How To Safely Update Your WordPress Website

WordPress updates are great, especially if they involve new features. But, precautionary measures are always advised, no matter how big or small the updates are.

In this doc we'll discuss:

  • why you need to take precautionary measures and never just hit the update button carefree,
  • talk about safe update process recommendations as a part of the best website building and maintenance practices,
  • share the steps on how to safely update your live WordPress website,
  • share the steps on how to safely update your OceanWP WordPress website, and
  • how to safely update a neglected WordPress website that hasn't been updated in ages.

Why do you need to take precautionary measures before performing any updates on your WordPress website

Theme and plugin update procedure depend on too many external factors developers have no control over.

Some of those factors include but are not limited to:

  • the sequence of auto-updates,
  • WordPress' repo update release availability (theme and plugin updates do not become available the exact moment they're pushed to the WordPress repo by developers and there's a process of approval),
  • your website's connection with the WordPress repository (or external repo in case of premium plugins),
  • your server's functionality,
  • potential compatibility issues,
  • your PHP version, PHP Memory Limit and everything else that falls under server environment, etc.

For example, if during a plugin update the connection between your website and the WordPress repository gets interrupted for whatever reason, or if your server experiences any other connectivity issues, the update process will be incomplete.

The way WordPress updates function are - all previous files are removed and then new files added to the folder again.

This means that an interrupted update process will leave you with a half-baked installation file which will cause your website to crash if the plugin / theme was active during the update process.

That being said, if you're serious about your WordPress website, you'll take all precautionary steps and ensure a smooth update.

Recommendations on how to safely update your WordPress website

#1 Disable Auto-Updates

Auto-updates seem like quite a nifty option. And while you can save yourself 5 minutes because you're not performing manual updates, in case any problems emerge (and because of reasons mentioned above), it could lead to troubleshooting that lasts for hours or even days.

Auto-Updates are disabled or enabled by default based on your hosting provider, there's no general rule on this. Likewise, some hosting providers do allow you to control this option from your hosting panel.

To learn whether or not auto-updates are enabled on your WordPress website if you can't figure it on your own - seek support from your hosting provider.

If you're resourceful and can handle yourself in a WordPress environment, you can alter the existing directives in your wp-config.php file or add a new one for disabling the auto-updates of the WordPress core itself:

// Disable WordPress core auto-updates.

define( 'WP_AUTO_UPDATE_CORE', false );

On the other hand, commands to disable WordPress theme and plugin auto-updates need to be added to the functions.php file of a child theme. Here at OceanWP we have a ready-to-use child theme for you and you can install it with a single click.

// Disable WP themes auto-updates.

add_filter( 'auto_update_theme', '__return_false' );

// Disable WP plugins auto-updates.

add_filter( 'auto_update_theme', '__return_false' );

If you're professionally maintaining a large number of WordPress websites, you can use a plugin like ManageWP. This WordPress plugin can help keep track of updates on all your websites, so you can control the order of updates, what plugins to update and on what websites.

#2 Create a website backup with your hosting

Most hosting providers offer the option to create automatic and/or manual backups.

Before you update anything on your website - ever - always create a backup.

#3 Create a manual backup of your website

Even if your hosting provider does offer the option to take backups, never rely solely on that. Backups can also be broken on restore attempts. Therefore, always take an additional moment to create manual backups as well.

Here are a few suggestions of WordPress plugins you can use to create manual website backups:

#4 Test all updates first

The correct and responsible update procedure involves testing all updates on an isolated environment aka before updating your live site.

If possible, always test any update on a staging / test / localhost environment first.

Many hosting providers offer the option for you to create staging sites. Likewise, many hosting providers allow you to create additional sites on subdomains for free (example, test.yourwebsite.url). Use the options you have at your disposal.

If you don't have any opportunity to test updates - simply wait. Wait for a few days or weeks (unless the update involves resolving a critical error or a security patch) and keep checking feedback from others who have tested things on their end. You can also gather feedback by contacting the theme or plugin authors directly.

Once you have taken all steps and have ensured that the updates will not cause issues on your live site, you can proceed and update the live site directly.

How to professionally update your live WordPress website

#1 Enable the Maintenance Mode

Theme and plugin updates can sometimes cause minor inconveniences you do not want your site visitors to witness. Before you commence with the update process, place the website in the Maintenance mode.

Some hosting providers offer this option on the go, but you can also use various plugins to achieve the same result. For example, the Maintenance plugin by SeedProd.

#2 Update your WordPress theme(s) first

Most plugins are there to expand the functionality of a theme, especially if they're a product from the same author like it's the case with us here at OceanWP.

That being said, before updating plugins, ensure there are available theme updates via Appearance > Themes and update the themes first.

#3 Update your WordPress plugins

After the theme update, update your WordPress plugins.

If you're using premium plugins that extend the functionality of a WordPress theme or another free or premium plugin, you should always update these the last. Or, in simple words:

  • update free plugins, then
  • update premium plugins.

Plugins are updated via your WordPress dashboard, Plugins > Installed Plugins.

If you fear a plugin update might hurt your website, you can also:

  • disable the plugin(s) first,
  • update the plugin, then
  • enable it back again.

If enabling the plugin breaks your website or causes a fatal error, you can disable that plugin from your hosting panel or by simply renaming the plugin folder either using the hosting file manager or FTP.

#4 Clear cache on levels

In order to preview all changes correctly, you need to clear all types of caching:

  • website (if using a caching plugin),
  • CDN (if website connected to cloud services that also offer caching, like Cloudflare), and
  • browser (delete history, cookies, etc.)

#5 Inspect your website

Inspect all your pages and content to ensure nothing is missing.

Likewise, specific functionalities are not broken, like submitting forms, purchase options etc (which is also best to test on a staging site).

#5 Disable the Maintenance mode

If everything is in order, disable the Maintenance mode and enjoy your website!

How to professionally update your OceanWP website

In combination with our above recommendations on how to professionally update your WordPress website, here are also tips on how to professionally update your WordPress website running the OceanWP theme:

  • Check if there's an OceanWP theme update available via Appearance > Themes and update OceanWP.
  • Before updating any other plugins, always update the Ocean Extra plugin first.
  • Update the remaining free Ocean plugins on your website.
  • Update premium Ocean plugins on your website.

In case you run into any problems, don't forget to contact us for support because we're here for you.

In the meantime, you can resolve any potential problems by rolling back OceanWP theme or Ocean plugin versions.

How to safely update a neglected WordPress website

A neglected WordPress website is a website that hasn't been updated in years. In the world of digital technology, that's simply too much.

For example, your website is neglected if you're still running WordPress versions 5.X.X or 4.X.X and we have seen such websites in 2023.

Why is neglecting a updates a bad thing? Well, the main reason is - security and stability. New features are really the last item on the list when it comes to neglected websites.

Websites running outdated WordPress versions will also stop showing theme and plugin updates in your dashboard, simply because your environment does not support them.

For example, at the current moment OceanWP supports the WordPress 5.6 version and above. If you are running any WordPress versions below that, you have been missing out on a lot of updates. The same goes for all other theme and plugins.

So, how can you update a neglected WordPress website safely? The process involves a few more steps, but it is manageable with just a little bit of patience:

  1. Create a full website backup (see our recommendations above),
  2. Place the website in a coming soon mode (see recommendations above),
  3. Via Appearance > Themes, switch to one of the default WP themes, like TwentyTwentySeventeen (you can install a theme just for this purpose then remove it later).
  4. Via Plugins > Installed Plugins, disable absolutely all plugins.
  5. Via your WP dashboard, Dashboard > Updates, update your WordPress version.
  6. After updating WordPress, wait a few minutes or more so that all missing updates start to populate.
  7. Via Appearance > Themes, update your theme and then activate it.
  8. Via Plugins > Installed Plugins, update all plugins one by one but don't activate any of them yet. See if those updates will trigger more available update info, especially for the premium plugins. Wait a few minutes, refresh the page again and check if you have received new update notices. If yes, update plugins.
  9. Start activating plugins one by one.
  10. Clear website caching on all levels.
  11. Inspect your website and content.
  12. Disable the Maintenance mode.

While we advocate safe updates, tests and even a delay when it comes to applying updates, we also strongly advise you not to skip updates longer than 2 months.

That's it!

Keep calm and update and maintain websites responsibly.

Happy website building!

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