After the update for WordPress 4.6 was released I realised something: there are too many people out there who own a website yet have absolutely no idea about how it works. In this post I talk about what everyone should know when it comes to their website.

A bit of back story

As you know, I sell WordPress themes. Unfortunately the release of WordPress 4.6 exposed a critical bug in my Theme Framework. At some point in time I’d copied and pasted code for testing and never renamed the function to a more sensible unique function. This caused a fatal error in WordPress 4.6 and the dreaded white screen of death.

Although I patched the bug within a few hours across all of my themes, released a tweet about the issue and added a big red banner to my support portal directing to an article on the cause and solution, many website owners came to me in absolute blind panic.

It quickly became clear that I was going to need to help a lot of my customers get the website back up and running again, which is fine and no problem at all. However, there really are some things that every website owner should know and do, these are covered below.

As always, WordPress is the main topic – but a lot of this advice is transferable to other setups and CMS platforms.

Never update your WordPress theme or plugins without backing up first

This is the most disturbing thing I found. Most people I spoke to hadn’t backed up their website before updating. I’m a belt and braces kind of guy, I’m the kind of guy that use 2 types of source control and keeps zip file copies of each theme release. I want to be able to roll back.

I’m lucky as I use WPEngine – they run daily backups and alert you if you’re about to do any kind of update to a theme, plugin or WordPress version. WPEngine allows you to run on-demand full site and database backups which run in minutes or even seconds.

There are plenty of webhosts out there that run auto-backups for you. Check with your webhost to see if they offer daily backups or on-demand backups. Some may do it for free, others may charge.

You can however do this manually yourself and it’s not too difficult. Using a plugin like UpdraftPlus you can back everything up for free and download a copy of it as well as keep it on your server somewhere.

Why do you need to backup?

If something goes wrong, you don’t have to panic, just roll back to the previous version of your website and database.

Always check theme and plugin compatibility before updating WordPress core

You’re not always going to be lucky enough to have a Theme or Plugin Developer who is so quick to patch bugs and help you out. You really should check wherever you bought the plugin or theme from and check its compatibility. This is often listed in a description panel, for example – ThemeForest does this:

Software Version

If you have a plugin from the repository or the plugin has some kind of update mechanism, you should be able to check for compatibility from your “Plugins” page in WordPress.

MeanThemes Tools

You can see here, there is an update waiting, clicking on “View version 3.0.5 details” will show you and overlay panel and compatibility assessment:

MeanThemes update

If you’re still unclear or have doubts, reach out to the author and find out for definite.

Know how to update/install a WordPress theme

So many people didn’t know how to update a WordPress theme that they already had installed.

Some themes have a built in update mechanism and this will show from the Appearance > Themes page:

Theme Update notice

If you have to manually replace the theme, its actually pretty simple:

  1. Activate another theme
  2. Delete the theme you want to update
  3. Upload the new version of the theme
  4. Activate the new version of the theme

Know what FTP/sFTP is

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and Secure File Transfer Protocol (sFTP) are how most hosting setups allow you to upload and download files to your website. Logging in to your FTP/sFTP will give you full folder access to your website, a directory structure much like you get on any mac or pc.

Incidentally, if possible I’d always advise using sFTP access as it is more secure and turning the access on when you need it and off when you don’t to avoid possible hacking attacks.

Always have access to your credentials for WordPress and FTP/sFTP

A few people were so confused about FTP that they thought it was a service they had to pay for. It isn’t. It should come as standard with any hosting package and you have more than likely got an email somewhere with your FTP login details. Likewise with WordPress – you should have your login details for this and you should know how to setup a user that you can send to the theme/plugin developer if needed.

Never “tinker with” or “hack” code

So many people come to me with a support issue angry and frustrated because they’ve been hacking away at the code for days or hours (sometimes even weeks apparently). Go to the theme or plugin author first if you have a code question, don’t try and work it out yourself. You’ll probably cause more problems than you had in the first place. Avoid the time and frustration. I know I’d rather have 10 simple questions to answer than 1 angry and frustrated tirade.

Understand what the Theme Customizer actually does

Too many people think that updating a theme will lose their “customisations”. If you have only used the Theme Customizer or Theme Options and you have not edited any theme files then updating a theme should not erase any Theme Customizer or Theme Options settings.


  • Take ownership of your website and know how to maintain it
  • Always backup before updating anything
  • Know how to do the basics like updating themes and plugins
  • Always check compatibility of themes and plugins before you update WordPress
  • Make sure you’re safe to update WordPress before hitting that Update button