Free WordPress Themes and W3C Standards: Do They Pass Validation?

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W3C Infographic by gioeleslfierro @ Flickr

When I covered free WordPress themes in my quest to find a look and design for Library Currents, one thing that I did not account for was how the code was written to allow for W3C compliance in both HTML and CSS code. More simply put, I should have tested W3C compliance using a tool such as the browser plugin “Web Developer” by Chris Pederick and included this in my decision when choosing a theme template.

The reason why this is important is because it can save costs in time and money to choose a W3C compliant theme. The free theme I had chosen was MesoColumn, which was appealing aesthetically. It was professional and contained the colors of the Library Currents logo. However, when I began to look at making the site more accessible to screen readers for the blind, a CSS test revealed 59 errors and 135 warnings, making the process of fixing the theme’s code a long and potentially costly process.

A key question I asked was: Is this theme important enough to endure a lengthy code rewrite? Or could I find an equal — or better– substitute?

I decided to run a search online to find a substitute, and used W3C compliance as a key prerequisite. I also accepted the possibility of having to pay for a theme, though the theme would have to be exceptional to do so.

My search was fruitful and I narrowed the field to two companies. I noticed in my search that W3C compliant themes were often provided by design companies with respectable “theme vaults.” Two of those companies were Elegant Themes and WooThemes.

ElegantThemes is a paid theme repository with an annual subscription cost of $39. They provide over 87 themes used by over 222,000 customers worldwide. ElegantThemes continuosly updates their themes to provide better security, and all themes are claimed to be W3C compliant. I tested a demo of a theme that looked beautiful called ArtSee and found just three CSS errors and 1 HTML error. This would be worth the price, with the possibility of changing to a new W3C compliant theme included in the subscription.

WooThemes is another excellent WordPress design company with over 80 themes. Although the main subscription is $29 per month, they provide a small set of free themes with a free account which are W3C compliant! The theme I liked was “the morning after,” which has a simple and clean layout. The demo version on the website did not allow testing of CSS and HTML using Web Developer, so I downloaded a free copy and tested this on the actual website. I was dismayed to find 31 CSS errors and 21 HTML errors for this theme.

ElegantThemes seemed to be a good choice, but I wanted an actual live test, so I downloaded it to my themes folder. A test of CSS/HTML revealed that the copy users download has 34 CSS errors and 13 HTML errors. This is puzzling, given that the demo has just one error.

In my next blog article, I will discuss how I solved the problem: would I have to pick another theme different than the above three, choose a theme to work on and hammer out the corrections (and hire a coder to tackle the ones that are too complicated), or find yet another way to make the site more accessible to all users? Stay tuned for part two.

If you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to comment below.


Mickel is an MLIS and the creator of Library Currents. His inspiration for the blog was the SJSU course "The Hyperlinked Library" taught by Dr. Michael Stephens, a course that is also a worldwide MOOC. If you wish to contact him, feel free to write to Mickel Paris at

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