How To Change Your WordPress Theme Without Breaking The Website

How to change your WordPress template

While using WordPress is super-easy, changing your WordPress theme isn’t as straight forward. If you’re planning to get a new theme for your WordPress website, this article will help you migrate smoothly.

Changing the theme of your WordPress website comes with big risks.

Particularly if you have a lot of content and traffic. You want to make sure that your visitors get a better experience and you don’t lose any content and traffic, after the change.

That’s why most websites avoid changing themes for as long as possible.

However, if you follow a checklist of things you need to do before, during and after you change your theme, switching your theme becomes relatively easy.

And that’s what I’ll give you in this article — my 15 step checklist to change your WordPress theme, without breaking your website.

Let’s get started.

Step #1. Choose new WordPress themes

The choice of a theme depends on you.

However, a few things are non-negotiable when it comes to choosing a WordPress theme. Before you decide on a theme you must know:

  • Does the theme fit your budget?
  • Does it come from a reliable developer?
  • Is it updated regularly?
  • Does it come with support?
  • Does it work with popular WordPress plugins?
  • Is it compatible with the latest WordPress and PHP versions?
  • Is it optimized for mobile devices and SEO?

If you’re on a tight budget, the WordPress official theme directory has some really good themes. You can also try premium WordPress themes, as most theme shops offer 30-day refunds.

Keep in mind that themes look very different in a demo than with actual content.

So, while it may be tempting to settle on one theme, it’s always best to shortlist 2-3 themes.

Step #2. Try the shortlisted themes on staging

A staging website is an exact duplicate of your live website. It has the same content, same plugins, and exactly the same settings. And thankfully, creating a staging website with WordPress is very easy.

Here are two ways you can create one:

Ask your web host to create a staging site

On most WordPress hosting plans, you can set up multiple websites. Just ask you can request your web host to set up a staging website for you.

Use a plugin to create a staging site on your own

WordPress has both free and premium backup/restore plugins. Use a plugin like Updraftplus to clone your live website to staging.

Try out your shortlisted themes on the staging website. Look at how the most important pages on your website look to finalize one theme.

How to try a theme without a staging site?

For some reason, if you cannot set up a staging site, there are two ways you can try out new themes on your live website. These options will help you preview your website without actually changing your theme.

Using the WordPress live theme preview

Head over to Appearance > Themes in your WordPress admin dashboard.

On this page, you’ll see all the themes installed on your website. Hover over the theme you want to try, then click on the Live Preview button.

Using a theme switcher plugin

A theme switcher plugin (like Theme Switcha) also lets you preview a theme, without activating the theme.

To use this free plugin:

  1. Install and activate the plugin on your WordPress dashboard.
  2. Then go to Settings > Theme Switcha.
  3. Check the Enable theme switching option and Save Changes.
  4. Then click on the thumbnail of the available themes below to preview it in a new tab of your browser.

Step #3. Inform your audience

It’s generally a good idea to inform your audience about the upcoming theme change. Especially if you have returning website visitors. This helps prevent the higher bounce rates after changing their look and feel.

Here are some ways you can inform your visitors about the impending change:

  • Send an email to your subscribers.
  • Write an article announcing the change and feature it on your home page.
  • Or, set up a hello bar that links to this article.

Some bigger websites go one step further and set up a beta website that allows visitors to experience the new theme.

Step #4. Backup your custom code snippets

Over time, most website owners add custom code to WordPress.

These custom code snippets can either be custom CSS styles for plugin elements or custom functionality in the form of PHP code.

You can generally find these snippets in three places:

  • The functions.php file in your theme.
  • The style.css and functions.php in your child theme (if any).
  • Or, the Additional CSS section in Appearance > Customize.

Backup of these snippets so you can use them with your new theme as well.

Step #5. Backup widget content

WordPress themes define their own custom widget areas (aka sidebars).

Chances are, after changing your theme, the old widget content will no longer be available. You don’t want to lose your widget content such subscription forms, advertisements, contact forms or social links.

Make a note of these widgets and their settings. If you’ve added any custom code snippets to your widgets, keep a backup copy. That way you can easily copy them over to the new theme.

The groundwork to switch to your new theme is laid. It’s now time to actually change over to your new theme.

Step #6. Backup tracking codes

Most WordPress websites have some sort of tracking code installed.

You can skip this step if you add the tracking code using a plugin.

But if you’ve added your tracking codes manually, remember to backup your analytics, advertisements and CRO tracking codes. That way you’ll be able to simply copy them over to the new theme.

Step #7. Put your website in maintenance mode

You don’t want any visitors on your website when you’re switching themes. And for sure you don’t want them adding a comment, filling up a form or placing an order. That’s why you need to put your website in maintenance mode.

WordPress has quite a few, free maintenance mode plugins in its official directory. You want to choose one that allows you to:

  • Create an attractive Coming Soon
  • Browse the website as an admin, even in the maintenance mode.

If you’re changing themes for a client, you’ll also want the plugin to allow them to preview the website.

The free version of the Minimal Coming Soon plugin has some attractive features. If you want more you can try the pro version of SeedProd’s Maintenance Mode plugin.

Step #8. Backup your entire website

Now that your website data can’t be accidentally changed by website visitors, you can safely back it up. You want to backup your entire website, including the database, media files, plugins, themes and system files (htaccess, robot.txt, etc).

As with the staging website, you can either ask your web host to backup your website or use a plugin like Updraftplus.

It’s best to store this backup somewhere safe, off-site.

That way you can revert to this backup in case something goes wrong.

If your web host allows you to switch between the live and staging websites:

  1. Setup a staging site by cloning your live website.
  2. Change your theme and make any required changes to the staging.
  3. Switch the live and staging sites.

Step #9. Switch your theme

Now that you’ve taken all the precautions, you can safely switch over to your new theme.

To switch your theme:

  1. Install the new theme from Appearance > Themes > Add New.
  2. Once installed, click on the Activate link to activate your theme.

At this time, you can also copy your old theme code snippets to the new theme (or it’s child theme).

However, it’s best to add your PHP code snippets to a custom plugin or use a plugin like My Custom Functions.

Step #10. Add your widget content & tracking codes

Remember the backup of your widget content and tracking code from step 5 & 6? It’s time to copy it to the new theme.

Again, instead of adding your tracking codes directly to the theme, use a plugin like Header & Footer Scripts. That way you won’t accidentally overwrite these when you update your theme.

Similarly, add your custom CSS styles in the Appearance > Customizer > Additional CSS section to prevent them from getting overwritten when you update your theme.

Step #11. Test your website

Now that all the changes are done, it’s time to test your website. Here are some things you should check before going live:

  • Do all the important pages on your website look and work as expected?
  • Does the website look and work as expected across devices and browsers?
  • Are all the subscription and contact forms working?
  • Do all the images and embedded media work without a hitch?
  • If it’s an ecommerce website, can you place an order successfully?
  • Are all the tracking codes working?

Step #12. Turn off the maintenance mode

Tried and tested, it’s time to take your website live by turning the maintenance mode off.

If you’re using the Minimal Maintenance Mode plugin:

  1. Go to Settings > Maintenance
  2. Then turn off the Enable maintenance mode?

Step #13. Crawl your website for any errors

If your website has a lot of pages, it becomes impossible to test all the pages manually.

Thankfully, we have tools like Screaming Frog, that automatically crawl your website and show any errors. The free version of Screaming Frog can crawl up to 500 URLs. That’s good enough for most small websites.

Step #14. Monitor your website analytics

You must closely monitor your website analytics for a few days immediately after switching your theme. This will help you identify any issues you may have accidentally missed during your testing.

Google Analytics and Google Search Console will do the job for you. Here are a few things you should watch out for:

  • Referral & organic traffic
  • Bounce rates
  • Dwell time
  • 404/crawl errors

Here are 5 more ways you can make the most of Google Analytics to optimize your WordPress website.

Step #15. Get user feedback

Your fresh, new look website is now live.

These are exciting times for both you and your website users. Use this opportunity to gather feedback from them on how you can improve their experience.

Tools like Hotjar help you gather this feedback using:

  • Heatmaps
  • Surveys
  • Feedback Polls

Conclusion

I hope this step-by-step guide eased out the anxiety of switching to a new theme. And that you feel comfortable and confident in changing your WordPress theme.

If you have a question, don’t leave a comment below.

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