WordPress lite themes are an increasingly popular part of theme development and marketing strategy, but are they really useful to the end user? If you take a look at the theme repository, 221 out of 3807 themes are classed as “lite,” which is roughly 1 in 5 – and that’s without counting themes that don’t contain the word “lite” in their title.

What is a “lite” theme anyway?

The word “lite” refers to a paired down version of a premium theme. Theme developers release their lite themes for “free,” but disable some of the key options in the hope that users will pay for an upgrade to the full version later on.

Even though the end user might not start out wanting to pay for a theme, once he/she has invested time in installing it and setting it up, he/she is more likely to pay for the upgrade. It’s a tried and tested marketing model.

To give you an example, one of the most popular WordPress lite themes is “Zerif Lite” by ThemeIsle. It is a one-page portfolio theme and it has over 100,000 active installs. The premium version of the theme is priced at $99 and the key differences with the free version are the addition of custom theme widgets and color customization options.

What are lite themes good for?

On the positive side you could argue that lite themes give the user a chance to try out the theme before deciding whether to purchase it. That’s true to an extent, but since the premium options are disabled, there is a limit to how far you can really test the theme.

Another positive point is that for some users, a lite version is sufficient for their needs. In that case, people can benefit from what should be a professionally coded theme without having to pay for it.

From the developer’s perspective, even if a customer doesn’t go premium, many “lite” users will leave the link in the footer back to the developer’s site, creating solid SEO value.

What’s not so good about WordPress lite themes?

With WordPress, there tend to be two types of lite theme: one that is actually usable even though it is paired down, and one that appears to be usable but actually requires an upgrade to be of use. The latter type doesn’t bring any value to the end user and is a cold hard sales push on the part of the developer – a sort of “get your foot in the door” model.

But there is a bigger problem with the lite model and it has negative implications for the WordPress platform as a whole.

The theme repository

, which is the largest collection of free GPL licensed themes, makes a clear distinction between paid and non-paid themes. There is a separate page on the site for “commercially supported GPL themes” which means that all other themes in the repository are ostensibly non-commercial (aka free GPL themes).

The problem is that despite being free and GPL licensed, lite themes are really just extensions of their commercial cousins masquerading as free themes. This ambiguity sends the wrong message to new WordPress users about the ethos and core aims of the WordPress platform, which are summed up on the site’s About page as follows:

“WordPress is an Open Source project, which means there are hundreds of people all over the world working on it. (More than most commercial platforms.) It also means you are free to use it for anything from your recipe site to a Fortune 500 web site without paying anyone a license fee and a number of other important freedoms.”

So what’s your take on WordPress lite themes? Do you find them useful? Are they a step in the right direction or not? Here’s a quick poll to gauge community reactions.

Feel free to vote in the poll but also to discuss this in the comment section below. Thanks very much for stopping by.