8 Things you should do before changing your theme

Everyone does it and some do it more often than you think. I’m talking about changing themes for your website. Some like to change themes every few months while others will change their theme at least once per year; everyone likes a new look once and awhile. Even if you are one that does not change it often, you still change it at some point in time. But what happens to your custom styles, theme options, shortcodes, snippets, and even plugins when you change themes?

Does Switching to a Child Theme Count?

A simple answer to that question is, Absolutely! If you need to use a child theme for customizing the look of a theme, or perhaps it’s a child theme that gives you a different style to the default parent theme, WordPress will still see this as a new theme activation. Guess what happens when you activate it? There is a very good chance you will have to redo your theme option settings, so all that hard work you did with the actual theme just got wiped out. Now guess who has to redo everything!

Make Detailed Notes

Regardless of the theme you are switching to, ALWAYS, and I do mean ALWAYS, make thorough notes regardlng everything in you’ve done with your previous theme before you make the switch. Things like:

  • Shortcodes that were built into the theme and where were they used in your site
  • HTML Snippets that were part of your theme and where are they used in your site
  • Plugins that were built into the theme and do any of them have widgets that you used.
  • Templates that were related to the theme…custom templates, and what pages used them.
  • Any modifications that you made directly to the theme files (including CSS).
  • Make note of Customizer or theme option settings. For example, “Colours”.
  • Make notes of where your widgets are used in what sidebar positions. Be aware that themes offer different sidebars from one another, so when you activate a theme, your widgets will be moved to the “Inactive Widgets” area in the admin. Yes, you will lose all your published widgets and will have to re-assign them to the new theme’s own sidebars.

Google Analytics

This is often missed, but if your previous theme had a setting to enter in your Google Analytics code, don’t forget to make note of that because you will need to add that back into your site. Try to avoid pasting the code into the theme, or even a child theme; use a plugin. If you have other tracking codes, this also applies.

Back-Up Your Site!

I cannot emphasize this enough, keep regular back-ups of your website. I don’t mean just the theme, I mean the whole thing…

  • Site files
  • Theme(s)
  • Plugins
  • Media
  • Database

The last thing you want is to have something go wrong and realizing you cannot restore your site the way it was. I would strongly recommend you make a back-up before switching themes, but also when you do this:

  • Update WordPress (especially updating WordPress)
  • Updating plugins (even more so if you use large complex plugins)
  • Updating themes – Free or Paid
  • Moving your site to a new host server or to a different directory
  • Changing themes – Of course!

I would recommend using an automated back-up method like a back-up service such as VaultPress — although you can use whatever you want.

Let Your Website Visitors and Members Know that Changes are Coming

It can be a shock to your website visitors, more so to your repeat visitors to see either a new website look, things in your page are not where they were before, or an error page showing up if something went wrong.

I would recommend giving everyone notice that you are planning some changes in the next day or so and to inform them of what changes you are making. In the case of a new theme, let them know that you are updating or changing the look and style of your website. This way, they won’t be shocked…not only that, but get them excited to come back to see what great changes you have made.

The best way to do this is taking advantage of the social networks. So if you have Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or any of the other ones, post your notice on every one and don’t forget to repost/retweet to make sure everyone sees it.

Don’t RUSH it!

As tempting as it is, don’t rush the change and expecting everything to magically be in-place and perfect from the moment you switch to a new theme. In a perfect dream world, sure, but we need to keep ourselves grounded and in reality. Changing a theme is a major job, so plan for an extended time for the switch and take it slow because you have to get yourself acquainted with the new theme. You also need to take in account the learning curve the theme may present to you…especially if setup tutorials and other theme documentation is limited or poorly written.

You may even find yourself having to rewrite a lot of content or recreate page layouts. You may even need time to re-style page elements with new CSS (cascading stylesheets).

Preparing for the Change

I know many will change their theme when the site is live because they are excited to get started and to show everyone your new and improved website. To be honest, this is a BAD idea! Remember what this article is about, and what things could happen if you are not fully prepared. If you do this on a live site and things go horribly wrong, everyone will see it and quickly move on to another website.

Changing a theme on a live site will often create a mess where widgets are missing, colours are wacky, images and other media might be missing or just simply messed up, errors might be showing up, or you will see a bunch of funky looking code in posts and pages (shortcodes or snippets) that are not working.

Setup a Development Site

The BEST way to change a theme, is to setup a “development” site. This is a site that you setup somewhere else, either on a different domain, sub-domain, or a sub-directory. This is a site that allows you to rebuild your website with a new theme by re-assigning widgets, redoing your colours, setting your site up with the new theme options, and most importantly, going through your site page-by-page and making sure everything looks perfect.

Once you’ve checked your site out with the new theme, then you can back it up and replace your live site with the new one (new theme). This means using a complete site back-up (a mirror of your new one) to replace the existing one. Remember, you need to do this because you had to redo all your theme settings, reassign your widgets, and everything else that was needed. Importing just the content is not enough.

As a side note, any time you plan to make any kind of major change to your website, it’s best to do this on a development site location so that you can make sure everything is perfect before you go live with it.

Don’t forget that if you were using a child theme, this will now become obsolete.

Visitor Feedback

When everything is up and running, don’t forget to ask your visitors for feedback. They are the ones who are using your website, so if anything is not working for them, either functional or navigational, it’s important to listen to what they say and then you can make adjustments based on their feedback.


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