How often should you update your WordPress website? And how?

Last updated February 20, 2020

Running updates to your WordPress website is an important and can be a very challenging task. Updates are important to avoid potential security issues and get the most out of your website.

Every time you login to your website you can see how many updates are needed to be run at the top left of your admin menu:

Most website owners will simply click that update button, cross their fingers and hope for the best. However clicking update without the proper preparation is extremely dangerous!

Running updates incorrectly can easily break your website and leave you with long term website problem. We frequently see updates go wrong where:

  • A plugin or theme no longer works with your other active website code and this breaks your website in a big way (very common)
  • A plugin is totally different than a previous version and now your website looks totally different and confusing to your users (also very common)

These problems can be very hard to recover from even if you have a backup of your website available, if you don’t restore your website correctly your website issues may persist for months or years.

How often should you update your website?

The average WordPress website will have 5-10 (or more) updates available to run every month, some of these updates may include critical security and bug fixes so usually we recommend sticking to a monthly update schedule.

Weekly updates are often too frequent because running updates with care is somewhat time consuming you can end up spending a lot of time working on your updates.

However quarterly or annual updates are far too infrequent because if you leave large gaps between updates you are very likely to have a known security issue maliciously exploited before the next update is run.

Professional developers generally keep an eye on the latest WordPress vulnerability news to see if any plugin or theme has a major exploitable vulnerability discovered. Though most business owners are far too busy for this and stick to the general rule of updating their website monthly.

What is the correct way to update a WordPress website?

We have run thousands of website updates over the years and have come to a standard process that we follow when customers ask us to take extra care with their updates. This process helps us avoid most of the problems with running website updates.

Step 1: Run a website backup

There are many ways to run a website backup. Our preference is to take a full cPanel backup and backup the database as a live and immediately accessible copy.

The idea behind taking a website backup is to be able to restore your website back to the way it was if any major problems happen during update. This saves you from having major website downtime.

Backing up your website can be a tricky subject that requires extra though if you have a particularly large or high traffic website e.g. an eCommerce shop that is receiving new orders every few minutes. The below would need to be adjusted with those extra requirements.

(a) Backup your website files and database

Login to your cPanel, click “Backup” and then “Download a Full Account Backup” and then “Generate Backup”. This will take some time to run and a backup of your website will appear inside your cPanel file manager.

(b) Copy your database (optional)

This extra step is not required but can help you if major issues arise during update.

Start by logging into cPanel and then creating a new database in cPanel by clicking “MySQL Databases” and then complete the form to create a new database.

After that you can use “PHPMyAdmin” to copy your previous database over to the new database in the “Operations” tab of the database manager.

If this sounds too deep or complicated that is fine, this step is optional and can be skipped if you need to.

What to do if you can’t run a cPanel backup?

If you don’t have cPanel hosting or if you can’t take a cPanel backup then we suggest you look at the following backup solutions to take a backup of your website:

  • Check if your hosting company has a automated daily or hourly backup available
  • Use UpdraftPlus to take a local backup
  • Use ManageWP to take a backup / restore point
  • Login to the server and zip up or download your website files and database

Step 2: Take screenshots of key website pages

Once you have taken a backup you should take screenshots of major pages and save them in a pre-update folder.

Step 3: Run all the updates to your website

That’s it! Now you are ready to login and run all the updates to your website. We strongly suggest you run them all and don’t leave any potentially vulnerable plugins or themes.

Make sure to check for any premium plugins or themes that require a license key to update, these items will not update unless you have a valid license key purchased from the plugin or theme supplier.

Step 4: Take screenshots and review

Once the updates have been run you will need to quickly check your website for potential issues. We recommend you take the following process:

  • Clear your website cache and CDN cache if you have them
  • Load the front pages of the website, does it look broken?
  • Load the website in a new browser as a logged out user, does it look broken?
  • Take post-update screenshots of the same pages from step 2 and compare them to the screenshots from step 2, is any page significantly different or broken looking?
  • Submit your website forms, do you still receive the contact message?
  • Run a test order if your website is an eCommerce website, is anything in that order process broken? Do you receive the completed order email correctly?

If anything is significantly broken that it might cause major problems for users then you will need to restore your website back to the original state using the backup from step 1. If you prepared a database copy or if you have an automated backup solution such as ManageWP then you should be able to restore your website in just a few minutes.

If there are small issues with your website design but the overall website is working correctly then you might want to fix those small issues instead of restoring your website.

Any experienced web developer should be able to handle this entire process quickly and safely so that user impact is minimal.

That’s it

Running website updates can be a tricky task when completed the right way, but once you have run updates a few times you will start to get a feel for the possible issues and begin to feel more confident with the process.

Until next time!

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