With WordPress you can enable your website to auto-update plugins and themes. But should you? Here are some things to think about before you click “enable auto-updates”.
“I am looking for a website that I don’t have to think about. That just looks after itself and just works without me having to do anything. Is that doable?”
The Holy Grail of websites is a site that you build and then ignore, with all the tech bits that go into the website automatically updating themselves without human intervention. This grail shaped object would continue to work seamlessly for years until the time comes to change the content or the design.
Like all quests for the Holy Grail, many people are questing for this website Nirvana, but as yet no-one has fully succeeded.
However, the latest version of WordPress, WordPress 5.5, brings that quest one step closer. With that version of WordPress, you can pop over to your Plugins page and select an option to enable a plugin to auto-update.
When you click on the enable auto-update link, one of a few things will happen.
It will change to auto-updates enabled which means it will automatically update the plugin every time a new update is released, or it may take you to a separate page for that plugin where you can choose to be a bit more granular with what gets updated.
For example, if you use Monster Insights for your Google Analytics, you can choose to update all, update minor fixes and security fixes or none.
For themes, you need to go the Appearance – Themes tab and then click on each theme to select auto-updates.
WordPress auto-updates itself for security/bug fixes but waits for human intervention for major updates.
Fantastic! Sign me up for Nirvana! Not so fast.
Problems with Auto-Updates
Auto-updating your site is excellent in theory, but still has a long way to go in practice.
Some hosts auto-update every WordPress update – no matter whether it is major or minor. This means that many sites break without clients knowing that they have broken as major releases often drop before all plugin developers have a chance to catch up their code for plugins on your site.
WordPress updates can create incompatibilities, which either turn your site into the white screen of death or display the message that a critical error has occurred on the site. Not exactly great for your clients!
For example, WordPress 5.5 broke millions of websites around the internet, and they had to issue a patch several days later to fix it. If you were in the hosting auto-update category, then your site would have been broken, and you didn’t know when or why it happened.
Some hosts turn off all auto-updates of WordPress – even the security patch ones. Other hosts add in directives to your htaccess file that turn off all auto-updates to WordPress to reduce the load on their servers. This means your site can miss critical security patches which then leave you open to hacking attempts.
Unless you know what you are looking for in your hosting account, the first thing you know that your host falls into one of the two unhelpful types of hosts is that your site either goes down or is hacked.
Plugin Problems – Conflicting Plugins
There are hundreds of thousands of plugins, both paid and free, available on the internet. Plugin developers can’t test each update against every other plugin on the market, so sometimes they release an update that conflicts with another plugin.
When that conflict happens, it may be as simple as a few features of your site may not work as expected or as significant as the whole site crashing to the white screen of death.
For example, recently WooCommerce released a major version update (4.4.0) which clashed with many themes and plugins including WP Rocket, a caching plugin. If the two were active on the site when updated, the site would crash into critical errors.
WP Rocket released a patch within 24 hours and recommended that WP Rocket needed to be updated before updating to the latest version of WooCommerce to stop the clash.
If sites had already crashed because sites auto-updated, then this advice would not be able to be applied. You needed to either know how to temporarily disable and re-enable the plugins from the hosting and in what order to run the updates, or how to restore your site from a backup held by your host. Neither option is “hands off” or one-click easy.
If the sites hadn’t yet updated before the patch applied, then auto-updates update everything at once, so were likely to bring the site down during the update.
How often do conflicting plugins happen?
If you have a straightforward brochure site, with only one or two plugins, you may be lucky and go for years without a conflict.
The more plugins and the more complex the site, the more likely it will be that you get a clash.
For most of my client’s e-commerce sites, I see at least a couple of plugin conflicts each year. In these cases: Auto-update = Auto-break!
Plugin Problems – Database Updates
Many plugins store their entries in database sections as part of your site. When you update the plugin, you need to manually click the “Update the database” button that pops up after the plugin has been updated.
Plugins such as Yoast SEO and WooCommerce regularly have this message and need to update their bit of the database.
If you don’t click the “Update” button, then although your plugin is updated to the latest version, your database fields are not.
This can result in some features not being available, through to the plugin not working as it should.
Unfortunately, auto-updating (so far) does not click the database update button for you, and you won’t know you need to do anything until the next time you log into your website.
Sometimes Auto-Updates Don’t Run
Even if you set a plugin to auto-update, sometimes it just doesn’t auto-update, and you still need to click the button to update the plugin manually.
If you blindly rely on auto-updating to work, you wouldn’t know that it hasn’t run until you manually go in and check on the site.
Whenever you run a plugin or theme update, it pays to clear your website cache to make sure your site is displaying the most current version of the site to your clients.
In many cases, clearing the cache will highlight where a problem has occurred with a plugin as the display looks “off”. In other cases, you need to clear the cache for the plugin changes to take effect.
Auto-updates don’t clear your cache so you could have a broken site and not know it.
The code that makes your site have specific colours or your buttons to have particular shapes are done through CSS. Some updates break the CSS your site uses.
For example, the most recent update to Elementor broke a stack of sites. They had to issue several patches to try and fix the issue, and then the final step was to go in and regenerate the CSS for the website.
For one of my client’s sites, some buttons displayed, and others didn’t. There were also entire sections that appeared blank on the page. I had to keep rolling back to earlier versions to get a stable version, and then when the last patch dropped I had to regenerate the CSS to get the buttons and text to re-appear. Not exactly one click auto-update!
After the Elementor plugin update, the CSS did not correctly display elements on the page. Once the CSS was manually regenerated, the items reappeared on the page.
After CSS regeneration:
Paid Plugins and Themes Rarely Auto-Update
If your site has a paid or premium plugin or theme, the WordPress Auto-update feature is generally not available. This means only some of your plugins or themes will auto-update and others won’t. Not precisely the time-saving option you were hoping for!
Is there a Solution to Auto-Updating Problems?
One solution to get your site to auto-update is to ignore the WordPress version of Auto-update and look at a plugin like Easy Updates Manager to run your updates for you.
In testing on live sites, we have found that that plugin generally picks up updates for paid plugins and WordPress, but still doesn’t pick up the updates for paid themes like Divi.
The Pro version of Easy Updates Manager backs up your site before running the update, so is the closest we have found to hands-off updates. It doesn’t fix the conflict problem, but at least you have a recent backup to restore from in case of problems.
It also emails you if an update creates the white screen of death on your website so you can take action to fix it.
Other Option – Learn How to Maintain Your Site
If you are in charge of keeping your website maintained, you need to know how to update your plugins and themes safely, and what to do if things go pear-shaped.
We have put together an online course called the Beginners Guide to Maintaining Your WordPress Website that is filled with screenshots and practical information to help you look after your website.
While it isn’t the Holy Grail of website updating, it helps you confidently tackle those basic website maintenance tasks, so you have a safe, secure and updated website without the tears.
So, should you auto-update your WordPress website? Yes – but only if:
- you use an alternative method that backs up your site first before updating,
- you are not using a paid theme or any paid plugins,
- you are disciplined enough to look at your website once a week to spot any problems with the look or operation of your site,
- you regularly log in and clear the cache and check for any problems with things not updating or having database updates that need to run, and
- you know how to restore the backup in case of problems.
In most cases, the hands-off website Holy Grail is still way off in the distance, and there is no substitute for manually maintaining your website. Sorry about that!