Here’s something that’s been on my mind for quite a while… Should changing your theme be a regular activity? Like, every year, or every other year, for example. Or should you rather pick a great theme right at the beginning, one that will be able to handle everything you throw at it, and stick to it no matter what?
I guess you have your own opinion on this topic and I invite you to take part in the discussion in the comments, but first I’d like to share my take on the issue.
Reasons to change your theme
I see a handful of sensible reasons to change your current theme … I mean, completely change it, not just adjust it a little here and there.
- Your current theme is outdated and it doesn’t support some of the newest features in WordPress.
- You have a free theme and you simply want to get to the next level and have something with a little more to offer.
- You want to change your framework (the core script that’s running underneath your theme) to another one because of the additional features.
- You want to change the theme because of the way users are interacting with the current one (you’ve found out that some things are better for your audience).
- You want to change the direction your site is following.
But how often should it happen, right? If we take a look at some of the more established sites, we’ll notice that they usually introduce some bigger changes every 2 years. Take a look at TechCrunch for example. Nowadays it uses a lot simpler design than two years ago.
New sites are not a good example here because some website owners change their theme every other week, and that surely isn’t something I’d advise.
On the other side, I guess that changing the core of your theme (the script) doesn’t need to happen that often. And if you’re using a quality framework then you probably don’t need to worry about it at all. Everything is likely to be updated in the background without your supervision.
If you’re using a custom solution then you might have to update things manually from time to time, whenever some major changes get introduced in WordPress.
When it comes to the design, and the frontend of your theme, you should constantly be testing things, looking for better ways of providing content and interacting with your audience.
The thing is that when you’re first launching your site you’re always working in the dark, so to speak. You never know what will turn out to work best with your audience, you can only guess. So it’s quite natural that after a while, when you get some real data, you’ll want to change things up a bit and improve your site, or maybe change its direction completely.
Finally, when we take all of the above into account, I have to say that the two year mark sounds reasonable as the moment to change your theme to a different one. Honestly speaking, chances are that if after two years of running your site you still don’t want to change anything then you’re probably not doing a good job as a website owner…
So how to change your theme without messing everything up and losing your audience?
How to switch to a different theme
Actually, no matter what you do, there’s always going to be some user backlash (at least a little). There’s always a group of people who simply don’t like any kind of change (look at what’s going on with Facebook Timeline).
Even if your new theme is much better than the previous one, some people will tell you that it’s, in fact, worse. However, the new visitors will simply have a better time interacting with it.
Still, you can’t simply install a new theme and hope that everything’s going to be alright. You need to introduce all changes gradually and test everything along the way, which could not be easy, by the way.
Here’s where to get started:
First of all, always have your theme updated to the newest version. This will take care of all the incompatibilities with current versions of WordPress, and improve your security. That is, of course, if the author of your theme releases any updates…
The second step is split testing. When changing a theme to a new one, or introducing some serious changes to the current one, you can go in either of two directions: you can (1) play the guessing game again and simply introduce some changes that you think will work, or you can (2) split test various stuff and pick the best performing solution.
Obviously, the latter is the better approach here.
The best way of handling split testing in WordPress is to do it through Google Analytics and their Content Experiments section (formally known as Google Website Optimizer) and a plugin that will make it even easier – Google Content Experiments.
The idea here is to introduce small changes and split test how they’re performing (the number of clicks they’re getting, and so on). For instance, you can test things like: 2- vs 3-column layout, smaller header, wider sidebar, different social media buttons placement, different font, and so on. Basically, you can split test anything that comes to your mind.
When the results are in you can start introducing some changes.
Introduce changes gradually
There are two rules here:
- Your changes can’t be too dramatic.
- You have to introduce them gradually.
If your changes are too big, you can simply hurt the brand your site has built over its lifespan. On the internet, the way a site looks is a big part of its brand. Whatever you do, your site still needs to use a somewhat similar design.
By introducing the changes gradually, you can be sure that you won’t shock your audience with anything. The more ready they are, the less user backlash you’ll experience.
Of course, if you’re changing the framework then someday you need to just do it. But make sure that the user side of your site looks the same, so the visitors won’t even notice.
I guess that’s it when it comes to my opinion on how often you should change the theme on your site and how to actually do it. So now I invite you to share your opinion. What’s the perfect moment to switch to a different theme?