Will Changing WordPress Theme Affect Content or SEO Performance?

You browsed what felt like millions of themes for millions of hours before you finally settled on one that fits your brand.

Until it didn’t.

Now you feel compelled to browse a million more themes, but you’re worried. Does changing theme affect SEO?

Most likely. 

However, we’ve compiled a list of tips to help you not only maintain your current rankings but possibly improve them in the process.

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WordPress 101: Does Changing Theme Affect SEO?

Ideally, changing your theme in WordPress would have no impact on your SEO. You’d simply choose and — VOILA! — your website and SEO remain fully intact.

However, you have to remember that WordPress is literally the foundation on which you built your website. So naturally, if you shake up that foundation, you’re going to have a few cracks to fill.

Will changing WordPress themes affect content? 

No. But, changing themes can impact SEO from a user standpoint, and it can mess with your custom formatting too — meaning more work for you. 

Don’t let this deter you. If your brand is ready for a facelift and a new theme will do the trick, then go for it. Just be prepared to keep your eye on a few key elements along the way.

What Happens if I Change My Website Theme?

To break it down, most of your content is going to transition over without a hitch when you switch themes. But if you’ve built in any custom code, have a theme-specific homepage or widgets, or any functionality that is unique to that theme, you may lose a few things and create some errors along the way.

On the plus side, most of your regular site elements should be just fine, including:

  • Basic site information
  • Core WordPress settings
  • Pages and posts; and
  • Plugins you’re currently using

6 Ways a WordPress Theme Change May Impact Your Site and Affect Your SEO Performance

#1: User Experience

User experience continues to top the list as one of Google’s most critical ranking factors.

Google’s recent “helpful content” update is proof the algorithms favor sites that:

  • Provide users with the information they’re searching for
  • Are easy to navigate
  • Pass the “mobile-friendly” test
  • Have more backlinks from other sites
  • Focus on people-first content

When creating your site, you want to avoid making these black-hat SEO mistakes:

  • Creating duplicate content
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Paid or manipulative links
  • Hidden text
  • Cloaking
  • Gateway pages

If your user experience is on the up and up, you’re far more likely to rank favorably in Google’s SERPs. And luckily, WordPress is a great starting point for quality website construction.

How Can Changing Themes Affect SEO Based on User Experience?

WordPress’s themes are all about design, so if you’re using a theme or design that satisfies your users and makes their experience more enjoyable, then you’re already on the right track.

However, choosing the wrong theme from the start may result in a high bounce rate, meaning users are getting frustrated with your page and “bouncing back” to the results page to try another site.

If this is happening, it’s only natural to want to make a change. But that change can affect your SEO if you don’t do it right.

Let your users know upfront that your website has undergone changes and has been upgraded to improve their overall experience. This not only erases any confusion about the page’s aesthetic but also encourages users to give your new site a try.

The last thing you want is an even higher bounce rate with your new theme, simply because your users don’t recognize it.

#2: Formatting

Formatting is one of the determining factors in the success of your technical SEO, specifically your header tags. Headings make your content more organized and also give your users and Google more clarity about what’s on your pages.

Your H1 is effectively the most visible, and arguably the most important, heading on your page. It’s situated above the content and summarizes the content in about 50 to 70 characters.

Additional headings ranging from H2 to H6 also assist with the structure and organization of your pages.

How Can Changing Themes Affect SEO Based on Formatting?

Different themes in WordPress can impact the format of key HTML elements, duplicate heading tags being one of them.

While it may not have a significant impact on your SEO, duplicate headings can confuse your readers and Google because they’re conditioned to expect a properly formatted hierarchy of elements.

For example, if your current theme required you to enter your H1 tag manually, but your new theme has built that functionality in, you will have to go back through each of your old pages to remove the duplicate heading.

#3: Site Speed

Speed has been a ranking factor for Google since they first announced it in 2010. This update applied only to desktop search results and was later updated in 2018 to include mobile searches.

Users get frustrated when they have to wait for a page to load. Let’s face it, if that page isn’t up in a few seconds or less, they’re hitting the back button and trying another page.

Google would later make a “page experience” update that eliminated the original site speed ranking signal, but still includes overall desktop and mobile speed when ranking websites.

How Can Changing Themes Affect SEO Based on Your Site Speed?

WordPress has some heavyweight themes that can seriously make or break your site’s performance. Once you start adding your customizations and plugins, you further reduce site speed.

While they may look great on the surface, Google will quickly pick up on the slow loading speed and your rankings will most definitely go down. 

When choosing a new theme, try upgrading to a lightweight theme that will reduce your page load times to under two seconds. Hey, you might even notice a little improvement in your SEO rankings this way!

#4: Custom Code

Custom code can be added to WordPress to change its standard functionality, improve WordPress vulnerabilities or errors, and increase the site’s security.

With thousands of available plugins, it’s really not that difficult to add custom code to your WordPress, and doing so can add a lot of value to your site by improving user function.

How Can Changing Themes Affect SEO Based on Custom Code?

Switching themes could mean losing your custom settings, or creating errors on the backend of your site. 

When changing your theme, it’s crucial to check the functionality of the new theme to be sure it supports your plugins. If not, you’ll likely end up with 404 errors and decreased site speed — both of which can negatively impact your SEO.

Remember, pretty much anything that’s custom-built on your old theme, can break within your new theme when WordPress updates its core functionalities. So think ahead and be prepared. 

#5: On-Site Search Functionality

Site search functionality allows users to use a search tool to sift through a website’s content and pages to quickly find what they’re looking for. 

When well-designed, these search tools can:

  • Improve user experience
  • Reduce bounce rate; and
  • Boost conversions

They’re also effective at improving a site’s SEO, especially for eCommerce and media sites.

How Can Changing Themes Affect SEO Based on Your Site’s Search Function?

Some WordPress themes actually remove site search functionality. If you’re currently using a search bar on your site, and it’s vital to user experience, you will want to check to be sure the new theme supports this function.

Your current WordPress theme may scan post titles and contents for matches, whereas other themes add additional functionality that scans other elements. This function may direct your users to irrelevant pages, resulting in a lousy user experience.

As mentioned, user experience is crucial when it comes to ranking in Google’s SERPs. Make sure your site search function is working exactly as it was with your previous theme, or your SEO may take a hit.

#6: Structured Data and SEO Metadata

The purpose of structured data and metadata is to make it easier for Google to know what’s on your website, from services and products to information offered. Google needs to have this knowledge to show your page in the search results for a related query.

Structured data can also change what your snippet (your search result) looks like. The more specific the information, the more likely a potential user will click on your results. 

Google is always looking for the best answer to a search query. Your structure data and metadata should give Google everything it needs to rank your pages for specific search results.

How Can Changing Themes Affect SEO Based on Your Structured Data and SEO Metadata?

Because so many WordPress themes have built-in SEO features that allow you to manage your structured data and SEO metadata, you may lose all this custom data when you switch themes.

This can really harm your SEO.

While SEO metadata and structured data are not directly linked to ranking, they can influence a user’s decision on whether to click on your page. 

So the better your metadata, the more likely you are to get clicks. More clicks mean potentially higher rankings.

Using a plugin like Yoast SEO can help you manage your SEO data instead of relying on your theme.

6 Tips for Changing Your WordPress Theme Without Negatively Affecting SEO Performance

#1: Don’t Change Themes Too Often

As tempting — and downright addictive — as it can be, you really should avoid changing themes unless absolutely necessary. This is because changing themes can affect user experience and impact the way Google indexes your pages.

Changing themes also impacts SEO because it can cause errors on your site, which can hurt your reputation with Google if they crawl your site before you have time to fix the errors.

Whether you’ve recently changed themes, or you’re considering a change, you should periodically run a PageSpeed Insights scan to ensure you’re passing Core Web Vital checks by Google.

#2: Choose a Theme That Is SEO-Friendly

You want to make sure your new theme is as SEO-friendly as your current theme — if not better.

As we mentioned earlier, WordPress has some pretty clunky themes that can result in seriously slow page speeds and a less-than-ideal user experience.

SEO-friendly themes load faster, have well-organized code, and provide a quality user experience. For SEO-friendly WordPress themes, try Astra, StudioPress, or GeneratePress. All are fairly lightweight and known for performance.

#3: Make Site Speed a Priority

Microsoft recently sponsored a study that proves how rapidly the human attention span is decreasing. What does this mean for your website?

Any longer than two seconds to load, and you’re likely going to see an increase in your bounce rates, which can negatively impact your SEO.

Not only that, but Google uses page speed as a ranking signal, so when all other factors are considered equal, the faster website ranks higher in search results.

#4: Find a Functional Theme That Won’t Require Too Many Plugins

Before you get started, have a close look at the themes you’re narrowing in on to see what features they offer before you commit. 

Many WordPress themes are well-optimized and offer features that reduce the number of plugins needed to get the overall functionality and aesthetic you’re looking for.

Fewer plugins usually result in quicker load times and an enhanced user experience, which ultimately improves your SEO performance.

#5: Test Your New Theme Thoroughly Before Going Live

First things first. We recommend you set up a staging or test environment to implement your new theme. Basically, like running a copy of your website on your local machine that won’t change your live website’s contents when you update.

This allows you to test the outcome of your new theme before you make it live to your users. Doing so ensures the theme is properly formatted and delivers a pleasant user experience.

#6: Work With Someone Who Has Been Through the Process

If you’ve never changed a theme and you’re still feeling intimidated by the process, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to someone who has done it before.

Rather than wondering if you’re making a big mistake, speak to a developer or a friend who has experience and can help explain the process. Paying for consultation services can save you some serious headaches along the way.

SEO Growth Partners is proud to partner with web developers to bridge the gap between WordPress web development and theme changes and SEO best practices.

We can work closely with you or your web developer to ensure a smooth transition from theme change to on-page and technical SEO.

From user experience to site speed and all the technical details in between, our goal is to help you deliver a flawless theme change that doesn’t just maintain your SEO rankings, it improves them.

For more information and a list of our services, click here.

Courtney Kirk

Courtney Kirk

SEO Specialist and Military Spouse

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