15 of the Best Free WordPress Themes for Autumn 2013

It’s been a couple of months since my last round-up of free WordPress themes and a quick check around the sites reveals there’s been a surprising amount of good new themes released recently. Some of the following themes are still quite fresh so bear that in mind if you are thinking of using them – most of the developers will welcome any feedback and suggestions for improvements. The themes are all responsive and it’s noticeable that Bootstrap is being used as the basis for more and more themes.

1. Vantage

This looks to be a truly impressive free theme with a host of features usually seen in premium themes. The full screen front page slider looks great plus there’s a load of widgets and use of Page Builder to help create customised layouts. It’s a popular theme with 25,000 downloads in 5 weeks.

Vantage

‘Vantage is a flexible multipurpose theme. It’s strength lies in its tight integration with some powerful plugins like Page Builder for responsive page layouts, MetaSlider for big beautiful sliders and WooCommerce to help you sell online. Vantage is fully responsive and retina ready. Use it to start a business site, portfolio or online store’.

2. Openstrap

Another very impressive free theme, Openstrap utilises the Bootstrap Framework, and offers a whole host of features with plenty of widgets and page layouts.

Openstrap

‘The Openstrap theme for WordPress developed on top of Twitter Bootstrap Framework. The theme is fully responsive and can be viewed on any device. Openstrap theme provides 6 different layouts for posts and pages, 11 widget areas, 3 strategic menu locations, nicely designed and customizable footer with its own widgets’.

Continue Reading to View Themes 3-15

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More of the Best Free and Responsive WordPress Themes 2013

This is another round up of free and responsive WordPress themes.Some free themes also have pro versions so when this is the case take care to check the free version has the features you require if you do not want to pay for pro. For example, the Panoramica theme, mentioned in my previous article, 16 Free Responsive WordPress Themes for 2013, which is an impressive free theme, now has a pro version, and the free version is not quite as good as it was.

In general, I have tended to shy away from listing basic or lite versions as the features are often quite underwhelming,and sometimes the free version is not responsive. This is no doubt part of a strategy to encourage you to go pro or try a theme but I have only listed basic/lite versions where the free version is still a good choice in itself.

1.Customizr

Customizr is currently the second most downloaded theme in the WordPress Themes directory, and with a good slider, plenty of widget areas, easy customisations, and a clean look, it is not hard to see why. From CPO Themes.

Cutomizr Theme

‘A  free responsive WordPress theme, easy to customize , built with HTML5 & CSS3 upon the Twitter Bootstrap framework. The clean design can be used for any type of website : corporate, portfolio, business, blog, etc. Choose a skin, upload your logo, set up your social network profiles and you are done!

It also includes a handy responsive slider generator (with call to action text and button) that can be embedded in any pages or posts. The theme supports five widgetized areas (two in the sidebars, three in the footer), up to three columns, nine post formats with special styles. It also comes with seven elegant skins and three handy featured page blocks for the front page’.

2. Discover

Another popular theme is Discover, from AntThemes, there are free and pro versions but the free version offers a lot, including a good slider with a side area for a call to action. Unlike some themes with pro versions, the free version is responsive .

Discover Theme

‘A very neat and clean orange and white business theme. The theme supports widgets. And features theme-options, threaded-comments and multi-level dropdown menu. A simple and neat typography’.

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16 Free Responsive WordPress Themes for 2013

More and more WordPress themes are going responsive with fluid page layouts that work across a range of devices. Here are some of the best free ones currently available:

1. Panoramica

This is one of my favourite free options at present with some nice basic customisations and the option to go full screen. From CPO Themes.

Panoramica theme

‘Panoramica is built with the intent of adapting to as many window sizes as possible. It has a fully fluid layout that gives it tremendous flexibility, allowing you to cater to both large and small screens alike. Its polished portfolio heavily emphasizes the use of images, displaying a clean slideshow in every portfolio item. And of course, you can customize its appearance through its extensive options panel’.

2. Pytheas

Pytheas is another good free option with enough basic customisations available to help create a decent site. From WP Explorer, who have a number of good free themes available on their site.

Pytheas Theme

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Booking Systems for Small UK Hotel Websites

One important factor highlighted in my last article, Web Design for Small Hotels, is the basic functionality or ease of use for customers checking availability and booking a room. This article takes a deeper look at the options out there for small hotel owners, and is drawn from investigating the systems in use amongst Brighton hotels. I did a little  investigation and had a look at what systems and software they were using (where it was possible to tell), but firstly, let’s consider a few key factors to a successful system:

Ease of Making bookings

This is the most fundamental consideration. For the customer, it’s essential that there is a smooth booking process without irritations. Most systems use a grid based system to enable customers to view availability and make bookings. Most also provide a basic booking widget to put on your own website to enable customers to check dates and availability.

Ease of Managing Bookings and Channel Management

Firstly, you will want to know that it is easy to manage bookings made through your own website, but the best systems and software offer easy integration with other booking websites (channels) such as booking.com, Laterooms, Expedia etc, so you do not need to keep updating endless websites. You will have to decide how important it is for you to be on how many of these sites. A good system will automatically update the information across a number of sites saving a lot of work and potential confusion over bookings. This usually costs extra. Not every channel is covered by every system so check to see which
ones are included. For example, many are not integrated with the booking systems of local tourist information sites.

Price and Commission Costs

Prices are charged on a variety of basis. Some charge an upfront fee, some a monthly fee and some charge a commission per booking and some do not. It’s important to look closely and work out what is best for you.

As previously mentioned, a great benefit of using these  booking systems  is the capability to update your booking pages and information across a number of booking websites, but pricing varies for this service. A major consideration therefore will be how many of these other booking websites are linked in to the system you choose and what you pay for this.

Continue Reading to find out more …

Web Design for Small Hotels

Living in a popular seaside town/city by the sea, I was curious to have a look at the websites of some of the small to medium hotels, B&B’s and guest houses of Brighton and Hove to see what they were like. It’s a mixed bunch, some that were never good, some that are dating badly, many that are moderate and a few that are quite contemporary and stylish (typically belonging to boutique hotels).

An attractive well-designed website with compelling content is essential for hotels these days. More and more customers expect to be able to book their hotel accommodation online and it’s a must that your website meets the expectations of your customers. The majority of guests will judge your hotel on their first impressions of your website, discovered through search engines. This is great if your hotel has a good website but not so great if your website is outdated or poorly designed.

This article focuses on hotels in Brighton, on the south coast of England, a popular, historic and bustling seaside town with plenty of attractions, good nightlife, and a wide range of restaurants. The South Downs National Park, an area of whale-backed hills, is on its doorstep. People come to the town for weekend breaks or a few nights away, conferences, stag and hen do’s, business, and it’s a big winner with the pink pound. There are a lot of hotels in the town, ranging from the basic to the boutique. Whilst many of the latter have put considerable effort to develop attractive elegant websites, many hotels
have outdated or poorly designed sites and seem to overlook the importance of their website. Of course, not every hotel will want a boutique look – the website must attract your target customers – but it’s important that every hotel has a good look and feel that will entice bookings.

The Marina House Hotel and George IV Guesthouse (update: website appears to be no more) offer two of the better designed websites, but in general, the quality of sites is low.

Marina House and George IV hotel websites

Continue Reading to find out more …

How to choose a shopping cart and ecommerce platform – part one

shopping cart

Selling online is a great way to expand your business or start a new one. To do so, you need a website with a shopping cart, secure payment processing and a process to fulfil orders. This article, which will be spread over several posts, mainly focuses on the shopping cart, the main platform for an ecommerce site. There are hundreds of carts to choose from so this is not a straightforward choice. Shopping carts can be expensive and complicated to maintain but do not have to be. The right one for you will depend on the size of your business, the features you require, your basic technical proficiency and the money you are prepared to pay.

What features do you require?

A good starting point is to write a list of features you require and then decide which ones to prioritise. All singing, all dancing carts come at a price so it might be worth dividing the lists into ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have’. The following are some of the features you might be looking for on your wish list:

  • Order tracking and shipping
  • Customer communications and managemen
  • Payment Processing – security is a must
  • Webpage design and flexibility – the degree to which you can change the look and feel of the store
  • Product management/catalogue and inventory tracking
  • Facilities to offer discounts and gift certificates
  • Display of multiple images for products, and zooming-in facilities
  • Product reviews and ratings, wish lists
  • Suggestions for similar or related products – ‘you might also like …..’
  • Social network integration
  • Marketing and eNewsletter facilities to market your store and its products
  • Security – SSL secure checkouts, encryption and so on

Look carefully at the features the different carts offer and how closely they match your requirements. To some degree, you get what you pay for, so do not expect every feature to be available on a cheaper cart. Make sure you are comfortable using the cart and its features, and that the process of buying online is smooth and simple. Customers will often not complete an online purchase if the buying process is irritating or too cumbersome. Most carts offer a free trial or a demo so look at a few carts before deciding. Also, consider the level of support on offer.

What types of cart are available?

  • Marketplace sites – sites that you can use sell your goods such as eBay and Amazon.
  • Basic ‘add-on’ shopping carts – enable you to add shopping cart ‘buy now’ buttons to your existing website and process payments securely through trusted brands such as PayPal or Google Checkout.
  • Hosted Shopping Carts – online e-commerce packages that host your store for a monthly fee e.g. Shopify, ekmPowershop.
  • Shopping Cart Software – off the shelf, paid-for or free open-source carts that you install and add to your own site e.g. ZenCart or ShopFactory.
  • Plug-ins and extensions – such as WooCommerce and Ecwid for WordPress, Facebook and other sites.

full shopping cart

In the next post, we will begin to look at more detail at these various options.

How to successfully write a website brief

You or your company have decided that it is time for your first website or to revamp your old one. What steps should you take to make sure you get it right? The first step is to write a website brief – this states clearly what you expect to get from the website and provides the web designer with the information to get started and explore design ideas. As a starting point, many web designers will ask you to complete a website brief or your company may ask you to write one. What should you include in your brief? There’s a lot to consider.

1.   What is the purpose of your new website

It is important that you and your web designer are clear about what it is you want from the website. Is it increased sales, greater brand awareness, email addresses, a reduction in brochure requests or a reduction in phone calls for information? Be clear about your priorities for the site.

2.   What have you gained from your current site?

If you have an existing site, why do you want to change it? What works well on your current site and what does not? What business priorities is your current site meeting or not meeting?  For example, are there not enough sales or enquiries? Is it getting enough hits? What improvements do you wish to make and why? What feedback have you had?

3.   How does the website fit in with your company’s goals?

What are your company’s wider goals? What is its vision or mission? Where is it going and what is its history? Describe your company in five to ten words (e.g. vibrant, traditional, young, professional etc.). How big is your company? What is your company’s USP (unique selling point)? If you and your web designer have a good awareness of how the site is intended to fit in with these wider considerations, then the site is more likely to succeed.

4.   Who is your target audience?

Who are you trying to reach through your website? Don’t just think of your existing customers or audience, but potential ones too. Are you aiming at other businesses (small or large?) or the regular public? What characteristics do they have in terms of age, gender, disposable income, nationality, interests and so on?

5.   Who are your competitors and what are they doing?

Who are your main competitors? What online presence do they have? List your competitors and their websites. How do you want your website to be different from theirs and what will make you stand out?

6.   How will the website complement your image and brand?

How important is it that the website reflects your company’s image and brand?  Does your company have a corporate style or a strapline, a logo, preferred fonts and colours? Be clear about these from the outset and you should get the look and feel of the site just right.

7.   What other websites or features do you like?

List three websites you like and explain why. Equally important, list three you do not like and again explain why. What features do you like or dislike? Is there anything you would particularly like to see on your website?

8.   What is the budget and timescale?

From the outset, be clear about what budget you have available for the site and the timeframe involved.

9. Do you have a web host and domain name?

Do you require a domain name (e.g. funkysausages.co.uk)? Do you have your own server or do you require a web host (to provide you with space online for your site)? Will you or your web designer organise this? If you are a small company, it is often easier to leave this to your web designer but state any preference clearly.

10. Do you know the content and structure you would like?

What content will you want on the site and what sections or pages? Most sites have a home page, about us, a products or services page and contact page, but you might also want want a gallery, forum, wiki or blog? Do you want an online shop or e-commerce features? If so, how will you process payments e.g. will you require a PayPal account or other means of accepting online payments? Do you have a sitemap? Do you have photos, graphics, and logos? Who will write the copy? Do you have in-house photos or do you or your web designer need to find appropriate images from online photo libraries.

11. How will social media fit in?

Do you want to integrate social media into the site? Do you have Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter or other social media accounts? Do you have a blog or a forum? If not, would you like any of these? Do you want people to ‘follow’ you on your social media and ‘like’ your products and services? Social media can be an excellent way to keep fresh content coming to your site but it is important that you are realistic and are able to update your social media regularly.

12. Who will maintain your site?

Who will be responsible for updating and maintaining your site, including content such as copy and images? How often will it be updated? Do you want to do it in-house or are you happy for your web designer to do this for you? Be honest and realistic – maintaining a good website takes time – do you have the in-house skills, time and resources?

13. How will you promote the site?

A website needs visitors. The look, feel and content might be great and will help to attract visitors but most websites need promoting. Will you or your web designer be required to ‘optimise’ the site so it ranks highly Google’s natural search results? Do you want to use pay per click advertising? Do you want to complement your website with an email newsletter?

14. What will success look like?

Be clear about what will indicate the success of the website? It might be increased sales, number of website hits, number of enquiries, email subscriptions etc. Be specific, make it measurable and time-bound. For example, 10% increase in online sales 6 months after the launch.

15. What next?

Once you have answered these questions, you should use the brief to approach website designers or design companies to obtain details on how they propose to meet your requirements and the costs involved (short-term and long-term). Although the brief provides a comprehensive starting point, there are still likely to be further questions on both sides as you progress towards a website that meets your requirements.

Download this article, How to successfully write a website brief, as a PDF document.

What is the best web page width?

There are so many things to consider when designing a website, but one of the most basic and yet fundamental ones, is what width your webpages should be, and whether they should be fixed or flexible. With different browsers (Chrome, Firefox etc – see my next posting for more on these) and platforms (Windows, Mac, Mobile), it is increasingly difficult to get the configuration right.

If the width is fixed and limited, users will be forced to scroll horizontally, which is far from ideal. As a comment I read on the sitepoint forum recently puts it, ‘a site that is wider than my screen is a major fail’. So what screen size resolutions are currently most in use?

  • 1366×768             17.55%
  • 1024×768             15.09%
  • 1280×800             12.77%
  • 1280×1024           7.42
  • 1440×900             6.45%
  • 1920×1080           5.21%
  • 320×480                4.08%
  • 1680×1050           3.84%
  • 1600×900             3.50%
  • 768×1024             2.80%

http://www.w3counter.com/globalstats.php (April 2012)

Fixed width or flexible?

A fixed width page has the great advantage that the layout will always remain as you intended. If you design a page for a 1024×768 resolution (until recently, the most common), then allowing for scroll bars and other browser space, it’s best to fix your page at a maximum of 960 pixels. The majority of sites do seem to have a fixed width, typically a little above 960 pixels. The disadvantage is that users with larger screens and higher resolutions will see a lot of unused space around the page, and the trend is for increased resolution sizes (e.g. 1366×768 recently overtook 1024×768 as the most common size). To compensate for this, you may wish to incorporate background padding into your design, to appear either side of your web pages. Some stick with a bland grey (the default on Chrome for example) though plain white is often a better option so as not to distract from the main content. Others use photos or textures to provide more of a setting for the page. It will depend on the site – for some it can be a visual enhancement. Many professional sports clubs have a backdrop of the stadium or the pitch to complement their main content. The backdrop is an integral part of the design.

Alternatively, you may opt for a liquid page design and instead of setting the width in pixels, opt for a percentage, typically 100% to fill the screen. This has the advantage that your page will automatically adjust to the width available – on the same forum suggested The disadvantage is that your page layout will also change and, at higher resolutions, your sentences may span a long way across the page, making them more difficult to read. If you go for a 100% page width, it is best currently to design the page for a 1024×760 resolution, so that its layout does not change too much at higher resolutions.

You may not want to opt for 100% though. Whereas the background with fixed pages is often to compensate for not filling up the screen, you may decide that this is a positive design feature, and fix the width at 90% or set a maximum width. This will also tackle the problem of sentences spanning too far across the page. Alternatively, if you go beyond 960 pixels or for a 100% width, design you site carefully so that the readability is not too badly affected and make sure you have a good balanced spread of content. Amazon, for example, will add extra content, for those with larger resolution screens.

I must admit, at this stage, I’m not sure what to go for. It might be because I keep switching from a small netbook to a large widescreen monitor which may be no bad thing. On the monitor, sentences on some sites do sprawl right across the page and it doesn’t look good. The same user on the sitepoint forum that I referred to earlier, thinks ‘fixed width is a cop-out for designers, putting their convenience over the needs of their visitors’. Initially I thought that way too and designed my first pilot sites with 100% width before dropping down to 90%. I’m currently designing two sites  using fixed widths. However, if I was sure that’s what I wanted, I wouldn’t have researched and written this little piece. I still need to play around more!

Finally, notice that there is one small resolution size in the table above of 320×480. Whereas the trend has been towards bigger resolution sizes for desktop monitors, this size is a relative newcomer to the table above so no prizes for working out that it is the resolution size of many mobiles. There’s a bit of a buzz around ‘responsive web design’ to deal with this increasing variety, but that’s another story, and one I haven’t finished reading yet.