At our March West Metro Detroit WordPress meetup, one of our members asked about switching their WordPress theme.
They wanted to update the theme with more features and functionality, which their current theme didn’t support.
I thought it was a great topic for our meetup group, that other members would be interested.
So I volunteered to discuss my tips for changing your WordPress theme.
Here’s what I shared in my talk at last night’s meetup.
Why Change Your WordPress Theme?
You’ve had the same theme for the past couple years, but you want a new look.
And you want a theme that is responsive, that looks great on desktop and mobile.
Since WordPress makes it simple to switch themes, you might upload a new theme, deactivate your current theme, and activate the new one.
Only to discover the new theme broke your site.
Where’s your background image in your header? What happened to your custom styling?
Now what do you do?
What to Consider When You Decide to Change Your WordPress Theme
Whether you’re hosting your site on WordPress.com or you have a self-hosted WordPress site, my recommendations will help you avoid headaches and make the transition to a new theme a smoother process.
- Identify your theme requirements.
You can spend
hours, days, weeks browsing the WordPress repository or looking for a premium theme on sites like StudioPress.
Make it easy on yourself.
Take notes on the features your current theme has and which features/functionality you want in the new theme.
For example, does your current theme have a sidebar? Footer? Support background images in the header?
What’s missing from your current theme? Do you want an accessible-ready theme?
Add those items to your list.
And I do mean write out your requirements.
Don’t say “I need a responsive theme,” only to discover the theme you’ve spent hours looking for doesn’t support the background image you must have in your header.
- Test the performance of the existing theme and the new theme.
You can quickly check the speed of the existing theme using website performance analysis sites.
For the new theme, run their demo site through any of the performance analysis sites.
Is the new theme faster? Slower?
- Responsive and browser-compatibility.
With the wide variety of devices people use, make sure any theme you choose is responsive and works across devices (desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.) Also, confirm what browsers are supported.
It’s rare for a theme to not offer cross-browser support, but you’ll want to confirm. Especially if you work at an organization that has a requirement to support older browsers.
- Review the widgets on your current theme.
Each theme supports different locations for widgets. Does the new theme support the widget locations you want?
Note: If your theme has a custom widget, the content won’t copy over to a new theme. You’ll want to make a copy of the content in the widget before you switch themes.
- Are you using Custom CSS in Jetpack?
If yes, copy the CSS to a file. Custom CSS is not saved when you switch themes.
- Review your 404 page.
Does the current theme have a custom “Page Not Found”, also known as a 404, page?
If yes, and it has custom wording that you want to save, copy the content before you switch themes. The custom 404 from your current theme won’t transfer when you install a new theme.
- Check your menu.
Themes place menus in different locations. Will the new theme allow you to place the menu in a location you want?
When you switch to a new theme, you’ll need to reassign your custom menu.
- Plugins, shortcodes, and functionality
Your theme may have built-in functionality, like a calendar or a special page format. When you switch themes, you’ll lose that functionality.
You’ll need to install plugins to replace that functionality.
Similarly, your current theme may support shortcodes that the new theme doesn’t recognize. When you switch themes, the shortcodes will be displayed as code and not rendered visually.
Whatever functionality the shortcodes provided will be lost.
Do an audit of shortcodes you’re using on your site and research how you can replace that functionality in the new theme.
That may mean you’ll need to install other plugins.
- Featured images.
Does your current theme support featured images?
When switching to a new theme, you may discover that the new theme doesn’t support featured images of the same dimensions as your current theme.
Or your current theme doesn’t support featured images, but the new theme does.
If the featured image dimensions are different, you may have to replace them. For self-hosted WordPress sites, two plugins can make that job easier.
When you have no featured images for your posts, Quick Featured Images will help you set up the first image in the post as a featured image.
The Regenerate Thumbnails will regenerate the thumbnails for all your images.
One more tip to add to the nine tips I shared: if you’re someone you plans to change themes every couple of years, save yourself some work.
Consider a theme that offers a clean layout, without a lot of functionality.
It’s much easier to add features and functionality to your site with plugins. And when you decide to switch to another theme in the future, your plugins will continue to provide the features and functionality you want.
What Else to Look for in a Theme
Now that you’ve listed out your theme requirements and identified specific site needs, what else can you do to help you find the perfect theme?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Confirm the theme supports the latest version of WordPress
- Check that the developer is actively working on/supporting the theme
- Look at support requests. Are questions being answered quickly?
- Read the theme reviews to find out what others are saying about the theme. You may discover some extra features you didn’t know about.
Where to Look for WordPress Themes
There are thousands of WordPress themes, both free and premium. And everyone will give you a different opinion on where to find themes.
Lately, my two recommendations for themes are:
- WordPress theme repository: themes are free and have been reviewed by the WordPress Theme Review team
- GeneratePress: a clean, lightweight, accessible theme which is free, constantly updated by the developer
How to Switch to a New WordPress Theme
So you’ve found the perfect theme for your site. Congrats!
Before you select the activate link, take the time to:
- Set up a staging site.
Some web hosting plans include a staging site, which can make it simple for you to set up a test site (and move it to your current site).
For those hosting plans that don’t, set up a subdomain on your existing web host or install WordPress locally.
Once you’ve tested the site out, use a plugin to move the site or something like ManageWP, which will easily clone the site.
For WordPress.com sites, set up a new free site and install the theme.
- Test the site.
See what’s changed. Walk through the theme customization options. Check the site in browsers across multiple devices.
Is everything looking good? Now you’re ready to switch to your theme.
In the WordPress admin, select Appearance > Themes. Hover or tab to the theme you want and select Activate.
You’ll need to customize the theme, reassign the menu, set up the widgets, and copy any code you saved from your previous theme.
When you have a site with hundreds of pages or posts, changing to a new theme is not a matter of choosing activate.
Make changing to a new theme a success. Take the time to plan for the theme switch.
Identify your requirements, your current features, what you want in the new theme, and invest time in finding and testing a theme before you make that final switch.
Do you have any other tips to add? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments.