How to test a new WordPress theme without crashing your current site

Wanna try out a new WordPress theme, but are afraid of how it will impact your current site? How do you ensure that while you’re testing out new theme ideas, you don’t crash your current site, lose precious copy, or mess up your website?

Speaking as someone who accidentally erased her entire website back in 2015 (massive oops), it’s a valid concern. 

To help you avoid losing your website to a cyber black hole, here are some practical ways to test your new WordPress theme without crashing your current site.

best WordPress hosting

How to test a WordPress theme for your current website without going live

If you’re ready to make changes to your current site and try a new WordPress theme, here are the steps to follow. 

Step 1: Back it up (Just like Prince Royce and J-Lo recommend)

Remember when I said I accidentally deleted my entire WordPress website back in my novice freelance writing days? I don’t know how I deleted it. All I know is that my site was gone forever. It was particularly upsetting since I paid a chunk of change to a designer to create my site for me, and I had to pay someone AGAIN to get my new freelance writing website up and running.

Had I followed a few simple steps and backed up my website, I could have saved myself a headache and some cash. Oh well. We live, we learn. 

Here’s how to back up your website:

Yep, two steps. That’s it. Oh, how I wish the older, wiser version of myself could go back in time and tell my younger self to back up her website.

Step 2: Choose your WordPress theme testing option

When testing a WordPress theme, you have three options:

  • Create a coming soon page
  • Download a staging plugin
  • Download and test in a local WordPress testing environment.

We’ll review each of these below.

Option A: Create a coming soon page

Let’s say you’re making changes to your website, but you’re not quite set on what new theme you want to use. You don’t want your visitors to see you changing back and forth between multiple theme options for obvious reasons.

Instead of trying to make changes for everyone to see, you can activate what’s called a coming soon plugin.

A WordPress coming soon plugin allows you to create a page with a custom message that says you’re making exciting changes to your site, and you’ll be back online as soon as your updates are complete. 

Here are some things to include on your coming soon page:

  • A compelling headline of what is coming soon
  • A brief description of upcoming changes and why it’s exciting
  • A timeline of when your new site will launch
  • A way to get in touch with you in the meantime (e.g., social media, phone, email, etc.)
  • A sign-up form for your email list

Option B: Download a staging plugin

If you don’t want to take your website down, but still want to test new designs or a new WordPress theme, you have an alternative.

You can install a WordPress staging plugin.

Plugins like WP Staging, Duplicator, and WP Stagecoach clone a version of your site where you can make changes behind the scenes.

With the help of a staging plugin, you can make any changes you want without any fear of erasing or breaking your current website. You also don’t have to take your website down while you’re experimenting, as your staging website is not visible to the public.

Here is how to build a staging site with a plugin (e.g., WP Staging):

  1. Download your preferred WordPress staging plugin
  2. Install and activate your preferred staging plugin
  3. Navigate to the staging plugin on the left navigation bar in your WordPress dashboard
  4. Follow the prompts to start and create your staged website
  5. Name your staged website
  6. Wait for the plugin to clone your website 
  7. Open your new staged/cloned website
  8. Click login
  9. Use your WordPress login credentials
  10. Notice the URL will include the staging website URL (e.g., wp-staging.com), followed by what you named your site.
  11. Make your changes

Directions may vary slightly depending on which plugin you use, but all the plugins listed above are fairly intuitive to navigate.

Option C: Download and test in a local WordPress testing environment

Let’s say you don’t dare mess around in WordPress at all, and you want your changes to stay as free and as clear from your current site as possible.

There is an answer for you as well. It’s installing a local WordPress testing environment app on your computer.

A local testing environment is like having a server on your own computer where you can make changes to your site and preview them without it ever touching your site. In short, it’s just like a staging site, but not a WordPress plugin. It works on your computer instead.

Popular WordPress testing environments include DesktopServer by ServerPress and Local by Flywheel. 

To set up local testing of your WordPress site, you’ll need to download a WordPress migration app, export your production site to a file, save it to your computer, and follow the steps your local testing software requires. 

Consider using the All-in-One WP Migration plugin to export your site.

If you have a simple blog or website, it’s sufficient to test with a staging website. If you have a robust website with lots of content and an online store, for example, it’s a good idea to look into a local WordPress testing software.

Step 3: Install your new theme into WordPress

To change the current design of your WordPress site to a new WordPress theme, you first have to select your new WordPress theme and install it into WordPress.

There are several free WordPress themes, and many of them are gorgeous. If you are working on a budget, browse the free WordPress themes and pick something you like.

If you want more options, you can purchase a WordPress theme and install it on your WordPress account. Here are some popular places to find a paid WordPress theme:

If you’d rather support a small business, many talented designers create awesome WordPress themes you can purchase. You can look into Etsy or your favorite independent designer.

Regardless of what you choose, make sure the theme is well-designed and mobile-responsive.

Once you have purchased your theme, here’s how to install it:

  1. Download the .zip file of the new theme you purchased and save it to your desktop.
  2. Login to your WordPress site.
  3. Navigate to the “Appearance” section on the left navigation bar of your WordPress dashboard.
  4. Click on “themes.”
  5. At the top of the screen, you’ll see “Add New” next to the heading “Themes.” Click on “Add New.”
  6. Next to the heading “Add New,” you’ll see “Upload Theme.” Click on it.
  7. Either drag and drop the .zip file or click “choose file” and select the .zip file.
  8. Click “install now.”
  9. WordPress will return a result that your theme has been installed.

From here, you can either activate your new theme or press live preview. You can also add as many themes as you want using this same method and then preview them in the next step.

If you want to see how your site would look in the theme you just downloaded, select live preview. Just don’t hit “activate and publish,” unless you are one-hundred percent sure you want this to be the new look of your website.

Step 4: Browse theme options and preview them live

WordPress has an awesome feature for its themes. With every theme you install, you can either “customize it,” or “live preview” it. Let’s talk about how.

If you navigate to “Appearance” in your dashboard and click on “Themes,” WordPress will show you all the available themes you have uploaded.

Here is what my dashboard looks like:

how to live preview a wordpress theme

If you hover over the theme in interest, you’ll see two options: activate and live preview.

Activate will activate that theme for your website. Live preview will simply show you what your site would look like dressed up in that particular store. It’s like taking your website shopping for a new outfit!

Here is what my travel website looks like in its current theme:

travel website with wordpress theme

I know. Hold the applause.

If I want to test out a new theme, I follow the process above and click “live preview.”

live preview new theme in wordpress

Here is what my website would look like in that particular theme. Remember, I haven’t copied any of my custom code or tweaked anything yet. This just gives me a general idea.

live preview wordpress theme before activating it

What do you think? Should I change my theme? Either way, I can follow this process continually, rinse and repeat, until I have settled on a theme.

If I don’t press “activate and publish,” WordPress won’t save any of my changes. This is a great way to test a new WordPress theme without making changes.

Once you are finally ready to switch over to a new theme, you can activate it, customize it, and publish it.

Check out HostGator’s managed WordPress hosting plan

If you plan on making changes to your website, or just want the security that your website will have backups, then look into HostGator’s managed WordPress hosting plan.

A managed WordPress hosting plan from HostGator includes 2.5X faster load times, an easy control panel for simple navigation, free website migration (so you don’t have to do the scary work yourself), 1GB-3GB of backups (depending on your plan), and more.

Check out HostGator today, and get your website set up with a new, gorgeous, mobile-responsive WordPress theme.

Ashley R. Cummings is a professional freelance writer specializing in SaaS, tech, and advertising/marketing. In a previous life, she was a Russian teacher at Brigham Young University, a corporate trainer, and a grad student—all at the same time. When she’s not writing, you can find her traveling the world with her 2 kids and husband, reading poetry or taking a deep dive into the fabulous world of comedy. Connect with her on Twitter at @ashleyrcummings.

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