Updating WordPress is one of the most essential — if not the most — things you can do to keep your website up and running well. WordPress updates are important for keeping hackers out of your website (they often include important security updates), keeping up with the ever changing landscape of browsers and mobile phones, and they often come with new features that make its usability better.

Unfortunately, updating WordPress is also one of the scariest things you can do as a website owner because updates have a habit of destroying your website.

But, like, why?

You’re probably asking yourself why WordPress would send out updates that might blow up your website. Well, the answer is a little bit complex, but I’m going to do my best to keep it understandable.

Inside every WordPress site there are two things that can be affected by an update: your theme and your plugins. That means that every time there is an update the person (or persons or company), also known as the theme developer, has to test their theme in the new WP environment, make changes and fixes to accommodate the new WordPress, and then push that theme update out to you, the end user, who may or may not decide to click that update button.

Plugins function exactly the same way. Once WordPress updates, the plugin author needs to run the plugin to determine issues or conflicts, then fix the issues, and push fixes out to you via an update.

Recommended Read: What is a Plugin?

Mo’ plugins, mo’ problems

Problems with updating arise when plugin and theme developers don’t update their plugins quickly enough (or sometimes even at all). Problems can also arise if your website wasn’t built very well in the first place. The web designer you work with should always be on top of latest trends and should always build your website with current standards, but also with an eye towards the future. Of course, no one can predict what future updates WordPress will release, and no one can be aware of every thing being cooked up in someone’s basement; however, it’s the job of a web designer to deliver the best possible website to their client (and that means not having the site be wiped out by a basic theme update).

Another major issue is when hosts automatically update WordPress, plugins, and themes for you. This seems helpful on its surface, but if you scratch below you’ll find it rife with problems. If you’re not a web designer yourself, you probably don’t know how to revert to an older copy of your theme, and you probably don’t know how to revert to an older copy of WordPress. That can present major problems when updates destroy everything. If possible, turn off automatic updates and do them yourself. Since there is never any warning of when an update will come, by doing the update yourself you can do more to ensure the safety of your site.

What’s not affected by an update

Your content shouldn’t be affected by an update, since it lives in a different part of the WordPress database. Your words and images should be well taken care of.

What to do

There are two important things to do before you update your website:

  1. You should make sure you or or website designer have a copy of the most recent version of your site. If your website is a couple of years old that may not do you much good, but it’s at least good to know you could revert to something close to what your website looked like yesterday.
  2. You should back up your website before making any kind of changes or updates. You should be backing up your website at least once a week anyway, but you absolutely must back it up before you update.

Creating a backup

Now you need to create a back up of the website. In this tutorial I am using a backup plugin called UpdraftPlus. Its free version is available in the WordPress plugin directory, and you can use it to create backups and import them to restore your site when needed. There are many backup plugins out there in the world, both paid and free, but this is the one I am using right now. (I’m not specifically endorsing them here, if you find that works better, use it! Just back up your site!) Here is how to create a backup of your site using UpdraftPlus.

First, click the UpdraftPlus link in your WordPress Dashboard’s top navigation bar. Select “Current Status / Backup Now”. Once you arrive on that page, click the “Backup Now” button.

Backup Now Button

Next, you’ll see box pop up with some options in it. You want to make sure that the boxes beside “Include the database in the backup” and “ ()” are checked. (VERY important.) Below that there will be a message that says “Backup won’t be sent to any remote storage – none has been saved in the settings”. That’s fine, leave that box unchecked and click “Backup Now” at the bottom of the box.

UpdraftPlus Backup Options Box

Now you should see a backup status bar in the middle of the screen that tells you the backup is happening now. It will look like this:

WordPress Backup Progress Bar

Navigate to the “Existing Backups” tab. Once there you will see the backup you just created. Click the buttons for each of the options (Database, Plugins, Themes, Uploads, Others). You will see a bar appear with progress for the file. Once it is ready, click the “Download to your computer” button for each and wait for them to download.

Downloading Existing Backups

Once all files have been downloaded to your computer, you can start the updating WordPress process.

Updating WordPress

Now that you have an up-to-date version of your website, you’re ready to update WordPress, your plugins, and your theme.

First, navigate to the “Updates” page of the WordPress Dashboard. You can find it under “Dashboard” at the very top of your left-hand side navigation. Once on the “Updates” page, you first want to update your plugins. Check the box next to “Select All” above the list of plugins needing an update. Then click the “Update Plugins” button. You will be taken to a screen where it will do the updates. You don’t need to do anything while this happens. When it is finished, click the “Return to WordPress Updates page” link to return.

Updating WordPress plugins

Once you have returned to the WordPress Updates page, complete the above steps with your themes. (Don’t skip this step! It’s super important!)

Finally, once all your themes and plugins are up to date, you can now update WordPress.

Click the “Update Now” button. You will be taken to another screen where the update will be done. When it’s finished it will take you to a screen that explains what’s new in this update. It often includes a video. Watch it if you’re interested, but it might help you understand where some of your favourite settings or features have gone and how to use them now.

Now go to the front end of your site and visit as many pages as you need to feed comfortable that your website has not exploded.

I did all this an my site still blew up

Well, sometimes there’s just no getting around it. In that case, call a web designer to help you figure it out. An honest web designer should be able to poke around in the back end to see what needs doing for free. They will then give you a quote for how much it will cost to fix it, and they should give you an easy to understand version of what happened.

This latest update was really important, so go update right now!

How to Backup Your Site & Update WordPress