You can customize your site.
You can save your changes.
But when you visit your site, the changes won’t show up.
This is a very common issue and it’s almost always due to caching.
Here’s how to fix it.
How to force design updates to display
As I mentioned in the intro, the issue revolves around caching.
There are up to four different levels of caching that need to be addressed, so let’s walk through the steps now.
Clear your browser’s cache
If you can’t see the changes you’re making then the issue might be browser caching.
To test this assumption, visit your website and do a hard refresh which will force the browser to load an uncached copy of the page.
- If you’re on a Windows computer, press ctrl+F5
- For Macs using Chrome or Firefox, press cmd+shift+r
- For Safari users, press option+cmd+e
If this works then it means an older copy of the page was cached in your browser, and your site should be displaying as expected now.
Clear your site’s cache with a plugin
If you don’t use any caching plugins you can skip this step.
Caching plugins are almost always the source of this issue.
A clear indicator that caching plugins are to blame is when you can see your changes when logged in, but not when logged out.
If you have a plugin like WP Super Cache, WP Rocket, W3 Total Cache, or any other caching plugin, then use its built-in option to empty the cache.
There should be a single button you can click to empty the cache, like this one in WP Super Cache.
Once you clear the cache, a quick way to see if it worked is to open a private browser tab and visit your website. This is faster than logging in and out. If you can see your design changes in the private browser window then the problem is solved.
If you log out of your site and still don’t see your changes, try clearing your browser cache again using the shortcuts listed above.
If you still haven’t made any progress, this means you could be viewing cached files from your CDN.
Clear the CDN cache
If you don’t use a CDN you can skip this step.
If you use a CDN like MaxCDN or Cloudflare, it’s possible that your browser and site caches have been cleared, but the CDN cache is still serving an outdated copy of the site.
You should have a simple option somewhere in your CDN’s admin dashboard where you can clear the cache. For example, Cloudflare has these buttons to empty the cache:
In order to get this to work, you might need to clear your CDN cache, then clear your site’s cache with a plugin, and then clear the browser’s cache, in that order.
If you try this and still don’t see your changes, try this last step.
Check your host for caching options
Lots of hosting companies these days include their own caching options. It’s possible that you signed up unaware of this and that’s why you can’t find the source of the caching.
There are lots of hosting companies, so I can’t provide an exact location for this option, but you should login to your hosting account and do a quick scan for any caching options.
Some hosts, like Kinsta, will place a cache clearing option right into the WP admin dashboard.
I know that Bluehost also has a caching feature, and you can purge the cache with this option in the admin toolbar:
There are hundreds of web hosts for WordPress, so I can’t provide screenshots for them all, but check with your hosting company to see if they have a caching feature that is preventing your new updates from showing up.
Reviewing the steps
To summarize the steps, here’s what you can do to get your changes to show up on your WordPress site:
- Clear your CDN’s cache
- Empty your site’s cache with your host’s caching feature
- Empty your site’s cache with your caching plugin
- Clear your browser’s cache
Running through these steps in this order should work every time you need to get a design update to display on the front-end of your site.
Why does this even happen?
I skipped an explanation of the underlying mechanics of this problem so you could find the solution right away, but if you don’t want to repeat the same mistakes, here’s some more info.
What is the point of caching?
Websites use caching because it dramatically improves load times. Simply put, caching saves a copy of your site and delivers that copy to visitors.
As an example, I could ask you, “what is 59×59,” and you would have to use a calculator to generate an answer. You’d run a process to find the answer is 3,481. If I asked you the same question right after, you could immediately tell me the answer is 3,481 without running the calculation process again because you saved that number in your memory.
Caching uses a saved copy of your site so that it doesn’t have to run the original process required to generate the site every time someone visits. That would be like using a calculator to solve the same equation over and over again instead of restating it immediately from memory.
Running with that analogy, when you customize your website, it’s like changing the calculation to something else, like 33×59, for instance. The cache keeps using the saved answer which is 3,481 instead of the new answer. All you have to do is empty the cache and it will run the process from the start, get the right answer, and then save (cache) that new answer.
Caching is hugely annoying when you don’t understand this underlying concept, but it works very reliably once this is understood.
Why did it only affect me?
If you could see your new changes but your visitors couldn’t, it’s because you were logged in. Caching plugins almost never load the cached version of the site for WordPress users that are logged in.
The cached version of your site isn’t loaded for you as the admin so you can see everything up-to-date all the time. Otherwise, it could be extremely confusing and problematic, especially inside the dashboard. Of course, this does cause other issues like the one that brought you to this post today.
Do I have to clear my cache after every change I make?
Not exactly. It depends on what you’ve changed.
In general, anything you change within the post editor won’t be an issue. For example, if you update a post with some new text and images, you won’t need to clear your cache for those edits to appear.
This is true because most caching plugins understand how WordPress works. When you update a post, the plugin will clear the cache for that post so the updates can appear.
On the other hand, when you make changes via the Live Customizer, you will likely need to clear your cache.
Additionally, if you add or remove any plugins from your site, or change themes, you will also need to clear your cache to display these updates.
Preventing further issues & annoyances
This article has gotten longer than I intended, so let me close with one parting thought.
Now that you understand how caching works and why websites use caching in the first place, you’ll be unfazed by this issue in the future.
But what about the next error? How can you avoid the frustration and frantic Google-ing that comes with a brand new WordPress issue?
I put together a very detailed guide to solve this exact problem:
In that post, you’ll find 11 steps you can take to avoid confusing and time-consuming issues on your website. The first two steps, in particular, can make a massive difference in the reliability of your website.
I hope this guide helped you get your site back online, and make sure to share this post if you think it could help someone else.