Will My Website Break If I Update WordPress?

I’m subscribed to and respond in a fair few number of WordPress groups and forums such as the WordPress Developers and WordPress Experts groups on LinkedIn.

Do you know what one of the most commonly asked questions is?

“Will my site break if I update to WordPress x.x?”

I recently responded to such a thread in an attempt to dispel the myth that some people have, which is that “WordPress” breaks a site when upgrading.

The Core

If your website runs on WordPress then kudos to you.  You are using the most popular content management system (CMS) on the interwebs, powering almost 20% of all websites.

I am assuming that you have a home computer or laptop which runs Windows, MaxOS or some variant of Linux.

I’m also assuming that most of you have automatic updates turned on and you just let the computer operating system (OS) update itself.

What about Chrome, Safari and Firefox?  Don’t you let those products automatically update too?

Here’s where I’m going.

WordPress is the operating system of your website – the core.

Like all OS’ it requires constant updates to resolve bugs, patch security issues and introduce new features.

Just like any OS you need to keep it up-to-date.

But Will It Break If I Update?

There is always a chance it will, so be prepared and make sure you have a backup system in place.

There are plenty of backup systems for WordPress websites ranging from those which are free and email you a zip of the site files and database, to premium backup solutions like VaultPress which take backups in real-time.

Regardless, you shouldn’t be asking “Will updating WordPress break my site?”.

You should be asking “Are the themes and plugins I use on my site compatible with the new WordPress version?”.

The WordPress “core” as it’s know is tested by hundreds of developers and thousands of beta testers before being released as a proper version available as an update.

Did you know that all new WordPress versions are applied to WordPress.com before being made available on WordPress.org.

That’s a testing poole of 74+ million sites.

If there is a bug in the WordPress core that will “break” a site, it’s going to be a pretty rare thing by the time it gets to you.

So my answer is “No.  WordPress will not break your site”.

Themes, Plugins and Apps

Continuing using the analogy of operating systems, after upgrading, you are more likely to find that an app (or program for those of us who can remember that far back) may not work because it is incompatible with the new version of the operating system.

BAM – there’s your answer!

On a WordPress website, themes and plugins are just the same as apps on an OS.

They run “on top” of the core, relying on the functionality it provides.

It is more likely that after upgrading the WordPress core, a theme or plugin will be incompatible with the newer version.

Yes – that may “break” your site.

But you see – it’s not the WordPress upgrade which caused the problem.  It’s the theme or plugin’s incompatibility.

Just like apps for operating systems, themes and plugins need to be updated to ensure compatibility with the foundation they work on – in this case WordPress.

What Can I Do If My Site No Longer Works After An Update?

On the rare occasion when this happens you need to find out which theme or plugin is causing the problem.

If you’re a developer you can turn on WordPress debug mode which should allow you to pinpoint the issue 98% of the time.

If you’re not a developer, here’s a simple way of finding out what is causing the issue.

  • Disable all your plugins
  • Switch to a WordPress default theme such as Twenty Ten, Twenty Eleven, Twenty Twelve, Twenty Thirteen or Twenty Fourteen.
    You can be sure that WordPress core + default theme = works
  • Update to the latest WordPress version
  • Try activating your theme first.  If your site breaks you know that the theme is incompatible
  • With the default theme active, activate each plugin one-by-one and after each activation test your site to see if it has broken.

If all your plugins work with the default theme and the latest release of WordPress, disable them all again, activate your theme and test each plugin one-by-one and test your site again as it could be a theme and plugin incompatibility.

Using this method you will find the combination of core/theme/plugin which doesn’t work.

What Are My Options If My Theme or Plugin Is Incompatible?

You do the same as you would do on your operating system.

Either reach out to the company/developer of the “app” (theme/plugin), raise an issue and ask for a fix or you source a new theme or plugin which has the same functionality but this time is compatible with the core.

Keep WordPress Up To Date

Upgrading WordPress will not break your website.  Incompatible themes and plugins will.

And that’s the moral of the story.

Happy updating!


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Wil is a dad, WordPress consultant, WordPress developer, business coach and mentor. He co-organizes the WordPress Sydney meetup group and has been on the organising committee for WordCamp Sydney since 2014. He speaks at many special events and contributes to the WordPress open source project. His likes are chillies, craft beer and electrogravitics.

6 thoughts on “Will My Website Break If I Update WordPress?”

  1. I didn’t know that wordpress.com gets the core update first, thanks. I have automatic updates for core, themes and plugins enabled on a few sites (that are running a maximum of 3 plugins) – wonder if anything breaks in a year 🙂

  2. You’re actually more likely to break your site if you DON’T update, as it will leave bugs and security vulnerabilities in place that someone can exploit to take over your site.

    Best to just do it.

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