How to Update Your WordPress Theme Safely

How to Update Your WordPress Theme Safely » Rank Math

Keeping your WordPress theme up-to-date is necessary for maintaining your website’s functionality and security.

However, a theme update can sometimes overwrite customizations you’ve made, like changes to the CSS, template files, or functions. This can be frustrating if you’ve spent time personalizing your theme. 

The good news is that you can take a few precautions to update your WordPress theme safely without losing your customizations. 

In this post, we’ll explain the steps you need to take before updating your theme and what to do to restore your changes after the update. 

Following these best practices will ensure your theme updates go smoothly. Even better, you won’t have to redo all of your custom work each time a new theme version is released.

Are you ready? Let’s dive in!

1 What is a WordPress Theme Update and How Does It Work?

A theme update refers to installing a newer version of your WordPress theme to replace the existing installed version. 

WordPress themes are like any other software – they require periodic updates to fix bugs, patch security vulnerabilities, and add new features. 

WordPress will notify you in the admin dashboard when a theme developer releases a new version, prompting you to update. To proceed, click the Update now option next to the theme, as shown below.

Update WordPress themes

Behind the scenes, WordPress will download the theme package, unzip it, and replace the existing theme files on your server with the newer version. 

It also runs any necessary database updates the theme developer includes with the update. Once completed, the newer theme version will become active on your site. 

However, when updating your WordPress theme, certain customizations and changes may be overwritten or lost, while other parts of your site will remain intact. 

2 Customizations You Can and Can’t Lose During Theme Updates

Here are some common customizations and whether or not they can be preserved during a theme update:

2.1 Customizations You Can’t Lose

1. Theme Customizer Changes: Adjustments made through the built-in WordPress theme customizer, like modifying colors, layouts, header images, and adding custom CSS, are stored in the database and remain unaffected by theme updates.

Customizations you cant lose

2. Widgets and Menus: Your carefully arranged widgets and navigation menus are independent of the theme and persist through updates.

3. Companion Plugin Settings: Some themes often include companion plugins for additional features. Settings and customizations made within these plugins are typically safe from theme updates.

4. Page Builder Modifications: If you use a page builder plugin like Elementor or Divi to design your website layout, those changes are independent of the theme and won’t be impacted by updates.

5. Plugin Functionality: Any features and functionalities added by other plugins, such as contact forms, analytics, or popups, remain unaffected by theme updates.

2.2 Customizations You Can Lose 

1. Direct Theme File Edits: Any modifications made directly to the theme’s code files, like adding functionalities or changing layouts, will be overwritten during updates. This includes edits to files like functions.php and style.css.

2. Template file changes: If you’ve modified core theme template files like header.php, footer.php, or index.php, these changes may be overwritten.

3. Hook/filter code: Custom code added using hooks and filters may need to be re-added if the theme update includes changes to these areas.

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3 Methods to Safeguard Your Customizations Before Updating Your WordPress Theme

Updating your WordPress theme doesn’t have to mean losing your precious customizations. 

Here are some steps to ensure a smooth and safe update process.

3.1 Backup Your Website

Before making any updates, creating a backup of your entire website is important. This includes both the files, database, and settings. 

You can use a WordPress backup plugin or manually download the files and export the database using phpMyAdmin. 

So that if anything goes wrong during the update process, this backup will be a safety net.

To back up your WordPress website, follow our guide on how to back up your wordPress website.

3.2 Use a Code Snippets Plugin

Using a code snippet plugin is the simplest method to keep your customizations intact even after updating your theme file. To achieve this, you can use the WPCode plugin.

For instance, if your filters/hooks code resides within the rank-math.php file, simply access it by navigating to Appearance → Theme File Editor on your WordPress dashboard. 

Locate the rank-math.php file and copy the filter/hook code from there, as shown below.

rank-math.php file

Next, install and activate the WPCode plugin on your WordPress website. After activation, navigate to Code Snippets → Add Snippet in the WordPress dashboard. 

Hover your mouse over the ‘Add Your Custom Code (New Snippet)’ option and click the Use snippet button.

Add custom code snippet

This will redirect you to the page where you can input your custom code. 

Then, provide a name for the code, paste the code in the Code Preview section, choose PHP Snippet as the code type, activate the toggle switch, and finally, click the Save Snippet button to complete the process, as shown below.

add code and save the snippet

The plugin will promptly implement the code on your WordPress site. You can repeat this process for each of your custom code snippets.

Any code snippet added through this plugin will remain on your website, even after updating your WordPress theme, changing it, or activating a child theme, as long as the plugin remains active.

3.3 Use a Child Theme 

A child theme is designed to inherit the parent theme’s design and features while allowing you to make modifications without impacting the parent theme’s core files.

When you customize the child theme, they will persist even after updating the parent theme, as these adjustments are stored within the child theme.

You can use a custom code or a plugin to create a child theme in WordPress. We have provided a detailed guide that outlines the steps to create a child theme. 

After creating the child theme, it’s best not to activate it immediately. Instead, focus on transferring your configurations from the parent to the child theme. Before this transfer, download all necessary theme files to your local computer.

Downloading Theme Folders to Your Computer

To download the theme files, navigate to your File Manager or connect to your website via an FTP client. 

Locate the /wp-content/themes directory, where folders for parent and child themes can be found. Compress these folders into a zip file and download them by right-clicking and using the Download button.

Make sure to download both the parent theme and the child theme.

Download theme files

After downloading the theme files, visit your current theme’s website to download the latest version.

At this point, you should have the parent, child, and latest theme versions on your computer, likely all in zip files.

Now, it’s time to locate your customizations and transfer them to the child theme.

Identifying and Transferring Customizations

During this process, your goal is to preserve the customizations made within your parent theme. 

For instance, if you’ve integrated filters/hooks for Rank Math within the rank-math.php file, you must transfer this file to the child theme for continued functionality.

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After extracting the downloaded zip file, navigate through the theme files to locate the rank-math.php file.

Locate rank-math.php file

Open the file and copy the filters/hooks. Create a new rank-math.php file in your child theme and paste the filters/hooks code there.

However, you may not remember all the custom codes you added to your theme. In such cases, you can utilize software like WinMerge for Windows users, Kaleidoscope for Mac users, or Meldmerge for Linux users.

These tools enable you to compare two files and identify their differences.

After installing the appropriate software on your computer, upload the latest version of your WordPress (downloaded earlier) and the recent theme file (containing your customizations) from your file manager. Proceed to compare these two theme files.

During the comparison, the software will highlight areas where the files differ. For instance, it may point out the rank-math.php file containing the filters/hooks code.

File containing hooks/filters

Select the rank-math.php file; within it, you’ll find the code for the filters/hooks.

Select the file

Copy the filter/hook code to your clipboard. Open your child theme file and create the rank-math.php file if it doesn’t already exist. Paste the code into the rank-math.php file.

Repeat this process for other modified areas like functions.php, style.css, and other relevant files. Copy the respective codes and paste them at the end of the corresponding files in your child’s theme folder.

Uploading the Child Theme to Your Website

After transferring your customizations to your child theme, the next step involves uploading it back to your website. 

To do this, connect to your website using an FTP client or access your File Manager, then navigate to the themes directory at /wp-content/themes/.

Then, you can use the Upload button to upload the child theme. 

Click Upload button

Once you click the Upload button, the page will redirect you to the upload section for the child theme. Ensure you check the ‘Overwrite existing files’ option. 

By doing so, if a child theme already exists on your website, the uploaded one will replace it seamlessly.

Uncheck overwrite option

After uploading the child theme zip file, extract it into a folder by right-clicking and selecting the Extract option.

Extract files

Once extracted, the child theme will appear as a folder alongside the parent theme.

Child theme extracted

Importing Customizer Settings to Your Child Theme

Remember, any customizations made via the WordPress theme customizer are not automatically saved in your theme, so they must be transferred to the child theme manually.

To do this, we will use the Customizer Export/Import plugin. Install and activate the plugin.

After activation, you should export the customizer settings from the parent theme. 

Ensure that the parent theme is active, then go to Themes → Customize in your WordPress dashboard. Then, access the Export/Import panel and click the Export button.

The plugin will generate a .dat file containing your customizer settings and download it to your computer.

Now, activate your child theme on your website by navigating to Appearance → Themes and click the Activate button next to the child theme, as shown below.

Child theme

Then, revisit the Customizer screen, navigate to the Export/Import panel, and select the Choose File button to import the previously exported file. Ensure you check the option ‘Download and import image files?’.

To finalize the process, click the Import button to initiate the upload. The plugin will then seamlessly import the customizer settings from your exported file.

Import the file

After the import process, you can preview the changes in the customizer. Once satisfied with the modifications, click the Save & Publish button to make them live on your website.

That’s it. You’ve moved all customizations to the child theme. Now, you can update the parent theme without repeating these steps since changes are safely stored in the child.

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4 How to Update Your WordPress Theme

After safeguarding your customizations on your parent theme to prevent losing them, let’s discuss how to update your WordPress theme.

4.1 Automatic Update via WordPress Dashboard

One way to update WordPress themes is through the Automatic Update feature in the WordPress dashboard. 

This allows you to update your theme directly from the WordPress Dashboard without manual intervention. 

Once an update is available, you will receive a notification in your Dashboard, and then you can navigate to Appearance →  Themes and then click on the Update now button to initiate the process, as shown below. 

Update theme from dashboard

Another option is to enable automatic updates for your theme, allowing WordPress to update it automatically whenever a new version is released. 

To do this, navigate to the Themes page and click on your current theme. Look below the theme’s name section for an Enable auto-updates link. 

Click on it to activate automatic updates for your theme.

click Enable auto-updates link

4.2 Manually Update Your WordPress Theme

If you prefer to update your WordPress theme manually, you can do so by uploading the updated theme files yourself. Download the most recent theme version from the official WordPress theme directory or the developer’s site.

After acquiring the updated theme files, log in to your WordPress dashboard and proceed to Appearance → Themes. Click the Add New Theme button.

click the Add New Theme button

This will take you to the theme directory page. Next, click the Upload Theme button above the page to reveal the area to upload your theme file.

Click Upload Theme button

Now, click the Choose File button and select the updated theme files from your computer.

Choose theme file

After selecting the file, click on the Install Now button to upload and install the updated theme.

Install theme files

Once the theme is installed, click the Replace active with uploaded button to ensure the new version of the theme replaces your site’s older version.

Replace active with the uploaded theme

4.3 Using FTP or File Manager

This approach provides greater control over the update process, allowing you to address potential issues.

Download the newest version from the developer’s site to update your WordPress theme using FTP or File Manager. 

Then, connect to your website’s server using an FTP client or File Manager. Locate the wp-content/themes directory and find the theme folder you wish to update. 

To proceed, rename the folder by adding “-old” as a suffix to the name, resulting in a format like “theme-old.” 

Rename the folder

Now, upload the latest version of the theme to the same directory and extract it from the zip file. Ensure that the folder name matches the name of the old theme folder that you renamed earlier.

Upload the theme files

After uploading the new theme folder, log in to your WordPress dashboard and go to Appearance → Themes.

You should see the updated version of your theme and the one you renamed as active. 
Finally, hover over the new theme, which is inactive, and click on the Activate button to update your website theme.

Activate the theme

5 Conclusion

Updating your WordPress theme regularly is essential for maintaining a secure, high-performing, and feature-rich website.

By adhering to the steps detailed in this guide, you can ensure a seamless and secure update process, reducing the risk of website issues or customization loss. 

Remember, preparation is key to safeguarding your online presence.

Here are some valuable tips:

  • Backup your site before any update.
  • Consider using a child theme to protect customizations.
  • If possible, test updates on a staging environment before applying them live.
  • Update during low-traffic hours to minimize disruptions.
  • Check the theme’s changelog and compatibility with plugins and servers before updating.

With these recommendations, you can confidently update your WordPress theme and maintain optimal website performance.

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