Will Updating WordPress Break Your Site?

WordPress updates keep your website stable, secure, and performant. But can they break it? And, if that happens, what can you do about it?

Published Categorized as Tech & Apps, WordPress

When it comes to WordPress, there are three kinds of updates you need to know about.

First, there are updates to the WordPress core. If your website were a car, the theme would be its exterior, the plugins would be the dial and buttons on the dashboard, and the core would be the engine that powers it.

The core is the foundational set of code stored in files on your host’s server, required for your website and all of WordPress’s out-of-the-box features to work.

Second, there are updates to your theme. No matter if you’re using a free theme, like the WordPress default theme, or a paid one, like Divi, Astra, or GeneratePress, its developers will occasionally release updates to it.

Typically, these updates make your theme easier to customize by adding or improving features to the “Customize” section of the WordPress admin panel. They also resolve issues affecting the experience of your visitors, like visual elements showing up incorrectly, buggy menus, and others.

Third, there are updates to your plugins. One of the disadvantages of WordPress is that you don’t get all the features you need by default—so you end up needing to install many plugins on your website.

Each update usually introduces new functionality, minor or major, to your plugins and fixes bugs affecting the way your website works. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to keep your WordPress plugins up to date if you want your website to stay secure, usable, fast, and stable.

What to Do When Something Breaks After an Update?

The rule of thumb is that updates to the WordPress core, theme, and plugins are supposed to improve your website, not break it.

Sooner or later (and almost every WordPress user will testify to that), something will go wrong, and an update will break your website in one way or another. The trick is in knowing what to do when that happens.

Sometimes, the developer of your theme or a plugin you’re using didn’t test their update thoroughly enough before releasing it. As soon as all the users of that theme or plugin switch to the new version, it causes a given design or functionality to stop working.

When that happens, users will start reporting the bug—in the WordPress forums for that specific plugin or a gated community for premium users, and the developer will release an update to the update that fixes it.

If this happens to you and you’re on the lucky side, it won’t take them more than a day or two. If not, and the broken functionality is critical to your website, you’ll probably have to come up with a Plan B.

If you know how to code, start Googling for a hotfix.

In my experience, typing in “{PLUGIN NAME} update breaks {FEATURE}” or “{FEATURE} stopped working in {PLUGIN NAME}” are two good queries to get your search started. Look for the most recent results from Stack Overflow (and other developer communities).

You can either hotfix the theme or plugin yourself (and have that hotfix overridden with the next update, provided that its developers fix it), or create a plugin or child theme to temporarily “injects” the hotfix.

If you don’t know how to code, you have five options:

Option 1. If the problem isn’t critical, try looking for a workaround. A “workaround” is simply a different way to achieve what you want, with the use of the theme or plugin in question or not. For example, you could use the Gutenberg editor instead of the visual builder if your Divi theme or Elementor plugin suddenly stopped working.

Option 2. Search for the plugin’s name in the WordPress Plugins directory and report the problem in the forums, remembering to link to your website and making sure to explain what broke. If you’re using a premium plugin, the developer probably has email support or a ticketing system to use instead (look for one on their website).

Option 3. As long as the developer of the theme or plugin is responsive, consult with them if getting an archive (.ZIP file) of the old version of the plugin and re-installing it on your website could help you temporarily solve the problem (by reverting to an older version).

Depending on how extensive the update ways—and how many changes it made to the database—this may or may not work, which is why it’s best to check with the developer before trying this.

Option 4. You can always fall back on a WordPress fixing service, where a developer on call can resolve the issues you’re having for you. Before you look for one, contact your host’s support team to make sure whatever you’re experiencing isn’t caused by something they can help you fix.

Option 5. Sometimes, the feature that’s broken affects your website so severely, and the developer of the theme or plugin in question is so slow that you can’t afford to wait. If that’s the case, you can either ask your host’s support team to restore a backup of your website for you or change the plugin with an alternative immediately.

Keep in mind that not all hosts do daily backups, which means you might lose any changes you made to your website after the most recent backup.

Also, if you decide the change the theme or plugin, you might open up days of work for yourself—and your team—in customizing the look and feel of your website, changing shortcodes, and figuring out what works.

This happened to me once with an Amazon Associates plugin that I was using on one of my websites. The plugin broke after an update, and the support team was ridiculously unresponsive.

Since the website had high traffic to its review posts and I was losing readers and revenue by the minute, I decided to buy a competing plugin and switch all of my affiliate shortcodes to it ASAP.

Let’s say I didn’t get much sleep that night. I had to learn how to use the other plugin, configure it properly, then update shortcodes on 50+ posts, making sure that everything looked well and worked as intended.

That happened months ago, and the developer of the other plugin still hasn’t addressed the problem. Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures.

Daily Backups Give You a Good Fallback Plan

All of this, of course, wouldn’t have been needed if I had just made daily backups of my website that I could restore in a jiff.

After this whole fiasco, a friend told me about ManageWP.

It’s a low-cost service for managing multiple WordPress websites remotely. While it’s mainly intended for freelancers and agencies, it’s also a fantastic tool for owners of two or more niche sites and affiliate blogs.

ManageWP has a “Safe Updates” feature, which automatically creates a restore point for your website before the update. It also does incremental backups (on-demand, hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly) to the cloud (I believe it stores the backups on Amazon’s servers), making your site virtually bulletproof.

All of this comes at a highly reasonable price that starts at $2/month per website (if it helps me sleep at night, sign me up!).

Test Your Website Proactively

When something breaks, you and your team should find out about it before it impacts your users (and before you see a drop in visits, engagement, or revenue telling you that something’s wrong).

While fast-growing startups and Fortune 500 companies usually have whole teams to automate this process, the best way for small business owners and online marketers to achieve this, especially in the early days of a website, is to test it manually now and then.

Here’s how I do this.

I have a spreadsheet that lists all the critical features for each of my websites and the URLs of the pages or posts to test them. I’ve set a recurring event on my calendar that reminds me to do so every two weeks.

The rest is all about staying disciplined and going thoroughly through that list every single time.

Can You Just Not Update Your WordPress Website?

Updates play an important role in your WordPress website. They’re how the developers of the WordPress core, as well as the theme and plugins you’re using, roll out new features, changes to existing functionality, bug fixes, and security patches.

If you don’t keep your website up to date, its technical backbone will grow not only morally old but also increasingly insecure with time.

Since websites become more visible (it’s an open secret that Google favors old domains) and valuable (which makes them tougher to compete with) as they age, you’re literary opening up the door to hackers on an Internet asset that’s growing in value.

So take up my advice when I tell you to keep your WordPress website up to date.

It’s one of those things you don’t understand the value of until shit hits the fan, and you have to recover from a malicious attack that someone was able to pull off thanks to that five-year-old plugin you had active.

In Conclusion

Most of the time, WordPress core, theme, or plugin updates won’t break your website. But I guarantee you that sooner or later, something will go wrong. When that happens (and it’s a question of “when,” not “if”), you know what to do.

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