Jake Intel

Mark Wahl

The Importance of Upgrading WordPress

We build many websites here at the Jake Group, carefully engineering each site to best serve the project goals. Once your website is launched, the focus shifts from the technical considerations to putting the site to use—attracting visitors, publishing content, and enabling valuable user interactions.

However, in order to do those things effectively, the underlying structures that power the site need attention over time. Similar to any software on your computer, the software packages that run a website require periodic maintenance to ensure stable, ongoing operations.

Jake’s development team primarily uses WordPress to power our website applications in part because of the wide-spread contributor base that helps keep it secure and up to date. Due to the open-source nature of the software and its active community of authors, the system is regularly upgraded to address security issues as they arise. What’s more, with such a large group of contributors interested in maintaining WordPress, the software is continually improving as new technologies and trends emerge throughout the internet. 

WordPress Structure and Upgrades

The software that makes up a WordPress website consists of three main filesets: WordPress Core, plugins, and a theme. The ‘Core’ section is the foundation of the system that renders your site and powers the content management system. Plugins are a set of tools that enable customized applications such as web-based forms, search-engine-optimization tools, and enhanced content editing capabilities. And the theme controls the design and structure of the website interface. (For more on this, see WordPress Building Blocks.)

While WordPress itself does support some automatic updating, new software releases must be imported manually to leverage the most benefit. That said, it is important to keep your own website up to date with the latest versions for the following reasons:

Minimize Security Vulnerabilities

The most critical reason to keep your website software up to date is to address security vulnerabilities. New online threats are constantly evolving that attempt to exploit previously unknown weaknesses in existing software. Whether hackers are seeking to disrupt your system, gain access to confidential information, or use your site to distribute malware, you need to stay a step ahead of their efforts.

WordPress itself releases a number of what it refers to as ‘minor core updates’ each year to address security and maintenance needs. For example, there were nine such releases in 2015, and to date there have been five in 2016. But don’t let the word ‘minor’ fool you—these can be the most critical updates for the purposes of an existing website, as they often address newly discovered threats beginning to sweep across the web and can affect your web properties if nothing is done.

Equally important are updates to WordPress plugins. While WordPress itself has a well-planned release schedule and a core team working on upgrades all the time, plugins are often supported by smaller teams or individuals and in some cases have less formal maintenance processes. Plugins therefore, particularly those that are more advanced and that are utilized broadly, can provide an inviting target for hackers looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. It is essential then to both choose well crafted and supported plugins, and make sure to keep them up to date.

Install Enhancements

Of course security concerns are not the only reason for software upgrades. Developers are always seeking to add improvements to existing functionality, leverage new technologies, and maintain their position in a competitive software market. Even if you aren’t planning any major changes to your website, these enhancements can provide benefits to your site performance and management.

The WordPress platform itself tends to release 2-3 major upgrades every year which may include enhancements ranging from improvements to the administrative interface, support for new devices and operating systems, increased system efficiency leading to faster download speed, and enhanced integration with external products and services. Plugin upgrades can provide similar improvements as well as access to new add-ons that extend functionality to serve new purposes. Themes too may be upgraded to provide greater layout flexibility and website performance.

Fix Bugs and Browser Inconsistencies

While quality assurance is always inherent with any software development project, there always exists the possibility that a bug slips through and is not discovered until the system is in use. Often this has to do with a very specific use case that, though not common, might affect a particular element of your site. Some software releases address specific issues such as this.

Other bugs are emergent issues resulting from changes in the technical ecosystems in which the software is used. As browsers, operating systems and devices all evolve, it is not uncommon for a new issue to reveal itself requiring a software upgrade. WordPress, plugin and theme developers respond to these issues as they arise with updated releases to ensure your site continues to function well in the latest environments.

Ensure Compatibility With Other Software

The components of a WordPress technical ecosystem rely on interactions with one another to operate consistently and effectively. When changes are made to one of these components, the assumptions made in a dependent element may no longer be valid, disrupting its function. For example, if a WordPress Core update alters a method of integrating plugins within a page template, an out-of-date plugin may no longer execute as intended.

Thankfully, this is not a common occurrence, largely because WordPress itself has a strong commitment to backwards compatibility, and most serious plugin and theme developers follow suit. Nevertheless conflicts due arise from time to time, so it is advisable to test plugin and theme functionality after WordPress upgrades take place and install any recent plugin updates.

Making It Happen

Keeping your WordPress software up to date is clearly an important aspect of maintaining a well-functioning web presence, which is why the Jake Group follows a series of best practices to help clients maintain stable, secure and functional websites. Look out for a follow up post to learn more about some of these best practices. And if you’d like to discuss your own site and how we could help keep it running smoothly, call us at 202-333-2850, or send us an email.