Blogger Tip: Install One Plugin Update At A Time

The other day, I had a slight outage here at Money Beagle.  Chances are you missed it, as it wasn’t down for very long.  It was only by sheer luck that I was able to get it fixed so quickly.  The experience taught me a valuable lesson: A plugin update problem can be fixed quickly if you update one at a time.

The Vast Expanse Of WordPress

I run my blog on WordPress, which is the platform for a huge number of blogs, due to the ease of use and flexibility to make each site unique.  The popularity of WordPress means that there are a lot of extras that you can add, and these are called ‘Plugins’.

For example, the little buttons that give you the ability to Tweet my post, or the checkmark that appears next to the comment box to weed out spammers are just a couple examples of plugins, and they are some of the ones that users can ‘see’.

There are some other plugins that run more back-end functionality, which don’t necessarily provide anything extra that the user can see, but can improve things like security, monitoring, speed and other performance.

Plugins And Money Beagle

I have 26 active plugins on my site, which is probably high for some bloggers, low for others, but I think is about right for me.

Plugins is that they are often updated by the original author.  Plugins may be updated to improve performance, fix bugs, fix security, add new features, or maintain compatibility with the underlying WordPress install.

One of the cool features of WordPress is that, when you login to the administrative console, you’ll instantly see when there are updates available to your plugins, as a little orange circle with a number inside appears next to the Plugins menu item, with the number corresponding to the number of plugins that currently have updates available.

If you click Plugins, you can then click a link to show only plugins that have updates available, and it’s only a couple of clicks to have WordPress go out, get the updates, install them, and re-activate them for you.  Being able to do them in a ‘batch’ has saved quite a bit of time over the years, and had worked flawlessly.  Until this last time when it didn’t.

Plugin Update Gone Wrong!

I logged in the other morning and saw that I had three plugin updates available.  I went through the steps noted above to do the updates, and happened to be watching my screen.  One of the plugins that works to improve performance, called W3 Super Cache, was the first to go.  While watching, I saw the status change from ‘Installing’ to ‘Update Failed’, and then my page immediately vanished and a 500 Internal Server error appeared.

I confirmed that this was happening on all pages and that it wasn’t going away.

Crap.  A 500 Internal Server Error is just what it sounds like, noting that the server is responding but is not providing the information that a browser could used to display a page.  So, it was doing something but apparently nothing good.

As Always, Google To The Rescue

Luckily for me, a couple of quick Google searches for ‘500 error WordPress’ yielded some pretty quick results basically suggesting that an errant plugin was probably responsible.  This I sort of knew, since I watched it crash and burn right in front of me.  Now, I just needed to know what to do about it.

I was able to find that if you could browse to your folder, either by having access to your site’s control panel (cPanel) or via File Transfer Protocol (FTP) to the server.  Essentially, where the WordPress admin console takes you one step backward from the blog, you need to go one step further back.

My host provides cPanel access, which I access a few times per month, and I was able to quickly get in and temporarily bring the site back up, which in this case simply meant renaming the folder that held the configuration files for the plugin, which automatically ‘stopped’ the plugin.  This brought the site back online and WordPress was throwing up all kinds of error codes about missing files.

mb-2014-12glassI attempted to update the plugin again, and it did the same thing.  Site was down again for another minute while I again renamed the folder.

Next, I manually removed all files associated with the plugin (thanks again, Google) and attempted a fresh install.

No bueno.

Now, as noted above this is a ‘back end’ plugin that handles a service called web caching.  This is a common tool that basically figures out which parts of the site don’t change.  It  will then place these on the computer of people who browse to the site.  When the reader comes back, they don’t have to pull as much information down. It saves considerable traffic over the web.

The bad news is that I couldn’t get the plugin to work.  The good news is that because this is such a common technology, there are many similar plugins.

I did another Google search (I think we were up to three now), found one that I liked except it cost $39 (nope), and then settled on another one.  I installed that, went through a couple of configuration changes that the previous search had recommended.  After testing, everything was back as it should be.  Yay!

Learning From The Near Disaster

Still, this experience did change how I will handle updates in the future.

  • Backups and timing – I do a few different backup types on my site on a weekly basis.  In addition my host provider backs everything up on a server level.  I really had no schedule on when I installed plugins. A more consistent schedule will help keep things backed up.  So, now I’ll make sure to do plugins in line with my backup schedule.
  • No automatic plugin updates – WordPress is easy.  You can configure the site to just go out and do updates automatically.  I used to have this turned on, and at one point turned it off, and I’m glad I did.  Had I had this enabled, I likely would have not had any clue that an update had failed.  The down time certainly would have been much longer.
  • One update at a time – As mentioned, I used to do updates in batch, which has worked well.  I won’t do that anymore.  It was lucky that I was watching the screen when the update failed.  I knew exactly which folder to target.  I could have looked for folders and files that had been more recently updated.  That would have meant more time narrowing things down.  From now on, I think I’ll stick to one update at a time.

Readers, have you ever had to recently troubleshoot an issue with your blog or some piece of technology?   Did you do it on your own or did you have someone else get you back up and running?

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10 thoughts on “Blogger Tip: Install One Plugin Update At A Time

  1. This happened to me a few weeks ago and it made me sweat bullets. I had five plugins that I updated at the same time. When I contacted my web host, I could not remember the name of the fifth plugin (I’m amazed that I remembered them at all). But the host was able to go in and found that it was the fifth plugin (one of those woo plugins) that became incompatible.

  2. Ouch. Hate when that happens! Most of the time I only update one at a time too. The problems I’ve had when trying to update more than one at a time have been minimal and I can usually just refresh the page and start over, but I don’t want to take any chances of something more intense happening.

  3. Glad that you were able to bring it back. That’s why it is really helpful when you know what you’re doing and know the functions of every plug-in you use for your website. A lesson learned, Money Beagle.

    • Yes, every once in a while I go through and look at each plugin and make sure that it’s still needed and that it hasn’t been made redundant by WordPress or abandoned by the developer, in which case it’s usually best (for security) to find a replacement.

  4. Good post. I’m struggling with a wierd little bug that doesn’t let me respond to comments from my WordPress site. I now have to go to my main website and respond to comments there. I called Bluehost (not much help), they said it was linked to a plugin, but couldn’t tell me which one. Need to find the time to de-activate varios plugins and test. ARGH…..(tough for those of us not “tech-savvy”…

  5. Augh I feel your pain. I hate technical glitches. Getting locked out of the admin panel even if it’s just temporary is one of the worst feelings. I finally removed several plugins I wasn’t using a couple months ago to get my site cleaned up. I do have a habit of updating plugins in batches, so I should probably go back to doing them one at a time. Glad you got your site back up!

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