WordPress website software updates are one of the most important ways to keep your site secure and running smoothly.

At Barn2 Media, I’ve learned this the hard way in the websites we’ve designed and maintained for clients since 2009. Over the years, we’ve created a tried and tested process for updating the software on any WordPress website in a safe, reliable way.

This is the complete guide to WordPress website software updates. You’ll learn why it’s so important to keep WordPress, your theme and plugins up to date. Plus, you’ll learn how to install the different types of update, and what to do if an update ever breaks anything on your website.

Let’s get started!

Why are WordPress Website Software Updates so Important?

There are plenty of reasons why you need to keep the software on any WordPress website up to date:

Install Security Fixes

The world of online security is constantly changing. Hackers are constantly looking for new ways to exploit websites, and software companies are constantly looking for ways to thwart the hackers.

When a software vulnerability is discovered in WordPress, a theme or plugin, a new version will be released to close the loophole. You need to install this in order to secure your site, otherwise your site will remain vulnerable.

Bug Fixes

New versions of WordPress, themes and plugins often include bug fixes to fix problems with previous versions. If you neglect to update, then the bug will remain on your site.

Add New Features

New software versions also often include new features that you can benefit them. When you update your WordPress site, read the changelog to find out what’s been added. Activate the new features and use them to improve your website!

How Often Should I Update?

Given the importance of installing security fixes, as a general rule I’d recommend installing updates as soon as possible after they’ve been released. However, there is a small exception to this.

There are sometimes major updates to install – for example to your theme, a major new version of WordPress or one of the bigger plugins on your site. For major updates, it’s often better to wait for a few days – but certainly no more than a week – before installing the update.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • When a new version of WordPress is introduced, it takes a little while for all the theme and plugin authors to test their software with the new version and to release a compatible update. If you update WordPress before they’ve had a chance to do this, there’s a risk that your theme or plugins won’t work with the new version. By waiting until any related updates are released and updating everything at the same time, there’s a better chance that everything will play nicely together.
  • While companies work hard to test their software before releasing an update, there are often teething problems in the first few days after an update. As the new version is rolled out across thousands of different website, any remaining bugs are likely to be discovered. It’s quite common for another new version to be released shortly after the previous version to fix issues like this. By waiting for a few days, you can skip the imperfect version.

What Needs Updating?

When I talk about WordPress website software updates, I’m referring to the following software on your website:

  • WordPress core
  • Your theme(s)
  • Your plugin

What I Don’t Mean

  • Server software – There is also various software installed on the web host itself. If you’re not a server expert, then I recommend using a managed WordPress web host that takes care of all the server-side software updates. So if your host is managing all the software on your server, you don’t need to include this in your maintenance schedule. Just focus on WordPress itself, your theme and plugins.
  • Proactive WordPress updates – A lot of managed WordPress hosts will update the WordPress core on your behalf. They will usually notify you in advance of doing this. They’ll have automated testing to check nothing major breaks after an update. However even if your host will update WordPress for you, I still recommend doing it yourself before the scheduled date. This is because doing it yourself lets you update your theme and plugins at the same time to keep everything in sync. It’s also a chance to test everything properly after the update.

Installing WordPress Website Software Updates

So far, we’ve learned about why software updates are so important. Now I’ll show you how to install them in a safe, responsible way.

First Back Up Your Site

Before you do a software update, it’s important to back up your site. If you’re using a good quality managed WordPress host, this will be easy to do from your hosting account. You can backup your site by clicking a button. If something goes wrong with the update, you can easily click on my backup and restore it in seconds.

Most other managed WordPress hosts have similar backup and restore systems.

Staging Sites

The best managed WordPress hosts also provide free staging sites. This means that you can create a duplicate version of your live site which you can do a software update on, or make other types of change. You can then test your changes on the staging site and make sure everything is working properly before making the same changes on your live site. There’s usually an option to copy your staging site back to overwrite your live site so you don’t have to repeat all the changes.

The safest way to perform updates is to do them on a staging site before you do them on your live site. If you test everything properly on a staging site first, it’s very unlikely that the update will cause any problems on your live site. However it is more work, so whether you do this will depend on a few things:

  • Is it a major update? – It might be sensible to test major updates on a staging site first, and to install minor updates straight onto your live site.
  • How business critical is your website? – If you have a hobby-type website or blog then presumably it’s not the end of the world if your website stops working properly for a few minutes. If this happens, you can always roll back to the latest backup. However, if you run a business critical or e-commerce website and a few minutes of downtime will cost you money then I’d definitely recommend doing ALL updates on a staging site first.

Updating From the Main WordPress Dashboard

Most updates can be installed from a central location in the WordPress admin. Just go to Dashboard > Updates to see which updates are available. Select everything and install the updates.

You can use Dashboard > Updates to install updates to the WordPress core, themes and plugins from wordpress.org and any other themes and plugins where the author has made them updatable from this page.

Updating WordPress From the Dashboard

Special Cases

Unfortunately, there are lots of themes and plugins that can’t be updated from the main Updates page. I’ve seen many people with WordPress websites who religiously update everything here, and think that’s everything they need to do. Later, they’re surprised when something stops working. They contact us and find out that their theme or a plugin is years out of date!

You need to look at all your themes and plugins and check whether they can be updated from the Updates page. You can probably find this out in the documentation. Here are some examples of the sorts of themes and plugins that can’t be updated in the usual way:

  • Themes or plugins from Envato sites – This is getting better, but most themes and plugins bought on the Envato marketplaces (e.g. ThemeForest or CodeCanyon) have unusual update procedures. Envato provide a free plugin called Envato Market which lets you update their themes and plugins from a different page in the WordPress admin. Unfortunately you still can’t update most of their themes and plugin from the main Updates page, but this is better than nothing.
  • Premium themes and plugins from some other third party sites – Some theme and plugin authors do make their themes and plugins updatable via the main Updates page. However, some don’t – so if you have bought any third party ones then it’s worth checking. Read the theme or plugin documentation for how to find out if updates are available, and how to install them.
  • Bundled plugins – Many plugins that come bundled with a theme can’t be updated from the main Updates page. By ‘bundled’, I mean plugins that were provided for free with your theme. They might have been included in an extra file alongside your theme for you to install manually. Or perhaps when you installed your theme you might have seen a notice prompting you to ‘Install Required Plugins’. Either way, these plugins have to be updated separately.

How Do I Know What To Update Where?

Annoyingly, you need to do some legwork to find out whether a bundled plugin needs updating – this isn’t obvious! Read the documentation to check the exact process.

For example with ThemeForest themes, you can usually check for bundled plugin updates in Appearance > Install Plugins. You can sometimes install updates directly from this page. Other times, you have to follow a strange process where you need to deactivate and delete the plugin and then follow the on-screen prompts to reinstall it, which will pick up the new version! Different companies have different processes so check the documentation and make a note of what you need to do.

Keep Your Software Licenses Up to Date

Until recently, most WordPress themes and plugins came with lifetime updates. Nowadays, more and more provide updates for 12 months only. After this, you have to renew your license to continue getting access to new versions as they are released.

You might sign up to an ongoing subscription when you first buy a theme or plugin – in which case the renewal is automatic. If not, the theme or plugin author will contact you when it’s time to renew.

Either way, make sure you do renew. Otherwise, you won’t be able to keep things up to date and are likely to start having problems over time.

Testing After a WordPress Website Software Update

After you’ve done a software update, it’s really important to test everything.

A WordPress website consists of different pieces of software from various authors which may not may not have been designed to work together. This means that you need to test your website to make sure everything is still working nicely together on the new versions.

Write a List of Things to Test

Here are some tips on the main things to test after an update. To make things easier for you, I recommend writing a list of specific pages and features to test after each update. Once you’ve done this, you’ll be test everything quickly after each update while feeling confident that you haven’t missed anything:

1# Front End Testing

  • One of each page template – You don’t need to test every individual page after a WordPress website software update. Instead, you need to test each page template. You might have lots of pages using the same template but if the template breaks or changes after an update, you’ll be able to tell just by checking one page. All WordPress themes have different templates but here are some examples of different templates that you might have:
    • Full-width page layout
    • Page with left or right sidebar
    • Landing page with no navigation menu
    • Main blog page
    • Single blog posts
    • Blog archives
  • Plugin-specific templates – Lots of plugins add their own templates. For example, if you have an e-commerce plugin then you will have extra templates such as your main shop page, product category pages, individual product pages. If you have an events plugin then it will add templates such as your main events page, event calendar pages, and single event pages. Add these to the list too.
  • Any other custom templates in your theme – If you have customized your theme then there may be bespoke templates that you need to test too.

When you test each template, there are a few things to look out for:

Does it Work?

Is everything where it’s supposed to be? Is anything broken or missing from the page?

Has Anything Else Changed?

After a theme or plugin update, it’s quite common for other elements to change. They may not actually be broken – it may be that the theme or plugin author has simply changed something. To help you understand what I mean, here are some examples where this has recently happened with our clients’ websites:

  • Blog post titles moved from above the featured image to underneath it.
  • Headings fonts changed from standard text to bold.
  • Widget titles got bigger.

Minor changes like this aren’t actually broken. However, you still want to know about them to make sure they are still suitable for your website. If not, you can tweak the settings or customize the theme or plugin to meet your needs.

2# Your Website Functionality

Test all the main functionality on your site. By this, I mean things that your customers can actually DO with your site – as opposed to normal pages that they just look at.

This can include lots of things. Here are a few examples to help you think about what functionality you have on your site:

  • Comments form on blog posts
  • User registration
  • User login and logout
  • E-commerce order process
  • Members-only area on membership sites
  • Events booking process on events sites
  • Online courses on learning management sites

To create a list of all the functionality on your website, browse around the front end of your website. Add to your list as you spot things. Look at the Plugins list in the WordPress admin to see if there’s anything else you need to include in your testing.

3# Have a General Click Around

Once you’ve tested all of the above, have a general click around your website to check you haven’t missed anything. If you find any specific problems, add the page to the list to make sure you test it next time. This will help you improve your testing process for future software updates.

4# Back end testing

After a WordPress website software update, you also need to make sure everything’s still ok in the back end. Make sure you can still edit pages, select from the formatting toolbar, add and edit posts, and other common tasks.

5# Page Template Builders

There’s not so much to test in the WordPress admin. The main thing that might go wrong after an update is if you have a page builder plugin such as Visual Composer, Divi Builder, or Beaver Builder.

I have seen lots of websites where you can’t edit pages using Visual Composer after a WordPress update. This normally happens because Visual composer needs updating to make it work with the new version of WordPress. If you’re using a plugin like this to create page layouts, go to edit one of the pages that has one of these layouts. Make sure the page builder loads correctly and you can still make changes.

What to Do if Something Breaks After an Update

If you discover that something has broken after the update, there are various things you can do:

1. Roll Back

If you did the update on your live site, you can instantly fix the problem by reverting to the backup that you took before you did the update.

Perhaps you can’t roll back the whole site – for example because your users have been signing up, placing orders or adding comments that you don’t want to lose since the backup was taken. If this applies to you, then you can download the backup and use FTP to roll back the specific files for the theme or plugin that you updated. If you don’t know how to do this, your hosting company should be able to help you.

2. Fatal Errors

If the update completely breaks your site so that it goes offline, find out which theme or plugin causes the problem. You can do this by rolling back and updating the theme and plugins one at a time. When the site breaks again, you have identified the culprit!

You can then send a support request to the theme or plugin author so that they can investigate.

3. Repeat the Update on a Staging Site

Most problems that you’ll see after an update are less critical and your site will still work, but may have some issues. Once you have rolled back your live site, you can troubleshoot the problem by doing the update on a separate staging site.

4. Narrow Down the Problem

If you’re not sure what caused the problem, use trial and error to find out which theme or plugin is the culprit:

  1. Disable all the plugins apart from the ones that are essential to what you’re testing. (E.g. if you’re using WooCommerce and WooCommerce Product Table and need to troubleshoot an issue with your product tables, deactivate everything except for these two plugins.)
  2. Is the problem fixed? If so, re-activate the plugins one by one and re-test to find the culprit.
  3. If the problem’s still there, go to Appearance > Themes and switch to one of the default themes such as TwentySixteen.
  4. Is the problem fixed? If so, the problem is related to your theme. If not, the plugin probably relates to the plugin.

This process will help you to narrow down the problem to find out exactly what is causing the problem.

Fixing the Problem

Once you’ve figured out the cause of the problem, here are the steps for you to follow to fix the problem:

1# Have You Definitely Updated Everything?

If an update introduces a conflict between your theme and/or plugins, it’s possible that you have forgotten to update something.

For example, we have clients using premium themes with the Visual Composer page builder plugin. If they update WordPress and their theme but forget to update Visual Composer, then the page builder can stop working. It looks like Visual Composer doesn’t work with the new version or WordPress or the theme, but the problem is fixed as soon as they update Visual Composer.

Go through the advice from earlier in this article to ensure everything on your site is definitely up to date.

2# Can You Remove the Plugin?

If you look through your list of plugins, you’ll probably be surprised how many aren’t necessary! Perhaps the conflict is being caused by a plugin you don’t need any more, or which can easily be replaced. If so, then the easiest option is to get rid of it.

A simpler website is always easier to update and maintain. It’s definitely good to declutter and remove anything you don’t really need.

3# Check the Settings

Sometimes when you update a theme or plugin, the settings can change or be reset. This can cause things to change on your website.

If the theme or plugin has settings pages, look through them to make sure everything is still configured as you want them.

4# Contact the Theme or Plugin Author for Support

One of the most important things you can do is to send a support request to the author of the affected theme or plugin.

Tell them that it has broken since you updated it. Provide as much information as possible to help them fix it. Hopefully they will release a new version with the fix – or even fix it directly on your site.

If the problem is a conflict with a specific theme or plugin, they may not provide support. This is because their product isn’t guaranteed to work with other third party software. However, it’s always worth asking. I’ve found that theme and plugin authors are often very helpful in this situation.

5# Problems with Custom Code on Your Site

If your site contains any custom code – for example a custom theme, customisations to an existing theme or a custom plugin – then you’re in a more difficult situation.

You might have paid a WordPress developer to do some custom work in the past. However, their work would not have been guaranteed to work with all future versions of the other software on your website.

If something custom breaks after an update then your only option is to do some redevelopment work to make it work with the latest version. For this reason, if you’re not a developer then I recommend using off-the-shelf themes and plugins wherever possible. Any custom code puts the burden on you to maintain it in future, and you need a developer to do this.

Responsible WordPress Website Software Updates

As you can see, updating the software on your WordPress website isn’t as easy as simply clicking a button. Use the advice from this article to create a detailed updates checklist for your own website.

This will empower you to keep your site up to date and to update it in a safe and responsible way. The end result will be a website that continues running smoothly for you well into the future.

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