We’ve all been there. We were initially attracted to the “free” part of the WordPress pitch. Not long after that, we quickly discover that our website ambitions reach further than a free WordPress site can effectively cover. Naturally, we decide to step up but still cut costs with a free theme. Some of us might be tempted to cut costs even further with nulled WordPress themes. We’re here to tell you why that’s a bad idea.
There are two types of free themes: legitimate free themes and pirated (nulled) themes.
- ☑️ In general terms, a legitimate free theme is made by a developer and verified as meeting WordPress quality standards.
- ❌ A nulled theme removes the license keys and sometimes also the intellectual property and copyrighted materials from the theme package. The nulled theme is then offered for free, or nearly free, across the internet.
In this article, we’re going to share the most powerful reasons for avoiding nulled WordPress themes. We’ll cover the standard reasons, like ethics and support, while also downloading and testing a few nulled themes to show you the damage they can cause.
Which free themes should you avoid (and why)?
So, you’ve decided to go with a free WordPress theme, now what? Well, you have thousands of options and plenty of websites will happily provide them to you. Now, you might want to sit down because not all of those sites can be trusted. Shocking, right?
Many sites will offer nulled WordPress themes which are pirated versions of premium WordPress themes.
While these pirated versions aren’t, strictly speaking, illegal, there are compelling reasons to avoid them.
WordPress products are distributed under generous licenses, which give users the freedom to modify and build great websites. A nulled WordPress theme exploits this generosity to make paid themes available for free.
What this does is remove a significant amount of revenue from the WordPress ecosystem. In some cases, this is the revenue that supports developers who contribute to WordPress core.
For theme makers, it becomes harder to maintain initiatives and develop new products. This path leads directly to smaller workforces working to maintain products rather than enhance them.
At an extreme level, a theme developer struggling to pay bills could pivot to provide web design services for clients who can (and will) pay handsomely for the work.
Secondly, nulled WordPress themes are not easy to update. The nulled theme you use won’t provide any auto-updates, and you can’t download it from the developer. Without access to the latest theme updates, your site is vulnerable to bugs and security flaws while also missing out on new features.
Third, when you’re outside the official system, you are responsible for bugs, security flaws, or malware. A nulled theme has few, if any, support avenues.
Going to the theme developer will be a dead-end. Verifying the purchase is often a necessary step in getting support. Going to the source won’t help. Finding the person who uploaded the theme will be all but impossible.
Fighting for help on the forums will also be a losing battle. While the volunteers will happily point you toward security processes, they won’t help you fix any problems.
When it comes to nulled WordPress themes, support is not included.
Fourth, you don’t know what is actually in a nulled WordPress theme. From malicious files to encrypted links, the threat from malware is most serious in nulled WordPress themes and it can damage your site in multiple ways.
Among other things, malware can provide backdoor access, insert backlinks, redirect your site, steal data, or even posts ads to your site. At best, you’ll lose site authority by linking to shady websites. At worst, your site crashes, or confidential data gets stolen.
What happens when you use a nulled WordPress theme?
Obviously, anything you download from the web should be checked before you use it. Themes and plugins aren’t an exception to this rule!
If anything, you should be twice as careful. For an eCommerce store that relies on traffic from search engines, just a few dodgy backlinks can be enough to torpedo both rankings and authority. In other cases, malware might redirect your readers to a shady online casino site. In both cases, it will be a while before someone rolls the dice with your site again.
While these stories might sound incredible, let’s scan a few nulled WordPress themes to see what we find.
My process was quite simple, I downloaded themes from pages appearing in the top 3 in Google search. Once I downloaded the themes, I used themecheck.info and VirusTotal to scan the files. In the final step, I installed the themes on a local WordPress site.
In this instance, popup injection malware was added to the theme, which displays some bad pop-ads to visitors. But, it doesn’t display the ads if you are logged into the site.
In another instance, I was able to find this code:
Which looks normal, right? Unfortunately, this encrypted code actually smuggles in some nasty backlinks like these (actual links removed):
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In both examples, it is nearly impossible to remove the pop-ups or the links. Both of them are able to regenerate until the nulled theme is removed, the database cleaned, and WordPress reinstalled (at least for me).
When can you use a free theme?
By now, you are probably convinced that nulled WordPress themes are too much trouble. But, this doesn’t mean your budget has grown or your goals have changed.
So, rather than scare you off WordPress and websites, let’s put the horror to the side and bust a few myths about legitimate free themes:
They’re too basic!
Simple and basic are the main complaints about legitimate free themes. But, when you decided to make a website on WordPress, you started with an idea. Bringing that idea to life means finding a theme that aligns your site goals with available features. Basic features might be all you need. For instance, a blog with a few pages doesn’t necessarily need advanced features.
Those same advanced features can also be a tremendous time-suck. If you want an easy-to-manage project, then you don’t need a theme that requires a Ph.D. to publish posts. For beginner projects or side-projects, the simplicity of a free theme makes it easier to build and manage your website.
You won’t stand out!
Another big complaint about free themes is that everyone uses them, which makes it hard to stand out from the pack. While this is something that you should consider, it should be weighted accordingly. If your goals make design and layout a lower priority, then a minimalist free theme should meet them.
Furthermore, a free theme like Neve comes with over 30 different starter sites to help you find an acceptable design. And, with a little skill and effort, you can make styling changes with the Block Editor, Elementor, or go old-school with CSS and HTML.
You don’t get support!
It’s true that support is limited for free WordPress themes. But maybe you don’t need it or you’re happy with the help you can find on forums.
For one, the WordPress community is incredibly large and incredibly friendly. If you opt for a theme featured in the WordPress theme directory (more on that below), then each theme has a support forum. Here you can find theme developers, support teams, and even knowledgeable volunteers working together to provide solutions.
Secondly, you might have a flair for troubleshooting. With an inquisitive nature and some CSS, HTML, and PHP skills, you might be able to support yourself.
Or, maybe you plan to enhance these skills. A free WordPress theme is a great way to practice your skills in a live environment.
They’re just free trials of paid themes!
This one is partially true in a number of cases, but not all, and certainly, you can use it to your advantage! If your long-term strategy involves building your audience before investing heavily, then a free path to a premium theme is ideal. Not only will you enjoy a hassle-free upgrade to a robust theme, but you’ll most likely find a free theme that’s well-coded and secure.
How can you avoid nulled WordPress themes?
As WordPress has grown, nulled WordPress themes have been pushed further towards the fringes. Now, when you search for “free WordPress themes” you’re not likely to find nulled themes lurking on anywhere near the first page.
Instead, you will find a lot of helpful theme lists, like ours, from reputable companies. If you start from scratch and don’t have a theme in mind, then theme lists can save you a heap of time. They are generally picked by knowledgeable WordPress users who rank the themes according to important criteria like speed, SEO optimization, feature sets, and design.
You’ll find the most popular and trustworthy themes on the lists, and you’ll even be sent to a safe download location in the form of a company website or WordPress.org.
From theme shops and developers
Companies have powerful motivation in offering you their free theme directly from their website. You might even find a different option among a wider range of free options. For example, on our sister site, Themeisle, you can find the free versions of our popular themes. In many cases, you won’t even need to sign up.
What you will need is some time to research the theme shop. Take some time to get a sense of their business reputation and theme quality. Once you’ve found a theme you like, take the time to look for reviews of the theme and the developer. One of the best places to read reviews also happens to be the best place to get themes, WordPress.org.
From the WordPress theme directory
If you’re nervous about unintentionally downloading a nulled WordPress theme, then always use the WordPress theme directory to download your themes. All of the themes pass a rigorous review before they are officially approved for download.
In order to maintain the quality of the directory, the WordPress themes are reviewed for security, accessibility, user experience, coding quality, and more. This process is handled by an automated WordPress plugin before two rounds of manual reviews by experienced WordPress developers and reviewers. In short, if a free theme isn’t in the official theme directory, you should give it a hard pass.
Besides the comfort and security, the WordPress theme directory provides information about the theme that can help you make a decision. For example:
- User reviews on the themes – get a sense of how well a theme works and its limitations.
- Support requests – see if the theme has any issues and how quickly they are resolved.
- Basic instructions for getting started and links to the technical documentation.
- Updates – see how often the theme is updated.
- Support for the latest version of WordPress. Outdated themes can open up security risks.
- PHP support.
When it comes to building a website, few tools are as popular and widely supported as WordPress. WordPress provides an unmatched opportunity for turning ideas into businesses, blogs, or thriving stores, from themes and plugins to documentation and forums. Unfortunately, this widespread popularity does leave room for bad actors to cause trouble.
On the other hand, it is easy to stay safe if you download official products from trusted developers. With the guidelines in place, the official WordPress theme directory is the best option for finding a budget-friendly theme that’s safe and secure.
Have you had a bad experience with a nulled WordPress theme? Share your experience in the comments.
Don’t forget to join our crash course on speeding up your WordPress site. With some simple fixes, you can reduce your loading time by even 50-80%: