There’s an old saying that there’s “no such thing as a free lunch” – meaning that everything has a cost. Increasingly, the available free WordPress themes seem to be heading in this direction.
In the early days of WordPress, themes listed in the official repository were often truly free and unencumbered by ads or watered-down features. Maybe a developer out there created something useful for a gig and wanted to share it with the community. Or an up-and-coming designer used the experience of building a free theme to level up their skills.
While there is still some of this going on, you’ll have to dig deep to find it. These days, so much of the free theme market consists of pared-down versions of commercial products.
The shift is gaining notice. WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg recently stated on the Post Status Slack channel that, “The .org theme directory rules and update mechanism have driven out creative contributions, it’s largely crowded out by upsell motived contributions.”
How did we get here? Let’s take a look at what contributed to this downturn and some ways for the free theme market to make a comeback.
WordPress and Open Source Are No Longer a Novelty
One of the key things to remember about the early days of WordPress is its humble beginnings. This was a bootstrapped project that didn’t have a large influx of corporate dollars. Instead, it was a tale of some dedicated developers and the community that grew around the software.
This inspired people to contribute in ways that benefitted everyone. Whether it was squashing bugs in WordPress core or releasing a cool theme, a lot of people wanted to be a part of the team. For some, it was likely their first dive into the world of open source. The novelty of a free app you can use any way you want was the antithesis of locked-down commercial products from Microsoft or Adobe.
Corporations were also a bit skittish when it came to open-source software. Because WordPress didn’t have a traditional centralized workforce behind it, the content management system (CMS) was seen as something of a loveable underdog by its users – and somewhat ignored by larger players.
Becoming an Industry Force
My, how times have changed. WordPress now makes up around 40% of the CMS market and is continuing to grow. Investments in Automattic (a company founded by Mullenweg that also controls WordPress.com) are coming in from big companies like Salesforce.
An entire WordPress economy has taken shape. Agencies and freelancers build websites. Developers sell plugins, themes, and maintenance services. Web hosts offer packages optimized for the unique needs of the software. And yes, enterprise use is now common.
Theme development in particular has exploded over the past decade. With that, authors aren’t looking to give something away – at least, not without hammering users with various upsells.
To put it bluntly: money changed the equation. And it’s easy to understand why. When you think of how much work goes into building, maintaining, and supporting a full-featured WordPress theme, there is a lot of effort involved. How many people are still willing to do all of that for free?
The Different Worlds of Themes and Plugins
The funny thing is that, despite the money to be made, the free WordPress plugin market seems to be hanging on. If you look around, you’ll still find plenty of high-quality options – including some with no commercial offering to push. Those numbers may be shrinking, but they’re still out there.
Why is that? Well, building a plugin is a bit of a different process. A developer can make things as simple or as complex as they like. Plugins can cover a single niche or be all-encompassing. One can make a sensible case for releasing a free, fully-functioning piece of software to the masses.
As previously mentioned, themes do tend to have a lot of upkeep. But it is worth wondering if that should always be the case.
So many commercial themes are jam-packed with extras. More scripts, more CSS files and plenty of complex PHP. Not to mention the bundling of page builders and other companion plugins. The larger the theme, the harder it is to maintain and support.
It’s a competition to see who can cram the most into a theme to make a sale. And maybe that’s where things went awry…
Free Themes Can Still Thrive by Embracing Simplicity
Right now, the WordPress theme landscape is so filled with bloat and obnoxious sales pitches that it’s hard to see how anyone benefits. Users are getting a complex product that, in many cases, offers a long list of features but might lack stability or accessibility. And theme authors feel the pressure to keep adding more to stay relevant.
Perhaps taking the opposite approach is the answer. So often, free themes are lesser versions of a large commercial product. Instead, maybe the better path is to start from scratch and build something that covers the basics.
How Theme Authors Benefit
For aspiring theme authors, this could be a way to both gain experience and exposure. Rather than attempting to build the biggest thing, start small. Rely on core features like the Gutenberg block editor as opposed to reinventing the wheel with page builders. Craft a theme that simply works.
What’s more, this also provides valuable experience in supporting a product and communicating with users. The lessons learned here can help prepare you for the demands of running a commercial theme operation. When that time comes, you’ll be all the better for it.
Established authors can also benefit. Build a standalone, basic theme that isn’t littered with in-your-face upsells. Emphasize quality and create a bond with users. When they need something more robust, they’ll be more likely to stick with your products.
Initially, this approach may be like swimming against the tide. But success breeds imitation. And once a few theme authors embrace this sort of simplicity, it’s only a matter of time until the movement spreads.
Free WordPress Themes Are Worth Saving
Successfully onboarding new users has long been a focus of the WordPress project. Whether it’s implementing one-click installations via web hosts or a full-featured content editor, these initial experiences mean a lot. They help determine whether or not a user will stick with the CMS over the long term.
Free themes have a role to play. While a new user could certainly opt for one of the default themes that come bundled with WordPress, it’s also crucial to offer choice. Unfortunately, the amount of quality free options is lacking.
For theme authors, it’s vital that they get a foot in the door and build brand recognition. But to accomplish this, there needs to be a shift in philosophy. Instead of pushing out a half-baked version of a commercial product, a renewed focus on quality and simplicity is what the market is yearning for.
Here’s hoping a new generation of free WordPress themes comes to fruition. One that will show users the best side of the world’s most popular CMS.