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How to Update Your WordPress Website the Right Way

The software on your WordPress website has new updates every 1-4 weeks and you should update the website at least once a month on average.

Hi there! In today’s article we’re going to focus on how to update your WordPress website and more importantly – how to do it the right way.

Oftentimes people choose WordPress as a platform, because it gives you flexibility when creating your website. It’s been around for a pretty long time and there are a lot of developers working on the CMS, as well as plugins, themes and add-ons, which allow you to create and support your website without much technical knowledge. As much as we support this theory, we believe that there are a lot of plot holes, which could lead to your website breaking or even disappearing. I will stop blabbering now and get to explaining the inner workings of updating your website. If you’re interested in how to operate your WordPress website more professionally and securely, read on to find out.

Why it’s important to update your website regularly

There are a few very important and crucial reasons why you should keep your website up-to-date at all times. Let’s take a look at them:

 

1. Security threats

With updates, bug fixes and introduction to new functionalities, your website’s software might suffer from some soft spots for hacking. Nowadays, security has become one of the top priorities when creating websites and whenever an old version has become vulnerable to security breaches, it’s one of the first things the developers look into and fix with an upcoming update. So not updating your website might leave you with an unstable “hackable” version, which could then lead to your website being hacked. You can see in the software’s changelog what security threats are being fixed with the latest update.

2. Incompatibility issues

Sometimes your server might be updated and with it – your PHP version, database version, etc.. If you have older versions of WP, themes or plugins installed, they likely will not be compatible with the new PHP or database versions and this might lead to your website breaking, disappearing or malfunctioning in general. Fixing those issues takes a lot of time and testing – chances are high that you’re going to require developer help and the discovery time on its own is going to cost you quite a lot.

3. If you haven’t updated your website for a long time and then you suddenly update, you will be facing a lot of issues

This is generally a combination between the previous two points, with some salt added to the wound. If your website hasn’t been updated for a long time, be prepared for a lot of things to malfunction and/or break.There may be a lot of plugins/themes that are no longer being supported and not compatible with new WP/PHP versions. After the damage is done, you will likely need professional help with fixing these issues, which is going to come at a high cost.

Furthermore, if you simultaneously update a lot of softwares, without spending hours of research prior to that in order to determine if you’re going to face compatibility issues, the problems may be even bigger, which, again, will result in you having to hire a developer. And this is going to cost you many times more than updating regularly or even better – subscribing for a monthly support service.

Overall, keeping your website up-to-date is a much bigger task than you may think. If you’ve decided to support your own website, be prepared to spend hours each time, reading through software documentation, changelogs, researching probable compatibility issues and in the end – possibly still having to hire a developer and spend a lot of money for them to fix the issues that have arisen.

The good thing is that we have a solution to your problems. We have come up with a monthly support package, which covers all of your website’s updates and in the pro version you even get extra hours for us to work on any design or content changes that you require. Read more on our page and if you’re interested, contact us to discuss more about it.

 

Get support. Now.

Contact us now and sleep well tomorrow.

Introduction

To begin with, I’d like to say that you should always check your website on different browsers and devices before updating. Sometimes there may be a problem present prior to any updates and it’s good to have pinpointed it beforehand, so you know it’s not derived from an update. After that, determine whether it’s a design mistake you’ve made or a bug from some functionality you’re already using. If it’s an error that comes from a plugin, theme or WordPress, check if there’s any information in the changelog or support forums about fixing this issue. Either way, you’ll be prepared and won’t have to spend hours afterwards wondering which update created the problem. Make sure you stop your caching plugins before you start the update, too.

Read more about caching: Why is Your Website Slow?

The second thing worth mentioning is WordPress’s automatic updates, which were first introduced back in 2013 with WP 3.7. With WP 5.5 came even bigger changes and you are now able to set your plugins to be automatically updated when there’s a new release. Furthermore, some hosting providers push WordPress updates to be performed automatically – we suggest talking to your hosting provider to find out whether this is the case and then decide if it suits you. In theory it sounds very fresh and easy, but in practice that is not always the case. It’s a very cool feature security-wise, because keeping your website up-to-date at all times prevents hacker attacks, which are often related to old software. However, if you set all your plugins to update automatically, the new release may come with new problems and you may not even notice that your website’s spewing errors because of this. The truth is that you should find the middle ground, which is taking the time to update your website regularly. If this is not your main responsibility and you’re only supporting your website out of necessity, we’ve found that performing updates once a month on average should be enough to keep your website secure and up-to-date.

 

And last but not least – most of you have probably updated your website’s software only through the admin panel (dashboard). As much as this is the more convenient and beginner-friendly way to do it, the better way to perform your website’s updates is through FTP. In this article I won’t put a focus on working with FTP, but if you’re interested, there are numerous good articles available online. This is the preferred way for developers to do it, because:

  • you have more control over what you’re doing – which files and folders you’re deleting, overriding or changing in general;
  • it happens much faster;
  • you can create an archive of the old files and be able to use it, in case the new versions contain any bugs;
  • it’s also going to be required if your website breaks and you cannot access the dashboard, so either way it’s a good topic to read more about.

1. Backups

We’re already talked about backing up your website and how important it is when performing a risky operation. A backup is a copy of a previous saved version of your website’s files that can be restored in case something bad happens after you perform an update or make other changes. We always advise our clients that performing a backup should be the first thing they do before updating their website. For this purpose, we use the free version of UpdraftPlus and this is the plugin we set up for our clients as well.

Read more about caching: Why is Your Website Slow?

So, we should always begin with performing a backup of our website. If you haven’t updated your website in a while, you might want to download the backup files locally on your computer, in case your website breaks and you can’t access the WP admin. Furthermore, depending on your hosting provider, you may be able to restore a hosting backup for free as well. This could be used in case you get an Internal server error or Fatal error on your website and cannot access the admin panel.

Always perform a backup before updating your website.

Manage WP updates from WP admin -> About WordPress button (top left corner in the dashboard)

2. Updating WordPress

Generally, before making any updates to your website, make sure you read through the software’s update documentation (changelog). This is a list оf changes and bugs that the update fixes, which is compiled by its developers. It would look something like this:

Example of a changelog – Elementor

It may include some functionalities that are going to be changing with the update, or even – getting deprecated (“discontinued”). You should be keeping yourself updated, because one of these functionalities may be a very important part of your website and learning about it before updating gives you time to research and think things through to find a solution, without breaking your website.

A piece of advice: oftentimes when there is a huge WP version update (say, 5.6.4 to 5.7), the new version comes with tons of changes that you should be really careful about. These versions are sometimes not tested enough and come with bugs that you cannot predict. If you have subscribed to our newsletter, when we see a huge potential for bugs with the new version, we send an email to our audience and warn them that updating might break their websites. If you can, we advise you to only update when there is a one-up to the new version. Ex. you are currently using WP 5.6.4 and WP 5.7 is launched. You don’t update your website until there is 5.7.1, because that’s usually where any initial bugs are fixed and you may experience way less problems. Basically this allows the developers to test the new version with lots of people and receive feedback, fix the problems that arise and come up with specific solutions. If you’ve been using WordPress for a while, you may have noticed that when there’s a major update, the next version update follows pretty soon and this is usually one of the reasons why. Have in mind that this is only a suggestion and not a rule. It has worked for us so far, but in the end it’s up to you to read the changelog, put things up on a scale and decide for yourself at what point you should update your WP version.

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In general, before you update your WP version, you would want to check all of the used plugins and themes and see if their versions have been tested and are compatible with the new WordPress. If there isn’t an official statement yet, you can search different forums or specialized groups for the specific plugin/theme and see if people have complained. As always, unless clearly stated that everything’s compatible, update at your own risk 😉

Before updating your WordPress version, make sure all your plugins and themes have been tested and are compatible with it.

Manage your themes from WP admin -> Appearance -> Themes

3. Updating your WordPress theme

Similar to updating WordPress, when updating your theme you should read through the update documentation and see what the developers are changing. Updates of different softwares’ versions are often tied together, so you may expect a theme update after a WordPress one (at least for bigger and more drastic updates). We suggest putting WP updating on hold, until there is a safe and tested version of your theme with the new WP version. This can be checked in the theme’s documentation – it says which version of WP the theme has been tested up to.

You should also check your plugins and especially ones that are specifically created for your theme, and make sure that they are compatible with the new theme version.

More things to have in mind when updating your theme:

1. Are you using a child theme?

Let’s start with what a child theme is:

A child theme inherits the look and feel of the parent theme and all of its functions, but can be used to make modifications to any part of the theme. In this way, customizations are kept separate from the parent theme’s files. Using a child theme lets you upgrade the parent theme without affecting the customizations you’ve made to your site.

- "Child Themes”, developer.wordpress.org

If someone else has created your website, you can check if you’re using a child theme by navigating to WP admin -> Appearance -> Themes and seeing what theme is currently active. If there’s a child theme, it’s usually the one active and next to it you’ll see the parent theme – inactive.

Child and parent theme in the admin panel

If you’re using a child theme – that’s the better case scenario :D. What a theme update does is it overrides the old version’s files and replaces them with the new ones. If you’ve made any modifications to your theme’s files (including setting your typography and color styles in the customizer), they will be deleted, unless you have a child theme active.

If you’re not using a child theme, here are a couple of things you have to consider before updating:
  • Export your customizer settings. You can look for an Import/Export Customizer Settings plugin that works with your theme. After performing the update, your website will be back to default settings, but you can import the customizer settings and get everything back to normal.
  • Export all files you have made modifications to and add them again when the theme is updated. To be honest, this is a very, very risky operation and chances are you’re going to lose a lot of custom functionalities, or at least require a developer to fix them to work with the new theme version. We’ve had a similar case and created a custom plugin that places those files back in place after an update. It’s not a safe bet and things could go wrong, but it’s one way to deal with the problem.

However, we want to emphasize that this is not something simple to do and it’s not guaranteed to work flawlessly. If you’re not using a child theme and want to update your website, we strongly suggest contacting a developer and discussing with them what the best way to handle things is.

We advise you to always use a child theme, especially if you’re going to be implementing any customizations to your theme’s files.

2. Make sure your PHP version is compatible with the new theme version

Every theme version has a list of requirements that you have to meet in order for your website to work smoothly. To prevent your website from breaking or giving errors, check the new version’s requirements and make sure you update your PHP version and server environment to fit them.

3. Check what PHP memory limit is required and see if your setting fits

Your website requires a certain amount of memory to be able to operate smoothly. When you create a new WordPress installation, it’s going to be a default value, based on your hosting provider. With themes expanding their capabilities, it’s only natural that they’re going to require a bigger memory limit in order to function properly. The good thing is that this is unlikely to completely break your website, but it’s very likely it will cause some malfunctions.

4. Check if you have all necessary modules enables

Again, your WordPress installation comes with some default modules enabled, but with updates and expansion of functionalities, new ones are created and are going to be required, for example imagick.

The good thing, again, is that missing a module may not necessarily break your website, but it may cause some functionalities not to work properly.

If you’re not sure if you’re missing anything – you can check your website’s performance and issues under Tools -> Site health. While it may sometimes sound like “bla-bla-bla”, pay attention to the suggestions and upgrade your website accordingly.

Manage your plugins from WP admin -> Plugins

4. Updating your plugins

Take a shot every time I say this, but seriously – check each plugin’s update documentation and see the changes it introduces. Plugins are a source of functionality to your website, so you would want to especially check in detail what the new version has to offer, because sometimes the developers might deprecate a function that’s very essential to your website and if you update it – you will be left hanging. If this feature is getting deprecated, there most likely is a good reason behind it, but at least it gives you time to do your research and find a solution instead of updating and crashing your website.

Other than that, we’ve already pretty much covered every other thing you should have in mind when updating your website, but let’s summarize:

  1. Make sure you read through the update documentation of each plugin and understand what is going to change and whether it’s going to affect your website negatively.
  2. Make sure the plugin/s you are about to update are compatible with your WP version and theme version and also make sure that they’re compatible with one another.
  3. Make sure you’re using the required PHP version & server environment.
  4. Make sure you’re using the required database version.
  5. Make sure you haven’t done any customization in your plugin’s files. If you have – it’s best to turn to whoever has made the customization and consider what could be done, so that you don’t lose any added functionalities. Again, updating your plugin replaces the old files with the new ones and you will lose any custom modifications.

5. Ways to troubleshoot problems after an update

To begin with, I’d like to say that it’s best to clear your website and server cache and test the website (at least overall) after each update you perform. Update plugin A, test, update plugin B, test, update theme, test, etc.. This way you are going to be able to determine what exactly caused the problem. If you bulk update everything, in the end you may not know exactly where the issue came from and there are going to be many more steps to go through.

Read more about caching: Why is Your Website Slow?

Another thing you would want to do is test your website on different browsers and devices. It is not always required for a bug to appear on all devices and on all browsers

If you’ve been impatient, bulk updated everything and there’s an issue now, don’t worry yet 😉 There are a few ways you can handle this:

1. If it’s something small – you can try modifying your settings or writing a bit of code to secure things, at least for a while. Please have in mind that oftentimes this is the bare minimum and you’re not fixing, but rather patching things up. If this turns out to be the case, we suggest contacting your hosting provider, theme or plugin support and explaining in detail exactly what you’ve done and under what circumstances the problem occurred.

2. If it’s something big and you cannot solve the issue – remember the backup we talked about? Yes, you can go ahead and restore it now. Then, go back, read the updates documentation thoroughly and you’ll likely be able to determine what caused the problem and work on solving it. If you’re unable to pinpoint the perpetrator, search support forums and groups related to WordPress, to your theme or a specific plugin you’re using. You will find that when people come across a problem, they often post about it in such groups hoping that someone may have found a solution. If there hasn’t been a similar issue reported – you can start a new thread. The WordPress community is great and more often than not, very, very helpful 🙂 But please have in mind to be positive, report explicitly and don’t expect wonders. A part of the people in such groups are WordPress enthusiasts, such as yourself, and may not have the technical expertise to be entirely helpful. Another part are the WordPress developers that might be able to help, but they would require your inquiry to be as detailed as possible to help:

  • explain where/what the problem is and include screenshots;
  • trace your steps back and explain when the problem happened and under what circumstances – after which update it occurred and if there are only some particular use cases when it’s visible;
  • include the browser or browsers that the problem is visible on and the device you’re seeing it on (a specific type of mobile, tablet or desktop device, etc.).

3. If it’s something bigger and you can’t even access your dashboard – make sure to enable debugging in WordPress, here is an article that suggests how you can do it: How to Enable Debugging in WordPress. After that, you’re going to be able to see what causes the problem and take it from there. If you’re panicking and want your website live now – restore a backup from your hosting. Some hosting providers create and store them for free with your plan and you’re able to restore them yourself, with some it’s a paid service and others don’t have it at all. We suggest you check with your hosting provider and plan. Either way, don’t panic too much, because one way or the other, your problem is going to be fixed, there are very few things that are absolutely irreversible with software technologies 🙂

If you can’t deal with the problems – you can contact us for further assistance.

To conclude, let me list again the top 3 problems that could come up if you don’t regularly update your website:
Security threats
Incompatibility issues
If you haven’t updated your website for a long time and then you suddenly update, you might face quite a few unexpected issues

Whew, that was a lot of information! 😀 If you think it’s a lot to handle and that you’re not going to be able to do it yourself, we have got you covered 😉 At Webdesh we offer monthly website support and all of our packages cover the things we’ve just gone through in this article. You can sleep well and leave everything to us by subscribing to our monthly service. Read more on our page and contact us if you’re interested.

Get support. Now.

Contact us now and sleep well tomorrow.

Well, after a pretty long run, we’re officially done and able to update our website the proper way 🙂 I really hope this article is useful to you and will help you with supporting your website. If you have any questions or comments – don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and let’s discuss. Happy reading and talk to you soon!

Who wrote this article

Learn more about the author

Mirela Vaseva

Website Creator & Head of QA

/ IT, Software Engineering student 💻
/ good music,  horror films, detective novels and delectable food 👌
/ youtube videos junkie
/ cats, dogs (animals in general), nature, water lover 🐱

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