So keeping your WordPress website up-to-date and updating your WordPress website are two different things.
What do you mean “up-to-date”?
Let’s start with a look at the different parts of a typical WordPress website.
Well your WordPress website is a multi dimensional being. It has a code language, PHP. It has a load of files which make up the WordPress core and they run the content management system, talk to the database and do stuff like make the menu system work and allow you to have pages and posts. Usually you will have a theme running along side this. A WordPress Theme is a collection of files that work together to produce the look and feel of the website. These files are called template files. A Theme modifies the way the site is displayed, without modifying the underlying core functionality of WordPress. The theme may be very simple and allow you to change the font and colour and add a logo, or it can be very complex and have all sorts of built in functionality. Finally in all likelihood your website will have plugins running. These are small pieces of code that perform a certain task on your website. It might be to talk to google maps to allow you to have a map on your contact site, or it might be an entire e-commerce engine that runs a shop and allows you to take payments online. You may have 2 or 3 plugins you may have 30 plugins depending on the complexity of the website.
Each of the above components are constantly changing and being updated. New ‘words’ or functions are being added, files are changing to reflect updated possibilities and security, theme are modified to keep up with the changes in the core files and also to add new and amazing functionality to the site, for example Avada (a premium theme) included a charts and graphs element in a recent version. Plugin code is changed to account for modifications in the PHP and core. So by keeping a website up-to-date we mean that all the latest versions of these files are running your website and that you are not using a theme that is 4 years out of date, or WordPress core files that are old and have well documented security issues.
Why should I keep my WordPress website up-to-date?
The main reason to keep WordPress updated is for security. Sometimes security vulnerabilities are corrected with new WordPress releases. Updating to the newest version of WordPress will ensure that you have the latest security fix. Not updating your version of WordPress may leave your site open to hackers. Another reason to update WordPress is to benefit from new features and improvements that may come with a new version of WordPress.
What happens when you up date WordPress is that some plugins may cause the site to fall over, it could be simple like your map stops displaying, or fatal and your whole website falls over and you get a white screen of death. Most reputable plugin authors keep their plugins updated too. Again to plug any security breaches but also to maintain compatibility with the latest version of WordPress. So update the core … update your plugins. It’s simple and usually only the click of a button.
Keep on top of updates every month and they should be straightforward and easy to manage with little or no impact on your website.
Should I update my website?
Unfortunately many companies get a lovely shiny new website and then proceed to park it in the corner of the office and do nothing with it or to it for months if not years. At some point, the aforementioned website falls over from neglect and a panic button is triggered in the depths of the office. At which point someone, usually in a shouty voice, demands the tired and out of date website is fixed. Sound familiar?
In this case updating a website may not be simple. Your PHP version may well be old, your core files almost certainly many versions out of date, the theme you use may be out of date, or worse bespoke so not updatable, and the plugins may not even be being maintained any more. If a wordpress update is done, likelihood is your theme will break and probably some if not all of your tired plugins. Outcome, utter mess.
If your website falls into the neglected category my best advice is take a backup, put a copy on a development server and update everything and see what happens. You may be lucky and salvage the site, you may need to find a website developer rather quickly.
If you buy a new car and never service it one day it will simply stop working, the same principle applies to a website. You need to budget for at least some maintenance when you commission a new website. If you are technical you should be able to run all your updates in house without issue, if you aren’t or simply don’t have the time pay someone to do this. It should only take an hour a month and like a car will give your website longevity and keep it secure.