How to Safely Update Your WordPress Plugins Every Time | Elegant Themes Blog

As a WordPress user, you are probably aware of the importance of plugins. Your site’s functionality often relies on having just the right combination of plugins that compliment each other. You also likely see that red-circled number in your dashboard beside Plugins indicating that one or more of the precious creations needs an update. Unless you take care of it immediately, the number only grows. And before long, you’re in the double-digits of WordPress plugins that need to be updated, and you’re afraid your site might go kaboom if you touch any of them.

Don’t worry. We can show you how to handle this situation so that you can safely update your WordPress plugins each and every time without your site’s stability being a concern at all.

Why WordPress Plugins Need to be Updated

One reason that WordPress plugins will need to be updated is because the developers have introduced a new feature or features. They might introduce a new cloud storage option, make the workflow and UI easier to use, or just make quality-of-life improvements that make using the plugin better all the way around.

The only way to introduce these changes is to push a new update to the plugin. In cases where the only update is a new feature or polishing of an old one, keeping the old version isn’t likely to cause much harm.

However, the primary reason developers update WordPress plugins might be for security issues. Making sure that your site is safe and secure should be your top priority. One of the biggest weaknesses in a WordPress site is its plugins. As amazing as they are, plugins can conflict with each other and your themes, and developers often work tirelessly to patch vulnerabilities and update the plugins so that your site isn’t open to attack.

Outdated plugins can have openings that can be compromised, so keeping them up to date is one of the top ways to keep your site online and running like it should.

What to Do Before Updating Your WordPress Plugins

Before you update your WordPress plugins, you need to make a full site backup. We suggest using a plugin such as UpdraftPlus to handle this. It’s a pretty painless process.

Then, once you’ve made a backup and have it in a secure location, you should take a look at what plugins need updating. Each plugin that needs updating should have a link in the Plugins – Installed page where you can view the changes in the newer version (1).

Before actually updating the plugin, it is very important for you to read these details.

The developer will provide a changelog, as well as any pertinent information about the update, such as new PHP requirements, any known issues such as theme incompatibility or conflicts with other plugins. If you don’t see anything that pertains to your site functioning as it should, then you can safely update the WordPress plugin.

How to Choose Between Automatic and Manual Updates

Should you let your plugins update automatically as the developers push patches? Or should you go through each and every changelog with a fine-toothed comb and cherry-pick which updates get installed when?

These are not easy answers. Because for some plugin types, auto-updates are fine. They don’t offer huge risks or dig too deep into site functionality.

For other plugins, though, automatic updates can be a huge risk because of how important they are to maintaining your site’s performance.

Types of Plugins to Automatically Update

Every site has a suite of plugins, some of which are integral to its performance, and some of which provide quality-of-life services to users and staff. It’s these quality-of-life plugins that you can generally set to automatically update because they won’t bring the site down if they break.

For example, Yoast SEO. Yoast (or another SEO plugin) is a staple on nearly every WordPress site out there. But its functionality isn’t integral to the site itself staying online.

That is the primary criteria for plugins that can be auto-updated: will the site go down if the plugin goes down? or will the site not work if this plugin breaks?

If the answers are no, then you’re likely okay to set it to auto.

However, that’s not the only criteria you should look for. Consider the purpose of your site, as well. If you use a plugin like NextGen Gallery as the foundation of how you deliver content, you will want to screen update changes. But if you just use it to enhance content, automatic updates are fine.

You do not want to update plugins that are integral to your site’s function. Such as the Divi Builder plugin or Gutenberg (or other page-builders). If you leave a plugin that holds your site together on auto, a single conflict can arise that makes your site unusable.

For example, a new Gutenberg update might make posts uneditable because of a theme conflict (speaking from experience, on this one). Tracking down that problem would (and did) involve going through a lot of trouble to figure out it was caused by a new update that you didn’t know happened.

The rule-of-thumb, then, is that you can set it to automatically update if your site can live without it until you realize it’s gone. On most sites, that’s most plugins because they offer quality-of-life features and don’t tie into other services.

If, however, you use page builders, redirection plugins, etc. that change the way WordPress works, then do not set them to automatically update.

How to Update WordPress Plugins Automatically

If your WordPress version is up to date (and it definitely should be), you have the option of enabling automatic updates of plugins from the site dashboard itself. Simply navigate to Plugins – Installed Plugins (1) to start.

Each plugin in the list has a separate option to Enable Auto-Updates (2) to the right of its entry. Anything you want to leave in WordPress’s capable hands, you just need to click that button.

And then in a very unceremonious manner, the link will simply change to Disable Auto-Updates (3). You can swap back and forth as often as you want or need to.

Using WordPress Management Services

WordPress management services such as ManageWP can also handle your WordPress plugin updates. Services like this let you consolidate different sites that you administrate into one dashboard for easy access to everything. Especially theme and plugin updates.

To add sites to the dashboard and manage updates, all you have to do is click on the Websites (1) tab in the left-hand sidebar and click Add Another Website (2).

You will be prompted to either enter your WP admin credentials or use the ManageWP Worker plugin. Either way will sync your website to the service dashboard. Which will immediately display plugins with issues (4).

Any plugins that have updates will appear here, and you can sort them by either name or priority of security vulnerabilities (5). Additionally, if you click the Plugins (6) tab near the left, you will be able to manage the entire site’s plugins just like in your WP admin panel.

Only services like this allow you to schedule automatic updates (8). That way you know when maintenance will occur. And when the site might potentially have issues (9).

Using a WordPress management service like this can save a lot of time and headache as site administrators. You get features not built into WP core that can make your life a lot easier. And ManageWP isn’t the only one out there. Managed hosts like Pressable and Flywheel and others have this same kind of management dashboard to handle more than one site at a time.

How to Update Plugins Manually

Manually updating your plugins, though, is the way many people handle site management. Manually updating WordPress plugins couldn’t be easier, really. Simply navigate to Plugins – Installed Plugins (1) in your dashboard and find the plugins in need of updating.

The quickest and easiest way to update is simply click the Update Now (2) link under an individual plugin. The process will complete immediately, in real time, and in seconds you’re ready to move on.

You can also click the checkbox (3) for any number of plugins that you want to update in a batch. Then just click the dropdown and select Update (4). The process will run, and they will all update. We recommend staying on the page while they update and run down the list. We have experienced broken plugins when we navigate away mid-update.

You can also enable/disable auto-updates the same way, rather than clicking the link on each one as we discussed earlier in the article.

How to Manually Update Plugins via FTP

Sometimes, a plugin needs to be updated but you can’t get into your dashboard for any of a number of reasons. This doesn’t mean you cannot still update your plugin, especially if updating would fix an issue. You just need to access your site via FTP. You can get your credentials from within your hosting dashboard, or by asking your site administrator for access.

Enter the credentials and connect (1), and then navigate to the /public_html/wp-content/ (2) directory and find the plugins (3) folder. Inside, locate the plugin you want to update (4), right-click to download a backup (5) just in case, and then right-click to delete the old version (6).

At this point, you will need the newest version of the plugin on your computer, which you can get from its plugin page (7) or from the developer’s site where you purchased it.

Then you will need to extract the .zip file you download without renaming the folder. Then, simply upload that folder by dragging it to the /wp-content/plugins directory (or right-clicking and selecting Upload).

And the plugin is updated!

How to Undo (or Rollback) a Plugin Update

Occasionally, updating a plugin will cause issues no matter how careful you are. In those cases, it’s good to have a backup plan so that you can restore your site as quickly as possible.

The simplest way to do this is to go back to the previous version of the plugin.  On every plugin page on the repository, you will see an Advanced View (1) link.

Scroll to the very bottom of the next page until you find a dropdown for previous versions.

Download the last one that you know was safe (most likely the latest one before the problem started), and simply delete the old one and install this previous version in its place. You can use the same methods we show above to handle this. It’s the same process, only you’re going back a point-release, not forward.

If that’s not an option and you followed our advice at the beginning and made a full backup of your site, you can restore that full back up and the old version of the plugin will be included in that.

Or you can also trust a plugin to manage your plugins and install WP Rollback.

WP Rollback is a fantastic plugin where it goes through any theme or plugin on the repository and restores to any version hosted there. It is an automated way of doing what we show above, and we can’t recommend it enough.

Updating WordPress plugins is one of the most important parts of WordPress site management and site security. But that doesn’t mean it has to be troublesome. You set a schedule for automatic updates. Or you can handle each plugin on an individual basis, manually choosing if and when new versions get installed. The important thing is that the plugins get updated. Not how. But hopefully now you will know how to do it so that they do.

What is your preferred method of managing WordPress plugin updates?

Article featured image by Korosi Francois-Zoltan /

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