How to Safely Update Your WordPress Website

What can go wrong when you update WordPress?

WordPress is the most widely used Content Management System enjoying a market share in the 60% range. Did you also know that in 2018 90% of the hacks across the web were WordPress sites?  44% of hacking in 2018 was because of outdated WordPress sites. This includes the version of WordPress, your theme & plugins. We’ll talk security measures another time… Let’s focus on a responsibility that many times may fall on you depending on where you are hosting — Keeping your plugins, theme & WordPress version up to date.

What can go wrong when you click “Update”?

Most of the time updating your site’s plugins won’t cause any problems. But we’ve had cases where an update goes bad. Worst case scenario, the site goes down, or for a “better” case scenario, you lose functionality on part of your site. Why? Sometimes new versions are buggy. Other times, the updated version is not compatible with something else running on your site.

Create a safety net before you update

Remember the saying when you were in school “the more important it is, the more often you save”? The same idea applies here except we create backups to save our backsides.

Let’s talk backups for a moment. Many hosting companies provide backups as an add-on service – which you may not have realized was critical & aren’t paying for. IF that is the case, pay for the add-on and get your backups going. Otherwise, you’re gambling that nothing goes wrong… ever. But if something does go wrong, depending on what it is, you may have to start from scratch Please… please… pretty please! BTW, if you don’t want to pay your hosting company for the backup add-on, use one of the plugins mentioned below & set automatic backups to run.

The easiest way to do backups for updating is to install a plugin & run the backups from your site. For ease of restoration management, I recommend going with a backup plugin that offers “restore” functionality. Here are a few to consider:

If your site completely goes down & you can’t access the admin area, you probably need to call in your geek squad. But, the fact that you have a backup will make their work, and your bill, much less.

When you install your backup plugin, you’ll want to make sure that you’re either saving the backups to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc), or download them to your computer. That way if you do lose access to your admin area, you can still get to the backup file.

The Process for hassle-free updates

I’m sure you’re wanting to ask: “so, do you seriously create a backup before you update everything?” Well, kind of, yes — for all of the clients we manage sites for, there’s a redundant backup happening on their site. Nightly the database gets backed up & once a week I get a full file backup. So while I may not manually perform a backup… I’ve got one if I need it 🙂

If you’ve got a nightly backup process in place where you can easily restore if needed (and you know it is working), you can bypass the manual backup creation if you’re doing smaller, incremental updates. I’m talking about version x.x.x where the number on the last x changes. BUT, if you know that a plugin has caused you problems in the past with smaller updates, take the time to save yourself a headache & run a backup.

Temporarily turn off your cache plugin if you’ve got a lot of updates. If only one or two, make sure you manually clear the cache when you’re done – before you check the front end of the site.

If you’ve got a number of plugins to update all at once, select all of the ones that you know don’t cause a problem & update them first. Check your site to make sure all is good. If yes… step through the remaining updates.

How to handle major version updates

Here we’re talking about the big steps that plugins, themes & WordPress take like 5.2 to 5.3, or 4.9 to 5.0.


Depending on the plugin, there generally aren’t huge problems. WooCommerce can cause problems if they do a major update in their templates and the customized ones you’re running don’t play with those updates. The important key here is to get acquainted with your plugins!

  • Do your backup
  • Run the update on just that plugin
  • Check your site


Major version updates on themes can break things. Here are a couple of examples so you know what to be aware of.

A premium theme that we used did a major version upgrade, and there was no upgrade path for the older version code. We would have had to rebuild the site.

When you use a child theme to build the site, your customizations live in “child” files that WordPress looks at first before looking at the parent theme. Quite often on a major version change, the “new” code no longer meshes with the code you’ve customized. Because of this, big or small problems can surface.

If you’re not using a child theme and have made all your customizations in the Theme Customizer, still use caution, but there’s less that could go wrong.

  • Always take a look at the “readme” file or developer documentation where they will share details, especially for scenarios like the first one shared above.
  • Always do a backup!!
  • After updating, clear your cache and check the front end of your site. If all looks good, breath a huge sigh of relief 🙂 If you’ve got problems, restore your backup and reach for your geek squad. They can do the update, identify what is causing the problem, and fix it.


A word of advice for updating WordPress when a major version comes out… Unless you like riding that knife-edge where headaches happen, wait for 10-15 days before you update. This does two things – it lets plugins catch up, and if there’s a bug, it’s generally caught & you’ll get an incremental update notice (instead of 5.3, it will be 5.3.1).

When you’re ready to click that update button, always start with your backup. Once the update is done, clear the cache & check the front end of your site.

Is doing updates overwhelming?

man is overwhelmed by updating his websiteIf your answer is “yes”, we’ve got the solution for you. Of course for clients that host their sites with us, updates are included (yes, included) in all of our packages. But, if you’re the type of person who wants to manage your own site, we understand. Part of our mission is to be a partner. This means that we come alongside and help… help with whatever you need help with. With updates, that could mean that you handle the easier ones and if an intimidating update comes along you hand it off to us. Or, if something goes wrong, we’re your geek squad at your elbow.

Interested? Let’s chat! Drop us a line from our Contact Page and we’ll talk possibilities 🙂