How to safely change themes on your WordPress site

WordPress is one of the most used content management systems out there. The one thing that makes WordPress so accessible is its ecosystem, including the themes and plugins available. As a user, you’ll find hundreds of free and paid themes. Ease of use also makes WordPress an excellent choice for building a blog or business website.

In this article, we will focus on the steps that are required to change the WordPress theme of your website safely. If you have used WordPress before, you might know how easy and intuitive it is to change a theme, but new users may not find it so straightforward – and one wrong change can lead to site malfunction. This article will also provide some useful information for more seasoned users.

Step 1: Selecting a fresh WordPress theme

Even though this step is obvious, it is important to tick off. Getting a new theme can be a challenging task for those who don’t know how and where to get it. If you are looking for a free alternative, a good starting point is to check the free WordPress themes collection via the WordPress official repository. For paid options, Themeforest is one of the best places to look, with a vast collection of themes.

Before you choose a theme, always ensure that the new themes have all the functionality you need and that it is compatible with your current setup. Changing to a theme that breaks the site’s functionality can lead to unwanted problems.

Step 2: Backing up your website

The next step is to backup your website. This step should never be ignored – especially if you have a website with a lot of visitors. Smaller sites can skip the step, but it is highly recommend not to.

You can backup your website manually or by using plugins. You can read this detailed tutorial on how to manually backup your site.

If you want to use plugins, we recommend BackupBuddy, which is a paid plugin. However, if you want a free alternative, use Updraftplus. You can also ask your hosting support to backup your website, if you’re confused. Most hosting platforms carry out daily automated backups.

Step 3: Clone your website

The next step is to clone your website for testing purposes. It is also known as a staging site where you test out changes before pushing them to the live server.

If you are using WPEngine or GoDaddy, you get a one-click staging option. Each hosting platform has its own way to activate staging. For example, if you are using WPEngine, you can login in the dashboard and find the “WP Engine” option on the sidebar. There you will see the Staging option. Click on the option, “Copy site from LIVE to STAGING”, and you’re good to go.

If you are using other hosting platforms, do check the hosting documentation on how to create a staging website. In case of confusion, always take the offer of support before making any changes.

Last, but not the least, you can make a clone of your website on localhost. Read this guide to find out how to do that.

Step 4: Installing and testing the new theme on the clone website

Now, it’s time to install the theme on your clone website. However, before you do so, ensure that logging is turned on. Here are some of the things you need to do to ensure that the new theme works as intended.

WP_DEBUG

WP_DEBUG can help you list the issues with your theme. To enable it, you need to add the following line of code in the wp-config.php file:

define(‘WP_DEBUG’, true);

Plugins

Check whether all your previously installed plugins are working as intended. You may also want to install new plugins that you intend to use in future. This will ensure that the new theme is a perfect fit for your website.

Check on different browsers

Websites act differently on different browsers, so it’s always a good idea to test your staging website on popular browsers such as Chrome, FireFox, Safari and Internet Explorer.

Responsive/Mobile Check

Check whether the new theme is rendering correctly in mobile devices.

The checklist is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. In short, you need to make sure that the new theme works without breaking anything. Also, be sure to take your time while testing – there’s no need to be in a hurry and ruin everything. Take your time, and only move the staging website to the live site if you are 100% satisfied with the change.

Step 5: Installing the new theme on your live website

There are two ways you can install the new theme.You can move the staging website to the live site, but the simplest way is to install the new theme on your live website directly. When you do so, don’t forget to enable maintenance mode – this will let you make the changes without affecting user experience. Visitors, on the other hand, will also know ahead of time about the change.

Wrapping up

Changing a WordPress theme can be a trivial task, but it requires careful steps if you have a big website and don’t want to take risks. For a smaller site, the steps outlined in this article are also recommend as they will protect you from any malfunction later on. These five steps cover everything that you need to do to ensure that your new theme installation is as smooth as possible.

So, are you going to follow the guide to change the WordPress theme on your website? Comment below and let us know.

Lucy Barret is an experienced Web Developer and passionate blogger, currently working at WPCodingDev. 

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