So what should you do when you log in to your WordPress site and are asked to update to the latest version? The answer is update, of course!* Updated versions of WordPress patch security flaws, fix known bugs and add extra functionality.
But not so fast – while the update process is really very simple, there are a few important steps you should follow along the way to avoid potential issues.
Follow this simple guide for an (almost) foolproof way to stay up-to-date.
This is the most important step! By backing up your entire site before you update, you ensure that you can restore the site to a working state in case anything does go wrong. While problems updating are rare with recent WordPress versions, every WordPress install is different – different theme, different plugins, different server – so you can never be too careful.
There are a bunch of great WordPress backup plugins out there. If you already have one installed that you are comfortable with, use that. If you are confident using CPanel or DirectAdmin or the chosen backend of your web hosting, you can also backup from there.
In the past I have used the UpdraftPlus Wordpress plugin. This backup plugin has a ton of features and great support. I have had issues getting it to work correctly on some hosts though, so I now use BackWPup. This plugin is simple-to-use and has worked on all sites I have installed it on so far. It allows you to schedule automatic backups and I love the ability to backup directly to a Dropbox folder (UpdraftPlus and others can do this too).
Ideally you should backup everything – this includes the WordPress database and all files. By default BackWPup doesn’t include the plugins folder (presumably because they can all be downloaded again from the original source), but given that the plugin folder is usually relatively small, I suggest enabling this option. Detailed instructions for configuration and use can be found on your chosen backup plugin’s help pages.
Whichever backup method you choose, the importance of this step can’t be stressed enough. Do not proceed to step 2 until you have completed this step!
(It is in fact a good idea to perform a full backup any time you make changes of any kind to your site – before and after. You can never have too many backups. You can never backup too often.)
2. UPDATE ALL PLUGINS
Before updating the core WordPress code, it pays to update all your plugins first to reduce the chance of conflicts or incompatibilities. The easiest way to do this is to go to the ‘Updates’ section of the Dashboard, select all listed plugins and click ‘Update’. You can also achieve the same result from the ‘Plugins’ page by selecting just those plugins marked as having an update available, choosing ‘Update’ from the ‘Bulk Actions’ drop down menu, and then clicking the ‘Apply’ button.
Unless specifically instructed by your web developer, ignore any available theme updates for now. While ideally your theme files should be kept up-to-date too, frequently theme files are customised during development and updating your theme will overwrite these changes and likely make a mess of your site. Ideally theme customisation should be done using child themes, but this is often not the case.
3. DEACTIVATE ALL PLUGINS
Occasionally active plugins can cause hiccups with the WordPress update process. You should temporarily deactivate them all from the ‘Plugins’ page.
If you already have some plugins in the list deactivated, make a note of which ones are currently active and not active (I find it easiest to simply snap a picture of the screen with my mobile phone).
Select all plugins, choose ‘Deactivate’ from the ‘Bulk Actions’ dropdown menu and then click ‘Apply’. When the page reloads, the entire plugin list should be greyed-out, indicating they have all been made inactive.
4. UPDATE WORDPRESS
You are now ready to update WordPress!
Navigate to the ‘Dashboard’ section and select ‘Updates’. If there is a newer version of WordPress available you will see the words “An updated version of WordPress is available” with two buttons underneath it.
Click the ‘Update Now’ button. WordPress will first place your site in a temporary ‘Maintenance Mode’. It will then download the new code, install it and update the database (if necessary). Within a few seconds (depending on the speed of your server) you should see a page confirming your new WordPress version and detailing the newest WordPress features.
5. REACTIVATE PLUGINS
This process is virtually the same as the one for deactivating the plugins you performed earlier. Navigate back to the ‘Plugins’ section, select all plugins (or just the active ones on the list you made earlier in step 3), choose ‘Activate’ from the ‘Bulk Actions’ drop down menu and click ‘Apply’. Once the page reloads, the selected plugins will no longer appear greyed-out, indicating they are active once again.
6. CHECK THE SITE IS WORKING CORRECTLY
Open a new tab in your web browser and load up your site. Click through a few pages, add something to the shopping cart (if an e-commerce site) and test any other functions specific to your site. Chances are everything will be fine – if so, proceed to the next step. If you notice any issues, time to troubleshoot or restore from the backup you made earlier.
7. BACKUP AGAIN
Now that you have successfully completed all the hard work of updating your WordPress-powered website and confirmed that everything is OK, create another backup! Ideally you should create a new, separate backup file, rather than overwrite the one you made earlier. It’s always a good idea to hang on to a few older backups in addition to the latest one – anywhere from 3 – 10 versions is good, depending on available storage space.
8. HAVE A CUP OF TEA AND WRITE A BLOG POST
While you are logged in, why not take the opportunity to add some content or spruce up your site?
Then, you can sit back and relax knowing your WordPress site is as safe, stable and feature-filled as it can be – until the next update is released!
*You should confirm with your website developer that it is OK to update the WordPress code on your site. While it is generally considered bad practice to modify the core WordPress code, some developers still do it and by updating it you could overwrite these changes and render your site broken and/or unusable.
Furthermore, while every effort has been made to make this guide as accurate as possible and most WordPress updates go off without a hitch, as noted above, every WordPress installation is different and a small number may experience problems after updating using this (or any other) method. Therefore I take no responsibility if you hose your site! (Hopefully you followed step 1 and have a backup – in which case, relax, you have nothing to worry about!)