How to Safely Update Your WordPress Themes

  • By Darrel Wilson
  • Last Updated: November 21, 2019

By now, you probably know that updating your website is crucial if you want to make sure your site stays safe and secure. If you’re using WordPress, updating your website involves updating WordPress core files, WordPress themes, and WordPress plugins.

However, there is the right way to perform website updates and the wrong way to do it. If you’re not updating your WordPress themes the right way, there’s a few things that could go wrong.

In this post, I’ll explain exactly what can go wrong if you’re not careful when updating WordPress themes, explain the difference between manual and automatic updates, and show you how you can safely update WordPress themes to avoid any potential issues.

Potential Issues With WordPress Theme Updates

When it comes to updating WordPress themes, there are several potential problems you could run into.

1. You Lose Any and All Customizations

In some cases, you might add a few lines of PHP code to your functions.php file or add custom CSS code directly to your theme files. If that’s the case, updating your theme will overwrite these customizations which means they will no longer work.

That’s why it’s considered best practice to do any and all customizations that cannot be achieved with the usual theme options via child themes. A child theme, in essence, inherits all the properties of the parent theme but allows you to add custom PHP and CSS code without the fear of losing those customizations because a theme update will only affect the parent theme.

2. Your Child Theme May No Longer Be Compatible With the Parent Theme

As mentioned above, using child themes is the best way to modify your theme to your liking if you need more customization than what is offered by the standard theme options. However, keep in mind that a child theme may no longer be compatible with the parent theme after an update. For example, the parent theme may change the location of the original stylesheets and other files or it may use different IDs and classes which will cause your custom code to stop working. In the end, you will wind up with a site that doesn’t display properly for your visitors.

3. Your Updated Theme Might “Break” WordPress

In rare cases, when you update a theme it might cause a conflict with the plugins you have installed on your site or WordPress files themselves. If that happens, you will have issues loading your website or encounter the infamous WordPress white screen of death. You can resolve this issue by temporarily replacing your theme with a default WordPress theme and contacting the theme developer for assistance.

Difference Between Manual and Automatic Updates

There are two ways to update your WordPress theme. The first way is the automatic update which happens when you click the Update button after seeing an update notification in your WordPress dashboard. If you’re using a theme from the official theme repository, you can even enable automatic updates that happen in the background without your input.

The major advantage of relying on automatic updates is that this method is easy, convenient, and quick. However, by using automatic updates, you increase the chances of running into the issues described above.

Another way to update your WordPress theme is the manual update which requires deleting the old theme files and uploading the updated theme files to your site using an FTP program or your cPanel.

The benefit of using a manual update approach is that you minimize the chances of running into issues but the downside is that the manual approach can be somewhat time-consuming.

How to Safely Update Your WordPress Theme

Both automatic and manual updates have their own set of benefits as well as their own set of disadvantages. However, it is possible to safely update your WordPress theme and minimize the chances of running into any issues, regardless of which method you prefer. To update your WordPress theme safely, follow the steps below:

1. Backup your site

The first step is to backup your website. A backup will allow you to quickly restore your website if anything goes wrong. You can use a plugin like UpdraftPlus to set a regular backup schedule as well as to perform manual updates when you need them.

2. Check the changelogs

Before performing a theme update, check the theme changelogs to see what was updated in the new version. In some cases, you will find the theme contains an important security fix which warrants a quick update. In other cases, an update might contain minor style modifications. If that’s the case, you might want to wait a few days to make sure there are no follow up updates for bug fixes.

3. Check what others are saying about the update

It’s a good idea to check the theme support forums or site to see what others are saying about the update. If nobody is reporting problems or issues, it’s safe to assume you won’t run into problems by updating the theme.

4. Use a staging site to check the theme update

If you’ve followed the steps so far, the next step is to use a staging site to update the theme and check everything still works. If there are no problems, you can go ahead and update the theme on your live site.

Some hosting companies, like Siteground, allow you to setup a staging website where you can safely test themes and plugins without affecting your live website. You can also use a plugin like WP Staging to create a copy of your website and test the theme update.

5. Update your theme during low-traffic hours

Once you’ve gone through the steps above it’s time to update your theme. You’ll want to perform the update during low-traffic hours or days to avoid major interruptions when your website gets the most visitors. Check your Google Analytics to determine when your website receives the least amount of visitors and then perform the update.

6. Check your website and test everything works and displays properly

The last step is to check your website on the front-end and make sure everything still works and displays properly. Consider using an incognito browser window to ensure you’re not seeing a cached version of your website. It’s also recommended to check your site on mobile devices as well to ensure it displays as it should on smaller screens as well.

If you’ve followed all of the above steps, your theme should now be updated without causing any issues.

Final Thoughts

Updating WordPress theme usually doesn’t cause too many problems, however, there are still a few potential issues you need to be aware of. Using best practices for updating WordPress themes as described above is the best way to ensure your website doesn’t encounter any issues when the time comes to update your theme.

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