How to update WordPress plugins properly without losing content
If you’ve built your site on WordPress, you’re probably very familiar with the fact that minute changes to your files can break your site. This makes us all very weary of the kind of changes we make to our site and how we go about making them.
A WordPress plugin update comes with its own set of internal debates. On one hand, it’s a potentially risky change to our site files and can crash our site. On the other, a plugin update comes with vulnerability patches and better functionality. Better features or less risk? Is there a way to solve both problems? Thankfully, there is. This article is everything you need to safely update WordPress plugins.
TL;DR: WordPress plugin updates can be incredibly beneficial and equally risky, especially if you have a business-critical site. This is why we recommend backing up your site and testing the update on a staging site that you can create with the help of BlogVault. BlogVault makes creating a backup and a staging site a piece of cake. You can also update plugins using your BlogVault dashboard. It really is an all-in-one solution for updating plugins.
What to consider before you update WordPress plugin?
WordPress is an open-source content management system. This means that third-party developers can create plugins that help you customize the experience of building a site on WordPress. These developers are constantly working to make their plugins better and include more features and those changes are called updates. Not updating WordPress plugins means you’re missing out on a world of improvements, including vulnerability patches and performance improvements for your site.
These updates are also made to files that can be crucial to your site. So, to keep the process of an update as safe as possible, we recommend that you consider the following things:
- Create a staging site: A staging site is a copy of your site with the sole purpose of testing changes without affecting your site. You can test changes like backup restores and plugin updates, without the risk of an error crashing your site. We recommend using a staging site for high-traffic or business-critical sites, where even minutes of downtime is potentially lost revenue.
- Backup your site: Updating a plugin could crash your site. Create a backup before you start because a restore can save you so much time if anything goes wrong in the process. This is especially important if you’re updating a plugin on your live site. Your site may be smaller, but you’ve spent time and resources on building it. A backup is the best way to protect that investment.
We recommend using BlogVault because even if your site crashes, you can restore it directly from the BlogVault dashboard. Backups happen automatically once a day, and don’t consume any site resources so your site never slows down. It’s reliable, efficient and easy to use.
- Figure out which method to use: Ask yourself the following question: If this plugin stops working, can it break your site? If the answer is yes, then update it yourself using either your Updates dashboard, uploading a zip file, using an FTP client, or SSH. Otherwise, you can enable plugin auto updates.
- Check if plugins are out of date: If you’d like to check if a WordPress plugin needs an update, you can check on the WordPress admin panel. If you go to the Plugins page, out-of-date plugins will be highlighted with a message saying that there is a newer version available. You can also hover over Dashboard on the menu on the left and click Updates. In the Plugins section, you’ll be able to see what plugins need an update. If you use the BlogVault plugin, you can see all the out-of-date plugins on the Updates section of your Overview page.
- Check the version details: This will tell you what the new version requires, like which PHP or which WordPress version. You can also see what changes were made to the plugin and how the update is better. This keeps you informed and prepared for the WordPress plugin update.
How to update WordPress plugin safely?
There are numerous ways to upgrade WordPress plugins and we’re gonna take about 6 of them, starting with the safest way to do so – creating a staging site and then updating all your plugins on BlogVault.
1. Update WordPress plugins without losing content
- Install and activate the BlogVault plugin: You can find the plugin in your WordPress plugin directory. Click Install and then Activate.
- Create an account: Once you’re done activating the plugin, you’ll be redirected to a page where you’d have to fill in your email and click Submit.
- Connect your site: Once you hit Submit, you’ll have to grant BlogVault permission to connect to your site. This will automatically sync your site, creating the first backup.
- Add a staging site: Once you’ve connected to your site, you’ll be redirected to your BlogVault dashboard. On the right, you’ll see the Staging section. Go ahead and click Add a Staging Site.
- Select the backup and PHP version: The latest versions are automatically selected. If you’ve just synced with BlogVault, you don’t have to worry about this. Just click Continue.
- Open the staging site: Once a staging site is created, a page will open with username and password details. Note these details down. Then click Visit Staging Site and fill in the user name and password in the pop up.
Note: Staging sites automatically expire after 28 days. If you need to use your BlogVault staging site beyond that time, you need to renew it before it expires.
- Update the plugins: Back on the dashboard, you can select the plugins you want to update. We recommend you do it one at a time. Then, click Select Action and Update. This will update all your plugins on your staging site.
- Double check the staging site: Check the site to make sure all the pages are intact or your site hasn’t crashed. IF it’s all good, you can now merge the staging site with the original.
- Initiate Merge: Go back to the BlogVault dashboard and click Merge in the Staging section. This might take a few minutes.
- Add FTP credentials: You can find your FTP username and password on your host. Copy and paste those credentials in the appropriate fields on BlogVault. Select SFTP or FTP at the top and click Continue.
- Select the right folder: Select the directory where your WordPress is stored. This is typically your public_html folder. Next, click Continue. This should finish the merging process.
Congratulations! You’ve successfully updated your plugins.
If you’re looking for other methods, we’ll talk about them now.
2. Update WordPress plugin from the WordPress dashboard
- Select the plugins you’d like to update: On your staging site’s wp-admin panel, hover over Plugins in the menu on the left. Click Installed Plugin and you’ll be taken to a page with all the plugins you’ve installed so far. The out-of-date ones will also let you know that there’s an update available. You can now select the plugin to update.
- Update all the plugins: Once you’ve selected the plugin you want to update, click the drop-down menu at the top that says Bulk Action. Now select Update and Apply.
This method should ideally work. But, in the off chance that it doesn’t, we’re also going to discuss three manual methods of uploading the updated plugin file to your site.
3. Manually Update WordPress plugin from a zip file
- Download the zip file: You will typically need to use this method if the plugin developer doesn’t have the plugin listed on the repository. You can download the file from the plugin’s official site. It will typically download as a zip file to your local system.
- Install the updated version: At the top of the page, click Add New and on the next page, click Upload Plugin. Click Choose File and select the zip file you had just downloaded. Click Install Now and Activate. Click Replace Current with Uploaded.
- Activate the plugin: Once it’s installed, click Activate plugin.
4. Manually Update WordPress plugins via an FTP client
- Download the file: You can download it from the plugins library or the plugin’s official site. It will typically download as a zip file to your local system.
- Connect to your server: Open your FTP client and connect to your server with your FTP username, password, and public IP. All of these are details that can be found with your host. We use Cyberduck to do this.
- Rename your old plugin folder: Go to your root folder public_html. Look for the wp-content folder and open it. Rename the older plugin’s folder by right clicking and clicking Rename. This will deactivate your plugin. Rename it to something identifiable.
- Download the folder: This step acts as insurance in case something goes wrong and you need to upload the older version of the plugin again.
- Upload the updated plugin’s folder: You can simply drag and drop or click File in the menu at the top and click Upload. The upload might take a few minutes.
5. Manually upgrade WordPress plugin via WP-CLI
- Install WP-CLI: To install WP-CLI, your computer will have to have php. Ours didn’t, so we had to first install command-line tools on our MacBook, to be able to install a package manager, which then enabled us to set up PHP, and then install WP-CLI.
- Execute the command: The next step is to open Terminal and execute the following command:
wp plugin update plugin-slug
Replace plugin slug with the plugin slug of the plugin you’d like to update. This is usually the name of the plugin’s folder in your files. Here’s an example of what we mean:
wp plugin update all-in-one-seo
Once you’re done, you’re good to go.
Note: This is an alternative to the method using the WordPress admin panel. So, if the plugin you’re trying to update can’t update automatically, you still need to update a plugin using an FTP client using the steps in the previous section.
6. Automatically update WordPress plugins
The safest way to auto-update WordPress plugins on your site is through the BlogVault dashboard. You can customize when, and which plugins to auto-update. It’s also incredibly
- Click Schedule besides Auto Update on your site’s BlogVault dashboard
- Add a name for the schedule
- Make sure it is Weekly
- Click All Plugins besides the Plugins checkbox
- Check all the ones that aren’t mission-critical to your site and click Save
- Make sure that Take Backup Before Update is checked
- Click Create
This enables auto-updates for certain plugins and makes sure a backup is taken before an update. Thus keeping your site no matter what.
What to do if a WordPress plugin update failed?
Firstly, if you’ve created a staging site, you can breathe. Your actual site hasn’t crashed. It’s all good. You just need to restore your staging site and fix the issues. Let’s talk about the different errors and how you can fix them.
504 Gateway Error: This error means there is an issue with your server getting information in time from another server. If this happens after a plugin update, it’s not necessarily a problem with the plugin but an issue with your site being unable to connect with the update server. You’ll have to connect with your hosting provider to get the error fixed.
Site crashes: If you haven’t created a staging site, but have a backup, restore the last backup you have of your site. If you don’t have a backup, you have to disable the plugins using FTP. Make sure you use the right credentials if you’re using a staging site and these are the steps you need to follow:
- Access your files: You’ll need either an FTP client or a cPanel to do this. Use your username, password, and public IP address to connect to your server. Then, open the public_html folder and then the wp-content folder.
- Rename your plugin folders: Rename the folders of the plugins that you’ve updated. This will deactivate the plugins. This should give you back access to your WordPress admin panel.
- Rollback the plugin: If you know exactly which plugin made your site crash, you can roll back the plugin using a partial restore of a BlogVault backup and activate the others. Another reason to invest in backups.
Error related to directory: To fix an issue with the directory, create a temporary new directory by adding a piece of code to your wp-config.php file. Add the following code:
define (‘WP_TEMP_DIR’, ABSPATH . ‘wp-content/’);
Next, save the file and reupload it to the root folder. If this doesn’t fix the issue, check the file permissions as seen above.
Could not create a directory
If you’re unable to create a directory, there are two possible reasons for this – low disk storage space or you don’t have the right file permissions. You can either try out the steps above or checkout this article to fix the issues.
This error is usually caused by php issues, reaching your memory limit or issues with your database connections. While it is a terrifying site, the error is also fixable. Checkout this video on quickly fixing this critical error.
Update failed Could not remove the old plugin
This is also caused by file permissions. You can use the steps in this section to fix the issue.
WordPress plugin update, failed maintenance mode
The transitions from maintenance mode to working WordPress plugin update failed maintenance mode etc; mode is usually a few seconds and you’d barely notice it. But, if you’re trying to update too many plugins at the same or have compatibility issues, here is an article on how to get out of maintenance mode.
Choosing to update WordPress plugin can often be like choosing between a rock and a hard place. The best way to get out of that situation is to use a staging site. With BlogVault, creating a staging site, updating WordPress plugins and generally managing your site is incredibly easy. BlogVault is all you need to safely update any plugin.
1. How to update WordPress plugins without losing customization?
There are four steps to updating plugins safely:
- Create a staging site
- Update the plugin on your WordPress Dashboard or by uploading the file to your site
- Check your site for issues
- Go live
Here are the detailed steps to do all of it with BlogVault.
2. Why should you upgrade WordPress plugins?
While updating a plugin can be scary and risky, there are a few key reasons why you should:
- Every new update comes with a lot of new features and bug fixes.
- There is generally added security and better performance that comes with updating a plugin.
- Developers often abandon older versions of a plugin. So, even if you have issues with it, there won’t be any support.
If you’d like to update a plugin, here are the steps to do so safely.
3. How to automatically update WordPress plugins?
The safest way to do so is to use the BlogVault auto-updates feature because even if an update fails, you’ll get notified and be able to fix it using our dashboard. To enable auto-updates, select
4. Should you update WordPress plugins or core first?
If you’re doing a massive update of your site, we recommend doing the plugins update first and then the WordPress update. After that, you may be prompted to roll back or update the plugins depending on if you face any compatibility issues.
5. Is it safe to update plugins?
Changes like adding a new plugin or updating a new one can cause issues with your site like crashing it. This is why we recommend you follow these steps.
6. How often should you update WordPress plugins?
There is no answer that fits every site but the general rule of thumb is to update it every week or whenever a new update is released by the developers.
7. Should auto-updates be enabled on WordPress plugins?
Setting all plugins to auto-update can be dangerous because updates can crash your site. This is especially true for plugins that are crucial to the functionality of a site. For this reason, we recommend being very selective about which plugins to enable auto update on and only picking the ones that aren’t mission-critical to your site.
Shreya has been a writer for as long as she can remember. Now, she writes articles that help WordPress users manage the sites that they're proud of, with little to no coding