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 phrases 'Recent 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.

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