Updating WordPress can be a daunting task, especially if you are not a confident WordPress user. There is always that slim chance that something could go wrong. In this blog post, I’ll go through some important steps that will enable you to update your plugins and themes with confidence.

What needs updating?

There are three main types of updates in WordPress:

  • WordPress Core Updates
  • Theme Updates
  • Plugin Updates

The WordPress core updates are updates to the WordPress platform. These are created and released by WordPress. Updates for themes and plugins come from the developers who created them.

Why do they need updating?

There are a few reasons to stay on top of outstanding updates. The main reason by far is security. Updates are the only way developers can fix known security vulnerabilities. When a hacker finds out about a vulnerability in a specific version of the theme or plugin, they will crawl the web looking for sites running that version.

Another good reason is reliability. Most of the time, updates contain bug fixes. These bugs could be hindering the performance of your site (or worse). The longer you ignore the updates, the more chance there is of you hitting issues when you eventually do try to update your site.

Lastly, you may be missing out on new functionality. Developers are continually adding new features to their software to stay on top of the competition. By not applying updates, you miss out on new features.

Take a backup

The most crucial bit of advice I can give is to take a backup of your site before applying any updates. Having a backup means you can undo the update, restoring the working version of your website should something go wrong.

If you don’t have a backup system in place, you may find your hosting includes some form of backup provision. Your host should be able to tell you what they have and how to use it.

A far more straight forward option is to use a backup plugin that is under your control. There are a few good backup plugins available, many of which are free or have free versions.

When using a backup plugin, it is best to send backups to some form of remote storage. If you end up getting locked out of your WordPress website, you won’t have access to the backup plugin to restore your site. Being able to quickly and easily access your backup files from somewhere else will make it far easier to get the site back up and running.

My personal favourite backup plugin is Updraft Plus. It is user friendly and has plenty of options to configure it to your needs. You can also connect it to a range of remote file storage services such as dropbox or Google Drive. The premium version of Updraft Plus includes the ability to trigger a backup when you click the update button.

Check the new version number

When updating WordPress, a plugin or theme, it can be helpful to check the new version number before you run the update. Version numbers are typically structured so you can easily see if the update is going to be relatively minor, or if it is something more substantial.

Version numbers usually contain two or more numbers joined together by decimal points. The first number is the major version, while subsequent numbers are subversions. If a plugin says it is version 8.15.7, it means this is the eighth major version of that plugin. The 15 is saying this is the fifteenth update to version eight. The last number is saying there have been seven patches to the fifteenth update of version eight. If you find there is an update to version 8.16.0, you can be confident that it will be a relatively minor update. If there is an update to version 9.0.0, it is likely to be quite a significant change, and you might want to be a little more cautious.

Check online for other people who have already updated.

If you are in any way unsure about an update, there are places you can go to check out an update before you apply it. Love it or loath it, twitter can be a great place to find out if anyone else is having issues with the new version of a plugin or theme. Related support forums are also an excellent place to scope out potential problems.

Pick a good time

It is crucial to pick a good time to run outstanding updates. If something does go wrong, you will need the time to rectify the issue. The last thing you want is to accidentally take your website down just as you are about to head into a meeting or disappear on holiday.

Applying the updates

There are a few ways to run updates. If you navigate to the plugins or themes section within WordPress, you can update individual plugins and themes, one at a time. Alternatively, there is an updates screen found under the dashboard section. Here you will see a list of all outstanding updates which you can apply at the same time.

The update process can take a minute or two (depending on how many there are). WordPress has to download the updates before running them on your site. Updates to the WordPress core will take your website offline, but it should come back again once it’s finished. While your site is down, it will display a short maintenance message.

Checking the functionality of your site after updating

Once the website has finished updating, it is a good idea to test it to make sure everything is still working as expected. In most cases, a quick visual check is probably all that is needed. If a plugin contained a major update, you might want to check the functionality that plugin provides.

If you have a larger or more complex site, it might be helpful to create a test plan. A test plan is essentially a list of things to test and how they should be tested. A test plan will ensure your testing is thorough. Test plans also enable you to delegate testing to someone else.

What to do if something goes wrong

If something does go wrong, and you don’t know how to fix it, you will need to restore a backup from before the update. Restoring the site from a backup will resolve the immediate issue, but does not fix the underlying problem. You will still need to address the issue that caused the update to fail.

Look online to see if anyone else had similar issues. With a bit of luck, they may also explain how to fix it. In some cases, there may be a bug with the update, and you have to wait for another update to be released.

Finally, you may need to hire a WordPress expert who can assist you further. There are many potential causes for update errors, and an experienced WordPress specialist will be able to investigate them in more depth.