Just about the only down side of having a WordPress website is that it requires maintenance.
WordPress is software you are running locally to power your website, and it is updated frequently – and many of these updates contain security patches, critical for protecting your website from hackers.
Above and beyond the WordPress core, most websites use several plugins – extra pieces of code built on top of the WordPress platform – to perform special functions on the site. And each of these plugins will have frequent security-related updates, too.
For WordPress, proper maintenance means keeping your software up to date with frequent upgrades.
Let’s learn how to keep it all safe and secure by doing a full software upgrade on your site.
Step one: ALWAYS have a backup!
It’s not common, but sometimes running an upgrade will break your website.
Usually this happens when you have an older plugin that hasn’t been updated to match the latest version of WordPress. Incompatibilities arise and bam! You’ll see what’s known as the White Screen Of Death – nothing where your website should be but a plain white screen and possibly a text error message.
When this happens, it will help calm the panic if you have a total backup. A complete backup includes:
- your WordPress database
- all your customization files, including plugins, themes, and uploaded files (like images and PDF files)
Never attempt an upgrade without a current backup – and make sure you know how to restore it, too.
You definitely do not want to be rushing to learn how to make use of your backup files while your website sits in an unloadable state.
Here at Sweet Smart Design, we install Updraft Plus on all our websites to automatically generate backups on a regular basis. If you’re doing your own upgrade, Updraft Plus can generate a manual backup for you with one click – and then restore that backup with one click too, if needed. If your backups aren’t being uploaded to the cloud, make sure you download a local copy of your backup just in case. (And then get in touch with us, because your backups should definitely be offloaded!).
Step two: Upgrade your software
Got your backup ready to go? Then it’s time to upgrade.
Most of WordPress can be upgraded with one click from your Dashboard.
Start with your theme:
- On the dashboard, click on Appearance > Themes.
- Find your theme and see if it has an “Update Now” link at the top of its box.
- If so, click it and wait for the upload to complete.
Check the site – if no errors happened and everything looks good, keep going! If not, stop here.
Next, upgrade your plugins:
- On the dashboard, click on Plugins to view a list of all plugins.
- For each, one at a time, click on the Update Now link under each plugin’s title.
You can update all your plugins in bulk, but we like to do it one at a time. This way, if there is a critical error, we can see right away which plugin was the problem, which helps with fixing any issues.
Some plugins take a minute or two to update, so don’t panic. And don’t try loading your website while upgrading the plugins – chances are you’ll only see a simple message that warns that the site is offline for maintenance, so there’s no point in hitting the site when it’s working on something else.
If all plugins pass the upgrade without errors, then it’s time move on to the next step.
Lastly, upgrade the core WordPress software:
- On the dashboard, click Dashboard > Updates.
- If a new version of WordPress is available, there will be a blue “Update Now” button at the top of the Updates screen. Click it!
The WordPress core update can take a few minutes so don’t panic – just wait.
Everything look good? Then you’re on to the next step! If something went horribly wrong – don’t panic, because you have an awesome backup, right? See the section below on what to do if something goes wrong.
Step three: Do any database migration work required by the upgrade
Some plugins, like WooCommerce (for online shops) and Yoast (for SEO optimization) sometimes require database changes. This means they would like to go into your database tables and add or remove some columns of data.
It sounds scary, but usually they are only touching the areas of the database that directly affect their plugin, and are necessary for future development and performance.
If a database transition is required, you’ll see a notice and a button at the top of your Plugins page.
Make extra sure you have a backup – maybe even take a new one after all your software upgrades! – and then go ahead and click any buttons on your Plugins page to run database transitions. These can take several minutes so wait patiently.
Step four: Test, test, test
If all upgrades and database transitions seem to have worked, then it’s time to test your site.
Load all your pages, posts, shop products, anything you can think of. You want to make sure that colours and formatting look good, that the page loads quickly and without errors.
Test all forms to make sure they are still working and you receive the submissions. Double check your shop checkout process to make sure you’re still able to handle transactions.
For extra credit, consider running a link checker or a speed test to make sure the performance of the site was not affected by the upgrade.
Bonus step: Clean out your database
Sometimes upgrading software – especially plugins – can result in orphaned data in your database.
This won’t affect the running of your site but it can affect its overall speed, in time. It can also mean higher storage requirements which can cost you extra on your hosting.
Here at Sweet Smart Design, we use WP-Optimize to test database sizing and run a database clean up every once in a while to remove orphaned data.
As you can imagine, clearing stuff from your database is always dangerous so of course – say it with me! – HAVE A BACKUP.
But especially if you are seeing performance issues on your site, and it’s very large and complex (like a shop with hundreds of products) – then consider a database cleanout as part of your maintenance.
What to do if something goes wrong
- see an error when upgrading any part of the software
- see problems loading the site or having it render correctly after upgrading
- see the White Screen of Death after upgrading
Then we need to repair the site.
The easiest thing to do is to restore your full backup. If you’re using Updraft Plus as your backup software, you can restore the backup with one click under Settings > Updraft Plus.
Then, you can either:
- Remove the area of the website that was causing the problem and then try again. This might mean changing your theme to something else, or deactivating a problem plugin (and probably some development work to learn to live without these parts of your site).
- Get in touch with the developer of that part of the site (theme or plugin) and report the change, and ask them to fix it. Then wait to upgrade, or upgrade the other parts of your site and leave the problem area (but note that a plugin that reports a problem on upgrade may have security issues and is a danger to leave active).
- Manually fix the problem yourself.
If you want to try manually fixing the problem – well, that’s really a job for someone who knows how to dig into PHP code, and if you already know how to do that, you probably don’t need this guide. But essentially, you’d need to find the problem in code, change it so it works, and then upload the new version via the back door method known as FTP.
If you see a problem while updating the WordPress core, the problem is almost always an incompatible theme or plugin. NEVER change the WordPress core files yourself! Instead, restore your full backup and then try doing some detective work to figure out which plugin is the real culprit.
How often should you do all this?
Let’s start by saying that there’s no concept of “too often” when it comes to keeping your site up to date. Software releases are almost always made to fix bugs, especially security problems, and you want that to make sure your site is healthy and protected.
But what’s the minimum?
There’s no easy answer to that – every website is different. Websites with shops should be upgraded often, at least monthly. Websites handling complicated form data, or who get updated frequently with scheduled events, should also probably consider a monthly update.
Simpler sites that are used for blogging and information sharing can usually go a few months between upgrades, as long as there isn’t a known WordPress security issue on the table.
Here at Sweet Smart, we don’t lock our clients into maintenance contracts, so they are free to set the upgrade schedule they feel comfortable with. They can upgrade their site on their own, or book us from time to time on an ad hoc basis to run a backup and full upgrade.
We keep all our clients notified of any emergent security updates and remind them periodically to run upgrades, or book us for help. We’re here to help you find the right upgrade schedule for you, and to help you make it happen.
Want advice or maintenance help? Contact us today and we’ll take a look at your site and let you know what we think.