It's been almost three years since I bought Thesis, did my original review of it and became an avid evangelist for it. I don't think there's ever been a product that I've been a stronger fan of since starting my career in Internet marketing. My original review was on the first version of Thesis and a LOT has changed in the last three years so I decided to update and overhaul the post.
PLEASE NOTE: The below review is of Thesis 1.8.5 and NOT a Thesis 2.0 review. Find out more about my thoughts on Thesis 2.0, Genesis and why Sugarrae switched.
Chris Pearson, the creator of the theme, has been very receptive to ideas and improvements from the community and the latest version of the Thesis theme is even better than I ever deemed possible when I originally became a Thesis user. Though we'd never spoken prior to me becoming a loud supporter of Thesis, as a result of my evangelism, writing numerous Thesis tutorials and continued desire to give feedback on the theme, I'm glad to say we've become friends.
Even so, if there's a Thesis “issue”? I bitch loudly. My review is not biased in any way. I said it three years ago before I knew Chris and will say it again now:
What is the Thesis Theme?
I really think the Thesis theme is the best “in the box” premium WordPress theme I’ve ever come across.
The Control Panels
What I said in my original review is still the number one advantage of using Thesis:
For someone who doesn’t get a lot of php and hacks their way through WordPress themes, Thesis will give them a lot of functionality they wouldn’t be able to obtain for themselves otherwise by being able to make changes via a simple control panel instead of having to alter any actual WordPress code.
Now a days, Thesis has six control panels and each one offers you supreme control over various aspects of your site:
Site Options Panel
This panel gives you control over some basic elements of the theme. You can control the title tag settings on a site wide level and the robots meta tag settings on a site wide level. You can also get rid of canonical issues by clicking a box telling Thesis you want it to use the rel=canonical tag to help prevent some of the duplicate content issues that WordPress is famous for creating.
Design Options Panel
This is where the design and CSS impaired get payday. With a click of a button you can change the number of columns, the width of the columns and choose the display options for almost every aspect of the site. Colors, font types, font sizes, background colors, body background shadow and more can be changed at the click of a button, with no CSS knowledge required. The Display Options section of this panel allows you to specify what information to include in the bylines and archives. The “Comments” tab in this section allows you to shut off comments on all pages of the site that aren't posts in one click (one of my favorite features.)
This is also where you'll find (and be able to edit) the settings for the “Multimedia Box” (see the top of this page where the 300X250 Thesis ad is), which you can change to rotate between pictures, embed video or even include custom code for all those folks that want to show advertising in that area.
In a more recent version of Thesis, Chris also added a “Feature Box” (see the top of the Sugarrae homepage under the header for an example.) The Feature Box allows you to put specific content either above your header, right under the header (above your main content area and sidebars) and above your content area. You can choose to show the Feature Box only on the homepage or site wide at the moment. However, the display options for the Feature Box can only be done through writing custom hooks (see below) at this time.
Header Image Panel
For quite a while, getting a header image into Thesis required you to use hooks (see further down below for an explanation) to insert a header image into the Thesis theme. But a few versions back, Chris added the Header Image panel to make uploading a header into a simple and instant task. Not only that, but the Header Image panel will even tell you what size your header should be for your site based on whatever design options you've enabled.
Favicon Uploader Panel
Custom File Editor Panel
The second version of Thesis introduced the concept of “hooks.” Stay with me here, cause it scared the crap out of me at first too. From my “Hooks for Dummies” guide:
I downloaded it and saw that Thesis was now run completely on “hooks”. Not only did I not know what a hook was, the tutorials and discussions I saw about it scared the hell out of me.
My level of PHP knowledge (the code language WordPress is run on) is slight at best, thus why I was so thrilled in my earlier review.
Now I suddenly was in need of “hooks” to do any “out of the ordinary” customizations (such as adding social bookmarking plugins).
The single post template was missing. The tutorials were in Japanese as far as I was concerned. Thesis was now either for the very basic or the very advanced… those of us hacking plugins into core files were out of luck. What the hell was I supposed to do now?
whined totold Pearson that I didn’t understand this or like this one bit. He assured me hooks were easy. He assured me once I learned them, I’d love them. He sent me a link to one of the tutorials. I suddenly realized how people who don’t know SEO must feel reading a document about latent semantic indexing. I also decided I was going to force Pearson to teach me how to do it so I could help non-programmers understand hooks the way Aaron helped the non technical understand LSI. Luckily for me (and hopefully you), he obliged.
So I wrote the Hooks for Dummies guide – and if you take the time to read it, you'll understand how hooks work. And, if you're like me soon you'll be finding yourself unable to live without having their functionality. :)
That said, you don't NEED hooks to customize Thesis. They're an option. One I love. And if you do use hooks (or want to implement custom CSS) then the Custom File Editor allows you to edit your custom functions and custom CSS files without having to utilize FTP. That said, always make sure you have a backup saved before you work on either file via the Custom File Editor panel.
Manage Options Panel
When working with Thesis on a dev server (or when using the same Thesis layouts over and over), you could always easily transfer your custom functions file to a new install of Thesis and have all your custom functions and hooks appear. But you still had to reset all of your options in the Site Options and Design Options panels manually. But now you can simply download your site and design option settings with one click and upload them into a fresh install without having to go through each section within those panels individually. Download them and then use the upload option in the Manage Options panel in your fresh Thesis install and everything is set to go.
There's also a restore options feature for those folks who play around with the options and decide they'd like to start over from scratch again.
Great for SEO Purposes
Thesis had a great SEO base when it originally came out and now that base is even better. You can specify custom title tags, meta descriptions, robots meta tags (like noindex or nofollow) and shortlinks (referred to as a “301 Redirect for this Page’s URL”) on a per page or post or category page level. You can also specify site wide or type wide metas from the Site Options control panel (for instance, saying you want all tag pages to be “noindex”). Best of all, you don't need a plugin to do it.
Additionally, you can tell Thesis you'd like to assign a rel=canonical tag for the site to help ease the potential for duplicate content issues. There are multiple opportunities to funnel your internal linking how you'd like. You can create custom excerpts on a per post or per page level. There's more, but you get the idea. And frankly, Thesis seems to have at least one (usually more) SEO based improvement in every update (updates to the theme are free for life.)
Cool Advantages of Using Thesis
In my original review, I noted how Thesis let you create targeted advertisements on a per post or per page level…
I’m able to override the base choice I’ve made of what to show in that [multimedia box] area for my site as a whole, all without ever having to touch a drop of code in the WordPress templates by utilizing the custom key option on the specific page or post.
If you view the photo above, you’ll see I was able to select the “custom” key I defined in the Thesis control panel and “override it” and insert specific code to replace the normal “custom” key, only for this post. This allows me to target my advertising on specific pages, especially higher traffic ones.
The above was (and is) especially perfect for the random posts that warranted specific advertisements not really relevant to the rest of my site (at least if I wanted them to convert for people coming in from the search engines on that random search term) – and all without having to hack together additional templates with regular themes.
But then I griped that I wish I could target ads based on a category level. That way if someone visits one of my posts in the “Blogging” category, they would see an ad for Thesis. But if they visit a post in my “SEO” category, they see an ad for Raven Tools. Sure, I could do this on a post by post basis, but that would limit me from making mass advertisement changes with ease. Thesis's custom functions [and hooks] functionality lets me do that. Targeted advertising leads to higher conversions and I have no doubt that I've made my money back multiple times over with this one feature alone.
Killer Category Pages
Before Thesis, if you wanted to make your category landing pages anything other than a bland list of your posts, you needed to create a separate template for each and every one. I'm way too lazy for that. ;-) But thankfully I can make killer category pages right in the WordPress backend with Thesis. Not only can I add a custom title and meta tags, but I can also add a custom headline and introductory content (you can see my affiliate marketing category page for an example).
I click save and I'm done. The benefits of Category SEO is not a secret. But until Thesis, it wasn't easy to implement. And if you're not using it, you're missing out on potential search engine benefit, especially if you well link your category pages both internally and externally.
Thesis has taken the place of a lot of free plugins I used to need previously. And let's face it, free plugins may not always be updated with the multiple updates WordPress does each year.
Painless Designs Changes
The biggest mistake I saw in the early days of Thesis was people thinking Thesis is a “design” the way we traditionally thought of themes. But it's not. It's a framework. A kick ass framework. If you want a sexy, elaborate design, you'll need to hire a designer familiar with Thesis or buy a ready made Thesis skin from a site like Themedy.
But standard Thesis designs can be built with the ability to move things around. Once your basic CSS and custom functions (and hooks) are setup, you can use the Design Options panel to move things around. Go from two columns to three, left aligned columns to right aligned columns. Unlike traditional WordPress themes, you won't need to say re-add your analytics code to the new theme. If you have an after post ad, you won't need to redo it the way you would when changing from a free two column theme to a free three column theme.
That said, you can absolutely design Thesis using the Design Options panel to look awesome without a bunch of fancy design work. Aside from my header and top navigation button background images here on Sugarrae, all of the design work was done using the Design Options Panel and some added custom (and simple) CSS.
Too Much More to List
Every site I have has different needs. The above covers the basics that run true with every site, no matter what. I've created sexy featured post sidebars utilizing Thesis, custom after post ads that change wording based on the category you're in, created new widgetized areas, added custom header carousels, customized error pages… the list goes on. And Thesis has a ridiculously cult following that has written thousands of tutorials to do almost anything you can think of. And a quick Google search for “Thesis tutorials” will bring them all up.
Some Gripes and The Wishlist
All the awesomeness aside, there are still some gripes I have and some potential features I have high on my Thesis wishlist…
1. Adding custom gravatars can be done fairly easily by adding a function to the custom functions file. However it would be awesome if there was a Uploader (like there is for the Favicon) that would make it even simpler.
2. I love that you can access the custom CSS file and custom functions file through the Custom File Editor, but I'd love it even more if I could also access my .htaccess and robots.txt files through the Custom File Editor as well. Frankly, now that you can upload plugins through the WordPress admin panel, these two files are the only reason I need to access FTP. There are plugins that allow me to access these files, but they add a lot of “features” that duplicate the *other* multitude of SEO features already available out of the box with Thesis.
3. While we're on the Custom File Editor, I really wish I had access to the style.css stylesheet from here. It's annoying when I need to find the current CSS for style classes I want to edit and can't simply open the style.css sheet and copy it and paste it into the custom.css file in the editor. I always have to find and open up the core style.css file on my hard drive to get what I need. It's a minor gripe, but still a gripe.
4. Since Thesis is absolutely built to be an SEO friendly WordPress theme, it would be beyond freaking awesome if it had some automated internal linking functionality. If this feature was added with extensive options that allow me to control how many times a phrase is linked within the same post, confine it to being linked only on posts or pages, a manual override that will allow me to turn the feature off on specific pages within the post editing panel? I'd drool.
5. We need to have the ability to utilize the Feature Box with the same simplicity we do the Multimedia Box. That said, I'm sure that's already in the works.
6. I think I speak for the CSS impaired everywhere when I say that I wish I could assign background colors to the sidebars through the Design Options Panel. Same goes for the footer.
7. I really wish Thesis could integrate a way to set whatever number of posts you want to show on a category page that does NOT affect the number of posts that show on the homepage. Sometimes I have sites with small, tight categories and I hate that I can't simply show all posts in the category on the category page (or a set number that differs from what I show on the homepage).
Now, as I've said before…
You can do everything Thesis does without putting down any money buying the theme.
And *you* might be a PHP master and CSS master who can do all this without buying Thesis.
However, *I* am not. So I bought Thesis.
Over the years since becoming a Thesis evangelist, I've helped turn thousands of people on to Thesis via my review and various tutorials. I believe in this product and have backed it avidly (and as my disclosure says, I don't stake my reputation on things I don't believe to be worth doing so.) Installing Thesis (which is easy as hell) is now part of installing WordPress for me.
I've been lucky enough to see future features slated for upcoming releases of the Thesis theme (updates are free) and believe me – it's only going to get even better.
PLEASE NOTE: The above review is of Thesis 1.8.5 and NOT a Thesis 2.0 review. Find out more about my thoughts on Thesis 2.0, Genesis and why Sugarrae switched.