You or someone previous to you made the wise decision to create a WordPress website.  Now you log in for the first time in a while and you see that there are a ton of plugins that needs updated.  How do you update the WordPress website plugins and what precautions should you take before taking the first step?

What Are WordPress Plugins?

First things first, plugins add functionality that typically provides features that your WordPress website wouldn’t have if they weren’t active.  Think of them as apps on your phone.  For example, without your phone’s banking app, you wouldn’t easily be able to see how much money is in your account.  From time to time your banking app needs updated, either due to new functionality, security updates or due to a change in the phones operating system.  Plugins have the same reasons for changing on an ongoing basis and generally fall into those three buckets.

First Step – Backing Up Your Website

Now that you know what WordPress plugins are, before considering updating them, you should make a backup of your existing website.  There are a few different ways this could go.  Some hosts automatically back up your website each and every day.  Our favorite host, SiteGround does this.  However, other hosts do not which means that if your website goes down, there may not be a backup in place.  Before even worrying about your plugins, you should make sure you know the answer to this question and make sure that you have your website backed up each day.

There are also a number of plugins themselves that allow you to back up your website on an ongoing basis.  While these can work, it is always better to rely on the host itself to make backups.  That way, you don’t have to worry about the backup plugin itself running into issues and its backup not work.  The host will be much more reliable when it comes to backup – and that is regardless of who you use for hosting.

Second Step – What Do Your Company’s Website Plugins Currently Do?

The next step may seem unnecessary but it is very important.  Some plugins on older WordPress websites are no longer supported by the newest version of WordPress.  That means when WordPress is updated, the plugins may no longer work.  The same is true for plugins that are updated before other plugins they rely on are updated themselves.

For example, a very common plugin that many websites use is called WooCommerce.  WooCommerce allows companies to sell products directly on their website.  It has many additional addons that can be used, and these come in the form of additional plugins.  Sometimes if companies update WooCommerce and the addon plugins they use rely on WooCommerce to work a certain way, it can break a website’s core functionality.

Instead of relying on a backup to resolve this, I recommend taking stock of exactly how the plugins are currently set up and having a firm understanding of how one relies on another.  The best way to do this is to speak to the developer of the original website but if that person is unavailable, you can do some research to learn how things may stack.

In this example below, notice how Gravity Forms is the main plugin and its addon is Mailchimp.  This plugin allows forms that are filled out to have email addresses easily flow into a Mailchimp list.

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The Mailchimp plugin relies on Gravity Forms so if Gravity Forms is updated and the Mailchimp one is not, it could potentially cause an issue that wouldn’t allow the Mailchimp plugin to continue functioning.  This happens all too often, especially for plugins that are only loosely supported or are free.

Before Updating, Check What the Plugin Update Does!

Notice in the screenshot below that the WooCommerce update has additional information.  Always click on this, especially if there are other plugins that are rely on it.  Sometimes you won’t believe what the plugin says it will do within the new update.

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Examples of information I have seen in some plugin detail updates include:

  1. Take away core functionality as the plugin developer or technology has been purchased and the core functionality it used to provide for free has been put behind a paywall.  If you update it, it will no longer do what it previously did for free and you will have to buy it regardless of the cost (often monthly or annually), in order to continue getting the same functionality.
  2. Some addon plugins will no longer work with it.
  3. The plugin has been totally rewritten and it will no longer work with any of your existing data/design.
  4. The plugin now requires a certain version of PHP (on your server), WordPress, etc. that you may or may not have, thus breaking your website when you update it.
  5. The plugin needs to be re-authenticated with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, etc. after update – otherwise it won’t continue working and/or showing data.

Finally!  It is Time to Update

You made the website backups, you know how your website’s plugins work, you read through the descriptions of the plugin updates – you are ready to go!  That’s great, and it can be truly easy to take the next step.  While logged in and on the back end of WordPress, simply look for the Plugins tab on the left as shown below.

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I recommend instead of updating all of the plugins at once to update them one at a time.  This will reduce the likelihood of running into errors due to your website’s server becoming too busy.  What does that error message look like?  Something like this –

If you see that, the admin account for the website should receive an email from WordPress with a link you can sign into to solve the problem.  If you don’t receive it, there are other ways to fix the website above and beyond restoring the backup you made earlie, but they become more technical and are outside the scope of this guide.

All Updated?  Now What?

Test!  Don’t forget this step please.  I see so many folks update their plugins but forget to test out the basics of the website after they do.  This is a recipe for issues cropping up.  No need to go through every single thing but try to hit the big ones.  For example, if you have a WooCommerce website and you’ve updated WooCommerce, make sure you can still add an item to the cart.  Always make sure the website still looks good (use incognito mode so the previous version isn’t cached).  If all looks good, you’ve made it!

How Often Should You Update Your Plugins?

Plugin updates happen daily.  However, most are not security based updates and are not immediately necessary.  In fact, sometimes it is better to allow an update to rest before you use it on your website.  Many plugin updates come with bugs that simply lead to another plugin update by a developer a day or two later.  That’s why we recommend updating plugins once per month unless there is a security update.  How can you stay on top of what kind of updates are crucial and which ones can wait?  I recommend setting up a Google alert for each of your main plugins – if there is a security update that comes out, you’ll get an email about it and can make the update right away.

Don’t Want to Handle WordPress Maintenance?  We Can Help

Unsurprisingly (you probably guessed), Sharp Guys’ offers ongoing website maintenance for WordPress users.  You can sign up completely online and you can cancel entirely online, just like a Netflix subscription.  We take care of all of your website’s plugin updates, provide an hour of work each month and lots of other good things.  We don’t outsource this stuff to external folks and we don’t automate it just because it would be faster – we literally make updates to your website by hand each and every month.  We follow all of the steps above because our clients are important to us and hey, if we don’t, we’re likely to end up with a website we just have to fix anyway.

Learn More About WordPress Maintenance