10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Changing My WordPress Theme

WordPress is often considered the penultimate template for bloggers. It serves as the outer layer of your website’s appearance. But more than that, it actually has a great deal of influence on your website’s functionality. Since WordPress themes are so tightly integrated with the websites that employ their use, it should come as no surprise that switching themes to update a site’s appearance carries with it a certain level of risk and difficulty. If you venture upon a new design for your WordPress, consider not only aesthetic appeal of the theme, but also its functionality, responsiveness, additional features implemented, template customization options, neat documentation and support.

There are specific steps anyone considering a WordPress makeover needs to take in order to ensure a smooth transition. Luckily, I can speak from experience as to all of the mistakes you could possibly make. Trial and error has trail blazed a path for me to describe the various difficulties a theme change can entail. An old proverb states that a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, while a fool learns from his own. In this case, I’ve played the fool for the benefit of your wisdom. So reap the benefits of my foolishness as I present to you this list of the 10 things I wish I knew before changing my WordPress theme.

1. Backup your files

This one should be a no-brainer, but it’s funny how often we forget the simplest things. Before you begin playing with new looks to your site, it’s very important that you keep a copy of the older version handy. If you don’t, there’s a chance you could lose old files or plugins. It’s just like in high school where you hit the save button just in case you suffered a catastrophic technology fail and lost 3 pages of your report.

I guess, I’m dating myself here a little bit, but there was indeed a time before AutoSave.

2. Check your Function.php file

If you’re like me, you like to tinker, and once you’ve tinkered, you may have found that it’s fairly easy to forget the details of each tinkering session. Luckily it’s easy to keep track of all your tinkering by checking for the changes you’ve made to your WordPress theme by looking in the Function.php file. This file contains all of the code you’ve added to make your site the shining example of tireless craftsmanship that it must surely be.

Take careful note of all the changes you’ve implemented to the theme so that you don’t lose any of your nifty bells or whistles. While you’re there it’s also not a bad idea to check your page load times to see how they’ll compare to those of the new theme you’re putting together.

3. Test Plugin Functionality

A new theme isn’t going to do you much good if none of the plugins you added to the old site will work on the new. Review your notes from the Function.php file and make certain that you’ve not lost any of the functionality you so painstakingly integrated into your old base of internet operations.

Beyond the actual functions of the features, you must also be sure that all of your plugins and widgets still have an aesthetically pleasing appeal at first glance. Give your new theme a thorough once over before re-launching so that you may be assured of a seamless transition from one good-looking theme to the next.

4. Test Browser Compatibility

New themes mean new problems. Not all browsers are built equally, and it’s up to you to get your site to play nice with all the options. Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox are the main browsers you have to look out for, but you may also want to check the compatibility for some of the lesser used browsers like Safari or Opera. It all depends on how accessibly you want your content to be.

A word of obvious advice: you want to be as accessible as possible.

5. Ensure RSS Feed is working

If you don’t know how your RSS feeds work already, it’s important to get a good understanding ASAP. WordPress.org has a lot of helpful tutorial articles describing how they work and how to change them effectively. Though the most important step is to validate your feed, by checking it against relevant industry standards. You can use any of the following services to do just that.

If you’ve implemented a 3rd party service like Feedburner to monitor your RSS feeds, you also need to check that it’s still grabbing your content from the default feeds and redistributing it to whichever various portals, emails, and whatnot you may have set up for your old site.

6. Keep Up With Analytics

You’ll also need to copy and paste your old Google Analytics code to your new theme. This step is far easier than the last though, as all it requires is finding the code in the old site and setting it in its correct spot in the new. This could be in the Footer.php file, in a plugin, or in a specified position unique to the theme you’ve chosen. Again taking thorough note of your site’s functionality in step one can help you with this. Regardless, you don’t want to lose track of all your relevant metrics, so make sure not to miss this small detail.

7. Google Is Your Friend

You do realize that any problem you encounter has an answer, and that answer is most likely recorded on the internet in a hundred different places or more? Don’t bang your head against a keyboard in frustration. There are a million different technical how-to resources out there that will most likely address the exact problem you’re having. Just enter it into the search bar.

8. Make Use of Maintenance Mode

Before making the actual switch from old theme to new theme, you’ll want to set up a barrier to your visitors which tips them off to the transition. It’s like the old “technical difficulties” sign you used to see on television when they were fixing up an errant error in their broadcast. You’re doing the same thing except in the digital age. Let your incoming traffic know they aren’t missing out on anything important.

9. Inform your Followers

To expand upon the concept brought up in item number 8, it’s extremely important to give your followers a heads up before and after the new theme’s implementation, as well as during. Shoot out an email to your subscribers about the upcoming changes, and be sure to put a banner on your homepage letting readers know when your site will be down for maintenance. Once you’ve finished the implementation and all of your testing, send out another message letting them know that the site is back up. User traffic is your site’s lifeblood, so keep it flowing as normally as possible while you perform this metaphorical face lift.

10. Don’t Change Themes that Often

Here’s a novel thought: don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. It’s unnecessary and kind of difficult to revamp your site all the time by switching themes. Not only that, but it drastically alters the way your followers perceive your online presence. People dislike, distrust, and even fear change. While it is necessary to reboot your image every so often, doing so holds the possibility of alienating the loyal fans of your old site.

So even when you do switch themes it can be an intelligent choice to keep the same color schemes or similar visual elements after the new site is implemented. The more consistent your imagery stays, the longer lasting impression you’ll create in a return visitor’s mind. That’s why Facebook has done such a great job of transforming a cool social media service into an annoying timeline monstrosity that everyone complains about but no one will actually quit. They slowly rolled out their changes and always kept the same color scheme and logo. So give the malevolently brilliant mastermind Mark Zuckerberg the credit he’s due.

I hope that some of this advice I’ve compiled helps you avoid some simple mistakes. If you follow these guidelines you’ll save yourself a lot of time, effort, and frustration.

Zack Rutherford is a freelance copywriter. He contributes web content and especially snappy articles to TemplateMonsterCombat sports enthusiast and poetic soul, Zack endeavors to create beauty through syntax, sentence structure, and the liberal use of hyperbole.