So, let’s assume that you login to your WordPress Dashboard after December 5th (the target date for the release of WordPress version 3.5), and you see the message, “WordPress version 3.5 is now available”.  Should you simply click on the “Update to WordPress 3.5 now” button and do the deed?  Ah, no, hold on a second…

A Safer, Better Way to Upgrade

While WordPress makes it so easy to upgrade, it’s a very good idea to take some precautions to minimize the possibility of suffering unwanted side effects from conflicts that can arise between the core software and the theme and plugins you have installed.

Below is the approach I recommend you take when upgrading your site to either a major or feature release  of WordPress.

1) Wait for the next WordPress bug fix and security update

Every major or feature release of a large, complex piece of software like WordPress is going to introduce some bugs — and sometimes even new security vulnerabilities — no matter how extensively the software has been tested.  The good news is that the WordPress support team is very good at recognizing and fixing the most significant problems rather quickly.  You can expect there will be a bug fix and security release of WordPress following shortly on the heels of any major or feature release.   So in this case, wait a few weeks for v3.5.1 to become available before you upgrade.  There’s no compelling reason why you need to upgrade to v3.5 right away.  Let “the other guy” find and report the bugs.  And you might as well get the benefit of the bug fixes right off the bat.  Taking this delay also will give the theme and plugin development teams an opportunity to “catch up” if they need more time to make changes to their software to ensure it is compatible with v3.5.  And, speaking of themes and plugins…

2) Upgrade your themes and plugins before you upgrade WordPress

The biggest risk you run with a WordPress upgrade isn’t from the new WordPress software itself — it is the potential fallout from conflicts between the new version of WordPress and the themes and plugins you are using.  If a plugin or theme isn’t v3-5-compatible, a useful feature on your site could be neutralized, the appearance of your site could be compromised, or, worst case, you site even could become completely unusable.  Selecting and properly managing your themes and plugins is a whole topic until itself — I won’t try to cover it all here.  But suffice to say that before you apply a WordPress upgrade, make sure you have first brought your theme and plugins up-to-date with the latest versions of their releases.  Once you apply those updates, review and test your site first — especially an update you have applied is anything other than a simple bug fix release.

3) Test on a test bed before you upgrade your “live” site

Did you know that you can quite easily create a WordPress test bed environment on your laptop or desktop that mirrors your production site, with all the same versions of software and configuration settings?  Well, you can.  Again, this is a whole ‘nother topic for another post.  But for now, trust me: you can do it.  So, where does this fit into the WordPress upgrade process?  Simple: if you have such a test bed (with the latest versions of your theme and plugins installed, of course) you can install and test the new version of WordPress to your heart’s content before you drop the new stuff into production.  There are a few things you won’t be able to test in this environment — like using a contact form to send an e-mail — but almost anything else you can think of will be fair game for kickin’ the tires.  If you don’t already have a test bed, get one.  It’s so useful for so many other reasons, too, like trying out new themes and plugins before exposing them on your production site.

4) Take a full backup of your WordPress files and database

You’re almost ready to upgrade, but there’s one more preparatory step: take a full backup of your production WordPress files and database, and save a copy of the backup offline (e.g., on your laptop/desktop, an external drive, or one of those storage services “in the cloud”).   This backup is your fallback option, your saving grace, in case of disater.  Notice a serious problem after you apply the WordPress update?  No reason for panic: just use your backup to restore the entire site to “the way it was” before the update, and you’re back in business.  What’s the best way to create that full backup, and how do I restore my site from the backup?  Yet another topic worth its own post.  But here’s a quick tip:  the Backup Buddy plugin from is a great option.  (By the way, taking and storing backups offline like this also should be part of your routine when you install any major/feature update to a theme or plugin.)

5) Pull the trigger (finally!) – and then test some more

Okay, you’re ready to upgrade.  By taking the steps above you have minimized the risk of introducing any ill side effects from the upgrade, and you have given yourself a “plan b” you can fall back to in case something bad happens in the end.  Go ahead: be bold and click that “Update to WordPress 3.5” button on your production site Dashboard!  And after you do, go back and thoroughly review and test the site right away.  Assuming you don’t discover any problems — and by this point you really shouldn’t — you can relax, pat yourself on the back, and take a few minutes to smell the roses.  Of course, keep that full backup of your site handy just in case something  untoward crops up later.

So, that’s the process.  Truth be told: even if you don’t follow these recommendations, there’s a fair chance you won’t ever experience a major problem when you install a WordPress upgrade.   But why take the chance?

I will admit this:  for WordPress bug fix and security releases (e.g., moving from v3.4.1 to v3.4.2) I may relax these guidelines a bit and skip testing the upgrade on a test bed before applying it to production.  But at the very least, it’s never a bad idea to take that backup and store it offline before applying any kind of upgrade.  It’s a nice feeling to always have that safety net available.

You may be wondering: so, what if I do find a conflict between my theme or one of my plugins and the new version of WordPress.  As someone once said — you know what’s coming here — “That will have to be another topic for another post.”

Stay tuned, and….

Keep Pressing!