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Don’t Use Free WordPress Themes That Are Encrypted

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Over the last 18 months I have published large collections of free WordPress themes in articles such as 250 Free WordPress Themes From 2010, 50 Free Minimalist WordPress Themes and 100 Free WordPress Themes from 2011. I’m an avid WordPress user myself and regularly download and test free and premium WordPress designs so I understand how useful large lists like this can be as one of the most important factors of any theme is how good it looks.

Unfortunately, when compiling such large lists, it just isn’t practical to test every single theme. Whilst I will continue to post list articles here (because they are so useful), I have made a concious effort recently to try and review themes individually so that I can test them out and analyse them in more detail. I am the first to acknowledge that this isn’t what everyone wants. Finding the perfect WordPress theme for your project can prove to be very time consuming therefore long lists make this task easier by allowing you to scan over multiple designs quickly.

Whilst the quality of a design will always be the first thing that attracts you to a theme, the back end has become more and more important over the last few years. It wasn’t long ago that the majority of WordPress themes came with nothing more than the ability to upload a logo and change the favicon. Times have changed. Most themes now come packaged with their own unique options page and the functionality in the back end of some premium themes is on a par with theme frameworks.

Due to this, I place much more value on testing themes here rather than just linking to them.

Free WordPress Theme Providers Who Encrypt WordPress Themes

So why am I talking about this? Well, as most of you know, at WP Mods we review the majority of good free WordPress themes that are released online. I recently came across an article that listed some designs that I hadn’t seen. Some of the designs were quite good so I downloaded them for testing in the WP Mods test blog (the test blog I use to test all plugins and themes reviewed here).

The blogger had clearly not tested any of the themes he listed as many of the themes included encrypted sponsorship links in the footer. Those of you who have spent any length of time searching for a good free WordPress theme will have come across this problem at one point. Developers can justify releasing WordPress themes for free because of the traffic they get via the footer link. If 100 websites use their design, that’s potentially 100 incoming links to their website(s).

Under the general public license, WordPress users are allowed to remove these links. I personally prefer to keep the credit link back to the designers website as a way of saying thanks though if there are 2 or more links I usually delete the additional sponsorship links as too many credit links can be overkill. Unfortunately, many developers don’t like this so what they do is encrypt their themes so that the footer code cannot be removed. If you do remove their sponsorship links (and there are sometimes 3 or 4), the theme stops working and you get a message telling you to add the code back. Some of the themes I tested that employed this tactic even stopped you from accessing your admin area, forcing you to either re-upload the footer code or delete the theme via FTP.

Encrypted Error Message

I am strongly against this method of ensuring users keep the credit link. It’s up to the website owner to determine what links are and are not displayed on their website; even if the theme they are using was released for free.

Some of the designs being released by developers that employ this tactic are actually pretty good so you may be tempted to use them. Whether you use an encrypted WordPress theme or not is obviously your decision. The design may be exactly what you are looking for so perhaps being forced to keep sponsorship links is only a minor inconvenience if it means getting the design you want. I would however strongly encourage you all not to download a free WordPress theme that has encrypted footer links or support any designer who uses this tactic.

How Do You Know Which Free WordPress Theme Providers Are Trustworthy?

I really cannot criticise the blogger who listed free designs in an article as I’m sure they were unaware that the themes were encrypted. I have also been guilty of this in the past. Some of the articles I have written that listed hundreds of free WordPress themes included links to designs that had encrypted links in the footer; though I was unaware as I didn’t download and test the themes myself. As I noted before, it just isn’t practical to test hundreds of themes for one article however I do feel that I let down readers a little bit by not doing so.

A big part of WP Mods is testing themes and plugins for readers so they don’t have to; therefore it is vital that we only recommend plugins, designs, products and services that are safe to use. In future I will ensure that whenever the integrity of a WordPress theme provider is not certain, we will make a point of testing their designs to ensure that they are safe to use.

In response to this I have created a new section on WP Mods for Free WordPress Themes. The page lists websites that publish free WordPress themes on a regular basis. I have included links to reliable sources such as WP Explorer and websites that are encrypting themes too so that if you come across a design you like from an untrustworthy source you will know to be wary of using the design.

This section will be updated regularly so that you know which free WordPress providers can and cannot be trusted. If you are aware of any free WordPress theme providers, good and bad, that are not included in the list, please let me know and I will update the page.

Thanks for your time :)


Link: Free WordPress Themes

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Comments (8)

Comment by Isaias Cardoso says:

You can help me with a template developed by WPHub? The Template is Tutsblog and have erros. The logo don’t appear, the theme options don’t save any moditifcations, the thumbnail image don’t appear in home page neither with using custon fields. i wanted use this template in my web projeto. you can help me? thank you

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

WordPress was released under the general public license which means that developers aren’t supposed to use techniques like this.

Comment by Mark says:

If they let you know upfront that you are required to leave the links there in order to use the theme, why is this any different or more sinister than any other ad-supported software? Apparently, for a lot of them you can pay money for the premium template or you can leave their advertising on it. Your choice. Wouldn’t that be like telling people to not use trial-ware programs that stop working after the free trial is over because that is a mean trick?

Comment by Deborah says:

Thanks for this info! As a non-techie i had no idea… going over to check out your ‘safe sites’ page now.

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

I disagree that it’s a cop out Chip and that such a list is nothing more than link bait.

As I noted, I download and install themes on a regular basis myself. Large lists of themes are useful for people like myself as it allows you to quickly scan the latest designs.

Even though I know these lists are useful, I am aware that it is better if each theme is tested. Unfortunately, it takes at least 20-30 minutes to download, install and test a theme properly. For a list of 100 designs that would require around 50 hours of testing. That just isn’t practical.

I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to test every single design in such a list. The main concern is checking the source of the theme provider. For example, I know that if Smashing Magazine or WooThemes release a free design that the theme will be safe to use and won’t contain encryption or malware etc.

So I think the best thing for me to do in future is always test the design when I am not 100% sure of the theme provider. I don’t think this is a cop out. I have always taken pride in being honest in all articles I write and would never intentionally link or promote any product that I wouldn’t use myself.

I am aware that code is very important though it isn’t what most WordPress use as a basis to download a theme in the first instance. Perhaps others will disagree but I’ve not seen anything to suggest that it isn’t the case. It’s a shame that there are quality designs that have horrible code (and vice-versa).

Coding is one of the main reasons I want to change the WPMods themes. It was designed 18 months ago so a lot of the coding is outdated. I spoke about this recently too :)

Comment by Chip Bennett says:

Unfortunately, when compiling such large lists, it just isnâ€â„¢t practical to test every single theme.

No offense, but this is a cop-out. Publishing a list of Themes implies an endorsement of the Themes listed – not just the design, but the Theme as a whole. Themes that haven’t been tested personally by the person compiling the list shouldn’t be included in the list at all.

A large list of untested Themes is nothing more than SEO/link-bait.

Thus, I’m glad to see you take this stance:

I have made a concious effort recently to try and review themes individually so that I can test them out and analyse them in more detail.

…because a good design does not inherently translate to a good WordPress Theme. Encouraging users to use Themes merely based on the quality of the design is, IMHO, a great disservice to users because most such Themes are absolutely horrid under the hood. I generally try to spot-check a few Themes listed in such compilation lists, and invariably I find obsolete, insecure, and/or inefficient code.

But thank you, indeed, for helping to raise awareness regarding Themes with encrypted footers, spam links, and kill code. The sooner we can eradicate this crap from the WordPress ecosystem, the better!

Comment by Jesse Kunze says:

Wow, I didn’t even realize this was happening. Forcing you to not use the admin area? Just really not a good thing

Comment by Alex Denning says:

Absolutely! It’s a practice which has declined in recent years, but unfortunately encrypted footers are still an issue. Download themes from reputable sites and not third parties and scan through the source code for anything fishy and you should be absolutely fine — just be careful.

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