What you need to know before upgrading WordPress yourself

On the surface it may seem that upgrading WordPress is simple. Click a few buttons, and *poof* you are upgraded. The truth is, upgrading a site correctly is considerably more complicated than it may appear. It is also essential to recognize that if you happen to make a mistake while undertaking the process, you may actually lose your site entirely.

So, please be sure that you fully understand the following information and advice before attempting to upgrade WordPress yourself.


Every set of instructions for upgrading WordPress starts with backing up. Often you are told to back up the WordPress files, and the WordPress database, but there are also many plugins and systems that need to be backed up.

Most instructions for back up fail to mention one important detail about doing back up which is this: In addition to knowing how to back up your site’s components, you also need know how to restore your website from the backup data, if something goes wrong. If you don’t know how to restore your site from its backup, and you have a major problem, the downtime and expense of hiring a professional to resurrect your site (and then upgrade it correctly) are likely to be costly. If you are not fully confident in your ability to cope with such issues yourself, you may do well to simply choose the less costly and frustrating option of simply engaging a professional to do the upgrade for you.

Note: If you do attempt to do an upgrade, and you do run into problems and then can’t restore your site from backup, you should promptly contact your host. In some cases your host may be able to do a server-level backup restoration for a nominal cost. It’s essential to request this service as soon as possible, because automatic host-backups are conducted frequently. If you call for help after the host has already backed up your new broken version, they won’t be able to restore your old working version.

Check current functionality

An often overlooked step in preparation for upgrading is to first check all working details of your site to make sure everything is currently functioning correctly. If you run the upgrade without having first carefully looked at every aspect of the site, if a problem shows up, you won’t know if it was already there or is a result of the update. This confusion can make troubleshooting much more difficult.

Check for server space

Before upgrading, you should verify that you have plenty of disk space available within your hosting account. If you are saving your backup to your hosting space, check the space after running the backup, as it will take up quite a bit of space. You want to have at least 100mb of space available before running the upgrade. If you run out, you will have problems. If you run out of space, you may not be able to restore your backup.

Upgrade order

It’s best to run the update in a specific order. You should upgrade your plugins first, WordPress second, and lastly themes. After upgrading WordPress, some plugins may need to be upgraded again.

Check plugin upgrade functionality

The most common problem people run into when upgrading is that they have a plugin that’s not compatible with the newest version of WordPress. You might expect this would simply affect the functionality of the offending plugin, but it often crashes WordPress altogether. It’s important to research your plugins and replace any that won’t be compatible with the new version of WordPress. Replacing a plugin requires that you understand exactly what it does so that you can find a suitable, compatible alternative.

Note: When choosing a plugin (to replace an incompatible one or to add functionality to your site), it’s important to find one that’s well supported. You want one that has a lot of downloads, good ratings and that has been recently updated. Often older plugins that meet these criteria are the most reliable. There’s also some advantage to choosing a plugin that has a paid upgrade option, even if you’ll only be using the free version. This gives you a potential avenue for obtaining more support in case of a problem, and if the author is making money from the plugin, he or she is more likely to keep it up-to-date.

Check functionality after update

Before you start checking your site, be sure that cache is disabled. It’s possible for everything to look ok on your screen because it’s actually a cached version of your old site.

You’ll want to check each page on the site. Keep an eye out for shortcodes. A shortcode is an instruction within square brackets, such as: [EXAMPLE=YXZ]. When looking at a site, the shortcode shouldn’t be visible. If you can see the shortcode, it’s an indication that a plugin isn’t working or conflicts with a shortcode used by the theme.

Don’t forget to check forms, photo galleries (clicking on each image, etc.), and any other dynamic features on your pages. If you have mobile functionality, you should test the site on a smartphone as well.

Once you are satisfied that your site is working properly, you can turn your cache back on, and you’re done.

If you do run into a problem, you’ll have to determine if it’s specific to a plugin or if it’s caused by something else. Depending on your level of expertise, you may need to call in an expert. You’ll want to make that decision quickly, because troubleshooting becomes more difficult the longer you wait. This is why it is so important to promptly, carefully check your website after updating it.

Disclaimer: Please note, that this is not a “how-to” guide for upgrading WordPress.

There’s a reason this is article is called, “What you need to know…” and not “How to….” Its purpose is simply to help ensure that you understand the scope of the process and the technical skills required to upgrade WordPress. If you do not have a solid understanding and the necessary skills to perform all the elements in this process correctly, you are urged to not attempt to run your own update.

If you do decide to do an upgrade and want to learn how to do so in detail, you can search Google and YouTube for tutorials. You should review several tutorials to get a good overview. Focus on those that are most recent, as the upgrade process varies somewhat with each new version.

Note: Consider the age of your current WordPress version. The older versions are more likely to have problems in the upgrading process. If you are updating a version that is more than five major revisions behind the current version, you can expect to have some serious issues. Click here (https://wordpress.org/news/category/releases/) for version release information.

All professionals are not alike

The above information represents our best practices protocols for running upgrades. That said, not every web developer will follow all of these guidelines. Some prefer to just do a backup, immediately start upgrading everything, and then fix things as they go wrong. We don’t recommend this approach for two reasons: First, it often results in excessive downtime for your site, and second, it generally takes longer than just having a system in place that will prevent problems before they happen.

Note: As professionals at Justin’s Web Design, we have more tools and systems for eliminating problems than are available to the average person. For example, when updating a very old, and/or complicated site, we’ll often clone the site and then run the updates in a temporary location. This is the most secure way to run an update, because the live site is not altered and remains fully intact.


The best way to prevent issues and keep your site running well is to have it professionally maintained. Instead of doing major updates infrequently, having monthly maintenance keeps your site consistently current and protected by the most recent updates. Having a professional maintaining your site also gives you the peace of mind of knowing that a knowledgeable technician is on the front lines if you run into a problem. Additionally, a good, proactive webmaster will look for opportunities to make your site run better and be more secure.

If it ain’t broke…

If your site seems to be running smoothly, you may be asking, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” So long as your site is working, is updating really necessary? The short answer is “yes.” A neglected website isn’t like a car in need of an oil change that gradually runs rougher and rougher, emitting black smoke and making weird noises, giving you plenty of warning before the engine is seriously damaged. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) your website will probably work just fine without the protection of updates — right up to the moment it crashes and/or is hacked. Once that happens, repairing it will be time-intensive and expensive.

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of what is involved in updating WordPress. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.

About the author

A professional web developer since 1998, Justin Feral-McWhirter launched Justin’s Web Design in 2005. In building more than 100 WordPress sites, his focus has always been creating cost-effective solutions for small businesses. To that end, Justin’s Web Design technicians developed an affordable, professional WordPress website maintenance program, which is now utilized by dozens of satisfied clients.