Finding the most hassle-free way to update your website software
If you’ve got a web hosting account with a website installed on it, chances are you need to update the website’s software regularly. So with WordPress, that includes:
- the core WordPress software
- the template (known in WordPress as a theme)
- the plugins, those little extras that add useful functions.
This kind of setup applies to other similar systems like Joomla and Drupal too.
Why update your WordPress installation?
It can be tempting to think once the website is designed and launched, the work is done. Unfortunately, any popular system is going to attract a lot of attention from hackers. There are regular fixes for security problems, as well as the launch of new features.
Also, small regular updates are a lot easier to apply than having to do three years’ worth in one go. Fixing problems then becomes more difficult.
And I can update WordPress automatically?
Usually, yes. Log into your web hosting’s control panel (this might be called Cpanel, or something similar). Then find your website’s installation. This may be under the Applications or Softaculous section. You should be able to choose whether to automatically update each part of the WordPress software. Consult your web host or documentation for further information, or ask us if you get stuck.
So I can just switch on automatic updates and forget about it?
Not quite. Automatic updates have their advantages: plugging security issues promptly is a great thing, and usually a minor update will not cause any problems.
But ‘usually’ isn’t good enough for a website that you want to be fully functioning all the time! I’ve had glitches resulting from updates to any of the components of a WordPress installation. There might only be a problem in one in fifty updates. But if your customer is looking at your website at the time of an error, you could lose business.
What problems can happen?
Let’s talk about themes first. A theme update can cause a minor presentation glitch. Some of the text could disappear or appear in the wrong colour. But occasionally an ugly error message can appear.
A ‘Child theme’ is a way of customising a theme without editing the original. Be aware, if your website setup is not using a ‘Child theme’, then any layout changes you’ve made could disappear when the theme is updated. A child theme is standard in any professional setup, but it’s worth checking before you do any updates!
When it comes to plugins, an individual update can cause problems. It can clash with another plugin or introduce new functionality which needs setting up. Unfortunately, an update can mean new bugs too!
Sometimes, you only have the option to automatically update WordPress core software between minor versions (for example, from 5.0.1 to 5.0.2). The major updates, for example from 4.8… to 4.9… or 4.9… to 5.0…, can require a manual update as there are more changes to implement and more can go awry. Some hosts do offer the option to update to any new version, minor or major. So if you turn on major version updates automatically, it’s especially worth checking that everything’s working OK.
OK. So what’s the best policy with automatic WordPress updates?
Switching on automatic updates is a good idea, particularly if you’re time-poor and value website security over the occasional glitch. However, there are a few musts: backups and testing.
Regular backups are important, so that you can roll back any changes. Ensure you’ve got automatic backups being made on at least a daily basis.
Testing is the other key element. After any update, check the site to see if everything is still working. This is particularly important for your contact forms, and any key functions for your customers.
You should also consider setting up an email notification so that after an update, you’ll know it’s successful or not. You can end up with a lot of emails this way. But at least you’ll have a record of what has been updated when.
A WordPress website needs a bit of looking after then…
Yes, if you want to make sure your website is working correctly as much as possible, build website maintenance into your budget.