Automated Updates on WordPress: Choosing the right way to do it

WordPress site owners are constantly asked to update their sites. But keeping track of updates is incredibly difficult, because of the frequency and number of updates to be made. This is why automating updates might a useful practice.

 

Making sure your WordPress site is up to date could be an overwhelming process, since there are so many releases.

 

If there’s one piece of advice in the world of WordPress for site owners, it’s this: update, update, update. Updating WordPress is easy in theory, especially since all site-owners receive notifications about core and plugin updates. When it has to be put into practice, though, updating WordPress is its own beast. Not only might updates break WordPress sites; they might also cause incompatibilities, and be impossible to undo as well. This is why it’s important to always have a reliable backup solution for WordPress sites.

Updating WordPress is an important task though, because of new features that might impact user experience, but also security updates that help against major vulnerabilities. However, with WordPress receiving updates very frequently on the Core as well as the add-on front, it is difficult to keep up with all the changes, and apply them. This is why automating updates on WordPress sites might be a workable solution for you as a WordPress site owner.

Types of WordPress Updates

While updates for WordPress add-ons have both developmental as well as security updates, updates for WordPress core perform different functions. Based on these functions, WordPress Core updates can be categorized into:

  1. Release updates, which contain both Major and Minor releases.
    1. Major updates contain developmental changes including the addition of new features, or changes to core technologies on WordPress. Every major release is named after a major jazz musician.
    2. Minor updates contain security patches and fixes. As a result, they are highly recommended, and are automated by default on every installation of WordPress. Every WordPress site is recommended to run these updates since they contain important security updates that keep WordPress sites safe.
  2. Developmental updates, which are only for the changes that might be unstable– these updates are what future developments are built on. Also known as ‘bleeding edge’ updates, they are only meant for sites running the developmental version of WordPress.
  3. Translation updates (which are language packs), and come in handy if your WordPress site has multilingual support.

Depending on your comfort-level with code, and the time you’re willing to spend maintaining your site, you could automate your WordPress site’s updates manually, with the help of a plugin, or via managed WordPress services. Every method has its pros and cons, so it’s best to choose one with careful thought.

Automating WordPress Updates the Manual Way

This method will require you to make changes to your WordPress installation’s core files.

How to automate updates to WordPress Core the Manual Way

Updating WordPress Core includes making changes to the wp-config.php file.

WordPress contains a parameter called define( ‘WP_AUTO_UPDATE_CORE’) in the wp-config file. The value you assign this function determines WordPress release update is automated.

To Automate All WordPress Core Updates

Assign the value ‘true’ to the above function, as demonstrated:

define( ‘WP_AUTO_UPDATE_CORE’, true );

This will enable the automation of all release updates, developmental updates, and translation updates on your WordPress site.

To Only Automate WordPress Core Minor Release Updates

As mentioned, WordPress automatically makes Minor release and translation updates to your site. However, if you disabled all automatic updates by assigning the above function the value ‘false, you would have disabled Minor updates too. Just assign the value minor to the same function above, instead of true. This will disable all updates other than Minor updates, which keep your WordPress site secure.

Here’s how you do it:

define( ‘WP_AUTO_UPDATE_CORE’, minor );

 

How to Automate Updates to WordPress Add-ons the Manual Way

Automatically updating add-ons isn’t recommended by WordPress, since the developers’ updates might work for that plugin/theme, but might be incompatible with other add-ons or elements on your WordPress site. However, if your WordPress site is simple and has very few plugins/themes that are compatible with each other, it might not be as big a problem.

In order to manually configure your installation of WordPress to update plugins & themes, you have to make modifications to a filter called auto_update_$type, found in the wp-admin folder. The value assigned to $type determines which WordPress add-on is updated automatically.

To automatically update all plugins on your WordPress site, the filter must read:

add_filter( ‘auto_update_plugin’, ‘__return_true’ );

To automatically update all themes on your WordPress site, the filter must read:

add_filter( ‘auto_update_theme’, ‘__return_true’ );

Pros of Manual Automation of Updates

  • The code isn’t complex, so it’s beginner friendly.
  • Manual automation is free.
  • WordPress site owners won’t have to install an extra plugin just to keep their site up to date.

Cons of Manual Automation of Updates

  • The changes have to be made to the WordPress wp-config.php files and the wp-admin folder. This might make some WordPress users uncomfortable, especially since changes to the WordPress core files are not recommended.
  • Making the changes to code might require some time, especially for WordPress novices.
  • If your site crashes with any update, you will have to check your site’s status after disabling each update manually.

 

Automating Your WordPress Site with Plugins

This method comes in handy for WordPress site-owners who do not want to tinker with code themselves, and don’t mind installing an extra plugin on their site. A couple of examples of plugins that help automate updates, are Advanced Automatic Updates, and WP Updates Settings.

How to Use the Advanced Automatic Updates Plugin

Step 1: Install and activate the plugin.

Step 2: Locate the plugin under your WordPress site’s Settings tab, and click on it.

Using the Advanced Automatic Updates plugin

 

Step 3: Check the kind of updates you would like to automate on your WordPress site.

 

Updating Themes with the Advanced Automatic Updates plugin

 

If you would like notifications about these updates to be sent to an email address other than the one of the site owner, you can enter it here:

 

Notifications with Advanced Automatic Updates

 

As you can see, you can also disable email notifications about the same, and request for debug information (in case you’re running development updates).

How to Use the WP Updates Plugin

Step 1: Install and activate the plugin.

Step 2: Just like for the Automatic Updates plugin, locate the Updates tab under your Settings tab, and click on it.

 

The WP Updates plugin shows up under Settings

 

Step 2: Choose the kind of WordPress Core release updates you would like to automate on your WordPress site.

 

Core Updates with the WP Updates plugin

 

Step 3: Choose whether you would like to automatically update add-ons on your WordPress site.

 

Plugin and theme updates with the WP Updates plugin

 

Step 4: If you’d like translation and developmental updates, click on the appropriate check-boxes.

 

Click on these checkboxes if you want other updates also to be automated.

 

Pros of Automating Your WordPress Updates With a Plugin

  • These plugins do the work for you: you don’t have to manually tinker with any code; they’ll do it for you.
  • Most plugins that automate WordPress sites allow you to enable or disable different updates with a single click.

Cons of Automating Your WordPress Updates With a Plugin

  • This will require you to install an extra plugin just for updating your WordPress site.
  • Some plugins only update WordPress core, while others will allow you to update add-ons as well.
  • You, as a WordPress site owner, will still need to weed out problems if your site crashes with updates.

Using Managed Services to Automate Your WordPress Site

There are two types of managed services you could use to automate updates on your WordPress site: managed WordPress hosting, and WordPress support and maintenance services.

Managed WordPress Hosting

These services help manage your WordPress site’s hosting issues, as well as a few issues related to your WordPress site as well. A couple of examples of managed WordPress hosting services/ managed WordPress hosting providers are Flywheel, and WP Engine. These services automate the update of your entire WordPress site, but after the following steps meant to benefit you no matter the state of compatibility of your WordPress site:

  1. The hosting provider checks their systems for compatibility with WP updates (whether this includes both core and add-on updates depends on the web host).
  2. They then mail you beforehand with the dates for your WordPress site’s update.
  3. Every managed hosting service performs a backup of your WordPress site before the update. Only after this do they perform the update.
  4. Once they perform the update, they check for issues.
  5. If your WordPress site is not compatible with the update, the managed hosting provider restores your site with the backup that they made.
  6. The service then mails you about the status of the update (successful/unsuccessful, and reasons if unsuccessful).
  7. If you’ve tested your site and found it incompatible, you can ask certain web hosting services to postpone updates till you fix the issue at hand.

Notes:

Plugin and theme updates are not done automatically by managed WordPress hosting services, simply because different plugins have settings that might conflict with each other and break your site.

If you’d still like to automate the updates of add-ons, you can get in touch with your WordPress host about the same.

Since each managed hosting service has different terms and conditions, and pricing plans, it is recommended that you read their documentation carefully, and then get in touch via email or from their in-website chat support.

Pros of Using a Managed Web Hosting Service With Automatic WordPress Updates

  • You, as a WordPress site owner, don’t have to fiddle with the WordPress core files.
  • Your WordPress hosting service tests and runs WordPress updates for you.

Cons of Using a Managed Web Hosting Service With Automatic WordPress Updates

  • Managed WordPress hosting comes at a price.
  • These services don’t take care of all the issues that might come up during updating your WordPress site. If your site has certain customizations that makes it incompatible with WordPress updates, these services might mail you asking for you to seek a professional developer’s assistance. This means even if you’re paying a premium price for managed hosting, you might also have to hire a WordPress developer separately.

WordPress Support and Maintenance Services

WordPress support and maintenance services (such as WP Curve, WP Maintainer, and Valet), are perfect for super-busy site owners who can afford to have a full-time service just for maintaining their WordPress sites. In terms of updates and maintenance, these services usually perform the following functions:

  1. Core and add-on updates.
  2. Support/repairs in case of incompatibility.
  3. Audit of the security and maintenance of your site so the chances of it breaking upon update are reduced.
  4. Regular backups to rely on in case of incompatibility with any update.

Similar to managed WordPress hosting services, it is recommended that you go through the list of their offerings, (and their pricing plans) carefully. All you have to do after that, is contact them over email, or from their respective websites.

Pros of Depending on WordPress Support and Maintenance Services

  • Since you are paying these services specifically to maintain your WordPress site, you can expect them to solve any problems you might have while updating your WordPress site.
  • You need not hire a developer to this end.

Cons of Depending on WordPress Support and Maintenance Services

  • These services come at a premium price, and usually require you to pay more in order to fix issues that might come up during updates. Each service has its own pricing plan.
  • A number of maintenance and support services do not provide free support, so if you run into issues with your site, it might be expensive to get them sorted out.

Automating your WordPress site might seem like an easy fix that will help your WordPress site stay up to date with security patches and new features, but it also comes with many caveats. Not only might updates your site break, but they might also be difficult to undo. This is why it is imperative for every WordPress site owner to maintain a recent, secure backup of their WordPress sites that can be relied on.

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