WordPress Automatic Updates Explained

by | Last Updated Nov 27, 2020 | WordPress | 0 comments

Security is the most crucial aspect of site management. Therefore, ensuring that everything is up to date is essential to keep your website safe.

WordPress tries to help with that by using automatic updates.

When you already have a lot of work to do (as most of us do), it’s all too easy to let a WordPress update slip.

The older your plugins and themes are, the more vulnerable your website becomes.

According to a recent study, obsolete software components are among the most common reasons websites get hacked.

Fortunately, WordPress has an automatic update feature that keeps your website safe.

In this post, we’ll discuss how WordPress automatic updates work, why you should enable it, as well as how to stay updated.

WordPress Auto Updates – the 4 Types

WordPress auto-updates come in four different types:

  • Update WordPress Core Automatically
  • Update Plugins Automatically
  • Update Themes Automatically
  • Update Translation Files Automatically

Core updates are further subdivided into many subcategories:

  • Core development updates only apply to development installations
  • A minor core update typically covers maintenance and security improvements. WordPress, by default, enables them. The WordPress 5.5.3 update is a minor core update
  • The Major core updates; includes new features and functionality. For example, a major core update happens when you upgrade WordPress from version 5.5 to version 5.6

How WordPress Automatic Updates Work

Since version 3.7, WordPress has included automatic updates. Though, until recently, they covered only minor core updates.

You had to use plugins or edit your wp-config.php file to enable automatic updates for your themes and plugins.

Since WordPress version 5.5, users can enable automatic updates for themes and plugins right within their WordPress dashboard.

The reason for this is simple. Make maintenance easier for website owners and improve the security of WordPress sites.

As I said previously, hackers often exploit outdated website components.

Automatic WordPress updates work at a technical level.

The WP Cron system checks twice a day for any WordPress or installed theme and plugin updates.

When updates are available, it locks the site first, then updates the plugins and themes, and then finally the core files.

Very simple.

How to Control Automatic WordPress Updates

By default, WordPress does not enable auto-updates.

You must enable them manually from the theme or plugin dashboard if you want to benefit from it.

How can you do it?

Login to your WordPress dashboard to enable automatic updates for your WordPress themes.

Now navigate to Appearance > Themes.

You’ll see a list of all your themes.

WordPress Theme Enable Auto Updates

Click on each theme and then click on Enable auto-updates.

Now let’s see how we can enable auto-updating to the plugins.

Click on Plugins > Installed Plugins.

WordPress Plugin Enable Auto Updates

You can now enable auto-updates for a plugin by clicking Enable auto-updates.

Alternately, tick all the plugins and then select Enable auto-updates from the Bulk Actions drop-down menu.

 WordPress Plugin Bulk Enable Auto Updates

Ah, don’t forget to hit the Apply button.

Activate Automatic Updates in Other Ways

Before WordPress 5.5, you had to enable automatic updates using a plugin or make a change to your wp-config.php file.

Even then, they were limited to core updates.

Imagine using an older version of WordPress, which is somehow you can’t upgrade to the latest WordPress. Or, your WordPress is the latest, but you don’t see the automatic update option.

In this case, here’s how to enable the automatic update feature.

You can enable them by adding the following code to the wp-config.php file.

To enable all core updates, including minor and major:

define( 'WP_AUTO_UPDATE_CORE', true );

If you only wish to enable minor updates:

define( 'WP_AUTO_UPDATE_CORE', 'minor' );

Enable Automatic Updates With API Filters

Through API filters, you can enable automatic updates. However, this method should only be used in plugins.

“Must use plugins” are a great way to manage background updates. However, users cannot remove or deactivate Must use plugins via the WordPress dashboard.

For example, you can enable all core updates by using the following filters:

add_filter( 'auto_update_core', '__return_true' );

Or, you can use one of the following filters to enable only themes, plugins or translations updates:

add_filter( 'auto_update_theme', '__return_true' );
add_filter( 'auto_update_plugin', '__return_true' );
add_filter( 'auto_update_translation', '__return_true' );

Finally, you can use an easy-to-use plugin like Easy Updates Manager to update core, theme, and plugins in one click.

The plugin is available on the official WordPress plugin repository for free.

Easy Updates Manager plugin allows you to enable automatic updates by going to Dashboard > Updates Options.

WordPress Plugin Easy Updates Manager

Now toggle on the Enable all updates option.

You can then configure each theme, plugin, and core update individually.

When Should You Turn off WordPress Auto-Updates?

Now, you know how to enable automatic updates from your WordPress admin dashboard.

However, it’s important to mention that sometimes it’s better to leave automatic updates disabled.

This is because unattended WordPress updates do have a few disadvantages. Let’s look at some scenarios that could lead to trouble on your WordPress site.

Multiple Releases in a Short Time

Have you ever updated a plugin or theme on your site and then found another update was available shortly afterward?

This is a common incident. It usually happens when a bug is discovered that’s unexpected or widespread.

It can be disruptive for the user experience to be updating your site frequently.

Compatibility Issues

Another potential problem with WordPress themes and plugins is that they may conflict with other components installed on your site.

The worst-case scenario is that the site might go down. To make matters worse, it could be days or weeks before another update arrives that fixes the problem.

A Failed Update

Updates sometimes fail.

It can also happen when updates are applied manually, and the best fix is to reinstall the plugin SFTP.

In the case of a failed automatic update, you might not even notice something is wrong with your website.

Let’s Evaluate the Advantages and Disadvantages of Automatic Updates

The three situations described above are typical. No matter the case, it’s a fact that updates left alone can cause website issues.

Even worse, if you enable automatic updates, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact component that caused the problem.

In other words, troubleshooting and fixing the problem will be more challenging than applying the updates one by one manually.

If you have a small website that doesn’t have many plugins or themes, and if you don’t get much traffic, this might not be a big deal.

A broken WordPress website can cost you thousands of dollars in revenue if you have a too complicated site, sell products and services, and receive a lot of traffic.

How to Disable Automatic Updates

You may disable automatic updates once you have read the above advice. All that is needed is reverse-engineering the process.

WordPress Plugin Disable Auto Updates

Use the same switches to disable automatic updates of themes and plugins. The same applies if you are using a plugin solution.

The steps are slightly different for automatic updates enabled through wp-config.php or API filters.

You can disable automatic updates by removing the old code or placing this line in wp-config.php

define( 'AUTOMATIC_UPDATER_DISABLED', true );

This tiny snippet does the trick when using API filters.

add_filter( 'automatic_updater_disabled', '__return_true' );

Automatic WordPress Updates Are Under Your Control

You can choose which components are updated automatically and which ones are not. Both plugins and themes allow you to enable updates individually.

This is useful for complicated or critical plugins. Examples are plugins like WooCommerce, where it’s more suitable to apply the update manually.

It is safer to enable automatic updates for simpler plugins that are not critical to how your website works. One such example is social sharing plugins.

When Are Auto Updates a Good Idea?

Keeping WordPress up-to-date is a challenge for many business owners. WordPress automatic updates solve that problem.

Nevertheless, unattended updates can also cause issues on your site, as we’ve already seen.

So when is it beneficial to update WordPress automatically?

WordPress auto-updates make sense if a dedicated developer does not maintain your site. This keeps your website updated, and it also frees up your time for other tasks.

It is useful if there are many themes installed on your site or plugins you only use infrequently.

In such a case, the best course of action is to enable automatic updates to protect your website from hackers exploiting outdated themes and plugins.

Final Thoughts on WordPress Automatic Updates

It can be challenging to ensure that your WordPress website is always up to date, especially with many other tasks on your to-do list.

However, WordPress updates help secure your site. So it’s essential to apply them when they are released.

Automated WordPress updates eliminate these problems. All you need to do is enable them.

With automatic updates, you can minimize your website’s risk of being hacked due to outdated themes and plugins.

Do you enable automatic updates in WordPress?

Why or why not?

Comment below!

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By Jafar Muhammed

Jafar Muhammed has 10+ years of experience in WordPress, web hosting, domain names, DNS, CDN, server administration, etc. He is an open web advocate. He is the CEO of Rovity, the fastest growing premium shared hosting startup in India.

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