WordPress plugin updates can be a hassle. There’s the understatement of the year. WordPress offers quite a large array of plugins that cater to an enormous amount of tasks. That’s one of the main reasons behind its fast adoption rate.
The ease of finding and installing a WordPress plugin might distract your attention from whether that plugin will be a good and cost-effective solution for your website. In fact, it’s not only easy to install a new plugin, but often, it’s the very first step you might take to add new functionality to your WordPress site.
The problem is that being able to browse through thousands of plugins, both free and paid and install them in a matter of seconds opens the gates to a proliferation of unnecessary plugins being added to WordPress installs. And this deliberate approach could have negative impacts on site performance, security, and maintenance costs.
However, given the number of WordPress plugins available and how important their role is, it is easy to be intrigued by their longevity and ask:
How can I safely update my WordPress plugins to make sure they’re helpful long-term?
Why update your WordPress plugins?
Plugin updates happen for a variety of reasons. Plugins are pieces of software that enable or enhance a new functionality on your website. There’s a plugin for almost anything: contact forms, image galleries, backups, SEO, and cache. The list is endless. As software, ultimately, WordPress plugins are updated on a non-standard schedule by their developers for the following reasons:
- To introduce new features
- To improve performance
- To update bug fixes, and improve security
- To maintain backward compatibility
There are a wide variety of issues that could be generated from literally not paying attention to plugin updates.
Why do website owners do that?
More WordPress users than you’d imagine disregard plugin updates trying to save on costs and time. They do this because they see some of their plugins running apparently quite well, even though they see the notification of a new update being released.
So they think: “Why should I even bother updating my plugins?”
But that’s just a poor and short-sighted decision: neglecting plugin (and website) maintenance is your path to failure. As Francesco Carlucci, a Codeable expert, points out:
Unfortunately, this is a very common mistake: site owners just forget or ignore plugin updates. The problem with this approach is that, for example, if you have to update a plugin from version 1.4 to version 2.6, it’s very likely that it’ll break some functionality or the whole website. That’s why it’s a best practice to update plugins on a recurring basis, like every week or so.
Periodic updates are important because skipping two major versions (or even more) can bring in a variety of issues you could have prevented just by having your plugins updated. Also, by having a maintenance routine in place where these updates are made consistently, you’ll be able to intercept issues before they become major ones and have greater impacts on your WordPress site.
Why Optimize WordPress plugins : An Example
Caldera Forms, a well-known contact form, suffered from a Multiple Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) security vulnerability which might have compromised the sites it was installed into. Because Josh Pollock and his team are well-reputable developers, guess what they did:
They fixed the security issues, and they did it by releasing a newer version of their WordPress plugin (along with other bug fixes and new features).
Of course, this just one of the main reasons why plugin updates occur., but it’s one of the main reasons why you should update your WordPress plugins. If you don’t, your old version of the plugin could leave room for vulnerabilities, stop being compatible with other software on your site, or break your site altogether.
So let’s get a bit more data-driven here and let’s try to understand more about plugin updates and how frequently they are released.
How often should you update WordPress plugins?
It’s not an easy question to answer because there’s no publicly available historical dataset to analyze. Does it mean we can’t get any insight on this topic? I say: “Hell, no!”
There’s an official website from which we can collect release date information: the (almighty) WordPress Repository. In my research for an average time span for WordPress plugin updates, I looked at the latest release dates for all of the 1386 WordPress plugins labeled as “Popular” on the WordPress repository:
This bar chart shows how many popular WordPress plugins and the time they’ve been officially last updated (as of the time of this writing).
Interesting, huh? I mean, it sure is revealing seeing that there are 300+ plugins grouped under the “popular” category which haven’t been updated in more than a year. But that’s another story, one that might see a fix sometime soon-ish.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on plugins that have been updated in less than 1 year and not in the last week.
Here’s what we get:
- 253 plugins have been updated less than the last 6 months (26.5%)
- 244 plugins have been updated less than 1 month ago (25.6%)
- 236 plugins have been updated less than 3 months ago (24.8%)
- 220 plugins have been updated less than 1 year ago (23.1%)
With the data we have, it seems that the most popular WordPress plugins have a less than 6-month update cycle. Close to that, we see plugins being updated less than 1 month ago.
So, for example, if your WordPress site is powered by 10 plugins, it means that, on average, you should expect to get updates for 1/4 of your plugins within each of these time spans.
This data-informed experiment wants to provide you with a closer look at the frequency of the plugin update release cycle. Given that the data comes from plugins available in the WordPress repository, it means we’re only accounting for free products or their free version at most. It’s very likely that for premium WordPress plugins, as they’re paid products, their developers have a shorter release cycle.
Now that you have data to look at, let’s get back to your main question, and let’s give it a proper answer:
Will my WordPress plugins be compatible forever if I don’t update them?
No plugin comes with lifetime compatibility
Well, the answer is: “Unfortunately, no.”
You might have heard or have been told this kind of undocumented, well-known truth around WordPress plugins. I provided you with data to give you a raw idea of how frequently plugin updates are released.
As harsh as it might sound, WordPress plugins are simply not designed to keep working at their best and stay compatible with your site for an indefinite time.
The case might seem different (read again: it might seem) with small and specific plugins that do one non-critical task, like adding an image to a post. Even in that use case, that plugin will require you – or your developer – to look after proper maintenance. WordPress developer and Codeable expert Francesco Carlucci elaborates:
WordPress is an ever-evolving ecosystem, and it’s constantly improving and changing. Plugins that have been built months or years ago, but not exclusively, could use functions that are no longer compatible with the current version of WordPress or are they’re simply in a ‘Legacy Version’, meaning that they’re deprecated and will likely disappear in the future.
Custom WordPress plugins are a different story
What about custom plugins: do they need updates?
Well, yes, and actually dealing with custom WordPress plugin updates is a bit more complex. These plugins have much more elaborate needs when it comes to updates and maintenance. This is because they have been custom-built to address tasks and functions specific to a website.
Custom plugins require more time and attention when it comes to updates because your developer has to go through and check each and every file, line of code, and element which your custom plugin interact with. If you have a custom theme or other customizations, things will take more time. That’s a thorough and detailed process. Once all is checked and gone through, your developer will work on your custom WordPress plugin to provide you with an update. Highlights Francesco:
If we talk about custom plugins, which have been developed just for a website, compatibility is something you’ll be required to look at over time. What I mean here is that if a plugin was developed using a specific function of WordPress or a hook by another plugin that’s been recently updated as well, your custom plugin needs to be updated too.
How to safely update a WordPress plugin (step-by-step)
Now that you understand the importance of WordPress plugin updates and how often you should do them, let’s go through the process of how to update a WordPress plugin step-by-step.
1. Back up your site
First, backup your site before making any changes. Use your web host or a plugin like UpDraftPlus to create a full backup of your site that includes the database and files.
2. Check Compatibility
Make sure the plugin is compatible with your current version of WordPress. Check the plugin page or changelog for information.
3. Check for issues
Check for reported issues. The plugin page and forums will also have information on whether there is any issue with the most recent version of the plugin. If there are, choose a different plugin or wait until the next update.
4. Deactivate plugin
Deactivate the plugin you want to update so there are no conflicts with the process.
5. Run WordPress plugin updates
Update the plugin. Click “update” next to the plugin in the WordPress Dashboard. In this case, we’re showing an update available for WooCommerce. You can also download the latest version from the repository and upload it to the plugins page of your dashboard.
Make sure everything is working as it should, that other plugins are functioning correctly, and that the theme is still displaying properly.
Once you’ve checked for errors, reactivate the plugin.
Monitor the site. Keep an eye out for any changes or issues with the new update and if you see any problems, revert to the previous version.
What to do if a WordPress plugin update doesn’t work
If a plugin isn’t working after an update, there’s a checklist you’ll want to go through to troubleshoot.
1. Check for compatibility and conflicts
Ensure that the update is compatible with your version of WordPress, themes, and plugins on your site. If it’s not, deactivate and use another or wait for an update.
2. Revert to a previous version
If the update doesn’t work, but the previous version didn’t have issues, you can roll back to the previous version of the plugin. You may see an option from the WordPress dashboard. If not, we’ll go through how to revert plugins in the next section.
3. Clear cache and cookies
Clear your browser’s cache and cookies to ensure that what you’re seeing on your website is the latest version of the update and that issues are cleared as the source of the problem.
4. Contact plugin support
If you’re still having no luck and desperately need to use the plugin, contact support and explain what you’re observing. They may be able to troubleshoot the issue with you or provide an alternative solution.
How to reverse plugin updates
As mentioned before, if you find that, for whatever reason, you want to go back to a previous version of a plugin, you can revert to the previous version easily. Just follow these steps:
1. Go to the WordPress plugin repository
Go to your plugin’s page on the plugin repository by searching for the name of the plugin you want to download. On the plugin page, go to “Advanced View” and click on the “Developers” tab.
2. Choose from the list of available versions
The drop-down list you’ll find there will have several options for versions you can download. Choose the version and download it to your computer.
3. Upload the .zip file to your WordPress
Go to the plugins tab on your WordPress dashboard and click “Add New” and “Upload Plugin”. You’ll be able to upload the .zip file with all the data needed to get the version of the plugin you want.
How to choose between automatic and manual updates
Now, you’ll notice that on the plugin tab of your dashboard, each plugin will give you the option of enabling auto-updates. Choosing automatic updates vs. manual updates depends on some factors, but in general, there aren’t many WordPress experts that will recommend auto updates. Why? Let’s take a look.
- Security. While updating your plugins is always better for security, some updates may not be compatible with your site or other plugins so setting and forgetting can cause problems if you’re not monitoring properly.
- Compatibility. Manual updates allow for better compatibility screening and testing before the update goes live.
- Time. While automatic updates can save time, but any error caused by auto updating plugins will result in time spent fixing it and reverting the plugin, not to mention diagnosing which plugin created the problem.
- Risk tolerance. Risk-averse business owners prefer to have more control over the site and perform manual updates to ensure everything goes smoothly and their site stays up for visitors to avoid losing revenue.
At the end of the day, the option is there for a reason, and if the stakes are low for your site and you don’t have much time to manually update, enabling auto-updates could be a good option for you. Additionally, both are better than not updating at all.
Manage and update plugins with ease
So if you ask something along the line of: “Will my plugins work forever on my WordPress website?”
The answer is “No!” and it has to be that way otherwise you’ll be using pieces of software that aren’t working for you, rather against you. Custom plugins fall under this rule as well.
Good developers do their best to follow best practices when developing plugins to keep them as most compatible over time as possible, but it’s not something that can be guaranteed 100%. That’s why you should never disregard updates and set up a recurring update and maintenance schedule, which you can put on autopilot to take advantage of their latest releases.
In summary, for long-term plugin maintenance, remember to
- Keep plugins up to date
- Delete unused plugins
- Back up your site before updates
- Test updates before activating
- Disable or remove conflicting or outdated plugins
- And keep a frequent maintenance schedule.
This blog post features Francesco Carlucci, a technology expert and software developer helping companies to reach their goals since 2007. He specializes in enterprise-level WordPress development, custom integrations, e-commerce, and performance-oriented solutions. When he is not writing code, you can probably find him writing blog posts for internet entrepreneurs.