The internet is a constantly changing space, evolving at an incredibly high rate. Keeping a website relevant and secure is an ongoing task for any business or individual and cannot be overlooked.
But it’s not always that easy. Old content management systems, expired plug-ins and out of date programming languages can all conspire to make it challenging, and therefore web updates get pushed to the bottom of the list.
But there are risks to not keeping it up to date, and ways to minimise those risks – so read on to ensure that you minimise your vulnerabilities and keep your digital presence in good order, and to find out the one key thing we recommend all website owners do.
Why should you update?
One of the primary reasons to keep your website updated is for security reasons. Since platforms such as WordPress are so widely popular, there are always going to be bugs and security loopholes. Every update finds more bugs and vulnerabilities to fix in a never-ending race to patch holes before hackers find them.
If you don’t update, you are leaving yourself increasingly vulnerable with every update that goes by as entry ways through outdated plug-ins and CMSs become known. 54% of all WordPress vulnerabilities can be traced back to plug-ins and 14% to themes so, if these have been used in your website, make sure your developer is confident which ones are safe and is tasked with keeping them up to date.
Each update also aims to bring either new features or improved versions of current systems. Ultimately the aim is always to make it easier for you as the owner to manage your website and use it as intended, and in turn this will improve the overall experience for the visitors of your website.
Updates also often include optimisations aimed at making the website faster. The faster your website, the better the user experience for the visitors to your site, and in theory this should lead to lower bounce rates and higher conversions.
Websites are live documents as they constantly undergo changes to reflect the current needs. Due to the nature of the development process and the wide variety of platforms that will host its functions, plug-ins and content management systems are never finished. Instead they are continuously subject to development to better serve the users and be compatible with an ever-increasing list of platforms.
Think of it in terms of mobile telephones, with the launch of smartphones and the increasing shift of web traffic coming from phones, it has never been more important to be optimised for mobile. Now think of how many different phones exist on the market, whether it be Apple, Samsung, Google or Nokia, and how many variations of each there are. Developers now must make sure that their websites perform as intended no matter what device, and any variable no matter how insignificant can alter the way it behaves. Therefore, there is a never-ending list of updates as there is a never-ending list of viewing platforms.
Now you’ve understood the reasons for why you should be doing your updates, but understandably you may still feel slightly wary of carrying them out as there are certain risks to keep in mind throughout the process. Here are some of the main issues to be aware of and some tips on how to prevent them
The main risk when updating is the possibility of breaking your website, which is often the result of plug-ins being incompatible. Since the majority of the plug-ins that you will be using are all developed by several third-party groups independent of each other, very rarely do they take into account that they need to function alongside other plug-ins. Often plug-ins are updated to be as widely compatible as possible but since the developers don’t have any formal communications and are not part of the same team, they do not necessarily know what they need to be compatible with until it is released. This is when we run into problems as updating may break the compatibility, which can consequently cause enough complications to break the website. This will have a severe effect on your web traffic as the site may not display correctly to your users or, in the worst case, they may not be able to access your site at all.
The second risk, though arguably just as important as breaking your website, is the security of it. Most updates aim to improve your security, so the longer you leave it the more exposed you become. However the implications of running the updates may also leave your more vulnerable to an attack. An update may have unforeseen effects on other plug-ins and themes which may create gaps in your security. This can create a temporary access point for any hacker wishing to gain entry to your website.
If something goes really wrong, you may end up losing all content of the website. It could be that the errors are so complicated that all the data becomes irretrievable or alternatively, if your website is breached by a hacker, the content may be seized and deleted.
Tips to staying safe
Do your research on what plug-ins and themes are used on your website – ask an established developer if you don’t trust your own judgement. Make sure you only use well known and respected plug-ins as they are more likely to be well supported and will make it easier to solve any potential complications. If you keep an extra eye out for communications from developers or via WordFence notifications, you may also be able to highlight and solve certain issues before they even arise, so do your reading and stay up to date.
This is something that you will see again and again as it is so fundamentally important to the security and integrity of your website. If you only take one thing away with you from reading this make it about backups. Making sure you back up your website will leave you with a failsafe that can be deployed when any of the formerly mentioned issues occur.
Say the website broke because a plug-in was updated, all you need do is restore your website to its state prior to the update. Perhaps the website is suddenly running slower after you made a change to it, once again restore the website to before the change. Even if your website is breached and your files are stolen and deleted, you are still able to restore your website because you have a backup and thus won’t have lost the files.
So even if you never intend on updating your website, having frequent back ups is probably a good idea.
If possible, it can be very helpful to test your website in a sandbox environment. What this means is that you preview the effects of any updates or changes before you deploy them, meaning you can detect errors before they occur. There are several apps out there which provide you with this testing method. Depending on your host provider, you may or may not have a range of solutions available to set up a staging site. If there are none available, you could even create a local staging environment on your computer. The benefits of this is that you limit any disruption to your web traffic, and it allows you to experiment without affecting the actual website.
In conclusion, it is incredibly important to keep your website up to date in order to maintain a stable and secure website, but there may also be a lot of work involved to make sure it is carried out safely. With a bit of time, research and dedication anyone can keep their website up to date, though if you don’t want to spend the time or don’t trust your technical knowledge, many developers will offer to do this for you on a retained plan, and could be a good option to give you peace of mind knowing that your website will continue to run as smoothly as possible.
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Head of Journals at Edinburgh University Press
Edinburgh University Press used 56 Degrees to design our new website and I would highly recommend him – he produced designs that were exactly what we wanted and it was a pleasure to work with him! I wouldn’t hesitate to work with 56 Degrees again.
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