When WordPress Updates Break Your Site

When you manage your WordPress updates it’s important to be aware of certain situations that can break your website and how to deal with it if it does happen. WordPress has made it very easy to update your plugins and themes if they come from the WordPress repository, one click and you have the new version, but that one click can also sometimes cause a lot of problems.

Today for instance I was contacted to fix a WooCommerce site that had a broken cart page with blank cart contents. First I guessed that it was updating WooCommerce itself without a corresponding theme update that did it but it ended up being the Woo Table Rate Shipping plugin that was breaking the site. The solution ended up being deactivating that plugin rather than pay for the Woo Themes membership in order to receive the update.

This kind of situation can arise though with WordPress updates, most plugin and theme authors try to keep up with updates but everything doesn’t always get released at the same time. Other plugins might not get updated for one reason or another and the old version might not work with other updated plugins.

Occasionally a bad buggy or not very well tested update of plugin might get released in a rush to fix a security flaw for instance, and a plugin that was once great becomes awful or breaks your site. This sometimes even happens to some of the best and very popular plugins like Yoast’s WordPress SEO.

The more involved your site is, the more plugins, the heavier the theme, the more likely that updating might cause havoc or even a blank page.

WooCommerce is the best ecommerce plugin for WordPress by far but it’s rather notorious for breaking websites on updates. Personally unless I have a development version of a site I don’t like to update WooCommerce unless there’s a corresponding theme update. Also if you have a busy ecommerce site and numerous WooCommerce add-on plugins it’s critical to also have a development version of your site to test things before applying updates on the production site.

Some Best Practices For Applying WordPress Updates

When updating a plugin like WooCommerce I recommend a full database backup of the mysql file which I prefer to export from phpmyadmin. If you have a reliable backup plugin installed that you’re confident you can restore a full working version of the site with, that will work as well. Restoring a site from a backup often isn’t as easy as it sounds though and should be used as a last resort since all sorts of problems can arise when restoring an automatic type backup. Also be aware that I’ve seen numerous gzipped compressed backup files that have the names and file types of images cut off because they were too long, not fun to deal with on a site with a lot of images. Not all backups are created equal.

Plugin Conflicts
Sometimes plugins can conflict with other plugins, you can try deactivating plugins one by one (or activating them one by one) starting with the ones you think might be the culprit first.

Major WordPress Releases
When WordPress updates from 4.9 to 5.0, don’t update to the latest version right away until you see if there’s going to be corresponding theme and plugin updates. Especially if you’re running a site with a heavy theme and/or WooCommerce.

Staging Development Sites
If you have a complex site with a heavy theme, ecommerce or many plugins interacting with each other and adding major features, it’s best to have a staging/development/test version of your site to apply the updates to first to make sure everything is going to work before applying the changes to your live production website. Many WordPress managed hosting services offer this feature and there are also a couple WordPress plugins that will help you setup a staging site that you can push updates between. I’ve used this one called SitePush as recently as last year and it worked great once setup properly with a little understanding of how it works.

Managed Updates
You can hire a WordPress professional to manage your website updates for you. If you don’t have the time to deal with the ins and outs of managing your own website updates this is the way to go. There are also managed WordPress hosting services that will apply updates for you but these are usually done automatically and can sometimes break your site as well.

When Updates Go Wrong

Don’t freak out, I’ve never seen a WordPress site suffering from a bad update that couldn’t be fixed, these two troubleshooting tips will solve most problems.

Deactivate Plugins
If you have access to your WordPress admin area you can attempt to deactivate the offending plugin. You can also deactivate your plugins via FTP by adding a character to the front of the name of the plugin in the plugin directory, such as ~woocommerce.

Roll Back Changes
A great free plugin that should be part of the WordPress core is WP Rollback, it allows you to revert back to previous plugin versions from the comfort of your WordPress admin’s plugin page. Keep in mind though when you update certain software like WooCommerce it also updates the database, this can sometimes cause conflicts if you have to revert back to the previous plugin version, this is where that database backup might come in handy.

Hire A Pro
Hire someone like me to fix it for you, which I’d highly recommend if you’re not comfortable with applying the techniques mentioned in this article and definitely before reverting to some automated backup which might really make your life hell.

Personally I don’t charge if I can’t fix it or at least identify the problem such as the Woo table rate shipping plugin that was causing the issue for my client today which we deactivated. If your site is broken and you need it fixed ASAP don’t hesitate to contact me. If you need someone to manage your WordPress theme and plugin updates I’m available.


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