The True Cost of Free Website Themes

Do you own a website or plan to create one? Do you have the money to spend to hire a professional designer to create a custom theme for you or purchase a premium website theme?

For many beginner webmasters, free themes are often the only path to go at the beginning. But many ‘free’ things aren’t actually free. They usually come with some kind of catch. Free website themes are no different.

The True Cost of Some Themes

When you download a free theme, the license of the theme usually requires that users leave a backlink to the designer’s website intact in the footer. This gives proper credit to the designers. This is often not an issue and is completely legitimate.

Theme Junkie Credit

Theme credit for the free 'Channel' theme from Theme Junkie

WordPress Themes that leave a single link giving credit to the designer are accepted into the WordPress Themes Directory.

However, we also have themes that have a footer that looks something like this.

Theme Footer Links

Some themes have a footer looking like this.

The theme was designed by ‘WP Plus’. What about those links to Webdesign Berlin, bed in a bag, and SUV? Unless your website is going to be focused on all of them (and they’re in completely different niches), the links aren’t relative at all.

In addition, theme sponsor links are essentially paid links and have nothing to do with the website, therefore causing the website using the theme to get severely penalized by Google. So what do you do?

Option 1 – Keep the Links as is

The first is the obvious option. Just keeps the links there and hope that Google doesn’t penalize you, but there’s a good chance they will.

Option 2 – Remove the Sponsor Links

The first is the obvious option. Just remove the sponsor links of course! Many themes using sponsor links don’t mention anything about having to keep those links there and sometimes the demo doesn’t even show those links.

If you’re using WordPress, simply go into the footer.php file and remove the links. You might be confused when you find that your footer.php file looks something like this.

Base64 Encoded PHP

What's all this random encrypted code? Reminds me of a site hack.

The entire footer might be encoded in Base64. This is obviously an effort to hide the sponsored links as well as to prevent the removal of them.

In some instances, removing this string would cause your site to load nothing but a very friendly message.

Creative Commons

The theme can't be used without the sponsored links.

You could try digging further into the theme to find a function that causes the absence of sponsored links to show this message, but under a Creative Commons License, you are required to provide attribution the way its requested.

Option 3 – Use Another Theme

To stay on the safe side from Google as well as the theme developers, you’re probably better off using another theme.

My Thoughts

Personally, I will never use any theme that stuffs the footer with random spam-like sponsored links.

I have absolutely no problem with giving the theme developers a backlink in the footer to give them credit for their hard work on the theme. I’m okay with up to two backlinks to the developers’ website, but definitely not three completely irrelevant links.

Free themes are usually targeted towards newbies who would just use a theme, not realizing that the developers are trying to gain backlinks and money through footer links. In addition, the demo version of themes usually don’t show any of the sponsored links.

Encoding the PHP in Base64 only makes things worse. It reminds me of a site hack and without decoding it, the script might even do something malicious behind the scenes.

To conclude, sponsored links simply makes a website look extremely unprofessional.

What are your thoughts about sponsored website themes? Do you continue using it with the links, attempt to remove them, or just throw the theme away and look for another one?

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Brian is the co-founder of TechAirlines. He is a developer currently focusing on mobile and web development. He is currently a sophomore at Stony Brook University, majoring in Computer Science.

  • Creastery

    Wow. They even provide instructions on how to remove the note in the footer :)
    Just use a base64 converter :P
    Anyway, it is much easier to crack it nowadays.
    With Google Chrome’s inspect, you will see the decrypted code.

    Anyway, I will stick to free themes :)

    • Brian Yang

      In the source code of the actual website, the regular decrypted code would be shown. The Base64 is in PHP so its decrypted server side. This is the easy way to decrypt the code. Just copy and paste from the website source code and replace that scary string of characters.

      But of course, this might not fix the problem with another function preventing the theme from being usable without those footer links.

  • Marshmalo

    Brian, I could not agree more with you on “sponsored links simply makes a website look extremely unprofessional”. I did use some free themes initially, without knowing how it affects the site. The site does not look professional with number of irrelevant backlinks to the other sites. And more than this some themes often comes with 3-4 backlinks of the same site with different anchor text. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this very useful info.