Your website lives online, this lets users access it whenever they want to from any device connected to the internet, but at the other end there will always be a web server responding to users who request your website. This server could be standalone, part of a large network, in ‘the cloud’ or even virtual, but they will all have software in place to run the servers and handle your website. On top of this, your website may also have its own system that runs on top of this, for example, a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress which powers more than 1/3 of all websites!
Both of these should be kept up to date, they will have regular releases that issue new features and improvements but more importantly security patches for issues that have been found since the last update. The process for keeping these systems up to date varies depending on your website and your hosting provider but making sure they are updated is vital. Many CMS have built-in update functionality that makes the process easier. However, both parts need to be kept up to date as they often rely on the other part being the latest version. For example, the latest version of WordPress recommends your host is running PHP 7.3 or greater, until as recently as 2019 this was 5.6! users who didn’t upgrade to the later versions of PHP were unable to install the latest versions of WordPress.
Before you do anything, make sure you have the latest version of your website backed up! The update process will change the core files of your website and may have unintended results, this is true of plugins your CMS may have, the CMS itself and even the server software.
You should have a robust backup strategy in place anyway but backing up your site again before you start any sort of update is always a good idea.
Starting with the area we have already touched on, updates will provide you with security patches and improvements, these will keep your website secure. Potential exploits get patched and holes in the security plugged before someone can take advantage of them and use them to gain access to your site.
Ensuring you have the latest version will keep you one step ahead of hackers who can scan the internet for websites still using old versions with known exploits looking for easy targets.
New versions of your CMS can have new features to make your life easier or your website more effective, WordPress is continuously adding to its offering with additional features as well as streamlining existing ones. The recent big update to the platform was a whole new editor designed to vastly improve the functionality of the editing system without needing costly (price and performance) 3rd party plugin.
WordPress developers are constantly looking at ways to improve the system, from refining and improving existing code to integrating new technology, the drive for improved performance benefits everyone if you keep your CMS updated. These improvements can be for your visitors who can navigate the site faster, but also for you using the admin area – being able to jump in and edit the website faster will save you time but also help encourage regular updates.
The same is true of your server software, PHP 7 gave websites an enormous boost in terms of performance, from our experience websites would load in half the time with no other changes! PHP 7 was so much more efficient that it enabled servers to handle many more users than previous versions with the same hardware, one benchmark, for example, showed the server before and after the update, on the old version it could handle 1.99 users per second and after this jumped to 9.24! with the latest version PHP 7.3 pushing this up to 10.31 users a second.
This improvement in performance means your server will be able to deal with more users without having to upgrade your hosting account, it also means that the server will use less processing power to serve your current users which in turn uses less power and is better for the environment.
If just 50% of servers updated to PHP 7 it would save $2 billion in energy costs and avoid billions of kilograms of CO2!
All software contains bugs, it’s just part of the process, these can vary from simple harmless spelling errors to much more fundamental problems that could put the security of your site at risk or corrupt your data! Updates will include patches for these bugs so that they get taken out of the software many times before they cause any issues. It’s such a common part of updates that many help requests for CMS issues will only be looked at if you’re running the latest version. This is because your issue is likely to have already been resolved with an update.
Your CMS deals with the content of your website from the images and copy that make up the pages to the posts and user accounts. CMS come in a wide range of types, from bespoke custom-built systems to open source solutions used all over the world by a vast range of businesses, because of this the way they are kept updated varies considerably. You should consult your developer to get an understanding of your websites update process as well as who is responsible for keeping it updated.
We are focusing in on WordPress for several reasons. It’s by far the most popular CMS solution for websites with 67% of the market share16, it’s what we use for 99% of our websites at Simpsons Creative and being open-source it’s available for everyone to use. Its popularity also means it’s very much a market leader in its features including its update solutions, in the same way Apple helps to drive forward the development of its devices.
WordPress knows how important keeping it updated is, because of this they have built in an update system that lets you easily update the core and plugins all from the admin area of WordPress itself!
WordPress updates can be split into three categories:
This is the WordPress system itself, it contains the core of WordPress and is what is released and maintained by the core development team. These updates will roll out to every single WordPress website.
Plugin updates vary from site to site because not all websites use the same plugins, this is how the system is designed, you would not want the overheads of an e-commerce plugin on your simple 5-page information website for example. WordPress keeps track of the plugins you have installed and will periodically check with its directory to see if there is a new version released and if so will alert you to update.
Some premium plugins that are available outside of the WordPress ecosystem will not be set up this way. These will need to be kept updated manually but these are rare, and the developers tend to keep email lists in place to alert you to updates.
The final type is translations, these are translations for the copy within plugins and the WP core to bring them to more people around the world by translating the copy into new languages.
PHP updates are tied to your hosting supplier, the best idea here is to talk with your developer about the process and see what systems they already have in place to deal with it. Some websites can simply jump across to the new version in moments if the host supports it and the website is compatible.
Others may need code updating on the website to bring it in line with PHP 7 requirements or the host may have to update their systems, in some very extreme cases, it may mean moving hosting suppliers or rebuilding websites. These are very extreme and normally a result of poor hosting or very old out of date websites that can’t be easily updated.
Talk to your developer to see what’s in place already and who is responsible. With our sites, for example, we check and update websites multiple times a week to ensure they are always up to date. This takes the task off of the client’s plate and means we are always safe and secure.
Once you know what needs to be done put a regular reminder in place to come back and perform this vital admin work.