Are Free WordPress Themes Really Free?

With all the free themes available, it might be hard to imagine a situation in which you’d be willing to spend $25 or $50 or even $100 on a so-called premium theme.

Certainly there are some beautifully designed free themes available, and with a little knowledge of CSS, even a beginner can tweak a theme to make it unique.

But free themes aren’t really free. They all have a price tag; it just isn’t expressed in dollars and cents. Instead, the price of a free theme is usually in backlinks. And they’re not always the good kind so you need to inspect your free theme carefully.

Every website owner knows about the importance of backlinks. You depend on other sites linking to you to help raise you up in the SERPs, bring in more traffic, and make more sales. You work hard to build your backlinks through guest blogging, social media, article marketing, and a hundred other tasks you perform every day. Without those backlinks, your site would sink to the bottom of page 12 in the search results – or worse.

That’s why, when you see WordPress themes offered for free, they almost always contain links in the footer that you are required – according to the license – to keep. Web designers looking to build their portfolio and drive traffic to their site might build a theme and offer it for free, provided you keep the link back to their site intact.

That’s a pretty reasonable price to pay if the theme fits with your site and those aren’t the backlinks we’re worried about. I think linking to a theme’s designer is well worth it and a reasonable thing for them to request when they share their work and quite honestly it’s just good manners to link to someone who has given you something for free, whether it’s a single graphic or a the whole blog theme.

But designers aren’t the only ones out there offering free themes. It didn’t take long for some ethically questionable site owners to catch on to this new way of building backlinks. Now it’s not uncommon for free WordPress themes to come with links to gambling, porn, or even prescription drug sites embedded in the footer.
If you really like a theme, you might be tempted to ignore those tiny links, but doing so might put your site at risk. Increasingly, search engines are taking note of which sites you link to, and by allowing links to these “bad neighborhoods” you could be hurting your own search rankings – even to the point of being delisted by Google and others. That’s a pretty hefty price to pay for a free theme.

There’s nothing wrong with using a free WordPress theme, but inspect it carefully to see what you’re going to be linking to. Sometimes the links embedded in the theme are not obvious at first sight. If they’re blended in and set up in a font color that matches the background as hidden links then delete that theme and move on to a different one. If the links in the free theme are actually on a related subject matter then I think that’s perfectly fine too.

I have seen some theme designers embedding affiliate links for products and websites that are related to the theme – especially in hobby niches. I don’t really have a problem with that either. Go to the links and make sure the landing page matches what the words say before you decide on keeping the theme. Those folks with questionable ethics we were talking about earlier will use text that says one thing but a link that goes to something completely different and very unrelated, if you know what I mean.

Typically, the license to use the free blog theme will require you to keep footer links intact, but even so, you might be tempted to simply remove them. Theme designers know this, and to combat it, have begun encrypting their files, making it impossible for you to remove links you don’t like without breaking your theme.

Beyond unwanted links, there is another price to be paid for free themes: poor design and no support. While many free themes are created by good developers and designers, many are not. While it might not seem like a big deal as long as the theme works well and looks good, it can turn into a nightmare very quickly.

You might have noticed that I also changed my theme here on Niche Twitch today …. I picked up the Genesis framework from StudioPress. I’ll be working on updating all my websites to this framework over the next few weeks. It was a difficult decision, there are so many awesome frameworks out there to choose from. I’ll tell you more about that on another day though, I think I’ve rambled on enough for today 😉

Loretta Oliver

3 thoughts on “Are Free WordPress Themes Really Free?”

  1. I love the Genesis framework especially from a developers standpoint. Although my main site runs Thesis I have found Genesis to be by far the easiest one to customize and the child themes are great as well as reasonably priced.

    The community is also really friendly and it’s pretty easy to get answers to your questions on the forums for each individual theme you purchase.

    Make sure to check out the available Genesis plugins such as open hooks or simple edit. Those little plugins can make your life WAY easier!

    1. I found their tutorials and forums REALLY helpful! I had purchased a child theme and grabbed a few free child themes, but I had no idea how to customize them at first and it’s very different than editing a standard WordPress theme. I found all the information I needed in the tutorials and support forum, and now I’ve got three of my websites all changed over to Genesis and looking pretty good 🙂

      I’ll check out those plugins for sure, I love anything that makes life easier!

  2. I agree that sometimes starting out it’s tempting to grab a free theme. However, I’ve learned many of the things you talked about here. The other biggest drawback is the lack of customization you have with a free theme. At first, you might think you can do everything you want with it. As you use your site more often and realize how your readers like to use it, you may discover that you can’t move things around, you can’t put widgets where you want and certain plug-ins just don’t work. It’s definitely worth the time and money to search for a paid theme that fits your budget and provides you with the customization that you need.

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