Web Designer’s Guide to Changing a WordPress Theme [+ Checklist]

The theme of a website makes a huge impact on a user’s experience which ultimately impacts a website’s profitability. Many web designers will change a website’s theme to improve the look which makes complete sense yet this isn’t something that should be done without a bit of planning.

Changing a WordPress theme is rather simple and literally be done in a few seconds. So what could go wrong? 

Just because changing a theme can be done so fast doesn’t mean it should be. Things could go wrong like:

       →  Website not displaying correctly

→  Data and traffic lose

→  Changes in SEO rankings

→  Analytics stops tracking

So taking just a little extra time can save you a lot of frustration, errors and downtime. 

By the end of this you will be clear know the specific steps to take both before and after you make a change to a WordPress theme. 

Before Changing a WordPress Theme

  Backup the Website

Before doing anything else, make a backup of your website. This will make a copy of your WordPress databases as well as all files, posts, plugins, and images.

That way if something goes wrong, you’ll be able to quickly revert back to your old website and see what went wrong. 

Sidenote: if you’re not already backing up your website regularly, this is an important habit to start. Before making any plugin, theme or other customizations to a website, a backup should be taken. It’s also important to have a backup of yoru site’s databases and files in case the website gets hacked. 

Not sure how to backup a website and need some help? There are several great options that will help you backup your WordPress website easily including:

  Note Theme Specific Shortcodes & Customizations

If you yourself or a web developer made any customizations to the code that would need to be transferred, it’s important to note those down. Snippets are commonly used in customizations that may need to be copied to the new theme. 

These customizations are typically done within the functions.php file or Shortcoder.

Side note: if you aren’t using a child theme so changes are not lost during a theme update or change, this would be a good time to create one!

  Test Load Time

Website load time is extremely important and a WordPress theme can definitely impact the speed of a WordPress site. This is also important for a positive user experience and SEO.

Before switching themes, test your website speed by using a free tool like Google PageSpeed Insights or Pingdom Website Speed Test.

  Copy Sidebar content and code

Many themes use their own sidebar widgets so if you have any content or code you’ve created, you’ll want to make sure to copy that before switching themes so you can maintain the appearance of the current sidebar.

  Note down the site’s meta tags

Some themes store the site’s meta tags at a theme level which means if you switch themes, you’ll have to add your meta tags again. If you’ve been working on SEO and haven’t been using a free plugin like SEO Data Transporter which migrates all your SEO settings from one theme to another, make sure the meta tags remain with the new theme change.

Selecting a New WordPress theme

It’s easy to be tempted by a theme just because of the way it looks. Before you use it, make sure you select a theme from a reputable source.

Not using a reputable source opens your site up to more security issues, bugs and a lack of support from the developers. So make sure to do your research on the theme developers and not just the look of the theme.

When checking for a new theme, look for:

  • Responsiveness / mobile friendly
  • Regularly updated
  • Site performance (such as site size and speed)
    The theme makes up most of a site’s code which means the theme you select can greatly impact your site’s size and load time
  • Compatibility with current or desired plugins
  • Content appearance
    How will your content look different? What customizations will need to be made if you don’t like parts of the new look?
  • Theme support

Most Reputable Theme Providers

Elegant Themes 

Thrive Themes 

Astra 

Beaver Builder 

Visual Composer 

Elementor 

StudioPress 

Tesla Themes ↗

Themify 

Installing a WordPress Theme

Once you have downloaded your new theme files, you’re ready to upload theme to WordPress.

Head over to your dashboard and go to Appearance > Themes. There click the Add New button.

Then click the Upload Theme button and select the file from your computer.

Now that your theme is uploaded you have a few options for setting up the new theme:

Changing a WordPress Theme Without Going Live – Option 1

The best way to preview any large changes to your site before going live is to use a staging site. Some hosts have this feature and some don’t so you’ll need to check with your hosting company.

Flywheel is a host specifically built for Web Designers so it handles so many of the parts of hosting that are normally a pain like pushing the site to a client’s account, having the client billed and not you and of course a lovely staging site to easily see changes before they go live and then with the click of a button those changes are pushed live. Easy peasy.

Using a staging site is also an easy way to make sure the new theme is compatible with the site’s current plugins and any new plugins you may want to use.

Changing a WordPress Theme Without Going Live – Option 2

If a staging site isn’t an option for you, the good news is you still have the opportunity to preview the website before the theme change goes live.

To do so go to Appearance > Themes and next to the new theme you have uploaded, click on the Live Preview button.

Now you’ll be able to see how the website will look once you activate the theme to make it live. You’ll also be able to make changes to the website and it’s styles so it appears as you want it to before going live.

Go live and Put Site in Maintenance Mode

The last option would be to put your site in maintenance mode so only you as the website admin can see the website and the site visitors will see a maintenance page. This will give you the time you need to make the changes without it looking having the pressure of the site going live.

Putting a site in maintenance mode is really easy especially with a plugin like WP Maintenance Mode.

After Changing a WordPress Theme

  Test the Website

Once the website is live, you’ll want to test it fully. Even things that you didn’t touch or would think would be affected. This includes your tracking codes, contact forms, widgets, plugins or any other functionality that has been added to the site.

  Re-install Any Tracking Codes Google Analytics

Not necessary if you’re using a plugin like MonsterInsights which displays your analytics and will not be affected when you switch themes.

You can also use the Header, Footer & Post Injections plugin for code which will not be affected.

If the site was using Google Adsense or any other tracking codes, you’ll want to make sure those are active as well. 

  Cross-Browser Compatibility

Since you have a new theme it’s important to check the new theme plays nice with various browsers. 

It’s easy to check browser compatibility for popular browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer with sites like Browser Shots.

  Check the Website Load Time

Just as you did before you switched the website’s theme, check the site load time again to make sure the new theme hasn’t slowed down the site.

  Mobile Friendliness

Check the website on various mobile devices to double check it appears as expected. Use a site like {} to easily see the site on different devices.

  Favicon

Is the favicon still appearing? If not, upload it within the new theme.

  Monitor Key Metrics

The purpose of updating a WordPress theme is hopefully to improve user experience. After changing a theme, monitor key metrics to make sure they are improving. Key metrics you want to monitor include:

  • Bounce rate
  • Time on site
  • Number of pages visited
  • Most popular pages

Transferring Your Site Live

By now you should know what you need to do before simply switching themes. We’ve covered what to look for in a good theme so you select a theme you can stick with for a long time to come. We also looked at the specific tasks you need to do both before and after you switch WordPress website themes to make sure the switch is a success.

Download the WordPress Website Theme Change Checklist below ? so you have a handy checklist with specific steps, details and resources to follow any time you need to change themes.

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