Updating your website is a bit like love.

Why love?
Because, much like love, updating a website is both simple and complex.

Can’t you just press “update”.  Yes, you can.  Can it be that simple? Yes.  Is it that simple. No.

The reality of having a website is that once a developer has completed your site – the process is not over.  It is not over because the nature of technology is that it is constantly changing.  This is a huge detail that is hard to convey to a client.  And thus, this article 🙂

Once we hand a website over something can break and updates will be required.

So let me walk you through what is happening when you update a WordPress website.  Here is a mini-lesson on the basic architecture of a WordPress website.

1. Let’s look at what WordPress is and how it works.

WordPress is a piece of software that allows you to have a website which is a “content management system”. That means as a site owner you can easily* add pages, content, images, blog posts, users, functionality etc…

It gives you control over your website without being a web builder. Amazing! Especially amazing when you consider what it used to be like to own a website.

*(I am not being contemptuous with the word ‘easily’. It is a relative term.)

2. Next we envelop WordPress with a theme.

Themes are incredible.

In its most basic description – a theme gives your website an overall look-and-feel.  The theme pulls various bits of content that you have placed in the WordPress framework and displays it in different ways.

Every theme displays content differently.  For example one theme will display a sidebar alongside your page, and another will not.  One theme will display your logo centred and large, while another will display it smaller and to the left of the screen.  One theme might make your navigation big and obvious, and another will display it with a more subtle and tucked away approach.  These are simply illustrative examples to give you a sense of it – a different look-and-feel.

The third ingredient is plugins.

Plugins add extra functionality to the basic WordPress functionality. If you need a function, there’s a plugin for it.  Turning your website into a shop?  A plugin can do that. A business directory?  Yep.  A real estate site?  That too.  Adding a contact form?  Get a plugin.

There are so may plugins, and they are incredible. So incredible that it is easy to get carried away adding functionality.  But don’t.  You should be discerning when adding them to your website. Not only what plugins you add (not all are created equal) but also how many you have. (too many can slow your site down big time)

So those are the big three.

WordPress = foundational piece

Theme = envelops WordPress framework by displaying content in various ways

Plugins = add whatever functionality that you need.

Here is the crux of it.

All three of those are constantly being updated.

Three moving targets.  They are being updated sometimes for refinements and improvements, to make them simpler and more effective for you.  And sometimes they are being updated because there is something in the code that has become a bit too easy for a hacker to penetrate. (eek, I didn’t like that sentence)

And we do not like hackers, especially when it comes to our website that is out there representing us to the world, and which we have spent many dollars and hours getting to this point.

So, we update.

Updates tend to go like this:

  1. WordPress publishes an update.
  2. Then, based on that WordPress update the theme and plugin developers have to update their theme/plugin to make sure that every line of code still perfectly links and references what it is meant to reference in the the new changed code of the newly updated WordPress.  They dissect, consider, sequence, and methodically scramble to get their updates out as well.  The pace can sometimes mean mistakes happen, but those get worked out quickly enough.  There is a lot to think through. Sometimes tens of thousands of lines of code.  Technology and all the programming languages are complex.

All three players – the WordPress contributors, plugin developers, and theme creators, try to coordinate their updates, but there is a lot to think through to make your website function.  And so, when you press “Update WordPress” – one of the plugins or theme might just not be ready to talk to the newly revised code structure of one of the other components.  And that is why sometimes an update can break your website.

Updating a website can be as simple as pressing a button, but there is a very appropriate saying that goes here:  “The devil is in the details”.

The success of that click depends on the absolute accuracy and compatibility of every single micro-detail of code that makes up WordPress, your theme, and the plugins.  Leading up to that click is your due diligence and prep work.

  • Creating a full website backup first because that is common sense.
  • Knowing how to restore your site from that backup if anything should go wrong.
  • And knowing what to do when things really, really go sideways in the process.

You are preparing for what could go wrong.  But do things go wrong? Sure they do. They can. But not always. Often not.

Remember, it’s just technology. And while we’re concluding, let’s give a big hats-off to the brilliant people whose minds keep this whole train rolling.


Niki Campbell

I am Niki, the web developer behind all that is Brand Brilliant. When building sites I always ensure that they are well thought-out and structured with a decisive strategy in place. If you're interested in what brought me here? I have now been building websites for 19 years. I am a strategist, screen-printer, graphic designer and (of course) web developer. During my 19 years I've taken many tangents. Creating my own retail shop, raising my son Arlo, and always keeping my hands dirty in my screen-printing business. I believe in the simplification of complex concepts and I love helping others to learn to simplify as well.

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