How to Update Your WordPress Theme

As with all software, your WordPress theme will require updates from time to time. However, unlike apps on your smartphone, you’ll have to take a few extra steps to bring your theme up to speed, and you’ll want to manage it from your desktop. Thankfully, with some background knowledge, updating your theme is quick and painless. 

Let’s explore the world of WordPress themes, including how updates work and why they’re necessary.

What is a WordPress Theme?

In WordPress, the term “theme” refers to an ensemble of files that make up your website’s appearance and, in some cases, its behavior. Themes influence the look and layout of your WordPress site—the fonts, colors, page design, and more.

A theme’s purpose is to provide an overall site aesthetic while eliminating the need for coding. There are three categories of themes: free, premium, and custom.

Free Themes

Your first experience with a WordPress theme will likely be exploring a free theme. WordPress provides its current default option—Twenty Twenty-One—for free, alongside all past default themes.

But there are thousands more free themes beyond the standard designs of this content management system, all tested by a dedicated team. To download one, browse the WordPress.org theme directory.

Premium Themes

Premium themes function like free themes, but they require either a one-time fee or an annual subscription. If you want additional features, accessible support, and a more exclusive look, you may decide to pay for a theme.

Prices range from $15 to $200. Popular theme marketplaces include Theme Forest and Template Monster.

Custom Themes

A custom theme is a unique layout built from the ground up. To create a custom theme for your WordPress site, you’ll either need extensive programming knowledge or a sizable budget to hire a designer and developer.

Because anyone can download a free or premium theme, a one-of-a-kind design sets your website apart from the rest. However, depending on the size of the project, you could spend anywhere from $2,000 to $40,000+ on a custom theme.

Regardless of the theme type you choose, regular updates are a must.

Why Would You Want to Update Your WordPress Theme?

It’s in your best interest to keep all WordPress products up to date by downloading new versions as soon as they’re released. This goes for themes, plugins, and the WordPress software itself.

Theme developers update their products for various reasons, including added security and performance optimization. Here’s why you should always update.

Performance and Compatibility

Any reputable developer will continuously improve its theme after its initial release. Most performance updates involve decreasing load times or patching bugs, meaning updating will enhance the experience for you and your customers.

Another best practice around updates is always running the latest WordPress version. When WordPress releases a new version of its software, most themes will follow suit with an update to guarantee compatibility. As such, whenever you update your WordPress version, look for a theme update, too.

New Features

Aside from releasing backend performance updates, developers will sometimes add new features or tweak existing ones. Whether these changes respond to a WordPress update or requests from the community, you should take advantage of them.

Safety and Security

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—keeping your theme up to date keeps you and your users safe. Developers are constantly patching vulnerabilities whenever they’re exposed. So even if an update seems insignificant, install it as soon as possible—it could contain a vital security patch.

How Long Does it Take to Update a Theme? 

The time it takes to update your theme depends on whether or not you’ve customized it. An unedited theme should take less than five minutes to update.

However, if you’ve edited your theme’s function file or style sheet, there are more steps involved (which we’ll discuss later on). Still, an update shouldn’t take more than 15-30 minutes.

Keep in mind that your WordPress website will be unavailable when you perform an update. To minimize downtime for your customers, update your theme when your traffic is at its lowest.

How to Safely Update Your WordPress Theme Without Crashing Your Website

If you haven’t made changes or added any shortcode to your theme, safely updating is as easy as pressing a button. If you have customized your theme, proceed to the next section.

Best Practices

Before we cover how to update a WordPress theme, we need to touch on two crucial aspects of the preparation process. You should follow these practices prior to any theme update.

  • Test changes in a staging environment – Even though developers test their releases with the latest version of WordPress, there’s a chance that updating your theme could crash your WordPress website or cause unexpected errors. Always perform updates in a staging environment first.

A staging site is an exact duplicate of your live website that is hidden from the public. The easiest way to create a staging site is through a hosting provider that offers one-click staging, like WP Engine.

  • Create a backup – When you’re ready to complete the update on your live site, create a backup before proceeding. While your managed WordPress hosting provider or security plugin may make automatic backups every 24 hours, we recommend creating a manual backup anytime you make major changes to your site.

Although you should have identified and solved any potential issues during testing in your staging site, it’s still wise to make a backup—just in case.

Step 1: Navigate to the Updates Panel

After logging into your WordPress dashboard, head to the top left corner and click Dashboard > Updates. Scroll past the WordPress and Plugins headers to reach the Themes section.

Step 2: Update WordPress Theme

When updates are available for any of your themes (active or inactive), you can check the boxes next to each option and click the Update Themes button.

If you reach this area and see the message “Your themes are all up to date,” there’s no further action to take.

How to Do a WordPress Theme Update on a Custom Website

If you’ve already customized your theme’s code, the process to update your WordPress theme is slightly more complicated. Pressing the Update Themes button could cause you to lose any changes you’ve made. Instead, you’ll create a child theme to avoid unwanted side effects.

Before you begin, follow the same best practices listed above (backup your site and test in a staging environment).

Step 1: Create Child Theme

In your current theme, create a child theme by adding a “child” folder in your themes directory (wp-content/themes). WordPress suggests naming the new folder by adding -child to the end of your theme name.

Within this new folder, you’ll add a style sheet (style.css) and a functions file (function.php) that enqueues styles from the parent theme within this new folder.

Step 2: Copy Over Changes

Open your parent theme’s functions file and copy any changes you made into the new child theme functions file. Repeat this process with the style sheet, copying any changes from the parent’s style.css file to the child’s.

Finally, copy these into your child theme directory if you’ve added or edited any template files.

Step 3: Activate the Child Theme

In your staging environment, make your new child theme the active theme. You can now test the site to ensure it functions exactly as before. If it does, you’ve successfully duplicated your parent theme. If features are missing, you may need to go back and double-check that you copied all files and templates over correctly.

Step 4: Update the Parent Theme

Now, update your parent theme. If you downloaded your theme from the WordPress theme directory, you can do this by following the 2-step process listed above. 

Otherwise, you’ll have to re-upload the updated theme version. Go to your theme’s website and download the newest version, then open the zip file and upload it to WordPress.

Step 5: Test, Test, and Re-Test

Spend some time on your staging site to ensure all features work as they should. In particular, be sure to check on the changes you made to the original theme file. Should any functions be broken, you can open your parent theme backup and compare it to the child theme to verify what’s missing and copy it over.

Once you’ve confirmed your website functions in the staging environment, it’s time to push the update to your live site. Don’t forget to test the live site as well, in case anything was missed. 

You’ve successfully updated your custom theme.

What Kind of Features Can Be Lost During an Update?

The above steps may seem complicated, and that could tempt you to skip the process and click the Update Themes button in your WordPress dashboard. However, you risk losing hours of hard work by doing so.

When you update a custom theme without taking the necessary precautions, you risk losing:

  • All CSS changes in your style sheet (style.css)
  • Any code changes in your functions.php file

In short, your theme will revert to default functionality, which means features that you’ve designed for your site may no longer work. You can avoid these issues by making all changes to a child theme right from the beginning.

What Happens If You Never Update Your Theme?

By now, you should recognize the importance of keeping your WordPress theme up to date. Eventually, when you fall behind on updates, you open your website up to a variety of problems, including:

  • Security threats and cyberattacks
  • Reduced speed
  • Site recall errors
  • Broken features

The same goes for all aspects of your website; never let a WordPress plugin, theme, or the core software go without an update.

Keep WordPress Up to Date with WP Engine

At WP Engine, we understand the importance of regular updates. That’s why we automatically update WordPress for you, so you never miss out on features or security patches. We also provide automatic backups and a one-click staging site, making the update process as straightforward as possible.

While you’ll always have to update your themes manually, you can rest easy knowing your website is in good hands.

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