The difference between manual and 'automated' Shopify theme updates

by Michael P. Hill

The difference between manual and 'automated' Shopify theme updates

For many Shopify store owners, the mere mention of the phrase “Shopify theme update” may cause a minor panic — but what exactly are theme updates, what’s the difference between “automated” and manual ones and how can you make them more manageable?

To understand what a Shopify theme update is, it’s important to understand that Shopify themes are essentially a bundle of files with fancy (and intimidating) names such as Liquid, CSS and JSON.

I won’t get into the technical details about them, but these files ultimately all work together to control how a Shopify store looks and operates.

Keeping your theme up to date is vital to not only have your store running smoothly but also gain access to new features.

Shopify theme version number

If you’ve purchased a Shopify theme from a developer, you’ll most often notice that there are version numbers at the top of the styles.scss.liquid file. This number increases as new versions are published and is a way of tracking which release of the code you’re using.

Most theme developers use a “decimal style” approach to numbering versions. So, the first time a theme is released to the public, it’s typically 1.0 (which is read as “one point oh” or “one point zero”).

It’s not uncommon for a version to be released shortly after that includes code changes to address minor issues discovered since the initial release, which is typically numbered by increasing the first decimal place by one digit, or 1.1 (read as “one point one”).

Some theme developers will then release future minor updates using two decimal places, such as 1.1.1 (“one point one point one”) and only increase the first decimal point when a more major theme update is released — such as 1.2.

The first digit of the version number generally increases when significant new features or code changes are made — meaning the theme graduates to 2.0 or whatever the next number in line is.

While this is a simple structure to version numbering, there are all sorts of methodologies and approaches that other theme developers may have.

Manual Shopify theme updates

By default, the Shopify platform does not support “automatic” or “automated” updates of Shopify themes.

This is often surprising to new Shopify users who have come from platforms such as WordPress that have built-in update features.

However, the core Shopify platform and admin doesn't need to be “updated” by the store owner. Shopify takes care of that behind the scenes and, while new features are often introduced when these updates are made, many other updates may not be as noticeable.

When it comes to updating a Shopify theme, you essentially have to install it from scratch.

If you purchase your theme through the official Shopify theme store, you’ll be notified that a new version is available — but “updating” will install a “fresh” copy of the theme in an unpublished state on your store.

While some basic information, such as your store name, collections, and product names will appear in this version if you preview it using the “actions” menu for the unpublished version, you’ll likely notice that your theme is in its default state.

In most cases, you’ll need to go through and manually select options such as fonts and other settings within the theme editor under “customize” — as well as rebuild any sections.

That’s because Shopify isn’t designed to carry over these settings and configurations — and, by default, there’s no workaround to this other than manually going through and updating the settings one by one.

It’s also worth noting that if you or a developer made customizations to the theme code, they will have to be manually transferred over to the updated version. Since the theme code may have changed in the update, the developer’s customizations may need to be adjusted.

‘Automated’ Shopify theme updates

Automated Shopify theme updates aren’t supported natively by Shopify itself — but Out of the Sandbox and Pixel Union have partnered to offer the first and only tool that can do most of the heavy lifting to update Shopify themes.

This app is designed to help remove the need to reset your store settings, sections, and fonts every time you update.

The Shopify Theme Updater app is a huge step forward and time saver for Out of the Sandbox and Pixel Union theme users.

While the app is designed to handle as much updating as possible, it does have some limitations, but these typically only apply when advanced development work has been done.

If you’ve created additional files such as multiple page.details templates, the file will be carried over but not updated. In most cases, this will only cause issues if the default page.details template has been changed.

Complex code additions and changes may not be carried over. In these cases, the app will attempt to complete the update without these changes, but the store owner would need to manually move the code changes over and test it against the new theme code provided by the developer.

Although it can be frustrating to have to make some of these changes, for most stores, the Shopify Theme Updater app can take care of the majority of the work involved in updating a Shopify theme.

In cases where it can’t process some areas of your store, the app often will still complete the rest of the update for you, which at least minimizes the amount of time you have to spend getting the new version ready to roll.

You can also subscribe to the Theme Updater “pro plan”, which will generate a color-coded, side-by-side comparison of the code that was not able to be moved over automatically.

The app also typically transfers the general theme settings — such as fonts and colors — so even if it can’t automatically update the entire theme, you still save time from having to update basic settings.

If a new feature or setting is introduced in the updated theme version, it can’t be “updated” since it didn’t exist before, so you may still need to run through the “customize” area and check that all settings are good to go.

More infrequently, a behind-the-scenes code change may involve how a particular setting is displayed or formatted, which can require you to make a quick setting update under “customize.”

Important Shopify Theme Updater tips

While the Theme Updater App creates a new, unpublished theme on your store, just like how a manual update does, the code will, in most cases, be updated to match your existing settings or code changes.

The app does “scan” your existing theme code, but it does not make any changes to the old version.

This is by design — and allows you the opportunity to preview the new version of the theme and test it thoroughly before making it live. This step is vital to the Shopify theme updating process and should never be skipped!

If, however, you do notice that the new version has an issue, you can always revert back to the previous version temporarily.

The Theme Updater app does a great job at automating the updating process as much as possible but, it's always a good idea to check out the updated theme before publishing it live as some human intervention may still be required.

Michael P. Hill
Michael P. Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn. While comments and feedback are always appreciated, Michael regrets that, due to the volume of inquires received, personal responses are not possible. For specific assistance or support with Out of the Sandbox themes, visit the help center.