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“Why the hell did I do that?” Looking back, that's the question I asked myself when I thought about my first updates on WordPress.
My way of doing things was, let's say, unsavoury.
An example? I didn't even bother to save my site before getting myself into trouble…
Just to let you know : I was totally sober and conscious. But not yet vaccinated. And then, one day, what was supposed to happen happened: my site crashed.
Believe me, this is a lesson. In my case, nothing serious happened.
But imagine if this had happened on an e-commerce site that generates thousands of euros/dollars in turnover per day? The shortfall can quickly turn out to be catastrophic.
You get my point: to update your site, you must take a minimum of precautions, and there are several ways to proceed.
This article will explain this to you. By the way, you will even see how to solve some “classic” problems that can arise during an update.
Table of contents
What is a WordPress update?
When you update WordPress, it means that you are “installing” its latest version.
What can be updated in WordPress?
The updates mainly concern 4 elements:
- The WordPress core, i.e. the original files you find in the “original” file you are downloading. As a reminder, WordPress contains 2 main elements: the core, and a database;
- Themes (including your parent theme, and your child theme, if you have one – which is highly recommended if you put your hands in code);
- Translations. The WordPress community makes great efforts to make as many themes and plugins available in many languages.
Nothing easier than knowing when an update is available: WP rings your bell, and indicates it to you on your dashboard.
By clicking on Updates, you will find the items that have to be updated. To do so, simply click on the corresponding button. For example, on the capture below, everything is up to date except for 2 extensions.
By clicking on Update plugins, the update will be done. But be careful, some prerequisites are necessary before taking action. I'll talk to you about it later.
Note: on your Dashboard, WordPress will not always be able to notify you about some updates – for example for plugins bundled in a theme purchased on Themeforest. In this case, you will have to be vigilant and download the latest versions on the specific sites (or even buy the plugins concerned), then manually perform the updates. Don't worry, I'll detail all this later.
The two types of updates
In IT, there are two types of updates. WordPress being a software, those two apply to it too. We can quote:
- Major releases, literally major versions. In general, they take place every 4 to 5 months. In particular, they add new operating functions. For example, WordPress version 5.0 was delivered with Gutenberg, the new content editor.
Major releases are easily recognizable: their first two digits change. For example, versions 4.5, 4.6 and 4.7 are major releases.
- Minor releases. They mostly fix bugs and security breaches. You can recognize them when there is a change in the third digit of the version. For example, versions 4.9.1 and 4.9.2 are minor releases.
Before we move on, do you like jazz? Because the developers of the WordPress core do! That's why, since version 1.0, all major releases are named according to a famous jazzman.
- Version 1.0 is called Miles Davis;
- Version 2.0 is called Duke Ellington;
- Version 2.7 is called John Coltrane;
- Version 5.0 is called Bebo Valdés.
If you are interested, you can find them here.
All right, no more trumpet and saxophone talk. If I understood correctly, you're mainly here to set the music for your next updates, right?
Please be aware that this is not something that can be done lightly. Find out why in the next section.
Why do you need to update WordPress?
1. To secure it
At this point, there may be a question bothering you: why update your site when it runs smoothly?
The first reason is security. An updated site is a more secure site.
At the time of writing, WordPress is driving 33% of the world's websites. It is also the most widely used CMS (Content Management System), by far (60% market share).
This inevitably exposes him to many attacks on a daily basis. According to a 2018 Sucuri report, 36.7% of WordPress sites were hacked because they were not up to date.
Currently, only 25% of the sites have installed the latest version of WordPress.
2. To benefit from new features
WordPress is a CMS in constant evolution. As explained above, new major releases are generally released every 4 to 5 months.
They come with new functionalities that are more or less important, which make the user experience more pleasant.
For example, WordPress version 4.0 made it easier to integrate content (e.g. videos) by allowing you to paste a URL directly into the text editor.
Version 4.8 made it easier to edit links, while version 4.9 allowed, among other things, to add galleries with widgets.
The last big upheaval was in version 5.0, with the appearance of Gutenberg, the new content editor.
3. To fix bugs and not to affect your performance
Another point to take into account: the new versions of WordPress fix technical bugs, especially those encountered in the code.
A clean, optimized code helps you keep a good loading speed on your site – one of the criteria taken into account by search engines like Google to rank your website.
Finally, having the latest version of WordPress may be necessary for compatibility reasons. Some extensions or themes may not work without it.
Now it's time to know when to update WordPress.
Just take a look below to have the answer.
When do you need to update WordPress?
1. The rule and the exception
Automatically, WordPress will warn you when an update is available. I told you about it at the beginning of the article, remember?
As a general rule, we could advise you to update as soon as they are available.
I said in general. In some particular cases, it may be more cautious not to rush, especially when it comes to major releases. But please don't wait for an entire month.
Some major releases can cause bugs that take a few days to be fixed. You can access all this information on the official WordPress blog.
2. Prerequisites before upgrading WordPress
Make sure you remember this: no matter what happens, before each update, you will have to act on two levels:
- Check system requirements. This ensures that your hosting has the necessary PHP and MySQL versions. At the time of writing, it was recommended, for WordPress to work properly, that your host have PHP version 7.3 (or greater), MySQL version 5.6 (or greater) or MariaDB version 10 (or greater), and HTTPS.
- Backup your site. By this, we mean the core files and especially the database. For example, you can use the UpdraftPlus extension.
With this, you will avoid a lot of disappointments and headaches if you run into any trouble.
Your best WordPress projects need the best host!
WPMarmite recommends Bluehost: great performance, great support. All you need for a great start.
To go even further, the best is to use a staging website to check the correct implementation of your updates. At least, if a problem arises, you can laugh about it, rather than cry.
To do this, you can experiment on an online development site. Second option: work on a local WordPress environment (i.e. your own machine).
Without further ado, let's move on to the next step: updating the WordPress core.
How do you update the WordPress core?
There are two types of updates: automatic updates, and manual updates. Discover immediately and in detail how they work.
1. Automatic update
The automatic update of WordPress exists since 2013 and version 3.7. It only concerns minor releases.
In short, this means that these updates are made without you being able to control anything. So you don't have to do it yourself. They can solve security problems.
Since we're talking about that, just know that it's possible to disable automatic updates. Some people like to do this to have total control over their site. But on the other hand, be careful: they update manually.
Remember: you must always update WordPress (core, themes and plugins), regardless of the option you choose.
If you are a beginner, I don't advise you to have fun disabling automatic updates. But if you ever need it, here's how to proceed.
Just add a line of code to your
In the opposite direction, it is also possible to automatically update major releases.
This can be done via a piece of code, to be added in the
wp-config.php file :
If you don't feel like putting your hands under the hood, those two plugins can help you (one or the other):
But again, I don't recommend you do that. Keep it more like a memo.
2. How do you update WordPress manually?
With the manual updates, you are in control : you update whenever you want.
You can update WordPress manually in two ways:
- Through the Dashboard.
- Using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client. This software runs on your personal computer and allows you to transfer files or retrieve them from your server (such as FileZilla for example).
2.1. Manual update via the Dashboard
As explained at the beginning of the article, WordPress automatically notifies you when an update is available. You'll see a message appear at the top of your Dashboard:
Before going any further, remember that you must first:
- Check the system requirements;
- Make a WordPress backup (files + database).
Then click on the Update Now button. WordPress will start the process on its own, and put your site in maintenance mode (unavailable).
The process is fast, but if you receive a large number of visitors, try to make your updates when traffic is lower.
Once the process is complete, WordPress redirects you:
- on the page where you can make all your updates (core, themes and plugins) for minor releases.
- or on you Dashboard's about page, for major releases.
There, you'll find a summary of security problems and bugs solved, and can see more information by clicking on the corresponding links.
Finish by testing that everything works and is displayed correctly. Usually, everything should be good – but be very careful.
That means that the update went well, well done!
Unfortunately, sometimes not everything goes as planned and the automatic update of WordPress is impossible! (It's still quite uncommon.)
In this case, you will have to roll up your sleeves and use manual update via FTP.
2.2. Manual update via FTP
Manual update via FTP is mainly done if the update on your dashboard does not work, or to come back to an earlier version of WordPress.
I suggest you break down the procedure into several steps, following the WordPress update tutorial below.
Step 1: Check the prerequisites and back up your site (files + database). I know I'm telling you this for the third time. But at least, if you don't, I will have warned you.
Your unzipped folder will contain files and sub-folders such as
wp-includes (beware: the
wp-content folder will not be useful).
Step 3: Connect to your FTP client.
To connect to your FTP, you need the login details that are in the welcome email sent to you by your web hosting provider.
Then, go to the root directory of your website, where your main domain name is configured.
This location may vary from one host to another. It can be called
www, or sometimes
You will find this folder in the right window of your FTP.
Step 4: Rename the
public_html folder, add a suffix to the
When I do a manual update, I call them
Why not delete them directly?
Indeed, we might be tempted to do that. But if for some reason you need to go back to the original version, you will waste a lot of time retrieving the files and sending them back.
By doing so, you will just have to give them their original name again, and be able to go back quickly. Afterwards, if the update has worked, you can delete
Step 5: Put the entire WordPress folder you unzipped in step 2 online, EXCEPT the
To do this, go to the left window of your FTP software. Select all your files and folders (except
wp-content, I repeat).
Why should this file not be sent?
Well, its role is to contain the themes, plugins and images of your site. If you replace the one on your site with the one on the WordPress zip, you will end up with a blank folder!
It happened to Alex once and he bit his fingers off. Good thing he had a backup!
Anyway, to send the right folders and files to your online server, either drag and drop them to the
public_html folder, or right-click and choose Send.
If the dialog box below appears, choose the Replace option. This will allow you to replace the old standard WordPress files with the new ones, by copying them over the old ones.
Again, don't fall for it by sending the
wp-content folder. Don't tell me in the comments that you made the mistake!
Step 6: Open the
wp-config-sample.php file, to see if new settings have been introduced in the latest version. If this happens (but it's unlikely to happen), you will need to copy these settings into your own
Step 7: Log in to your back office.
Open your browser and type in the URL of your site.
Enter your username and password and log in.
Step 8: Delete the
wp-includes-old folders if everything went well (no reason to keep them in this case).
You are now able to update the core of WordPress. Be aware that it is equally important to do this for your themes and plugins. A bug or incompatibility can make your site unavailable. So we might as well avoid that.
Find out how to do this in the next section.
How do you update your themes and plugins?
1. The procedure using your Dashboard
As with the WordPress core, you can update your themes and plugins in one click, directly from your Dashboard.
The first way to do this is to click on Dashboard > Updates.
To start the update, select the plugins and/or themes by checking Select All. Then click on the Update Plugins button.
Second option? Click Plugins > Installed Plugins for plugins; or Appearance > Themes for themes. In the latter two cases, a message indicating that a new version is available will be displayed. Just click on Update now.
Once the update is complete, this type of message will be displayed on a new page:
2. The FTP procedure
Sometimes you'll need to manually update your themes and plugins – because the automatic update does not work, or because these themes and plugins are not available in the official WordPress repository and do not have an update system.
As a result, our favorite CMS is not able to inform you that new versions are available (well, I must admit that it is quite uncommon anyway).
Step 1: As usual, you know the trick, start by backing up your site (files + database). You can never be too careful.
Step 2: Download the new version of the plugin or theme from the relevant developer's website, or from the official repository. If you get a zip file, uncompress it.
Note: if you need to download an old version of a plugin from the official repository, click on Advanced View on the plugin page (below the tags, on the right column), and scroll down to the bottom to Previous versions.
Step 3: Disable the plugin or theme on your back office.
Step 4: On your FTP client (refer to the procedure above), enter the folder
wp-content > plugins. You will see that, usually, there's a folder that contains every plugin's files.
Let's say you want to update the Duplicator plugin. Rename the plugin folder on the server by adding the suffix “old”
Send the folder of the new version to the server via FTP (it logically has the right name, in our case
For the themes, the procedure is the same, but everything happens in the
wp-content > themes folder.
Step 5: Go back to your site to check that everything is working, and delete the old folder of the plugin or theme
(duplicator-old in our case).
3. How to “automate” the update of your themes and plugins at the same time?
Do you manage several sites? Are you tired of spending hours updating themes and plugins by connecting to each and every site?
Manage WP Worker should help you.
Thanks to this service, all your sites are merged into one dashboard, so you can do all your updates in one click.
Manage WP offers many other very practical options, such as backup (free once a month and starting at $2/month per site with a higher frequency).
But when you talk about updating WordPress, you have to address another topic: the resolution of possible problems.
Because no, everything doesn't work all the time.
Which problems can you encounter when updating WordPress, and how do you solve them?
1. Update failure
A new update is available on your Dashboard. You have taken all your precautions beforehand and started the process.
Suddenly, the following message appears: “Update failure”.
When you're confronted with that for the first time, you can get a bit shaky. But let me assure you it's no big deal.
Most of the time, just delete a file named
.maintenanceon your FTP. It should be at the root of your site.
Also be aware that automatic updates may crash and display a nice blank page (we are also talking about the White Screen of Death).
For more information on this topic (and on other WordPress errors in general), you can read this post.
2. All your CSS modifications have disappeared
Now let's talk about an inconvenience you may have already experienced.
You spent hours refining the design of your site using CSS code.
As a serious professional, you have also updated your theme to protect yourself as much as possible. You did the right thing.
Except that now you no longer recognize your site. All your modifications disappeared after this damn update!
The reason is simple: you probably don't use a child theme, and you have made all your changes directly in the code of your parent theme.
Thanks to a child theme, this problem is over. A child theme is a kind of sub-theme that allows you to customize the appearance of your site. This way, there is no risk of losing all your changes the next time you update!
3. How do I go back to an earlier version of WordPress?
If, despite all your efforts, you do not find a solution to the failure of your update, you can always go back to an older version of WordPress.
However, this is strongly discouraged, as it can lead to security problems.
If you have backed up your site beforehand, go to your FTP client and delete all your files, except
Then copy your previously backed up files to your server and remember to restore the backup of your database by following these instructions.
If you have not made a backup, you can download the version you are interested in on this page.
Then, simply reproduce the procedure explained in point 2.2 (Manual update via FTP).
To sum it all up…
Updating WordPress is very, very important, whether for the core, themes or plugins.
Most of the time, a simple click will allow you to perform this operation with complete peace of mind. For that, WordPress is still pretty damn good, don't you think?
And if you encounter an error or if your site is down, you now have all the information you need to solve a possible problem through your FTP client.
Now, it's your turn: tell us about yourself. Do you update your website on a regular basis? How do you proceed?
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