Taming the wild west of WordPress: managing plugin & theme updates

Design from the Suffolk coast

Welcome to the digital frontier of WordPress, a platform, at times, resembling the untamed Wild West, where website owners often find themselves in a whirlwind of unstoppable plugin and theme updates. For many, WordPress is not just a content management system (CMS) but a vast expanse that requires vigilance, strategy, and sometimes a quick draw to keep everything running smoothly.

The challenge: unpredictable updates

Imagine yourself as a sheriff in a lawless town. In the WordPress world, this town is constantly under construction and renovation. Plugins and themes, the buildings and infrastructure of our town, need regular updates to stay functional and secure. However, these updates often arrive unexpectedly, much like a sudden duel at high noon only less predicable, leaving site owners scrambling to maintain order and functionality.

Why updates are unpredictable

  1. Multiple sources: With thousands of developers contributing to the WordPress ecosystem, each follows their own schedule, leading to unpredictable update releases.
  2. Security patches: Urgent updates often occur in response to newly discovered vulnerabilities, requiring immediate attention. Since the introduction of ‘Bug Bounties’, from security analysts like Wordfence, reports of vulnerabilities have increased as people get paid to find potential issues. This is equally a blessing and a curse to agencies who have built their business firmly on WordPress foundations, great that this stuff gets found before disaster strikes and not so great that it has generated even more patches and updates to contend with.
  3. Enhancements and bug fixes: Developers continuously improve their offerings, leading to frequent but irregular updates from the global community. It is worth noting that some ‘improvements’ are neither welcome or in our opinion necessary – after all if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

The risks: keeping the peace

Failing to perform a WordPress update can leave your site vulnerable to the outlaws of the online world. Outdated themes and plugins are prime targets for attacks, which can lead to compromised data and reputation damage. Compatibility issues may also arise, as new versions of WordPress may not play well with older plugins or themes, leading to broken functionalities or a site that’s visually messed up.

Best practices: strategies for maintaining order

1. Regular audits
Like a good sheriff does a routine sweep of their town, Tinpeas regularly check our clients WordPress installations for updates and so should you. Make it a daily habit to log in and review any pending updates. This not only keeps your site more secure but also ensures you’re aware of what’s changing and how it might affect your site going forward. Yes we know it’s a pain, but it’s far better than the alternative.

2. Staging environment
Before applying updates, test them in a staging environment – a replica of your live site. This allows you to test things in a safe place, ensuring everything works correctly before pushing those same updates to your production site. Tinpeas build all our WordPress sites in very similar ways, by limiting the software we use we can reduce the amount of staging environments required to ensure things continue to run smoothly.

3. Automated backup solutions
Always have a backup plan! Automated backups ensure that if something goes wrong during an update, you can restore order without losing your work. In addition to daily backups we tend to take manual backups of our client sites as you can’t always trust technology to work, or at least you can’t if you’re a paranoid nutter like me!

4. Managed hosting services
Consider investing in managed WordPress hosting or choose an agency who will do the work for you. Managed WordPress hosting providers take care of updates for you, ensuring they are tested and do not have compatibility issues before applying them. At Tinpeas we manage all our client WordPress sites for them, this ensures everything is kept running as smoothly as humanly possible at all times.

5. Community engagement
Stay informed by participating in WordPress forums and discussions in the related social media groups (there are many). The community is huge, and someone might have already faced and resolved the same challenges you’re encountering. Gaining insights from others can help you navigate the sometimes chaotic landscape more effectively.

Conclusion: embracing the chaos

Operating a WordPress website in this dynamic environment can at times be a little daunting, but with the right strategies, you can go some way to taming the chaos. By preparing for unexpected challenges, practicing strict maintenance habits, and using the available tools and services effectively, you can ensure your site remains secure, functional, and up-to-date.

Our hope is that one day the WordPress team will adopt a timed delivery schedule for theme and plugin updates where patches to software are queued and pushed out a couple of (predicable) times a week in unison. This approach would save so much time and give agencies and individuals working in the space a much improved work-life balance, I suppose I am talking about me!

Anyway we are not there yet, so saddle up and get ready to take control of the WordPress digital frontier.

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