WordPress plugin versioning

One of the crucial parts of WordPress maintenance is making sure the software on websites is up to date. This can seem counter-intuitive if you have a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” mindset, but that’s dangerous on the internets because updates can fix security issues that you may not be aware of.

Unfortunately, this proactive mindset often seems unimportant until it’s too late. Think of maintaining your car or your body. Regular care is preventative. Going through crisis sucks. The same applies to websites.

Here at MountainWP we have a pile of sites under management. It’d be extremely tedious to log into each one, one-by-one, every day to see what needs to be updated. Technically, we actually *do* log in to each one daily, but we use a tool called MainWP to speed up the process and keep tabs on everything from one location.

But MainWP is just a tool. It doesn’t stop things from breaking. Here’s a quick look at a handful of updates we ran this morning. Pay attention to all of the red arrows, as comparing versions of plugins is the first thing we look at.

So what’s with all of the numbers in the plugin versions? Why not simply have versions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on? Well, in the software world there are often small incremental changes made regularly. These small changes exist to improve software without making one big pile of changes all at once.

Versioning

The numbering is known as “versioning” and the easiest way to understand it is to look at each number separately. There are different approaches to this and it’s up to the developer to decide what he or she uses.

Start with the leftmost integer, which is the “major” version number. In the screenshot above, you can see that Cloudflare needed an update from version 3.8.9 to 4.0.0.

The next integer is the “minor” version, which will often have significant changes from the previous minor version, but less so than updates seen in a major version. You can see several above, e.g., Pixel Caffeine moving from version 2.1.4 to 2.2.0.

Lastly, the “patch” integer is reflective of little changes and rarely is noticeable unless it fixes a function that broke. The Blocksy Companion update from 1.7.56 to 1.7.57 is a good example and interestingly implies that there have been 57 updates within the 1.7 minor version.

You may see some version numbers with an extra decimal place, such as MailOptin – Lite, which went from 1.2.34.3 to 1.2.34.4. This indicates an even less significant change, but is helpful for the developer to be able to know what was changed and when.

So what?

These may just look like a bunch of random numbers, but they tell us a lot. When maintaining WordPress websites, the major and minor version updates are the ones that are most likely to affect the function of a site… for better or for worse.

This is why we typically avoid auto-updates, as we need to keep tabs on when significant changes occur. It’s easy to hit that update button but sometimes it’s best to wait, especially for major version updates that end up getting patched once the code is out in the wild.

We look at version numbers every day. It’s a pretty quick process once you know what you’re looking at, but it’s important, especially when a major version changes. Most of the time everything works smoothly, but occasionally we catch a problem right after the update occurs and have to roll back to a previous version.

“Trusted” and “Status”

Some of you probably noticed all those “Not Trusted” labels in the screenshot. This is a feature in MainWP that, if a plugin is trusted, will trigger an automatic update. We’ve found that it’s typically best to leave this off for almost every plugin with a few exceptions – i.e., the ones that have millions of users, big teams behind them, and get patched really quickly.

The status labels simply indicate whether or not a plugin is activated. We run updates on inactive plugins for security reasons, but it’s generally best to remove any software that’s not being used.

Anyway, hope this provided some helpful insight about WordPress updates!

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Scott Pruett
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