Is Buying WordPress Themes from ThemeForest Insane?

Before anything else, there are some really good themes at ThemeForest. Unfortunately, they are the exception.

A quick look at ThemeForest’s top selling themes will tell you that ThemeForest authors are forced (by competition or audience demand — hey, all they’re asking for is a faster horse, right?) to throw in as many non-theme features as they possibly can. So they keep adding them, and adding them, and adding them…

That bubble has to burst some day and what I’d much rather see is helping Envato deflate it before it gets out of control. Even if it takes something as ridiculous as another WordCamp ban to get it done.

Last week Alex King suggested it was insane to sell WordPress products at Envato marketplaces. Unless you’re an established name in WordPress circles and already have an audience to sell to I strongly disagree with his claims. It’s much better to earn 50% of something than 100% of nothing. Problem I have with Envato is a different one – quality of products they offer.

ThemeForest Themes and WordPress Theme Review Team Guidelines

I’ve been a freelance WordPress developer for four years. Guilty of my share of poor code in the early days and proud of constantly trying to improve my coding skills. Work I’ve done ranges from developing themes from scratch, using all sort of frameworks and starter themes (100% faithful to Underscores these days) and modifying existing themes clients had purchased. Lately, most of those themes were bought at ThemeForest.

What I’ve also done is read WordPress Theme Review Team guidelines numerous times and contribute to the team (only twice though, and not proud of that low number). Still, I do know what WordPress Theme Review Team considers a theme that’s good enough to be given away for free.

There’s no way around it, some of the stuff sold at ThemeForest would never, ever make it into repository of free WordPress themes. Let me say that again: Some of the themes sold at Envato are not good enough to be given away for free.

So, with all the vs Envato GPL drama and arm twisting that’s been going on lately, how on Earth is no one talking about the damage Envato is doing WordPress by messing up users’ expectations? You know, all the shortcodes, custom post types and all the other “plugin territory” features themes sold at Envato have.

From WordPress Theme Review Team guidelines (updated on 2013-2-1):

Since the purpose of Themes is to define the presentation of user content, Themes must not be used to define the generation of user content, or to define Theme-independent site options or functionality.

Find me ten ThemeForest themes that would pass this. There’s lots of other violations I ran into and it makes me wonder what theme review process at ThemeForest looks like.

I guess if your product is weak, the only way to stay competitive is to offer more of it for same amount of money, or less. But I don’t get why Envato allows this.

Why This Should Not be Ignored

Average WordPress users are not only unaware of differences between WordPress core, good themes, crappy themes, plugins and “themelugins” (those ugly theme/plugin mutants that will screw up your website when you switch to a new theme) — they don’t even care.

To them, WordPress is “all of the above”. And the day they get tired of that $40 theme, decide to start using another one and everything falls apart it’s WordPress they will blame. Who wants that to happen?

I’d love to see Envato hire Chip Bennett, Scott Reilly, Emil Uzelac, Pippin Williamson, and/or some other folks from review teams as consultants, even if it’s just for a few weeks, so they can train Envato staff and review their process. As a seller at CodeCanyon, I wouldn’t mind Envato using my earnings over that period to pay these guys. It would make both buying from and selling at Envato marketplaces so much better.

So, is it insane? It could be, if you’re not sure what you’re buying is coded well. Did you ever run into crappy products at Envato? Or you think they’re fine and do-it-all themes are good for users?

67 thoughts on “Is Buying WordPress Themes from ThemeForest Insane?”

  1. I had a similar experience with Envato, so my advice is: dont buy anything from themeforest, as they are sold by, a scammy sales site sells crappy themes that don`t work, and then their support department does not want to honor any refunds! buyer beware!

    1. Bryan,

      I wouldn’t go that far. There really are some great themes at ThemeForest, but unfortunately there’s a lot of junk, too. And regardless of what the overall quality Envato is not scammy.

      1. Why don’t you list some good themes that you think are worth it in Themeforest instead of alluding to them. There are lots of users who don’t care for those ridiculous amount of packed “features”….like U-Design or any one of the top sellers. Who is going to need more than 10-20 choices for fonts? 600 is just plain stupid and sound like a car salesman.

          1. I was once guilty of the issues raised in this post, but I have since, come to my senses.

            Some great points made in this post. I would love to see themes stop being overloaded with everything and the kitchen sink… Less is more!

            If I feel a theme requires a custom post type, I create a plugin and bundle it with the theme, it’s great for portability and organization.

            Same thing goes for shortcodes, I stopped adding tons of those. There’s plenty of great plugins out there, which means more time can be spent on making themes.

            Some TF profiles that come to mind, besides mine, is Mike McAlister.

          2. Matt,

            Thank you for commenting. Mike is a superstar, his themes are really amazing and above all, they are THEMES, not theme/plugin combos that leave users wondering what happened to their site the day they switch theme. At least the ones I saw.

            I was not aware of your themes, but I like them. So difficult to find themes that could pass theme review process in commercial themes universe, but what you’re doing there sure fits the bill.

    2. I wouldn’t say that…I was given a refund by Envato as a kind gesture… to my Envato account. What I am going to do with that credit I have no idea as I don’t dare risk wasting my time with another theme or plug-in. So while the gesture is there it kind of missed the mark.

    3. I had this very experience. They tell you to download your purchase immediately. Ten, when you to use it, first time – possibly weeks later – the item I bought – was abandoned by the author. Envato then refuses a refund – saying, too bad- you downloaded it! That seemed absolutely unethical to me.

      1. Karen,

        Although this is not what I had in mind when writing this post, I’m sorry to hear you’ve had this problem and I hope you were able to find a solution in the end.

      2. Actually, when you buy a theme, there is no guarantee for support unless stated in the item description, no guarantee for future updates but you’re eligible if there is any, no guarantee for a refund.

      3. I’ve gotten my money back from TF via PayPal. I understand why they are reluctant to refund money, but for me, personally I had no intention of using the theme I wanted a refund on. PayPal will accept refund requests if the product was significantly “not as described”. Yes, TF refused to refund my purchase, but as I said I paid with PP and they honored the purchase agreement.

  2. i totally Agree with your Seller point of view, Themefuse is the best example of this 50% of some thing is way better than nothing.Another point is Review system and the qaultiy of wordpress themes, The point i really hates about the Envato is the Reputation point they given to WordPress authors with high sales and The ability to add new themes With “poor quality” with high prices and also featured them however there are many more themes with better quality turned down and this because of High sales the author makes.

    1. I don’t know about reputations points system so I can’t say anything about that. Although it does make sense to reward authors for creating good products.

      But review process should be far more strict than it is now.

  3. For the kind of percentage Envato (ThemeForest) takes, they should provide a better service, more usable author dashboard and a hell lot better review process, possibly one licensed by

    Unfortunately, becoming top author on Envato doesn’t say much about quality, but about whether you sold something 100000 times or not. Well, maybe that’s how it should be. People have a right to grade each product they buy and if a crappy product sells a million times and has 5 star reviews, maybe that’s the product people on ThemeForest want.

    What do you think?

    1. I’d just love to see them moderate what they sell better. Star ratings right after purchase don’t mean much, but unfortunately for most new buyers they are the only indicator to how good a product is.

  4. Hey @slobodanmanic:disqus, thanks for being concerned enough to raise this issue again. The current review process over at ThemeForest is actually very good, and we’ve had a few conversations with Chip (and hope to have more) about improvements.

    The real problem is actually themes that were added to ThemeForest before we made improvements to our review process. You’ll be pleased to know that we’re actually currently working on a project to go back and re-review these themes according to our current standards.

    With over 2000 themes and more submitted every day, this won’t resolve the issue over night, but you’ll be pleased to know it is happening.

    In the meantime, as always, if you find a specific theme that has issues, you know where to find me: @Japh on Twitter, or email japh at envato dot com, and I’ll get that theme moved to the front of the line for you.

    1. Japh

      Thanks for your comment!

      Knowing how committed you are to WordPress best practices, I knew something had to change in the right direction. Very happy to hear about the talks you’ve had with Chip.

      To be honest, themes I’ve had most problems with were released 2+ years ago (although they did get recent updates). And I will email you next time this happens, thanks for that.

      Still, there are new themes being released everyday that have tons of “plugin territory” features bundled in and that could cause content lockdown effect when users decide to switch to new ones. That is by far my biggest concern because it allows sellers to use quantity rather than quality as their #1 selling point. And I honestly don’t see that ending unless you guys step in. What’s Envato’s official stance on that?

      But most of all, it is a relief to know you’re working on it and to hear that from you personally. If you need help for that large re-review project, please get in touch with me (@slobodanmanic on Twitter or slobodan dot manic at gmail dot com will work best), I would love to help.

      1. You’re right about the “plugin territory” issue, and I was actually just chatting with one of our reviewers about it.

        I personally prefer to take the approach of utilising the TGM Plugin Activation class by Thomas Griffin, and managing bundled plugins that way. We’re considering how this might work on ThemeForest and encouraging authors to go that way.

        Thanks for offering to help. The project is already under way, but I’ll keep you in mind 🙂

        1. I think everyone would win if “plugin territory” issue was solved — ThemeForest would be able to offer top-quality themes, maybe even for slightly less money than they cost now and CodeCanyon’s sales would probably explode, too, because there would be a lot more plugins in it.

          Spoke with @nikolicdragan:disqus about this several times, he always keeps bringing up some sort of ratings Envato would give the themes, perhaps not just one category like current star ratings, but more (code quality, adherence to best practices, would the theme pass review process etc.)

          Huge relief to hear all this from you. For now, I’ve decided not to sell at ThemeForest because I just can’t make myself to insert “7 sliders”, “600 fonts”, “tons of shortcodes” etc. in order to be competitive, but glad to hear things might change.

          1. My pleasure! Some improvements to ratings sure would be nice.

            Hey, you might find some buyers are also sick of “7 sliders”, “600 fonts”, “tons of shortcodes”. You should make a theme for those buyers 😉

  5. Great post – thank you for it
    “Some of the themes sold at Envato are not good enough to be given away for free” – so true, unfortunately. Have some friends who bought themes on Envato based on just a visual impression. I was surprised how poorly those themes were coded. Absolutely waste of money.

    1. Hi and thanks for commenting!

      There are some good ones too, to be honest, but a lot of top selling ones are not something I’d ever use on any one of my sites.

      Looks like Envato will be making big changes in 2013 though, I’ll keep a close eye on what they do to theme review process and how they handle themes that were approved a long time ago, that still keep selling well but are poorly coded.

      If you’d like to read more on this topic, Matt Hill has started a post series on ThemeForest:

      1. I happy to hear that there is going to be improvements. Personally, I’m afraid I would not ever recommend to buy theme on ThemeForest at least if it’s not from a developer whom I know for the quality code :))
        But surely it’s a big and interesting problem – what to do with themes that sell well but have poor code 🙂 From my point of view it’s some kind of deception of the buyers who trust the Envato with estimation of quality 🙂

        1. Honestly, I don’t know what to think 🙂

          I do know they’re making changes to their marketplaces, seems like every week there’s something new in there, also they just hired new marketplaces GM, and that could indicate some major changes.

          On the other hand, I don’t know if what’s considered a WordPress theme by Envato and by will ever be the same, or even similar. theme review guidelines are very clear and I’ve only seen one theme at ThemeForest that would pass them. That doesn’t mean there’s only one, but if you look at list of bestselling themes at ThemeForest, their features are what would make them fail the review process.

          Who knows, maybe the problem really is Envato and having different views of what a WordPress theme is. I just know I’d never recommend anything that can get you in trouble down the road like theme with plugin functionality can when you disable it. Even if it has brilliant code.

          1. oh! surely – where marketing come in there is so less space for common sence… some developers could pack in their themes tonnes of options supposing that “it’s what a customer want”

            there is indeed some misconseption betweeen themes and plugins and sometimes it’s so difficult to find a measure… so we probably should not blame Envato for that… they’ve just created some kind of fasion (for themes going beyond theme’s scope) and loosen control aftewords

  6. There is another issue other than quality which many people are victims of that!

    Why a SELLER CANNOT KNOW his/ her BUYERS in ENVATO Marketplaces?!!

    If a seller has more than 10 sales then Envato simply can HIDE some sales and STEAL them!!! There is no way for a seller to find out or check the number of buyers!

    They say it’s about privacy but that claim is totally unsubstantiated since one’s Envato ID is known for almost anything else an Envato member does.

    1. I have to say I agree with Envato on this one and think it indeed is about privacy. When I’m buying something online (say at Amazon) I’d never want my purchase history accessible by anyone but Amazon, and I definitely don’t want it shown anywhere.

      1. As I mentioned, no identity or any other sensitive personal data can be revealed just from an Envato ID if an Envato member doesn’t really want to… By having, even a public (more accurate!) list of buyers on each product is impossible to reveal a person’s “purchase history” because a “purchase history” is a concentrated summary of purchases. However, that’s not a “purchase history” I’m talking about but a “sales history” of a product which makes it impossible to trace exactly who bought what else… So there is no such issue here…

        At the same time, though, Envato reveals a great amount of other sensitive information (as some might think of them). For example, Envato never asked any seller if they really want or not to reveal their profits and number of sales. Of course this is a great incentive for attracting sellers and that’s why it is revealed…. but who was asked about it?!…

        A seller by not knowing the buyers can never have any valid proof for the exact number of his sales… He is not even given any right to use any other valid means to check the amount of his sales… We can ;only rely on the honesty of Envato…. hmm…

  7. My I couldn’t agree more. 3 months have gone by and nothing has changed in the slightest. Look at all the latest themes (total garbage). The thing that makes me the most angry is that the BLOGGING aspect of themes is nearly forgotten. They try to pull you in with all these flashy home page builder (ugh) and then you click on the blog link and it looks likes they spent a total of 10 minutes designing it. Oh yes, you have all the “wonderful” shortcodes that will break your entire site the first time you want to change your theme.

    They act as if they’re concerned and something is going to change. Nothing has changed. How about only accepting themes on which you can actually run a WordPress blog? That would be a novel start.

    1. Thanks for commenting Bryan. I’ve been keeping a very close eye on new themes released at ThemeForest and must say I really dislike some of the trends.

      Can’t remember where it was, but last week I read someone suggest that marketplaces shouldn’t sell themes but website solutions instead, so basically a combination of themes and plugins, but not all merged into one. I don’t know how hard it would be to organize a marketplace like that, has to have its own challenges I’m sure.

      Haven’t looked into the code of recently released themes, so I can’t say if that part is improved, but the functionality, I agree with you, it completely misses the point of what a WordPress theme should be and hurts users in the long run.

  8. The last few weeks I’ve been searching for a good magazine/news theme and have gone through well over a hundred, including every single one on Themeforest. 95% of them look virtually identical with only minor cosmetic differences. The developers have clearly focused all of their attention on the front page, with obligatory sliders all over the place. Obviously this stuff sells, but it would be nice to see more innovation going on that went beyond shortcodes and sliders, with more attention being paid to pages, posts, and categories, rather than just to the front page.

  9. I wish I had read this review BEFORE I spent $67 with Envato. The theme I bought for Prestashop was so badly coded that after persevering for four hours I reverted back to the default theme.

    Envato didn’t reply to any of my emails asking for support and wouldn’t refund me for the theme. Thieves!!!

    1. Hey Ben, sorry to hear things didn’t go so well with the Prestashop theme you bought.

      Can you send me your ticket ID with Envato Support, and I’ll look into this for you?

      1. Hi Japh, My support ticket ID was #XVB-735-34294. The theme kept leaving larges blank spaces and nothing would align properly.

        I fully deleted their files and asked for a refund after they didn’t reply for 5 days. I just couldn’t keep my shop offline for that long.

        Their customer service is appalling.


        1. Hi Ben, I’ve had a look at your ticket. It’s an unfortunate situation.

          Did you manage to get a reply from the author who created the Prestashop theme?

          If there’s anything I can do to help you, feel free to email me (Japh at Envato dot com) or contact me on Twitter any time.

  10. This is why we created a New Theme Marketplace – ThemeBoard (
    Our main goal is CREATIVITY and QUALITY.

    We will take care of real needs of the authors (not only the buyers)
    Our authors have higher payment rate starting from 70%, also they can set up their own price per theme.

    We will also take care of themes quality (like also their code) and
    assure buyers that themes really works well. ThemeBoard provides mainly
    Premium WordPress Themes, CMS themes, HTML and PSD site templates,

  11. I have just recently experienced the TERRIBLE coding of one of Envato’s themes. The CSS for the whole theme was on ONE LINE. Every hook in the theme was a custom hook, nothing used WordPress core functionality and the output, wow don’t even get me started. They reviewed the theme and it remains available for download. Probably because it is so popular.

    I feel it is our responsibility to get the word out there about how crappy these products are. The average WordPress user has no idea and then developers have to go in after the fact to try and help them only to find a mess.

    1. Hi @keco86:disqus, I’d love to know which theme on ThemeForest you’re referring to so I can look into this further.

      You can email me: japh at envato

  12. I was looking at this: for a site I plan on doing. I like it’s look best of all and it seems to fit mobile devices well. It has quite a lot of folks who have said positive things. However the theme creator was less than impressive on their late responses to some basic questions and seemed to indicate if I didn’t buy the them I wouldn’t get many of my questions answered. I have also looked at a few over at Mojo, but I read similar things as you have written here. I’ve been on the net for awhile selling also and had two sites built. I would say most of the word press stuff is heads and heels better than most of the web developers a novice is likely to run into. Any thoughts. I’m glad I ran into your site. I am very close to making a purchase somewhere.

    1. Sid,

      The theme looks really good, it’s not just copying what every other best-selling theme is doing and that’s a huge plus in my opinion. Can’t tell you what the code is like because I can’t see it, but from what I can see I expect it to be better than most ThemeForest themes.

      Just make sure rating system and shortcodes are handled by plugins that come bundled when you buy the theme and not by the theme itself and you’re good.

  13. Phew! Thanks for this post, Slobodan. I’m actually taking a break from wrestling with a Themeforest theme for one of my clients. I recommended Themeforest to them initially, and the ensuing problems isn’t helping my reputation, or business.

    Perhaps, I should have just developed a theme from scratch, myself. It would have been less of a headache. This theme looks great in the Live Demo and all, but not so when you come to set it up.

    I looked into the code, and simply shook my head. I’m not an expert programmer, but from my tiny view of WordPress, this theme turns every standard on its head. And where are we without standards? Plus, this is a recent release as well. Amazingly strange.

    Anyway, that’s the last time I send a client to ThemeForest. It’s hard to know what to expect from their pretty, ajaxified, homepage panel themes. We all have limited time to work with, and I would rather get a free theme from the WordPress repo, and extend its presentation for my client.

    For example, what happens to all my custom post types if I change themes? Same as everyone here has said. It’s not enough to just write convoluted CSS, or PHP for the sake of it, or to take what should be core functionality, customize it extensively, then bury it deep within an indiscernible folder/code structure. For what? Obfuscation? I don’t get it.

    Obviously Envato needs to stay afloat, so any kind of review will be considered alongside their bottom line. But I think “some” (not all) themes on ThemeForest are indeed like “monsters” in a forest, and should be duly avoided.

    1. Thanks for you comment Cyj, I love it.

      While I don’t do client work anymore, I’ve stopped recommending them buying ThemeForest themes a while ago. Way too many projects that took way too long to complete (causing me to lose money working on them) because of way too many different visions of what a WordPress theme should be like, all without ever bothering to see any of WordPress theme development (or development in general) best practices.

      ThemeForest = Never Judge a Book by its Covers.

      Grabbing a copy of Underscores and easily turning it into what ever I need it to be always is (for me) faster than tweaking a do-it-all theme client purchased at ThemeForest.

      Great (and that’s an understatement) news is that Envato is changing its review process and themes will look more like they are meant to look, handling the way content is presented and not much else. This will kill “Stuff as Many Features into Your Themes Olympics” ThemeForest currently is and pave way for themes to compete at what themes are meant to be doing, hopefully resulting in some very creative layouts.

      I’ve said it a few times already, but great job making this happen, Japh.

      1. Thanks, Slobodan. I’m sure Envato is doing their best to guide authors toward best practices. No doubt. Keeping up with the amount of themes they have can be difficult, in terms of bringing older themes up to scratch, and I know they will do their best. Thanks, Japh.
        I agree completely about Underscores, and like you, I think in future, I will be using it as a base theme, by default. Thanks.

  14. I have a question about a two themes that I really like from ThemeForest: Blue Diamond and BookCard. Are these worth the investment? I am scared to buy them now.

    1. I haven’t heard of these two and can’t really help, sorry. Looking at features, they both represent exactly what I think is wrong with most ThemeForest themes, so I would never use them (see my post about WordPress themes bullshit marketing phrases), which doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t work for you.

  15. I’ve only been doing this for a short time but I’ve noticed this problem as well. It’s kind of ironic also that by giving a theme a million different features & options, it often ends up being even less flexible than a simple theme or framework – and much harder to work with.

  16. I use Udesign from themeforest. It is awesome, support is awesome, awesome, awesome. BUT, the other three purchases I have made from there are s***ty. Horrible support, buggy and gross.

  17. Basically, I agree with you: it’s a crapshoot out there when it comes to WordPress themes. I’ve seen pretty themes that have total crap coding and bugs, yet they’re rated high. I’ve seen 1 theme on themeforest (“showoff”) I fixed for a client that has numerous complaints and has no response from the creator… and it’s still up and selling almost 1 year later.

    1. To be fair to ThemeForest, they are cleaning house, big time. I guess new rules affecting already accepted themes is a matter of time.

  18. Slobodan, I absolutely agree with you.

    As a web solution developer, sometimes a client is best served by a template, and not an original design. When this is the case I turn to ThemeForest.

    However, I no longer purchase WordPress themes. Instead, I head over to the Marketing > Landing Pages, or Site Templates, sections and pick up an HTML/CSS/JS template. Then convert what is needed into a proper WP theme.

    I’ve notice that there is an excess of functionality in the themes that should never be there. Then there’s the things that shouldn’t be given a GUI at all, like consumer-focussed logo management. How many times is a website owner going to change a logo? How does one justify the functionality in exchange for the added weight to the theme?

    Sometimes clients come in with a ThemeForest WordPress theme they like. I immediately go in search of the HTML version. If one is not available, I contact the author to see if anything can be provided. If it is a negative on that count as well, I’m talking the client into another design.

    The truth is, like you, I wish for a better internet across the board. But, there will always be people who want to put together their own sites, and there will also be “web designers” (notice the quotation marks), who are actually just theme agents. To me, this means that if the standard was completely adopted throughout our industry, and all themes met or exceeded such standards, less of us would be needed.

    And, for now, I’m content with the revenue I realize by fixing botched websites created from ThemeForest WordPress themes.


    1. Andrew,

      I like that approach – buying a template and then converting it to a WordPress theme. Even buying a PSD template would work for developers. All you need is a solid starter theme, like Underscores.

      This questions sums it up brilliantly:

      “How does one justify the functionality in exchange for the added weight to the theme?”

      My answer – I just don’t know 🙂

      P.S. Could you explain what you meant by theme agent?

  19. Yep, I’m having trouble with Envato right now. I bought a theme thinking that 3000 reviews can’t be wrong and it’s crashes all the time. Can’t win when it comes to Themeforest. In the time I took the gamble and argued with developers and fiddling around with paypal, I could have developed my own theme. SO next time I’m going to do exactly that.

    1. I must say that biggest problem I’ve had with WordPress themes is they are bloated with “what should be plugin” features, not code quality. I don’t know what code quality is like, but it is possible to tell if a theme is trying to do more than it should just by looking at features list. But again, new submission requirements are good, great even, it just takes a lot of time to apply them to existing themes, which is understandable.

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