You may be wondering what WordPress even is. I'll give you a clue... you're looking at it right now (unless you've received this post to your inbox of course).
In their own words:
"WordPress is open source software you can use to create a beautiful website, blog, or app."
This site (blogs.bath.ac.uk) is what's known as a WordPress multi-site, which means that it is lots of smaller sites (or blogs) within one overall mega-site. But the same process of maintenance applies to any WordPress site. If you are the proud owner of a site on blogs.bath.ac.uk, you don't need to worry about this, as we do the maintenance on your behalf.
Why is it important to keep your site up to date
I'm not going to go into detail in this post, about why you need to keep your site content up to date. That's a whole other story. What I'm talking about here is the technical side of site maintenance.
The four main areas a WordPress developer needs to think about are:
- WordPress versions
- PHP versions
The first three are essential for your site to run. Plugins are optional, although, I've never come across a site which doesn't use any. Different sites will most likely use different plugins, depending on what their purpose is.
There are all kinds of reasons for keeping these up to date but the main things are:
- to maximise site security
- to keep the site working properly
WordPress is an incredible free website framework. It's not for complete beginners, but can allow you to build a huge range of sites whilst not having to worry about the hard nitty-gritty of the more complex workings. WordPress regularly release new versions or increments of versions to:
- fix bugs
- implement security patches
- enable new functionality
- keep up to date with browser and device updates
- improve the usability for developers, site admins and end-users
- improve the accessibility of the platform
PHP (or PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor) is the scripting language and framework on which WordPress is built. You can't build your site without it. It's good practice to keep up to date with the most current version, however, versions do continue to be supported for a set period after a new release is available. Once a version is unsupported, you're getting into dangerous ground. You can normally update the PHP version in your hosting control panel, your hosting provider should have supporting documentation.
All sites have a theme. If you have your own website, you might use one of the default themes or another of the free templates. Larger organisations will tend to build or commission their own theme which has been adapted to fit their branding.
So, what is a theme? Your theme applies CSS styling to your site and gives you a range of options for personalisation through your site dashboard. It may also provide some additional page templates for you to use. WordPress does come with some standard templates, but there may be a requirement for something more bespoke or flexible.
Plugins are used to allow some further functionality or to connect another service. They can do a huge range of things. You might have a plugin to:
- embed an Instagram feed
- to improve site security
- improve search engine optimisation (SEO)
- enable enhanced features e.g. embedded forms or sliders
Some plugins are created by WordPress, but many are created and maintained by external developers or companies.
How to keep your site up to date
Most of these things can be updated through your site dashboard. If you are using a recent version of WordPress, you will have access to 'Site Health' through the 'Tools' menu in your dashboard, this is a quick way to check if there are updates available.
Testing and backups
It's always wise to back up your site before you make any updates. This can be done in some instances through your hosting provider. WP Engine, for example, makes regular backups in the background and you can initiate a back-up on demand.
You can use a staging or development server to test any updates before making them on your live production server. That way, you can find out if the changes break anything else or introduce bugs before rolling them out. Again, this is sometimes provided through your hosting provider, or some developers will work on a local server to test changes.
An extra note about plugins
Because plugins can be created and maintained by external users, it's really important to keep an eye on whether they are still being supported and whether it's been tested for compatibility with your version of WordPress and PHP. This isn't clear from visiting your site dashboard. There is a danger with plugins, as they often remain available long after the creator has stopped maintaining them. You can check the status of a plugin through the directory on WordPress.
Each plugin shows information about when it was last updated, how many sites are using it and its compatibility and testing. If a plugin is not being maintained, it's time to remove it or look for a replacement. If you are having problems with functionality on your site, it's always worth checking to see if an out of date plugin is the cause.