I recently did a deep dive into the WordPress theme directory. In that process I identified the nine most popular themes based on active install counts. Nine seems like an odd number, right? Well, nine is the number of themes with more than 100,000 active installs. I will quickly review these top themes and then discuss the things I see as interesting and significant. Note that this count does not include the default themes that ship with WordPress core.
In the grand schema of WordPress active installs, 100,000 may not seem like a lot. Keep in mind, however, that plugin numbers are always higher. A website may use a dozen or more plugins, but only uses 1 theme. This deep dive made me appreciate that even 10,000 active installs of a theme is a good success for the theme author.
There are a few themes show the same number range of active installs. In those cases I broke the tie by also ranking them within that set by the number of 5 star reviews.
Ninth Most Popular Theme Is The Hestia Theme by ThemeIsle
The theme page describes Hestia as a modern WordPress business theme that uses uses Material Kit for its design. It has a multipurpose one-page design, widgetized footer, blog/news page and a clean look. Hestia is compatible with Elementor.
The Hestia theme has more than 100,000 active installs and 411 five star reviews. The team is active in the WordPress support forums. Looking at the downloads per day graph for the last nine months, it appears that the number of installs is holding steady.
Hestia has been around since at least 2016. It was originally introduced to replace the ThemeIsle Zerif theme and was promoted as a one page material design theme suitable for businesses. The value proposition was that companion plugin added the ability to edit sections on the home page in the Customizer, so a novice business owner could easily create their own site. Over time, the theme got support for Elementor and then later it was pitched as a more general purpose theme that would work with any page builder, though it still has more of an Elementor slant.
When you activate Hestia you are prompted to install and activate OrbitFox, the theme companion plugin. OrtbtFox extends the Customizer so you can edit special front page sections. It also provides a number of extras such as social share, stock photos, header and footer scripts, etc. OrbitFox also provides access to 13 predesigned page templates.
Hestia is attractive on the frontend, but my sense when looking at the Customizer is that the features are a bit dated. Here is a screenshot of the Hestia front page as setup according to the docs (click for lightbox view).
ThemeIsle used to have a membership club, but now the theme is only available to purchase individually for either an annual subscription or for a lifetime license.
Eighth Most Popular Theme Is Sydney By aThemes
The theme’s description states that Sydney is a powerful business theme that provides a fast way for companies or freelancers to create an awesome online presence. As well as being fully compatible with Elementor, Sydney brings plenty of customization possibilities and provides all the construction blocks you need to rapidly create an engaging front page.
The Sydney theme has more than 100,000 active installs and 431 five star reviews. The team is active in the WordPress support forums. Sydney is promoted as a business theme that is fully compatible with Elementor. Looking at the downloads per day graph for the last nine months, it appears that usage is declining.
Oddly, when activating Sydney I did not see a prompt to install a companion plugin, though I did see on the theme dashboard a recommendation to install a Starter Sites for Elementor plugin. I searched on WordPress org and found the Sydney Toolbox. Surprisingly, it has a review rating of only 2 1/2 stars.
Sydney in an officially recommended theme by Elementor. The Sydney Toolbox plugin adds 5 Elementor widgets for the free version of the theme.
The Customizer options were more generous than Hestia’s, they seemed well organized, and they seemed well chosen for basic content display options. However, the theme and Customizer options seemed limited when compared with more modern themes, even “minimalist” modern themes.
After installing the Starter Sites for Elementor plugin I found 5 free starter sites and 16 pro starter sites. Here is the home page from the Sydney starter site (click for lightbox view). I like the slate blue and orange color scheme.
Sydney Pro is available in an annual or lifetime package.
Seventh Most Popular Theme Is ColorMag by ThemeGrill
The theme’s page describes ColorMag as a perfect responsive magazine style WordPress theme that is suitable for news, newspaper, magazine, publishing, business and any kind of sites.
The ColorMag theme has more than 100,000 active installs and 1224 five star reviews. The team is active in the WordPress support forums. Based on the downloads per day chart for the last nine months, it looks like ColorMag’s use is holding steady or declining very slightly.
The first version of ColorMag was released in the WordPress theme directory in 2015. As the name implies, it is a magazine style theme. When you install the companion plugin you are immediately taken to a page to import demo content. The demo sites are very vibrant and attractive. They target niches where magazine themes are frequently used and they grab your attention. Here are a few of the demo sites (click for lightbox view). Note that some of the demos require Elementor core. In total, there were 27 demo sites, 8 of which were available for free.
The popularity of the theme seems to be related to the demo starter sites. Unfortunately I was unable to get one installed all the way. The demo said it installed, but some images and posts were missing from the layout. Perhaps this was because I was testing on localhost?
ColorMag also felt a bit dated and did not have many options, seeming to rely on Elementor how post layouts. Here is a screenshot of the demo (click for lightbox view).
ThemeGrill offers ColorMag standalone or you can purchase a club membership that includes all of its themes. Packages are available with annual or lifetime pricing.
The Sixth Most Popular Theme Is Storefront by Automattic
The blurb on the WordPress theme page describes Storefront as the perfect theme for your next WooCommerce project. Designed and developed by WooCommerce Core developers, it features a bespoke integration with WooCommerce and many of the most popular customer facing WooCommerce extensions. It has a lean and extensible codebase making it easy to customize and extend.
Storefront has more than 100,000 active installs and 104 five star reviews. The team is active in the WordPress support forums. Based on the downloads per day chart over the last nine months, it appears that Storefront is holding steady or declining slightly in usage.
The theme was first launched in 2014 by WooThemes and has been a go-to WooCommerce theme for a long time. At one point the WooCommerce team was considering putting the theme into maintenance mode because it was old and had many deprecated functions. However, the decided instead to update it and refactor the old code. This has kept the interface looking clean and modern.
Storefront has a very simple, yet attractive design whose purpose is to work well with WooCommerce. Here is a screenshot of the blog page (click for lightbox view).
Storefront doesn’t have a “pro” version. However, there are extensions available for purchase to add features such as a hamburger menu, a contact section on the home page, mega menu, pricing tables, and parallax hero options. All extensions are sold on an annual subscription.
The Fifth Most Popular Theme is Neve by ThemeIsle
The theme description states that Neve is a super fast, easily customizable, multi-purpose theme. It is lightweight, has a minimalist design, and is highly extendable with highly SEO optimized code. Neve works well with Gutenberg and the most popular page builders (Elementor, Brizy, Beaver Builder, Visual Composer, SiteOrigin, Divi) as well as WooCommerce.
Neve have more than 200,000 active installs and 684 five star reviews. The team is active in the support forums. Looking at the downloads per day chart, it appears that Neve usage is increasing slightly.
Neve was launched in 2018 specifically as a general purpose, page builder friendly theme. Shortly after its release, Neve was offered on AppSumo, which helped to get the word out about the theme and that has contributed to its rise in popularity. However, Neve is not just a marketing success. Neve comes with an flexible header and footer builder as well as a good set of Customizer options.
When you activate Neve you are prompted to install ThemeIsle’s Cloud plugin which gives access to the ThemeIsle collection of starter sites. There are a huge number, including 121 for Gutenberg, 122 for Elementor, 99 for Beaver Builder, and so on.
My experience with Neve is that it is fast and clean. This is what the home page of the minimalist blog starter site looks like (click to open in lightbox).
The pro version of Neve includes an Elementor addon with 9 widgets and 3 extensions, a WooCommerce extension, access to the pro starter sites, additional header and footer features, and white label (in the agency package). The theme is available in annual or lifetime packages.
The Fourth Most Popular Theme is GeneratePress
GeneratePress is a lightweight WordPress theme built with a focus on speed and usability. A new GeneratePress install adds less than 10kb (gzipped) to your page size. The theme works with Gutenberg and all major page builders, including Beaver Builder and Elementor. Thanks to its emphasis on WordPress coding standards, it is full compatibility with all well-coded plugins, including WooCommerce.
GeneratePress has more than 300,000 active installs and 1203 five star reviews. The team is active in the support forums. Looking at the downloads per day graph, it looks like usage of the theme is increasing.
GeneratePress was first launched in the WordPress theme directory in 2014 and was one of the first general purpose, page builder friendly themes. Although it is not mentioned in the self description, GeneratePress is something of a minimalistic theme and the developer has resisted adding features that can be achieved with a bit of CSS. The theme is well coded, very flexible, and has legendary support. GeneratePress is used by some of the top WordPress designers in both the Beaver Builder and Elementor Communities.
GeneratePress was recently completely rewritten to take advantage of new technological advances and to also work well with Gutenberg. This was achieved without breaking backwards compatibility. The GeneratePress team has also released a free and a premium Gutenberg plugin that works well with the theme.
The Premium version of GeneartePress gives access to more than 60 starter sites. Some of them are built for Gutenberg and others for Beaver Builder or Elementor. The premium version also incudes a theme builder and other features.
Here is a screenshot of the default GeneratePress blog page (click to open in a lightbox).
GeneratePress is available in both an annual subscription and a lifetime plan.
Third Most Popular Theme Is Hello Elementor
The Hello theme is a plain-vanilla & lightweight theme for the Elementor page builder made by the Elementor team.
The theme has more than 700,000 active installs and 59 five star reviews. There are many questions in the support forum that are unanswered. By looking at the downloads per day chart, it appears that the Hello Elementor theme usage is growing.
The Hello Elementor theme launched in 2019 and it is already the third most popular theme in the WordPress theme directory. Hello Elementor is very close to the minimum required by WordPress to qualify as a theme. There are no extra Customizer or theme options. Instead, the intention is that everything be styled using the Elementor Pro theme builder. The theme is not meant to stand on its own like most themes. There are no starter sites for it, no companion plugin, and no premium version. Here are screenshots of the default post template and default blog template (click to open in lightbox).
Second Most Popular Theme is OceanWP
OceanWP is described as a general purpose theme that is lightweight, fast, highly extendable, and suitable for almost any kind of website. It has unique WooCommerce features and works with the most popular page builders as Elementor, Beaver Builder, Brizy, Visual Composer, Divi, and SiteOrigin. It is the best friend of Elementor & WooCommerce.
OceanWP has more than 700,000 active installs and a whopping 4,621 five star reviews. The OceanWP team is active in the support forum. Looking at the downloads per day chart it appears to that usage is holding steady.
OceanWP was added to the WordPress theme directory in 2017. OceanWP was the first theme to add a very large number of Customizer options in the free version. This won it a lot of fans. While the description of the theme mentions other page builders, OceanWP has always had a strong Elementor focus. For example, the pro bundle includes an Elementor plugin with 43 Elementor widgets. It is also known as having good support for WooCommerce.
About two years ago OceanWP switched to the Freemius platform and the transition was a big disaster. It took awhile to get the licensing problems fixed and that disrupted the theme’s momentum. It has since recovered.
When you activate the theme you are prompted to install the companion plugin. Activating it begins an install wizard where the first step is the option to install one of 15 site demos. I didn’t install a demo site. I found the default theme styles to be attractive. Here are screenshots of the default home page and an example of a post page (click to view in lightbox).
In addition to the Elementor addon, the premium bundle includes 109 website demos, and a number of theme enhancements. OceanWP is available in annual and lifetime packages.
Most Popular Theme is Astra By Brainstorm Force
Astra is described as a fast, fully customizable & beautiful general purpose theme suitable any type of website. It is very lightweight and built with SEO in mind. It offers special features and templates, so it works with all page builders like Elementor, Beaver Builder, Visual Composer, SiteOrigin, and Divi.
The Astra theme has more than 1 million active installs, the only theme to reach that milestone. It’s active install count is also far ahead of the Hello theme and OceanWP. Astra has 4,804 five star reviews. Activity by the team in the support forum is mixed. The downloads per day chart shows that the theme’s popularity is still on the rise.
The Astra theme was added to the WordPress directory in 2018. Brainstorm Force, the company behind Astra, has addons for Beaver Builder and Elementor that are very popular. The theme and plugins are sold together in bundles, which no doubt helps increase popularity. Brainstorm Force also makes a very popular Gutenberg addon, Ultimate Addons for Gutenberg.
The Astra Starter Templates plugin also has more than 1 million active installs. There is no other starter site / template plugin that is even close to Astra Starter Templates in popularity. This plugin offers more than 150 starter templates for Gutenberg, Beaver Builder, Elementor, and Brizy. A large number in each category are free.
Being page builder neutral, offering builder addons, and having a large number of starter templates has helped to make Astra appealing to a wide ranger of users. By default, the Astra pages look very plain, but it is easy to style for different purposes. For example, here is the default blog layout (click to open in lightbox).
Astra is available with annual and lifetime options and also available in bundles with other plugins from Brainstorm Force.
Discussion and Conclusions
In reviewing the most popular free themes on WordPress.org, I see four groups. At the bottom in 7th-9th positions, there are the Hystia, Sydney, and ColorMag themes. These are older themes that are still very functional, but that feel dated in comparison to more recent offerings.
In the middle, is the second group, which is just one theme, Storefront. This is one of the only themes in the group without predesigned starter sites. It is also one of the oldest themes. It has survived and faired well because of its simple yet flexible design, which looks a lot like one of the general purpose themes in their initial state. It has benefitted from the popularity of WooCommerce, but also by the decision of the theme developers to update and refactor it to keep it relevant.
The third group, in third position, is the Hello Elementor theme. Unlike the other themes, Hello Elementor is almost an anti-theme, largely existing just as a placeholder. If ever you wondered about the popularity of theme builders, the large number of active installs for Hello Elementor should make it clear that this is a central feature for many site builders. It is not uncommon for me to recognize a Divi site, for example, because of its header style. This obviously wouldn’t be the case with sites built with Hello Elementor, which is intended to be replaced by a custom designed templates.
At the top we have Neve, GeneratePress, OceanWP, and Astra. These themes have several things in common. They are general purpose, page builder friendly themes that have a very plain initial design, but that have a good number of Customization options that make them easy to adapt to different niches and brands. They also have extensive hooks available in the pro versions that make them even more extensible and appealing to power users and developers. The page builder friendly group, because they are initially more neutral but easy to customize and extend, are popular among freelancers and agencies who build a large number of sites each year, pushing their active install counts up. Additionally, they have a good number of starter sites.
Offering predesigned starter sites is something common to all but Storefront and Hello Elementor. I knew that easy to use predesigned content was a popular feature, but this review has shown me that this is even more popular than I realized and may be a requirement to break into the 100,000 active install club. Not surprisingly, the older themes had starter sites that seemed more dated.
Another surprise from this review is that a strong association with Elementor has played a role in the elevation of these themes. The Hello Theme, GeneratePress, Hestia, Neve, OceanWP, Sydney, and Astra themes are listed on the Elementor website as the best free themes for use with Elementor. Most of the themes in the top 9 offer Elementor-based starter sites and many of them include special Elementor features, such as Elementor widgets or addons in their premium versions. And of course the Hello theme is Elementor exclusive.
Most of the themes also provided excellent support in the WordPress forums. This is likely another key to their success. Users who don’t get their questions answered promptly may more on to try a different theme. The Hello Elementor theme had almost no responses in its help forum, perhaps because it is not meant to be used as a regular theme. I was surprised that the response ratio for the Astra theme was mixed. In the past they usually did a pretty good job on support, but maybe they are overwhelmed by the theme’s popularity or the support team was cut back due to the pandemic.
Overall, I was surprised at how few themes there are with over 100,000 active installs. I expected there to be many more. What this means is that these nine themes are in a class by themselves. Among these, Astra sits in the throne at the top of the heap. It has hundreds of thousands more active installs than its closest rivals. It also seems to be the one that is growing the most quickly. There are newer, more modern themes, such as Blocky and Kadence, that are getting a lot of attention, but it is unlikely that these would approach Astra’s numbers any time soon.
I hope you found this review of the most popular free WordPress themes interesting. I shared my insights and the things I was surprised to discover. Did I miss anything important that played a role in these themes success, or did I overlook some important characteristics of these themes? If so, please leave a comment sharing your insights.