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Be Careful with WordPress Updates

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“FATAL ERROR.” 

Does that look familiar? If so, I’m sorry to hear that. You are not alone though: it’s not uncommon for some of my clients using a content management system like WordPress to make an update and then see the whole site “break.

Why is WordPress so volatile?

WordPress is actually a very solid system. If you just have WordPress with nothing else, your site will be just fine. The main issue is when you start adding additional things, namely 3rd party extensions or plugins, to WordPress.

The major weakness of WordPress is also its major strength: WordPress can be modified endlessly. With 1 click of a button, you can add any functionality to your website via PLUGINS. Want a slideshow? Done. Want a mortgage calculator? Done. Want to make your website have falling snowflakes? Done. At first, you will be amazed at what is available to you at the click of a button. The problem is that those plugins are built for WordPress version X, and when WordPress goes to version Y, that plugin may no longer work or the site may have issues as a whole. Frustration ensues.

Even worse, WordPress, by default, is set to run automatic updates, meaning your site can break without you even knowing it.

What does the fatal error mean?

WordPress is built on code (PHP). When you run additional items (plugins, themes) which are also built on code, they may have a large conflict with each other or with WordPress. The server stops loading the website immediately and returns a white screen with a fatal error message.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a safety feature in place for WordPress to protect you from fatal errors; if you casually update things, the entire site could stop working, both the regular site and the admin part of the site, locking you out of it complete. From there, you would need higher levels of access to fix your site.

What causes a fatal error?

In general, programs or systems are very consistent: if they were working fine, they will continue to work fine until something changes to cause it to stop working.

Regarding WordPress, what causes a fatal error is updating WordPress itself, updating an active theme, or installing/updating plugins. There are other causes I’ve seen in my history of working with WordPress, but they are rare.

Can anything else bad happen when I make updates?

Even worse than an actual, explicit error is an error that goes undetected. When you make updates, something may stop working due to a conflict, but it’s not big enough an error to cause the entire site to completely break. This is actually more dangerous than a fatal error because you have a false sense of security and the errors may not come to your attention until days or months later.

So, should I never update my website?

No, you should. WordPress updates are important because of the security improvements. You should still make updates, but when you do, it should be done carefully (more on that later). Also, you do not need to make the updates immediately. In software, sometimes new releases/versions have bugs themselves, and so another version is released shortly after to correct that bug.

What is the improper way to update my website?

Clicking on the UPDATE ALL button and hoping for the best. There’s a good chance nothing goes wrong. But there’s also a good chance your site will go down and you won’t know what happened.

What is the proper way to update my website?

The proper way to update a website is tedious, but it’s smart and the only way to properly ensure your website is stable.

  1. Create a backup of both your WordPress website files and database. You can use a backup plugin, you can rely on automatic backups from your webhosting (careful, some webhosting companies charge you a fee to restore backups!), or you can manually create backups in your Cpanel. YOU NEED THIS BACKUP TO FALL BACK ON IF ANYTHING GOES WRONG.
  2. Make your updates.
  3. Testing: test any plugin functions. For example, if you have a contact form plugin, fill in the contact form and make sure it goes through. Or if you have an e-commerce store, create a test transaction. Perform a walk-through of the major processes in your website.
  4. If you get a fatal error or something doesn’t work, you can investigate the issue or just restore a backup.

I find that most of the time, updates go fine, but it’s important to be prepared in case something breaks.

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