ProBlog is a professional looking blogging design from theme developers Magazine3. The theme has a lot of great features and makes great use of the WordPress thumbnail feature, making it a good choice for anyone who is looking for a premium blog or magazine design.
As many of you know, I test all free WordPress themes on WP Mods so that I can look into the pros and cons of using the design. Many premium theme designers also provide test copies or access to a test area so that I can test premium themes in detail though frequently I simply review the pros and cons from checking the demo out and looking at all of the theme features (It’s not perfect however it just isn’t practical for me to purchase themes several times a month if the developer doesn’t provide a copy).
You may have noticed that WP Mods is now using the ProBlog theme. This allows me to give you guys a more in depth review than I would normally provide. You can get a good idea of how good a theme is by checking out the demo and changing settings etc in the theme options area however it’s only when you use a theme for a live site and spend days modifying it that you truly get to appreciate how great, or not so great, a design is.
As such, I have decided to take advantage of my experience with using the ProBlog over the last week and do an expanded review.In the first part of this review I will walk you through the main features of the theme. In the second part I will talk about my experience with using the theme over the last week, the changes I have made and where I believe the theme can be improved. Last but not least I will give a recap of the pros and cons of using the design.
I hope you enjoy the review :)
The ProBlog Blogging Theme
In my opinion ProBlog is one of the best looking blogging designs available for WordPress at the moment. The header places a search bar and large social media buttons at the top of each page. Magazine have obviously given consideration to how bloggers will make money with their site as the header features a 728×90 banner prominently next to the website logo. A small navigation menu can also be inserted above this area. The design does look a little empty if no top banner is used so I think an alternate header for bloggers who don’t have much advertising on their site would be welcomed.
Underneath the logo and top banner is a simple WordPress powered drop down menu. On the home page there is a rotating slider that shows the latest 4 posts. Clicking on a thumbnail here changes the article that is shown on the left hand side of the slider. It works well though I would have liked the option of making these thumbnails link directly to its corresponding post.
There is also a featured post area that displays the latest 5 posts from a specified category (2 large images and 3 smaller underneath). Both the slider and the featured post area can be displayed throughout your website or only on the home page.
The post area looks great. Whilst post formats aren’t supported, you do have 5 custom post types to choose from.
- Standard: A regular post with no image thumbnails
- Excerpt with thumbnail on left: A post excerpt with an image thumbnail on the left.
- Excerpt with thumbnail on right: A post excerpt with an image thumbnail on the right.
- Excerpt with full width centred image: An image is displayed first with a short post excerpt underneath.
- Video: Displays a video on the index and archive pages. The video code has to be entered into a ‘Video Code’ section in the post editor.
All post types look great and by switching up what post types your posts use you can bring your blog to life. For example, every 3 or 4 posts use a large image or a video. The posts also show Twitter, Facebook and Google+ voting counts on the home page and archives.
ProBlog comes with several great widgets. There is a tabbed widget that shows popular posts, comments and tags; a social stats widget (which is identical to Easy Mashable Social Bar) and cool most popular posts widgets (views or comments). You can also add your Twitter feed, Google+ badge and Facebook fan page box here too.
Underneath posts you will find a related posts area to encourage visitors to stay on your site and read more of your articlest. A social media share box can be floated at the left hand side of the page too.
The theme also supports the WordPress background option and hasone widget area in the sidebar and three in the footer. The Grunion Contact Form WordPress plugin has also been built into the theme. This allows you to easily insert a contact form into any post or page. New fields can be added and be moved around easily using the drag and drop interface.
Shortcodes are available too. There are button shortcodes, shortcodes for putting content into columns, video shortcodes, content box shortcodes, quotes shortcodes, social bookmark shortcodes, list shortcodes and shortcodes for displaying Google Maps or Google Charts.
The theme comes with an options page that lets you change common settings from your admin area. On the global settings page you can upload your logo, upload your favicon, enter your Google Analytics code and enter your copyright details. Unfortunately there is no option to simply link to your logo and favicon.
On the home page settings page you can enable and disable the slider and featured area and choose which category posts are pulled from. There is an option to display the slider only on the home page. Unfortunately, you cannot do the same for the featured area through the options page.
For your post page you can enable and disable author boxes, the floating social media bar, the meta data and related posts.
Via the fonts section you can change the colour, size and font family for H1 to H6 header tags. You can choose from standard fonts like Arial, Helvetica and Verdana or from dozens of pre-installed Google fonts. Unfortunately, this feature doesn’t work as well as it should (more on that later).
The large social media icons at the top of every page are controlled via the social settings area. You simply need to enter your profile URL and make sure the social media site is enabled.
There are 7 advertisement areas integrated into the website design. These include an ad slot above the social media icons at the very top of the page, the 728×90 banner, below the slider and featured area on the home page, above posts, below posts, above the footer and above the main navigation menu on categories, archives and author pages.
If you are interested in purchasing the ProBlog theme you will need to decide between 5 licenses. I prefer when developers only have one license for everyone or a normal license for users and a developer license that includes additional Photoshop files etc. In other words – developers should keep things simple!
All licenses come with lifetime support, lifetime updates, documentation and tutorials and the Photoshop PSD file of the theme logo. There are three licenses available for those who want to use the theme on one website. The basic license is $49 but requires that you keep the link back to Magazine3. For $59 you can remove the footer link and for $69 you can get the Photoshop PSD file of Layout Elements.
Those of you who want to use the design on more than one website have two options. The basic multiple license is $99 however the footer link has to be kept. For $129 you can remove this credit link and get the Photoshop PSD file of Layout Elements.
Before making a purchase though, please take the time to read the rest of this review as I will be talking extensively about the pros and cons of using the design in practice.
A More In-Depth Look At The Pro Blogging Theme
As I noticed at the start of this review, there is a big difference between checking out a theme and having a quick look at the options area to actually using a design and spending a lot of time customising it for your own needs.
The old cliche ‘the first bite is with the eye’ certainly rings true when it comes to choosing a WordPress theme. It has to be, as you can’t examine the backend code of a theme before buying it, so how a theme looks plays a huge part on whether you do or do not buy a theme.
With regards to using WordPress themes, users can be divided into 3 categories.
- Those who don’t know how to code and need a good options page in order to use the theme properly.
- Those who are comfortable making small changes to their templates like adding banners, changing text and moving things around.
- Those who understand code and understand where things should be and how things should be coded.
Whilst I don’t have a great eye for design, I am fully competent with HTML and know enough PHP and CSS to do what I want to do. So I would place myself between the 2nd and 3rd group of users. This actually puts me in a frustrating position as WordPress theme developers typically design their themes with WordPress beginners in mind. Due to this, developers can get lazy with their coding and not develop their designs in the best possible way
Over the last few years I have been frequently frustrated by this. I have had several custom designs made for me over the last 3-4 years, some for my own websites and others which I released to the community for free. Whenever the designer sent me the ‘finished’ design I always had to email back a list of dozens of basic (read lazy!) mistakes that should have been fixed. More than once I got a reply along the lines of ‘oh I didn’t realise that you could code’ (not that this should matter to a paying customer!!).
Unfortunately, the ProBlog theme suffers from a lot basic errors. I’m not sure if the theme release was rushed or if they didn’t test it enough but the design feels incomplete. I will detail the problems I have found with the design though please bear in mind that a lot of the mistakes that were made with this theme are made by a lot of theme developers. In that regard, I hope that any theme developers who read this review can take my comments on board and make a positive change to the way that they design themes for the WordPress platform
Also, despite all the issues I have found with the design, I still love it. It’s arguably the best looking blogging theme available for WordPress at the moment and Matt and the rest of the team from Magazine3 have provided great support to me so far. They have already addressed a few bugs that I found before (though these bugs aren’t noted in this review) and released fixes for them. They have been very positive about the points that I have brought up and have promised to work on them.
If you are still reading this review at this point, then I assume that you are interested in purchasing it, so let’s look at some of the problems that the theme has :)
After purchasing the theme I downloaded the zip file and uploaded the design to my test area. Like many Magazine3 customers I was a little annoyed about having to enter my license information. Many WordPress themes ask you to enter your license information in order to get support via their forums though Magazine3 designs cannot be used at all until the license information has been entered. The problem was that the license key was not emailed to me until about 30 minutes after I purchased the theme.
I expressed my annoyance about this to Magazine3. They understood my view on the issue but informed me that due to certain circumstances they didn’t really have a choice. Their Newspaper Times was a huge success but within 15 days of release it was available on warez websites for download. To resolve this issue they introduced the license key feature.
Shortly afterwards their SportsMag was leaked after only 12 hours and was downloaded on the warez website hundreds of times however due to the license key feature those illegal downloaders couldn’t use the theme.
Whilst it is annoying not to be able to use a theme you purchased instantly, I completely understand why Magazine3 have taken these steps as it was costing them a lot of money. They are currently looking into making the license key process automatic so that customers don’t have to suffer any inconvenience with this (many users had to wait a few hours).
Once I activated the theme with my license key I noticed that the options panel didn’t show in Google Chrome. It did show on Internet Explorer though the design was messed up. I later found that this was being caused by the JetPack connect banner link. Once I had connected to Jetpack the page displayed correctly. The panel also clashed with Akismet a little however Magazine3 were able to resolve this very quickly.
With those issues out the way I was able to view the design on my test area (which I had imported posts and pages too for testing). The theme looked great. Even without thumbnails being set on my posts the deign looked fantastic right out of the box. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted though, so I had to change some things around.
Long term, I still plan on having a custom design created for WP Mods though I am pleased with the way I have customised the ProBlog design and will be using it at least for the next 6 months. The site is still growing so in time I will need to develop a custom solution that reflects the growth of the site, the content that is published and any services that are provided :)
Slider And Featured Posts
The slider and featured posts option is one of my favourite features of the ProBlog design. They have been implemented into the design beautifully and it’s easy to switch the slider or featured posts area off via the options area.
I was slightly disappointed that you couldn’t simply choose the posts that you want to make featured, you have to choose a category. This wasn’t a major inconvenience though as I simply created a new featured category and selected posts from each of my existing categories.
Whilst I did love the magazine look of the slider and featured posts area, I thought it was too big for WP Mods. I didn’t want the main content area pushed down the page too far. Therefore I changed things a little. Instead of displaying the large slider and featured area with 5 posts, I simply showed the last two featured posts.
On categories, archives and single posts I showed 3 featured posts. The posts shown on these pages are from the same category so that the posts are more related to what the visitor is already reading (i.e. featured theme posts on theme posts, featured plugin posts on plugin posts etc).
Throughout the rest of the site I have shown the latest 3 featured posts into the header. I’ve also integrated the featured posts into the footer. Again, related featured posts are shown on categories, archives and single posts with the latest featured posts from all categories shown elsewhere.
I’ve been looking for a good framework or premium design for WP Mods over the last few months. I was hoping to get full support for all WordPress post formats (e.g. links, asides, quotes etc). ProBlog doesn’t support all of these formats however it does have great support for images and video posts. It won’t be too difficult for me to add support for links and quotes etc in the near future too so it’s not something that put me off purchasing the theme.
Posts are defaulted to use the ‘Standard’ post type so you need to go into your writing settings page (eg. www.yoursite.com/wp-admin/options-writing.php) and change it so that future posts are defaulted to the post type you use most often.
Unfortunately, changing the post type in the settings area doesn’t change past posts. Magazine3 weren’t sure how to change the post type of all posts. I looked into the issue myself and found that there are a few plugins available that change post types for you, however they didn’t work for me. It only took me 10 minutes or so to change the post type of all posts in the WordPress admin area.
ProBlog doesn’t have the most advanced options area available but it does let you change common features such as your logo and switch important theme features on and off. There are some useful help icons with some options that give you more details about a particular option.
For example, if you hover over the ? icon for the logo it advises you that the logo should not be bigger than 235×100 pixels. A few help icons had no information, though this isn’t really a problem as all the options are pretty much self-explanatory.
Font Control Panel
Although I didn’t pay much attention to it before I bought the theme, I was pleased with the inclusion of a fonts panel with the theme. Sure, you can change things easily enough through your stylesheet but a fonts panel lets you change the style of fonts within seconds.
Changing the link colour and hover colour of post links works great. You can use a colour picker or enter the hexadecimal code manually.
I noted earlier that the fonts options doesn’t work as well as it should. Although you can control the size, colour and font family of your H1 to H6 header tags through the settings area; these settings only change header tags used inside the content area i.e. posts and pages.
As most bloggers know, H1 and H2 tags are used in website design titles whereas H3, H4, H5 and H6 tags are used in content. Changing the H1 and H2 tags won’t affect those used in your design, making them pretty pointless. It’s useful for H3 to H6 header tags though it would have been good if the H1 and H2 tags used in the design could be styled through this area too (more surprisingly, no H1 tags are used in the design at all. A major SEO problem!).
Quality Of Coding
Some of the coding in ProBlog could be vastly improved. There are lots of links to classes that don’t exist and common WordPress classes have not been used.
The first thing I noticed was that lots of CSS attributes hadn’t been closed. I was surprised to learn that the last property in a CSS attribute doesn’t need a closing semi-colon.
WordPress theme developers should try and use the same classes as the default themes. This makes it easier for users to modify themes etc. ProBlog uses custom classes for all of these areas. For example, instead of using id=”content” for the post area they have used class=”post-content”. Changing the name makes it a pain however changing it from a CSS identifier to a class means that this section can’t be linked too.
This is a particular problem in some areas. For example, in the comments.php the beginning of the comment area in posts and pages should start with:
This identifier allows visitors to go straight to the comment area from the home page e.g. http://www.yoursite.com/hello-world/#comments. If the identifier name at the start of the comment area is changed then the link to the comment area has to be changed too (once again, it’s better to just keep class and identifier names the same for consistency for all WordPress themes).
In ProBlog, Magazine3 have changed the comments identifier to id=”comments-content” but not changed the corresponding link from the home page and archive templates accordingly. This means that if a visitor clicks on the comments link from the home page they won’t be taken to the comments area.
Although WordPress encourages all users to use archives.php for the archive template, ProBlog uses the name page-archive.php. When I spoke to Matt at Magazine3 about this issue he was unaware of this standard. I don’t believe it’s a major problem though as many WordPress users get confused over the difference of the archive.php and archives.php files so changing the name from archives.php avoids WordPress beginners being confused about this.
The theme doesn’t currently have a 404 error template (Magazine3 are planning on adding this soon after I raised the issue) though there is a full width template available. Another minor complaint is that many templates have CSS code embedded in them rather than adding the style to the stylesheet. Although this doesn’t change the actual output, it does seem a bit lazy to me and the templates would be much easier to customise if all of the styling was placed in the stylesheet.
More worrying is some templates linking to CSS classes and identifiers that don’t exist in the stylesheet. The archives template is the best example of this. Near the top of the archives template you will see this code:
<div class="post-area"> <div id="inside"> <div id="content">
The problem is, none of the above CSS identifiers exist in the stylesheet (remember: content was changed to post-content). The archives template doesn’t display content either so it won’t display any text you enter at the top of your archives page (i.e. the WordPress loop isn’t used in the template). Even more concerning is the fact that there is no page title whatsoever in this template.
It’s issues like this that make me believe that no one has bothered to test the theme extensively or look through the code and make sure that the code is clean.
With lots of basic mistakes and no commenting in the templates or the stylesheet, making the changes you want becomes more time consuming than it needs to be. Hopefully Magazine3 addresses this issue and spends some time tidying up the code as it would be a shame if something that is easily fixed stops customers from customising the ProBlog design.
Social Media Integration
As you would expect from a professional blogging theme, ProBlog has good support for social media support. The large icons are placed at the top of each page for profiles you have enabled in the settings area. These icons are displayed using a long list of if statements in the header.php template. I would have preferred if all this code was tucked away in the functions.php template with a simple function call from the header template.
Twitter, Facebook and Google+ sharing buttons are placed directly under posts together with a general sharing button (all powered by Add This).
You can also float a fixed sharing bar to the left hand side of your posts. Unfortunately you can’t modify any of it’s settings from the settings area so if you want to change the type of button used, the buttons that are displayed or the order of the buttons; you will need to modify the code in the single.php template. This is a pain in the butt for beginners but if you know HTML you will be able to do this with ease.
The small social media links that are shown in the post area in the index and archive pages look great. Unfortunately, they aren’t very practical. They use an internal counting system rather than showing the actualy number of times a post has been shared. So if your article has been shared 10 times on Twitter, this won’t be shown on these social media buttons. Instead, the buttons will show how many times the button has been clicked on your site. Pretty freaking pointless if you ask me :)
Whilst I welcome the inclusion of social media integration, the lack of configuration options means that beginners will struggle to modify the links. You can’t even change what Twitter account is linked in retweets. As it powered using Add This, the Twitter buttons add a ‘Via @AddThis’ link to all tweets. This should really be replaced with your only Twitter account username. You would have to replace the buttons entirely to do this though.
Some of you may be happy with the inbuilt social media sharing options though I believe most bloggers will tweak the settings directly in the template files. Despite these issues, I still think that social media has been integrated well into the theme.
Search Engine Optimisation
ProBlog is promoted as having great search engine optimisation. In truth it isn’t optimised for search engines at all. There is not one H1 tag used in the design of the site…NOT ONE! I was really surprised by this. Titles of posts and pages were not SEO Friendly either with H2 tags being used for all site titles.
Magazine3 heavily promote the fact that it is integrated with the popular WordPress SEO plugin. Integrating plugins into a theme is the worst thing any theme developer can do. The whole point of a plugin is that it is separate from the theme code.
As I was already using WordPress SEO, the theme made my site crash. It was quite annoying that I had to remove the reference to the Yoast plugin from the functions.php template. It also raises some questions:
- What if you are using a different SEO plugin already and you are happy with it. Shouldn’t you be able to decide which SEO plugin is used rather than have it dictated to you?
- Why didn’t they recommend the plugin rather than building it in?
If you are happy using another SEO plugin you will need to remove the reference to it in the functions.php template and remove the breadcrumbs reference from all the templates.
The biggest problem, and for me the main reason that theme developers should never build plugins into their designs, is that users can’t update the plugin via WordPress. The WordPress plugin system lets you know whenever a new version has been released for a plugin and allows you to update directly from your admin area.
What this effectively means is that unless you manually check the plugin site every week for updates and upgrade the plugin via FTP, your plugin is going to be out of date very quickly. This is even more likely to happen if the theme developer doesn’t update the plugin for for theme, and sadly, that is the case with the ProBlog theme.
The version of WordPress SEO that is included with ProBlog is version 1.0.3. Unfortunately, the current version of WordPress SEO is 1.1.2. The version that is included with the ProBlog theme is over 3 months old.
What does this mean? Effectively, it means that whether you use WordPress SEO or not, you will have to remove the reference to it from the theme functions.php template because:
- If you are using another SEO solution or prefer to handle things manually, you will have to remove any reference to WordPress SEO.
- If you do do want to use WordPress SEO, you have to remove the call to WordPress SEO from the functions.php template and activate the plugin via the plugin area so that the plugin is up to date. If not, your version of WordPress SEO is always going to be out of date.
I really do hope Magazine3 decide to remove the plugin from the theme and simply encourage users to download it. As it stands, the inclusion of the plugin is an inconvenience for those who don’t want to use WordPress SEO and for those who do.
It probably won’t surprise you that WordPress SEO is not the only plugin that has been built into the theme. Grunion Contact Form, Photo Galleria and All-In-Shortcodes have also been integrated into the design. Whilst I’m sure many users would welcome the features that these plugins bring, the problems I noted above about not being automatically updated exist with these plugins too.
I wasn’t happy with the 5 license options available for the theme. I bought the single license with credit removal for $59 rather than the entry license at $49 as that doesn’t allow you to remove the credit.
Here’s the thing: they aren’t actually allowed to do that. It’s in violation of the General Public License in which WordPress is founded. I can’t really single Magazine3 out for this as a large percentage of theme stores have licenses set up this way.
Next week I will be speaking more about this topic as it’s something that I believe theme stores need to address.
Support & Documentation
On the plus side, the theme comes with a good documentation file that explains the main features of the options area and walks you through where all the advertisement positions area.
Support has been really good since I purchased the theme too. A quick look at their support forums suggests other customers are receiving great support too though they are closing this to provide help exclusively via their help desk. I brought up a lot of small bugs after I purchased the theme (such as the featured image titles not displaying correctly in Internet Explorer) and they came back to me with fixes within a few days.
Overview of The ProBlog Blogging Theme
How good a design looks is very subjective however I’m sure that most people would agree with me that ProBlog is one of the best looking blogging designs available for WordPress at the moment.
As I have discussed in great detail, the theme does have a lot of short comings. The code needs to be tided up, the absence of even one H1 header tag is baffling to say the least and integrating a major plugin such as WordPress SEO into the design is major mistake (that sadly some theme developers continue to make).
Despite all of this, I still love the theme. Once all these bugs have been fixed and some features have been tweaked I believe ProBlog will be one of the best blogging themes available. Support has been great though my main criticism against Magazine3 is that the theme seems to have been rushed out without proper testing and without the code being reviewed thoroughly. They do seem to be proactive in addressing bugs and improving the theme so I hope we see an improved version soon (though I’ve personally did so much editing that I won’t be able to just upload over the files).
Those of you are considering purchasing ProBlog will be glad to know that you can get 15% off the cost of any license by using the coupon code WPHub at checkout.
If you already own the theme (or planning on doing so) and unsure about how to edit the theme for your site, please feel free to post your questions regarding the issue in our WordPress Forums. I’ve worked with the design quite a lot over the last week so I should be able to help you with any problem you may have.