Yes, it can is the short answer.
I used to think of a theme as nothing more than a nice colour scheme when I first started blogging. As long as I liked the colours, and as long as it had enough sidebars, I was a happy camper.
How wrong I was.
WordPress themes have progressed enormously since those days (only 3 years ago), but even back then if I’d known what I was doing I’d have paid a bit more attention.
Here’s how they can impact your search engine love:
The first thing to be aware of when looking for free themes is that there’s nothing to stop the author from hiding links in it.
Which means that by activating his theme you could be providing links back to his site (if you’re lucky), or to some spam or scam site if you’re not.
The search engines will not be pleased about the spam and scam links.
Even if he hasn’t hidden links in his theme, the author’s coding skills will have an impact on how easily the search engines can find their way around your blog, and understand what it’s about.
And that’s important for good search engine rankings.
So yes – even at the most basic level, changing themes can affect your rankings (either positively or negatively) just based on:
- Whether or not the author has hidden links in it
- The quality of the his coding (CSS, HTML and PHP)
Don’t get me wrong – there are some very good free themes out there, but there are also some pretty awful ones.
So if you’re going for free, you need to make sure it’s a good one.
WordPress caused a bit of a stir a while ago when they decided that the only themes they would approve had to be GPL – free to download and install. For a short while Premium Themes became the target of some speculation.
But, having used the Thesis theme for a year now, and another premium theme prior to that, I can tell you that there’s no way I’d ever go back to using free themes.
You not only get rid of the chances of being stuck with hidden spam links, you greatly increase your chances of having well coded CSS, HTML and PHP. This, as I said earlier, will help the search engines.
Plus, modern premium themes provide all sorts of additional functionality that builds on the flexibility of WordPress.
For example, some themes (Thesis among them) enable you to set META tags and settings both for your blog as a whole and for each individual post and page within it.
This greatly improves the visibility of your blog and articles to the search engines, and it enables you to drop SEO related plugins.
For example, I used to automatically install the All-in-One-SEO-Pack and Robots-META plugins on new blogs. Now I don’t need to, because Thesis gives me the same options.
Of course, if you weren’t using any SEO plugins to start with, this will bring you a whole bunch of SEO benefits you didn’t previously have.
Further, many premium themes will enable you to change the layout and design of your blog by selecting various options in the control panel.
So as long as your theme is capable of it, and your imagination can cope, you no longer need to go hunting for new themes. You can change your blog’s appearance whenever you want to and not lose the settings and SEO benefits you’ve built up.
Themes these days, particularly premium themes, should be thought of as supplementary platforms which extend the functionality of WordPress.
As such, the quality of their coding and the functionality they provide can have a big impact on your blog’s search engine rankings.