Changing your WordPress theme can be scary, especially if you have a complex site with extensive functionality. You’re probably worried about losing content or completely breaking your website’s design.
However, sometimes it’s necessary to switch to a new theme for better performance, more functionality, and other reasons.
We understand why you’d want to switch the theme without going live. Oftentimes switching to a new theme is not as simple as pushing a button. You may need to rebuild certain pages and make other design tweaks before publishing your new theme.
Which method is best? Well, that depends on your situation.
In this article, we’ll discuss each of these methods of changing your WordPress theme without going live so you can pick the best method for your own situation.
Why Change Your Theme Without Going Live?
Before we get started, let’s quickly talk about why you’d want to change your theme without making it live immediately.
You may already be aware of these risks, but we want to remind you before we get started.
The most common reasons you’d want to change your theme without going live are:
- To add, fix, or modify the new design
- To recover content that did not transfer to the new theme
- To test theme performance
- To preview the theme’s customization settings
If any of these reasons apply to you, then you’re in the right place!
Now, let’s run through three common methods of doing so.
Method #1: Using WordPress Live Preview
The easiest and fastest way of changing your WordPress theme without going live is by using a built-in WordPress feature called “Live Preview”.
Of course, since this is a quick and easy method, there are some limitations!
This method is best for briefly previewing a theme, or if you only need to make a few small tweaks before going live (you’ll have to make all your changes in one sitting without saving).
Follow the steps below!
1. Log in to your WordPress dashboard
2. Click Appearance > Themes
3. Click Add New at the top of the screen
4. Search for your desired theme and click Install
5. Click Live Preview
6. Final Result
After clicking Live Preview, you’ll be able to preview what your website would look like on the new theme.
In our example, here’s what our site looks like:
Clearly, our design needs some tweaking before we make it live.
When you’re using this method you’ll need to make all your desired changes in one sitting (without saving). Once you’re ready, you can click Activate & Publish to push the new changes live.
If you’re not able to make all your changes in one sitting, you’ll need to use one of the other methods that we discuss below!
Method #2: Using a Staging Site (Recommended)
If the first method wasn’t right for you, then this method will surely meet your needs. This is our preferred method of changing a WordPress theme without going live.
This method is best if you want full customization of the theme without interrupting the live site.
Unlike the first method, using a staging site allows you to save your work and resume it later. You’ll have full customizability over your site settings and file system using this method.
This is because a staging site is an exact copy of your website that runs separately from your live site. Once you switch your theme and make any other desired changes, you’ll be able to replace your live site with the staging site.
Here’s how it works!
1. Create a staging copy of your website
You’ll need to start by creating the staging copy of your website.
Many website hosts have staging functionality built-in, but you can also use third-party software to do this, such as BlogVault.
2. Log in to your WordPress dashboard on the staging site
Make sure you’re logging into your staging site URL, not your live URL!
3. Click Appearance > Themes
4. Click Add New at the top of the screen
5. Search for your desired theme and click Install
6. Click Activate
7. Final Result
Now your staging site is ready to go with your new theme! You’re free to make edits to your theme without affecting the live site.
Your design probably needs to be tweaked before launch, so take your time to review the website carefully. Make a checklist of tasks that need to be completed before the site is ready for launch.
Read our section below about things to remember before going live.
When you’re ready to go live, you can click a button in your staging software or website hosting dashboard to replace the live website with the new version. We recommend backing up the old version of your website before doing this.
Method #3: Using Theme Switcha
The last method for switching your WordPress theme without making it live is by using a plugin called Theme Switcha.
Before you try this method, you should make sure this is a good fit for your needs.
Theme Switcha is best for developers who want to work on the theme files directly without making the changes live.
When using Theme Switha, you should not customize the theme settings within the admin area or edit any pages/posts. These changes may be published to the live theme!
1. Log in to your WordPress dashboard
2. Click Plugins > Add New
3. Search for “Theme Switcha” and click Install, then Activate
4. Click Appearance > Themes
5. Click Add New at the top of the screen
6. Search for your desired theme and click Install
Do not activate the theme yet!
7. Click Settings > Theme Switcha
8. Click Enable Theme Switching then Save Changes
Don’t forget to save changes before proceeding to the next step!
9. Scroll down and select your desired theme
10. Final Result
Now that you’ve selected the theme in Theme Switcha, you will be able to view what your site looks like on the new theme.
As an administrator, you will see the new theme while your users see the old theme.
Remember: Do not edit any pages or settings while using Theme Switcha. Those changes might get published on the live site. This is not the intended use of Theme Switcha.
This plugin was designed for developers who want to work on the theme files directly, then push those changes live.
Things to Remember Before Going Live
After using one of these methods to preview your new WordPress theme, you’ll want to make sure it’s ready to go live.
We’ve assembled some quick tips to analyze before you make your new theme live so you can avoid potential issues!
1. Take a Full Website Backup
Before making your new theme live, take a full backup of your files and databases!
It’s a simple thing to do, but can sometimes be forgotten.
You never know when something unexpected could happen, so you should be prepared to quickly restore your site to its previous state if the need arises.
2. Copy Custom Code and Widgets
After activating your new theme, your widgets will be cleared from the widget areas. You’ll need to reassign widgets in the widgets area by navigating to Appearance > Widgets.
Custom code will not be copied over either, such as code added to the “Additional CSS” section in the WordPress Customizer or the function.php file. Be sure to copy this over as well.
Finally, there’s a chance you have tracking codes that need to be switched over to the new theme. They would have been inserted for analytics tracking or advertising purposes. If you’re not aware of any tracking codes inserted into your old theme, then you likely don’t need to worry about this.
3. Inspect Design and Functionality
It’s likely that your design was negatively affected after switching your theme.
For example, here’s what our testing website looked like when we switched to a new theme.
As you can see, the text is very difficult to read. This is one of the many design changes we’ll need to make before making our new theme live.
To ensure your site is working and displaying properly, you should:
- Inspect and test your pages on a mobile device, tablet, desktop, and using multiple web browsers.
- Test any functionality that is integrated into your website (such as contact forms, calculators, map displays, etc.)
4. Look For Missing Content
Lastly, it’s possible that you’re missing some content as a result of a theme change. This would typically be widgets or custom post types.
For example, we were working with a real estate company that wanted to switch to a new theme. Their existing theme contained a custom post type for their property listings. Upon switching to a new theme, these property listing pages were missing and needed to be recovered under a new custom post type.
Don’t worry! Your content won’t be deleted, however, it will need to be recovered.
If you think this situation might apply to you, be sure to take a close look at your content to confirm everything is where it’s supposed to be.
More Help on Switching WordPress Themes
Switching to a new WordPress theme on an established site is not always an easy task, especially if your website is complex.
We hope that one of these methods helped you out. Remember to choose a method that is most appropriate for your situation so you can change your WordPress theme without going live.
If you’re still having trouble, we’d be happy to take a look! Feel free to reach out to us for further assistance.