A WordPress Theme Change SEO Checklist

The internet is teaming with gorgeous webpages. These days it’s relatively easy to set up a website as many providers automate the entire process with bundled domain registration, hosting and one-click content management system (CMS) installation. Along with the crumbling technical barriers to entry the CMS theme development community has absolutely exploded with creative activity. WordPress in particular, commanding an impressive percentage of the world’s blogosphere, has a vibrant and infinitely expanding catalog of beautiful styles to choose from.So there is really no excuse for sticking with that default-slightly modified-’hey, it does the job’-’I’m more about substance’-’Why should I care about mobile users?’-WordPress theme you cobbled together back in college.

Okay, okay, Jacob. You’re right, as usual.  I’m just terrified.  I’ll simply die if I lose my hard-fought rankings for ‘solid delivery’ and ‘banana rankers’!  I’m willing to change but you have to promise that my rankings will remain unchanged!  I’ve got this blog SEO’d to the max!  Fine tuned like a Stradivarius and... 

Get a hold of yourself, man!  Do you really think you’re the first successful blogger to swap WordPress themes?  Sure there are obstacles that must be overcome but that’s why you subscribe to the Distilled blog, right?  I’ve changed themes on active WordPress sites several times but I’ve recently gone through a fairly complex upgrade and put together a bit of an SEO checklist for webmasters looking to leave 2003 behind and enter the brave new world.

This isn’t a complete walkthrough on technicalities of implementing a new WordPress theme.  This is simply a list of SEO-related items one should consider and tick off as they launch their new theme.  I know I had forgotten a few little things only to remember them a day later.  I’m here to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.

WP Theme Change Checklist

Back up everything Avoid a horror story. Backup your database, theme files and whatever else you’re changing. That way you can always go back. 

Use the new Live Preview feature to test your theme See all of your changes before deploying the site.  Use Chrome or Firefox webmaster tools to fiddle until satisfied.

Is your theme compatible with all common browsers? Manually test with:  Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari

What does your site look like on mobile devices? Manually test with: iOS, Android,  Any other mobile browser you can get a hold of.

Are your meta descriptions in tact? If you’re not running an SEO plugin such as All-in-One-SEO or yoast SEO tool meta data may be handled at the theme level.

Do your major theme images utilize alt text and keyword-rich filenames? logo.png with no alt text, background.jpg with no alt text, etc

Maintain site’s internal hierarchy Did you previously keep all of your category pages in the head nav or sidebar?  Give your important pages the same prominence in the new theme. 

Check <H1> - <HX> Tags Within posts, in sidebar, navigation and elsewhere

Run a PageSpeed test Are you moving in the right direction?


Test All Plugins & Widgets Take the opportunity to trim any unused or redundant plugins 

Test Internal Site Search Different themes handle this differently. Give it a courtesy test. While you’re making big moves, consider implementing Google on-site search and save your server some full-database queries while pocketing some beer money. 

Is your Favicon still working? Could be time for an updated icon to match your new site/logo.

View Page as a Bot Is your fancy new fly-out menu java-tastic or flashalicious and you didn’t know it?   View your page as a robot would and make sure your content is still crawlable.

Make sure your posts previews still look great in Facebook, G+ etc. Were you manually implementing Open Graph data?  Did you change a social plugin that used to do this for you?

Is rel=author still working? Validate it.  Check the SERPs.  rel=author is often handled at the theme level. Consider deploying rel=publisher or rel=author in header for pages/homepage.

Are your advertising units in a better position, or worse? You’re changing themes anyhow, might as well maximize ad space. 

Is your sidebar at least 300px wide? Many widgets including Google+, Facebook, & Twitter’s official apps look horrible or are completely inoperable at <300px.  Adsense units under 300px typically underperform

Determine the optimal number of post excepts/previews per paginated page Weigh readability, usability and design considerations, pick a number and stick with it.

Remove unwanted links from footer Give credit where credit is due but are you forever required to link to the author’s “free ringtone network”?  Deleted. 

Consider altering generic on-page terms and phrasesRecent Posts’ could be ‘Latest SEO News’.  ’Post Category:’ could be ‘Movie:’ or ‘TV Show:’.  Don’t go overboard with this. Usability is more important than a minor SEO bonus.  Do it only if it makes sense.

Publish an announcement about your new site! Detail the new features. Present it as a gift to your readers. Brag a little. 

Is Google Analytics Deployed (in all headers)?

 

Is Linkstant Deployed?

 

Make a big change You’re already switching themes, customizing CSS and running through this checklist.  Go big and try out Disqus, deploy a CDN or floating social media buttons.

Compare new theme code to old theme code Grab the major template files (single post, page, archive, sidebar, home, header and footer) and compare them to the new theme.  Forgetting something important in any of these PHP files?

I’ll also typically run through Geoff’s Technical SEO Checklist for safe measure. Even if most of the recommendations don’t apply to a theme change something on the list may trigger your memory.  The above isn’t meant to be an exhaustive SEO checklist but hopefully something jumped out at you if you’ve recently made the big leap. In my experience with web design every site has its own quirks that only the webmaster will know how to take care of.

I know many of you have gone through the Wordpress theme change process (nightmare?) and have experiences to share.  If all of this seems overwhelming check out WordPress.com’s extensive showcase of Wordpress Themes.  Their themes are hand picked, thoroughly tested and if you’re hosting your blog with them the whole theme change process is a breeze.

Please do leave a comment below and maybe together we can save a few webmasters some sleepless nights.

Jacob Klein

Jacob Klein

Jacob spent the first 18 years of his life in the Columbia River basin of Washington State. In order to escape the confines of this rural existence he developed a healthy love affair with technology, especially preferring to explore the outside...   read more

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22 Comments

  1. My most painful experience came with a theme where I had heavily tweaked the code before foolishly uploading a new version.

    The lesson is: if you change stuff, back it up in case you need to go back!

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    • I feel foolish for forgetting to mention this. Putting it at the #1 spot. Thanks Iain!

    • What you should do is create a child theme for all your custom coding which isn't overwritten when you update the parent theme.

      On top of this, there's an excellent free plugin named SEO DataTransporter which migrates all your SEO settings from one theme to another and you can also change SEO plugins.

      Finally, i'd test the new theme on a local installation using instantwp and restore your full backup locally before making the move on a live site.

  2. @Iain, that's exactly what I fear the most. Is there a way to backup all tweaks before moving on to a different Theme? I'm almost sure I'll lose it all!

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  3. Ben

    Don't forget to change the "noindex" settings to "index" if cloning and deploying from a dev site. This one has unfortunately gotten me in the past.

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  4. Noted and will surely take care of these information

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  5. Although not directly SEO related, it's important to ensure your file permissions are set up correctly to avoid any potential security issues. It may be that you've delved into the file system when uploading the theme and made some directory changes as a result. There are a few WordPress security plug-ins out there that check your file permissions and other things, such as predictable 'admin' account usernames.

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    • Good one! I usually have this problem when I'm starting from scratch or using an older/unsupported theme. Always good to check and you're right: there are a number of plugins out there to verify your file permissions.

  6. Wow.Amazing post.The checklist is helpful.I'll bookmark your site for I'll be needing this soon.All contents were expressed in a clear and simplified manner.Good work!

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  7. It could also be mentioned that there is a lot of possible gain from moving from an old, hacked up theme to a new, lightweight and responsive theme.

    Sure, we need to make sure our on page basics are maintained and the checklist above is useful for that but if your site is a shambles on mobile (check loading speed in analytics) then going responsive offers a mobile optimised site that provides the same content to users on the same address.

    When Google gives us a recommendation as they have with mobile sites I tend to think it makes sense to follow it and give them what they want and in this instance, optimise your site for all possible devices into the bargain.

    Some more thoughts on responsive design and SEO here:
    http://www.bowlerhat.co.uk/blog/responsive-web-design/

    Great post. :)
    Marcus

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    • Yep. Hopefully your new theme addresses those issues. Mobile comparability is one of the biggest reasons to upgrade from an older theme.

  8. Jacob, yet another example...we recently got a call from a client because all of their category pages, which they had optimized, disappeared from the search engines. Lo and behold, we discovered that one of their recent activities was a theme upgrade and this theme upgrade added noindex to all category pages. Great post! Cheers, Richard

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    • You guys got me worried as I hadn't heard of this one. Luckily my themes didn't deploy such a silly measure. What a silly thing to do! If I want my pages noindexed I'll go in and do it manually tyvm. None of this behind the scenes in a theme file stuff, right?

  9. Thanks for the Check-list mate, One thing i will say very important and very common mistake on every third website is having lots of links in footer navigation which is not helpful any more. There should be very limited and important landing pages links, Not too many. I have removed many of the links form bottom navigation for my 2 websites and i was surprised that I improve the rankings and got better indexing more of my pages, I had got this advice from SEOMOZ Pro.

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  10. When you have a WordPress theme that works for you, the best bet is to make slight deviations to the theme instead of all encompassing changes that are likely to knock you off course, Since changing a theme may also impact your ranking.

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    • Eh, in my experience a theme change doesn't hurt rankings all that much if you're following the steps above. You're basically just changing the items around the actual content that are usually the same on all pages. Google knows what navigation elements, footers and sidebars are these days.

      Just compare the code from each version of the site and make sure you aren't missing the basics. Sometimes a theme change is really necessary.

      Trust me I've been tempted to stick with an old template from 2004 as well. It's so easy to tell yourself that it's not worth the risk and "you're doing fine already". That's why sites stick with Wordpress 2.5 and get hacked. That's why sometimes the competition sneaks in and steals a ranking from you. People want modern sites that work on mobile and look good on the desktop. Since my change I've also been getting more linkage as well.

      I've found that the rewards of staying current outweigh the risks.

      It's just something you have to do as a modern webmaster.

  11. Very great article but I suggest you to also pay attention to the schema.org tags presence. Sometimes, after a theme change, you end up loosing every hfeed tag, or Facebook's OG tags and so on, so be careful

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  12. embarking on a new theme update soon - great lil checklist ther :)

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  13. Hmhmmm....
    Thanks for sharing.
    I need this post for my blog.

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  14. I have bookmarked this link as it is very educational, my kids will be following this post too.

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  15. Hi Jacob,

    Nice post- Need your expert comment!
    I'm redeveloping my website and have two options go for a Themeforest Responssive theme or build all from scratch in HTML website.
    Recently someone scared me that if you use theme google will consider it as code duplication aas other people running the same theme as well like u. Is it so ? Should one not use template WP websites?
    Thanks for your time and reply.

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    • No Google won't see a theme's code as duplicate content. Google is much smarter than that, fortunately.
      There are too many situations with various CMS' where an algo like that would just be bone-headed and heavy-handed.
      That being said it wouldn't hurt to take that themeforest theme and customize the crap out of it.
      Not for the duplicate content reasons you mention but because you want your site to have unique, branded images, content, taglines etc.

      No one likes a cookie-cutter site so take your theme and shake it up a bit for the user's benefit.

      Hope that helps.

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