The Right (and Safest) Way to Install a New WordPress Theme

Commercial Themes Directory

[This post is part of the Ultimate Guide to Launching a WordPress-Powered Blog series. Check out the rest here!]

I can remember the very first time I managed to figure out how to get a new WordPress Theme installed on my blog (without it blowing up). At the time it wasn’t really possible to just simply up wander through the Theme Repository and one-click-install them into my blog – I had to find one that didn’t completely annihilate my install and do it all manually!

Since then the process has been made much more easy and finding (and installing) new WordPress Themes (both free and “Premium”) is a breeze.

Yet, I still get emails, tweets, and Facebook messages asking for help because a new theme “broke” their WordPress blog!

Why is this? It’s because people aren’t taking the time (which isn’t that much) to adequately prepare their blog system for a new theme in a safe and secure manner.

Here’s what I counsel people to do:

1. Check All Requirements

Everything good to go?

The first thing you will want to do is make sure that you have all the necessary requirements, both from WordPress and the Theme designer/developer.

The first set of criteria is easy to find – here is the list of suggested requirements for running WordPress (and if you’re not sure you should either ask your hosting provider or your local IT consultant!):

  • PHP 4.3 or greater (it’s now recommended you have PHP 5.0+!)
  • MySQL 4.1.2 or greater
  • The mod_rewrite Apache module

You can literally ask your hosting provider just that!

Now, most of you should be covered with the WordPress requirements but what about the requirements from the theme provider itself?

You’ll have to find either in the FAQ section of the theme shop’s webpage, within the theme itself in a “ReadMe.txt” file, or somewhere else.

You’d be surprised at how many themes actually have some requirements listed so that they can work the most effective!

All good? Then you’re ready to move to step 2.

2. Document Your Current Theme’s Features

The second thing you’ll want to do is document and make note of all of your current theme’s features and functionalities so that when you move to a new theme you can walk through that list to see if you’re missing anything from both a functional standpoint as well as usability one.

I do this in three ways:

  1. First, I jot down the core features that I’m interested in keeping (or that I want).
  2. Then I make a list of all the plugins that I want to keep in the new blog. I compare these plugins and their features with what comes with the new theme since some of them might be, in fact, duplicated (which isn’t good to have both).
  3. Third, I take screenshots of the current theme. You can use any program you want for this but I really like Skitch as well as the OSX native screencapture capabilities.

With this list in hand I can accurately begin customizing the new theme to spec right after I install it.

3. De-Activate (Almost) ALL Plugins

This is pretty much the part that most people either forget or simply do not even consider when installing a new WordPress Theme – you must de-activate most (if not all, to be safe) of your plugins so that your WordPress Theme has a chance to be installed and setup correctly.

Historically I de-activate every single plugin with the exception of these few:

Everything else I de-activate temporarily (or permanently depending on the options available in the theme natively) until I have the new theme installed, setup, and working properly.

This is a crucial step – do not forget!

Ready for the next step?

A new theme upon install should feel lemony-fresh!

4. Activate New Theme, Test All Options

The next step is important as you’ll want to not only install the new theme but go through every single option possible to see if anything is glaringly-obvious and wrong.

A few things you’ll want to check:

  1. If there anything “obviously” broken?
  2. Are there any features that don’t seem to “Save” or work as intended?
  3. Any CSS problems?
  4. Is there any “slowdown” of your blog? Does it “feel” as if your site is running more slow than before? Remember, at this point you’re not running any plugins so your site should be fast!

Go through all of the Options and new Admin Panels and start throwing in information and data. Your mission is to prove that your purchase was worth it (or download) – test the prowess of the theme designer and developer!

If everything works as intended and looks good then you’re ready for the next step.

5. Go Through Some Posts, Test Styling, Features, Media

Most of you will do step 5 with step 4 as you test out the theme but it’s worth noting explicitly: Test out some of your old posts to see if the following are working properly:

  1. Do the posts “look” right to you?
  2. Is there any styling that’s off?
  3. How about the post elements (H1, H2, H3 tags, italics, bold, bullets, order-lists, etc)?
  4. How about media elements like images and videos?
  5. Are the sidebars looking right? Anything in the sidebars “off”?
  6. What about the header and footer?
  7. Categories, pages, tags, search, etc? Are all of these ok?

Essentially you’re going to want to do a comprehensive walk-through of your existing posts and content as s

ome new themes throw in new coding features that may interpret your content differently. Without you checking you might lose valuable parts of your posts and even your SEO could take a hit!

Your new WordPress Theme should at least keep your SEO intact, if not increase it! Don’t miss anything!

6. Activate Plugins Carefully, Test Features

Test that theme!

The next step takes some time but is very important for a number of different reasons:

  1. Activating Plugins one-by-one helps you identify plugins that do not work with your theme. This is another very important step when installing a new theme, especially if you’re unable to properly diagnose an issue and dive in and fix it.
  2. It helps you understand the features of the theme itself. If there are duplicate features and functionalities then you won’t need that extra plugin!
  3. It also helps you be judicious when it comes to bloating your theme with all those plugins. Use this opportunity to think critically about whether or not you really need that plugin. Think of this as an opportunity for some “Spring Cleaning”!
  4. Taking your time and seeing if each plugin works properly without breaking the theme will help you operate your blog and the new theme optimally!

If you were to activate them all at the same time you could be in some serious trouble without any ability to find where the “pain” points are.

Also, there have been too many instances where the theme won’t even load and your blog completely “breaks” due to incompatibilities. This stinks! Don’t let this be you!

Finally, if there are “core” plugins that you absolutely must have and your new theme doesn’t support it you only have a few options:

  1. Contact the Theme Developer and get some support.
  2. Fix it yourself.
  3. Get a different theme.

Hopefully you did your homework before you bought that new theme (or just downloaded it) but who ever really liked doing “homework”? Not me!

7.  Blog as Usual Making Note of Changes

The next step is easy: Just go for it and blog a few times!

The thing that you’ll want to do is to just be aware of any changes that you may notice while you actually use it in real life.

The point here is that you might think everything is all groovy when you first install the new theme but as you use it you’ll find that there might be slight changes to your work flow (good? bad?) or even how the theme interprets your content.

Jot these down and see if this is both normal/normative or unusual. I typically tell a client or someone I’m helping that if everything looks good after a week (or two, depending on their posting schedule) then they’re pretty much in the clear.

Enjoy that new theme knowing that you’ve done your due diligence to set it up carefully and right!

[This post is part of the Ultimate Guide to Launching a WordPress-Powered Blog series. Check out the rest here!]