How to update WordPress without breaking stuff

Andrea Ferguson

President at AndiSites Inc.
Andi is founder and President of AndiSites Inc. She writes about website design and development, best practices, and random stuff her busy brain thinks would be useful.
Andrea Ferguson

WordPress releases new versions regularly (around once a month or so) to increase security, add features, and respond to the ever-changing ways of the Internet. Plugin and theme authors (the good ones, anyway) release updates to work with the new WordPress versions, fix bugs, and improve functionality. Keeping your WordPress core and plugins up-to-date is vital to keeping your site secure and running well, but it needs to be done properly.  The “Update” links are mighty tempting and often work just fine, but having a solid procedure in place can reduce the likelihood of things going wrong. If you’re running your WordPress site on the default theme with only the plugins that came with it (Akismet and Hello Dolly), clicking “Update” should be fine.  If not (and that’s most of you), read on…

 

When Should You Update?

Update notices appear in real-time, but it’s not necessary…or even a good idea…to make updates as soon as the notice appears (except for security patches, which should be made right away).  We like to wait a few days to see if another update release comes in on the heels of a just-released one, and we watch the forums to see if core updates are causing problems for anyone. If all is well, we’ll schedule the update.  We usually do this monthly for our support plan clients, although if a release includes a security patch, we’ll update right away.

 

Back It All Up First.  And Know How to Restore It if You Need To.

Before you do anything, make a full backup of your site files and database, and know how to restore it if you need to. WordPress provides a link to their backup instructions on the update page, although they’re intended for folks with some development and server know-how. There are plugins available that will make backing up through WordPress easy, but keep in mind that restoring won’t be easy if your WordPress isn’t working.  Your host should have backups from last night (and if they don’t, change hosts…we recommend SiteGround for its nightly backups and easy restores); however, if you’ve changed anything on your site since then, you’ll need to use the backup tools provided in your host’s dashboard (cPanel, Backup Wizard, etc.) to make sure your backup is current. It’s also a good idea to temporarily deactivate any caching plugins you have on the site (W3 Total Cache, etc.) so that nothing interferes with the backup process.

 

Start with the Plugins

Plugins cause the most trouble since they come from different sources, and there may be some sketchy ones in there that don’t play nicely with others. Check the update details to see what’s changed, and if it’s compatible with the current version of WordPress…you’ll be updating that next. Then update the plugins one by one, checking each time to make sure that the site still works the way it should. The alternative is to mass update them one by one, then if something breaks disable them one by one to see when the issue goes away. Either method works, although for sites with fewer than a dozen or so plugins (which we recommend, since each plugin you add complicates your site code further) we prefer the update-them-one-by-one method.

 

Check for Theme Updates

Although it doesn’t happen nearly as often, theme providers will roll out updates (usually bug fixes) for their themes or frameworks.  That’s fine, but tread very carefully here. Depending on how and when your site was built, the design could break if you update a theme. If your site was built recently and your developer used a child theme, you’re probably safe. However, if your site is older, or if your developer hacked a theme they purchased from somewhere, updating the theme could overwrite their customizations. So ask your developer; otherwise, ask us–we’ll be happy to take a look behind the curtain for you.

 

Update the WordPress Core

Now you can do the easy part. Click the WordPress update link in the notice at the top of your dashboard, and follow the directions. Before you click the final Update button, make sure that you really and truly did back everything up…rolling back to a previous version of WordPress means installing it again (you can’t just copy back the files). Once you’ve verified your backup and the plugins and theme updates are complete, you can click the final Update button and let WordPress do its thing. NOTE:  Updating WordPress that’s more than two versions old could break stuff….it may be best to get professional help in this case.

 

Check Your Work

The most important and most-skipped step of WordPress updating:  Go back through the entire site, and make sure everything looks good and acts right. Obviously if you have a huge website you can’t go through every single page, but it’s worth the time now to go through the major sections and make sure pages still look the way they should and all components are displaying (sidebars, widgets, etc.). Make sure that forms, galleries, feeds, and other functions work. Make sure that nothing’s significantly slower, and that rollovers and dropdowns still work.

 

Celebrate Your Awesomeness

After a successful update your site will be as beautiful as it was before…just safer, faster, and better. But if something goes wrong, don’t fret–you can always restore your backup and try again. Or reach out to an AndiSites expert. We won’t judge, we promise. We do this all the time, and we’re here to help.  And if you’d rather not deal with it at all, we can help there, too. (Handing these tasks over to the professionals makes you no less awesome, by the way.  Besides, we probably don’t know how to do what you do!).

 

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