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On not freaking out when updating WordPress

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wind-up fish on a blue crepe sea

Photo: “wind-up fish on a blue crepe sea” by saintbob on Flickr

So you’ve got your lovely shiny and new WordPress site up and running, you’ve been chucking content into it left, right and centre, your blog’s up and running and you’re starting to get great traffic. All in all, things are going really well. And then it’s telling you “WordPress 3.4.1 is available! Please update now!”. What to do?

The first thing to note is: Don’t rush in! Take a breath, step back and read the instructions! While updating is not difficult, occasionally it can go wrong, so you need to just take a few sensible precautions before you hit that button.

Why update?

Your site looks great, it works well, so why update it? The short answer is that – like a lot of software – WordPress isn’t perfect, they’re working on improving it all the time, so each update will fix bugs from earlier versions, improve speed and stability and close security holes. By updating, you’ll get the fastest, most secure and reliable version of the system there is. And it’s free. So why wouldn’t you?

Things to update

There are a clutch of things around WordPress that periodically need updating:

  1. WordPress itself – this is the big one – it’s going to make changes to the structure of your content management system, possibly to the databases that hold your content, and while WordPress tests their updates really carefully, there is always the possibility that something won’t be quite right with your setup and it’ll go kablooey (yes, that’s a technical term)
  2. Plugins – while these are unlikely to affect your whole site, something going wrong with a plugin update can break the thing that the plugin does – your events calendar, for example, or your contact form
  3. Themes – WordPress will periodically tell you you have updates to your themes. These updates won’t destroy your content, but there is the possibility of them changing the way your site looks, or breaking a customised version of a theme, so you need to be aware of what it is you’re updating

Now for the principal warning:
in large friendly letters 🙂

Take that breath. Get yourself a cup of tea and click into the Plugins area of your site (in the left column) and find your backup tool. I usually use one called BackWPUp, which allows for regular backups to be scheduled as well as run on command. If you don’t have a backup plugin, you can search for “backup” after clicking on the Add New up by the heading on the Plugins page and pick one you like (try to get one that will do an easy restore as well as a backup!). Once it’s set up, run it and then check to make sure that you got the backup 🙂 This will ensure that you can restore your site if everything does, indeed, go kablooey.

Instances of kablooey are rare, but they will inevitably happen on that one day you skipped the backup step… so don’t take a shortcut on this one!

Once you’re backed up, you can start updating stuff – just click the update button and WordPress will do all the heavy lifting for you.

Updating plugins

Plugins you will have to update one by one. They’ll generally include a link to describe what the update includes, so you can read that if you want. Or just click Update automatically and it’ll run away and do its thing.

Updating themes

If WordPress finds updates for any of the themes that are on your system, it’ll prompt you to update them – this includes all themes that you’re not actually using. In particular, even if you’ve only ever used one theme on your site, WP ships with two themes – Twenty Ten and Twenty Eleven – which it will want to periodically update. Feel free to forge ahead with these updates.

The ones to pay particular attention to are updates either to the theme you’re currently using (you can see this on the Appearance > Themes page in WordPress – it’s the one right at the top of the page) or to the theme that the one you’re currently using is based on – for example, if your current theme is an adaptation of Manifest, if you see updates to Manifest appearing, you’re going to want to be extra-careful in case it overwrites your current theme. If you’re not sure what to do, get in touch with your designer/developer and ask them to confirm that it’s not going to break your beautiful theme.

A final recommendation of caution

If the update to WordPress is a major one (e.g. you’ve been on WordPress 3.4 but now you’re offered 3.5 or 4), then I’d recommend that you don’t update immediately. Major updates are rarely hassle-free and if you’re not super-confident about restoring your site after a kablooey incident, then it’s best to hold off for a little. Give it a week or two and you’ll probably see a 3.5.1 update, or a 4.0.1 which will contain fixes for bugs reported by early upgraders. Your site won’t cease to function if you don’t update immediately, but once the first bugs are ironed out, you should take advantage of the improvements made to the new version.

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