How to update WordPress

An update icon

WordPress is continually updated to reflect the latest and greatest features as well as important security updates. It is important to ensure that your own WordPress website has these updates.

So why update? Well, before we get into updates, we want to first talk about something very important.

Backing up your website before you update

Whenever an update occurs, generally, things go fine. But theres always a small chance when new code is introduced, that it may cause breaking changes to your site.

Breaking changes means, new code that conflicts or causes problem with pre existing code that was fine before.

Most of the time, the issue can be fixed.

But sometimes, that fix might take a little while. And if you are running a business and need to ensure your website is up and available for your customers, you're going to want to be able to roll back any changes you make right away.

That's why website back ups are so important.

The two most obvious ways a website can be backed up are

  • - By your website host

  • - By your web developer

It's pretty common for web hosting companies to have some kind of automatic backing up going on, but it's always a good idea to check.

If the website host is making regular back ups, this can save you a lot of grief.

The second way is to have your web developer manually go in and make back ups of your site. We would recommend to pursue the first option, via your web host, as this is usually automated so you won't run the risk of someone forgetting to manually back up your site, or if that person becomes unavailable to do it - eg they get sick.

If your web host has no way to be able to make automatic back ups, the next recommendation is to ask your web developer if they can set it up so that the web host CAN automatically back up the site.

This again will ensure a regular back up fail safe is in place.

Now that we have the impotant topic of backing up out of the way, it's time to talk about the different kind of updates you can expect to get from WordPress when they become available.

Don't try to update too many things at the same time

Before we get into what kind of things might be asking for an update it's important we also cover this topic as well.

If you have multiple things needing to be updated, we recommend doing them one by one, or in batches of two. The reason we say this is because sometimes there is a chance trying to update multiple things at once can cause a time out with your web server, or cause it to freeze.

When that happens, you might find the updates failing while putting itself into maintenance mode and staying that way until someone such as a web developer goes in to fix it (we cover this at the end of the article).

So, play it safe. Update one or two at a time and you should be good to go.

Security updates

As we've mentioned, most importantly there might be security updates from time to time. It's not uncommon in the website world for developers and security experts to find the occasional flaw, something that might not have been seen as a flaw before.

These are usually called zero day exploits. Zero meaning this is the first time someone's realised theres a loop hole that could allow someone to exploit a WordPress site and cause some unwanted damage such as being hacked.

Once the WordPress team are aware of any flaw or zero day exploit, they build measures into the WordPress framework to ensure it's no longer a hole in the security of the site.

It's not the only reason why the WordPress team push an update, but it's an important one.

So whenever someone who owns a WordPress site sees an update is available, and they click update, the site gains all of those newly built benefits.

Plugin updates

Plugins extend the functionality of a WordPress site. Think of them like add ons you can bolt onto the site.

These are often made by other developers or companies and they occasionally push their own updates to improve their plugin, either to give it better or newer features, improve the look or design, or to include the latest security patches that may need to be made.

Occasionally a plugin can conflict with a site so if you go to update a plugin, and it breaks your site, chances are it's something the plugin's new code has caused, in which case you may need to deactivate the plugin.

If you deactivate the plugin and the site returns to normal, its most likely the plugin was causing the problem.

For this reason, as we mentioned earlier in the article, its always a good idea to back up your website first before you run an update.

In a more recent update by the WordPress team, they gave website owners the option to opt in to automatic updates for plugins.

This means that rather than having to manually hit update yourself, whenever a new update is available, the WordPress site will schedule to run the update (eg in a couple of hours time etc).

If you have set up automatic website backups then you can safely set your plugins to automatically update if you wish.

It's important to note that automatic updates currently are only set for plugins. So you'll still need to ensure other kinds of updates like WordPress core updates or theme updates are manually accepted by yourself.

Theme updates

If you have a prebuilt theme made by a web designer specifically for your site, generally speaking you won't see any requests for updates for your site.

If you have other themes sitting on your site's system however (ones that you are not currently using) like the free generic themes offered by the WordPress team, they may from time to time tweak or change the design of the theme or make improvements.

When that happens you'll see a request to be updated.

If you're confident you don't need themes that you are not currently using, you can go ahead and delete those. Just be sure not to delete the theme you are currently using or delete anything that you may have paid for without first backing up a copy of it.

Actually doing an update

So how DOES one actually know when it's time to update a WordPress site? And how is it done?

We'll it's quite simple, you'll generally see two things in the administration panel of your WordPress site.

The first is a symbol in the form of two arrows encircling each other, kind of like a refresh icon at the very top near the left hand side of the page.

Image of a WordPress admin site showing an update is ready

The second and more noticeable indicator there is an update will be a red dot with a number to the side menu. The red dot indicates "hey something needs to be updated" and the number will usually reflect just how many things need an update.

Once you click on either that refresh looking icon at the very top, or the red circle badge with a number in it on the left hand side, you'll then be met with a screen where it will tell you what needs to be updated and a link you can click to make the update actually happen.

Once you click update, WordPress will do it's thing and run the update. Note, it may refresh the page and come back as done.

What happens if I update and it says it's in maintenance mode?

Occasionally when you go to update something on WordPress it will take you to a blank admin page with a notice that simply says "Briefly unavailable for scheduled maintenance. Check back in a minute"

Image of a WordPress screen showing its in maintenance mode

If you see that, don't panic. The purpose of this is to ensure that while it's updating it doesn't appear broken while it's in the middle of doing it's thing.

Assuming everything went fine, the message will dissapear and your website visitors will be able to surf the website as per normal.

However there can be some times where the maintenance message screen doesn't go away. And there could be a number of reasons why that's so. These include:

  • - The website hosting server is slow to respond or was somehow interupted unexpectantly

  • - You're trying to update too many things at once

  • - Low memory

  • - You've closed the browser before it had a chance to finish it's update

When that happens, we recommend getting in touch with your web developer so they can correct the problem. It's usually an easy fix.

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