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Should you keep your outdated WordPress theme?

Stephanie O'Hanley

Is your WordPress site outdated? If you have an old WordPress theme, say from 2009, and its code hasn’t been updated in years, chances are your website is experiencing problems. You may even see errors in your WordPress dashboard and your site probably doesn’t work properly.

Why is this happening?

The most likely reason is that your theme’s code is out of date. It doesn’t get along with changes to PHP coding standards. The jQuery scripts included with your theme may also be out of date or unsupported.

As of WordPress 6.6, WordPress will officially drop support for PHP versions 7.0 and 7.1. The minimum supported version will be PHP 7.2.24.

Old, outdated themes were built with code that reflects the time they were created. If your theme was built for PHP 7.0 or 7.1, it’s way out of date and it’s time to replace it since soon it won’t work on WordPress at all.

Old themes use old theming approaches

If your theme came out around WordPress version 2.9, it probably never had the Customizer you typically see in classic themes. It might have an Options page that no longer works. In the back end, the theme may use shortcodes to display your theme’s CSS that control how your theme looks.

As your theme triggers errors, your web host is probably asking you to do something about your old theme. Or you’re finding the situation impossible and you’d like a working website.

What are your options?

The easiest solution is to switch your theme and rebuild your website.

Why is this the best option?

If your theme is no longer maintained by its developer and has no recent updates, it won’t work with WordPress properly. As well, having old code on your website puts you at risk of being hacked. It’s a bit like using Windows 95 in 2024. It’s not a good idea.

If you use a cell (mobile) phone, you probably traded it for a new one when the manufacturer said they were no longer supporting your particular model. Same with your computer.

If your computer is no longer supported, you’ll purchase a new one or find another way to keep it going. Sure, you can use Linux and keep a old computer going for years. But most of us buy a new (or new-to-us) computer when the old one is toast.

It’s the same thing with WordPress. For the best experience, you need to keep your theme up to date.

If you’re hesitating on changing your theme because you don’t want to use the block editor, there are other solutions.

Possible solutions

Choose a new classic WordPress theme

In today’s WordPress you’ll find two main types of themes: classic themes and block themes. There are also page builders. My advice to anyone to wants a high performing WordPress site is to stay away from page builders. There are exceptions to this. To keep things simple, this article leaves out any discussion of page builders.

What’s a classic WordPress theme?

Classic themes were the WordPress themes you saw before the block editor arrived on the scene. Some people call them traditional WordPress themes.

WordPress used to be mainly coded with PHP, JavaScript and CSS. As WordPress’s Theme Handbook mentions, classic themes take advantage of WordPress PHP functions, hooks and filters. Today you can install the Classic Editor plugin on a classic theme and keep the experience you used to have with WordPress’s TinyMCE editor.

The classic theme I turn to most often is GeneratePress. It’s well known for being lightweight, fast and accessible, and it’s fully compatible with the block editor. I use it with GeneratePress Premium and the GenerateBlocks plugin to build out websites with the block editor but you can have a child theme in PHP and then you don’t have to worry about having to move your site to a block theme and using the block editor if you’re uncomfortable with the block editor and you don’t want to learn how to use it.

Hire a developer to build a custom PHP website

Any qualified developer who’s familiar with PHP and the latest development approaches for Advanced Custom Fields can build you a website that will work in ways you’re familiar with. They can also ensure your site gets along with the block editor. If you really love your old (unsupported and abandoned) theme you can even have the developer create a new version of it by replicating it.

Embrace the block editor and block themes

You could learn how to use the WordPress editor and blocks and enjoy a different way of doing things with WordPress. The biggest change will be how you add content but if you’re up for learning something new, it might even be fun!

To get an idea of how the block editor works, visit the WordPress Playground here. It lets you test out WordPress in your browser.

Swap WordPress for ClassicPress

ClassicPress is a fork of WordPress. The software, a free open-source content management system, lets you feel like you’re using the old WordPress. You can use the familiar classic editor without fear of it being replaced with the block editor. To learn more, visit the ClassicPress site here.

Have a developer update your very old theme

I’m currently rebuilding a very old WordPress theme for a client/friend. It’s a labour of love and it’s taking longer than I would like. I’ve only built a few WordPress themes from scratch and most of that experience is through coursework. The main courses I’ve taken related to recent changes to WordPress are Brad Schiff’s Become a WordPress Developer-Unlocking Power With Code on Udemy and Fränk Klein’s Block Theme Academy course. I consult Carolina Nymark’s Full Site Editing website for tips on best practices for adding full site editing features to older, classic themes. I follow WordPress’s Developer Blog and advice from WP Engine experts as well.

There are many ways to handle an old theme and convert it to blocks or ensure it works with the block editor. I wish it were simpler and more straightforward, but if you’re in this situation, you’ll want an honest opinion, especially since WordPress is making big changes that could affect your theme if it’s an older one.

Do I recommend updating the code of an old WordPress theme? Yes and no. The no is because if the person who works with you is paid, it could cost a fortune. It’s a lot faster and easier to switch themes.

On the yes side, I can understand why your theme means a lot to you. If you love your theme’s design and familiarity the way you love an old sweater, try to choose someone who will do what they can to keep the spirit of your theme’s look. Your old theme might need a refresh because most likely it won’t be accessible or work on mobile. Keeping the essence of it is probably doable if you hire someone qualified.

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About the author
Stephanie O'Hanley is a former journalist turned web developer based in Greater Montreal. As a freelance journalist her work appeared in daily, alternative and community newspapers and digital publications. As a WordPress virtual assistant and developer, she builds websites, offers website support and maintenance, and writing and editing services. She enjoys helping nonprofit, individual, and small business clients in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada make their websites better.