and “Reader Ratings” on sites such as CNET.
  • Coding quality standards: It’s time for the WordPress community to establish quality standards for theme code, and some (preferably automated) way to evaluate themes against these standards. Something like a Google PageSpeed tool, but expanded to evaluate theme code for factors such as efficiency, security, and documentation.
  • Customer education: A professional baker would not even consider buying equipment at a dollar store. But the same baker might jump on a $20 WordPress bakery theme for his or her website. Customers need to be educated that you get what you pay for with WordPress themes, just as they do with anything else, and to understand what is meant by “quality” with regard to a WordPress theme.
  • Practitioner certification: This is a stretch goal because it is the most difficult and resource-intensive to implement. It is also potentially controversial, being somewhat antithetical to the notion of open community. It is almost certainly beyond the ability of the WordPress community to pull off on its own. But a professional certification for WordPress coders, complete with a standard body of knowledge and a meaningful, rigorous examination process, would enable serious, professional practitioners an easily identifiable way to distinguish themselves in the market, the way that professional project managers do with the Project Management Professional certification.

The WordPress community has built a thriving ecosystem with an immense amount of creative talent, but the quality problem will not be solved under the status quo. The community must make a conscious effort to solve it in a way that preserves the open-source environment. The risk of doing nothing is to be overtaken by some other platform or to splinter the community into different flavors of WordPress. Neither of these outcomes is desirable. Let’s find a way to keep them from happening.