After the good news about themes at WordPress.com comes some bad news about themes for self-hosted WordPress sites. Siobhan Ambrose at WPMU.org wondered what she’d find if she Googled “Free WordPress Themes.” She examined themes from each of the top 10 hits for that search.
The result? Only one of the 10 theme sites was “safe.” Another was “iffy.” For the other 8, Siobhan’s advice is “avoid,” on the basis that some of the themes use Base64 encoding in order to sneak spammy links into the theme. Base64 can also be used to include malware.
The safe site is the WordPress.org themes directory. Since it currently includes well over a thousand themes, there seems little danger of a free theme shortage. Each of the themes there is under the GPL, and so is free as in freedom and well as free as in beer. In other words, you are free to modify the code of those themes.
This doesn’t mean that every source of free themes other than the official WordPress.com directory is bad. What it does mean is that, just as social media attracts spam, social media tools attract spam-producing components. It also means that some of the people who make those components also study the dark side of SEO.