If you’ve been tasked with keeping your website up to date and are looking for a starting point, then here are some general tips that will help you develop good habits. However we would strongly recommend getting some help from a friend the first couple of times.
WordPress Security vs Functionality Updates
When an update for the core of WordPress comes, there are two types: security and functionality updates.
The security updates typically don’t affect how things look or work, just patch a potential hole and these tend to be automatically applied. These updates however don’t address theme or plugin security issues.
Functionality updates can be more wide-ranging: both adding new functions; and removing some ‘older’ ones (software moves fast, so 3 years is considered ‘old’). This can cause issues with both the new functionality conflicting with something already on your website; or your website being dependent on an ‘older’ function.
How to update WordPress and Plugins
As an anology, think of WordPress like the chassis and engine of a car, and the plugins are everything ontop of that (like the stereo, air conditioning). Finally the interior and exterior look of the car is the theme.
If you update the chassis and engine you want to make sure all the parts attached to that still work. In most cases it does, but sometimes things break.
The key is that the plugin makers need time to update things so it will to connect back to the WordPress chassis. Otherwise updating WordPress can result in a brand new chassis but nothing fits on it, hence hitting ‘update’ as soon as one is launched is usually a bad plan.
So, if WordPress has a functionality update it’s important to check the plugins have also been updated to fit, otherwise you can end up with a WordPress update knocking out a plugin, like your events calendar. Perhaps the event calendar isn’t so important, but probably knocking out online payments is.
Ontop of this the theme/look also needs time to be updated so it fits over all the parts and underlying chassis. In some cases theme’s also require specific plugins to work or integrate some into how they are built, which muddies the waters a bit.
Backup Files & Database
As a general rule, if you don’t back things up then you’re asking for trouble. That is, you need to backup both the theme, content and also the database which powers WordPress.
Hopefully your hosting is doing backups anyway (like our partners Tortilla Hosting), but you’ll want to take a separate off-site backup (aka on your computer) just in case.
Typically this involves either using FTP to backup a copy of the directory your WordPress website sits in, or using a backup service.
Additionally you’ll need to login to the control panel to take a backup of the MySQL database running your site (note: you might have more than one, so make sure you backup the right one).
Yes, we’re all short on time but if you just go to updates, hit ‘Select All’ and click go then you’re asking for trouble.
More importantly you won’t necessarily know whether it was a plugin, WordPress or the theme which caused a problem.
So find some time where you won’t be distracted, grab a cuppa and take your time. We’d recommend updating somewhere along these lines:
- Upgrade the ‘probably ok’ plugins like Askimet (catches spam comments) and Yoast (SEO plugin) that are unlikely to affect the visial look of a site first
- CHECK! Have a click around the site, does key functionality still work? No? Well then you know where the culprit is/ might have a bigger problem if you’ve failed so early – time to reach for the backups.
- Upgrade the admin-focussed plugins (like video user manuals), that also shouldn’t affect the front-end, and check again
- Upgrade the front-end plugins (like events calendar) and check – there’s a good chance that there’s a new ‘style’ needed in these plugins, so have a good click around to see how things look. Don’t forget to check on your mobile and a tablet too if you can.
- If it’s a big site (especially a shop website) and all is going well take another backup at this point, no point starting from scratch if there’s a problem further down the line.
- Upgrade underlying theme software (eg. Genesis Framework) or shopping software (like WooCommerce) – don’t try to upgrade more than one thing at a time at this point. If it’s a small version change like 5.2.2 to 5.2.3 you’re probably ok, but something like 5.2 to 6.0 is almost certainly a bad idea. In this case we would suggest creating a copy of the site, giving it a try and testing it there before doing it on the live site.
Doing this on a regular basis, eg. once every 3 months should mean your site is both secure and up to date. However at some point (usually 3-4 years after creation) the theme code will need an update due to depreciation (older functions being removed) – also 3-4 years is definitely the kind of time you should be reviewing if your site is fit for purpose and up to speed with the latest technology.
What if it breaks?
Firstly, don’t panic. You’re not the first person this has happened to and there is help available. But of course you’ve already taken a backup of the files and database right? Don’t worry, everyone learns this the hard way.
You might still be lucky, for example our hosting partner Tortilla Hosting does a nightly backup for the last 30 days which you can restore via your Control Panel.
However that will take you back to midnight or perhaps futher, not just a step back so you’ll lose anything added since then. This is fine if your site is based on your updating the content, but not so great though if your users are able to login and change data.
Secondly, It’s ok to say you have a problem on your site. We have all seen big websites fail and its better to say there is an issue than pretending it is ok but key functionality is broken.
A simple maintenance page saying ‘We’re just doing an upgrade, check back soon’ with a nice logo is fine if you can put it in place (there are plugins like SeedProd’s for this). Then get on with fixing it.
Finally, have a backup plan, because sometimes your backup or fixed won’t work. Keeping a good relationship with your web designer means they can step in when needed, it might be a 5 minute fix but the key is knowing where to look.
Test, Test, Test!
So you’ve upgraded, it went well last time, shouldn’t be a problem this time, hit update … done. Now test! If you don’t test then we can pretty much guarantee something is broken.
If it is a shop site, then you will want to test all the way through to purchasing. The reason is that little tweaks like how a currency is rounded and passed to your payment provider won’t show up visually but may stop a purchase going through or be more than a customer expected.
Of course, if you have a site on which you are reliant for your livelihood there should always be a development copy. That is you can try all the updates there first, check it works, and then do so on the live site. But even if it goes well on your development site you still need to test.
If you’re a freshSPRING client, you can take advantage of our low-cost WordPress Update Service