The Complete Guide to WordPress Backups

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Just like a car without spare tires, a WordPress site with no backups is a disaster waiting to happen. 

Backups are the safety net you need so your website can easily bounce back if a disaster completely wipes it out. 

In this guide, you’ll learn how to perform backups the easy way so your website can recover quickly anytime.

Why WordPress Backups Are So Important

Backups are your website’s insurance policy. Nothing beats the peace of mind that comes from knowing your website will be fine even if things go wrong. And if you run a WordPress site, there’s a multitude of things that can go wrong. 

Here are some of the reasons why backups are a crucial part of website maintenance:

Backups are your second line of defense against cyberattacks 

Shielding your WordPress site from malicious traffic usually starts with the website’s own firewall. But hackers are increasingly able to bypass or break through firewalls these days, meaning that even the most secure websites can still be vulnerable. 

Fortunately, having offsite backups means a duplicate copy of your website is on a separate server totally out of the hackers’ reach. All you have to do is restore the backups and your website is back to normal. 

The importance of backing up files is even more critical for government-owned websites. When a ransomware attack targeted the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), vital digital files became hostage to the cybercriminals. But instead of paying the $73,000 ransom demand, the SFMTA listened to the federal officials who advised on activating their backup and recovery system. 

By restoring the backups, the agency was able to remove the infected files and resume operations without having to negotiate with the hackers.

Your WordPress site may not have the same scope as a municipal transportation agency, but imagine what would have been the outcome if the same cybercriminals targeted your site. Without backups to clean up your infected site, the chances of your site getting back on its feet would have been nil. 

Backups keep all your recent data unaffected by server outages 

No website can guarantee 100% uptime. Servers can crash due to unforeseen circumstances like changes in server structure, hard drive failures, or software errors. 

If the server downtime occurs after a major website update, chances are the changes will go down the drain as well. If you’re relying on your hosting provider to do the backups, there’s more bad news: the backup files are often hosted on the same server as your website. Therefore, if your site goes down, there will be no host-generated backups to go back to. 

Fortunately, there are third-party backup services that can automatically save duplicate copies of your site. So even if there’s a server downtime, the recent updates in your website won’t be affected and you can pick up exactly where you left off.

Backups help you roll back updates gone wrong 

WordPress and all the plugins you’ve installed need regular updates. Otherwise, new features won’t show up and you’ll be dealing with a lot of bugs. 

But sometimes, these updates may not work as expected. This is why it’s often recommended to back up your website prior to any updates. Fail to do this and you may end up with updates messing up with your site theme and functionality. 

By having a backup copy of your website ready to be restored anytime, you can easily revert to the previous version of your site and undo all the changes. 

Backups reverse damages caused by human error 

Even if you do everything to the letter, mistakes are bound to happen. 

You may decide to edit the theme code and accidentally delete a portion of it. Or perhaps due to lack of sleep, you might end up executing the wrong MySQL command. Errors, big or small, can be detrimental to your WordPress site. 

With backups, you have the confidence that whatever happens, you can always restore the most recent updated version of your website as if nothing happened. 

Backups ensure hassle-free transfer to a new host

Migrating to a new hosting provider can disrupt your website operations. By having ready-to-use backups, you can move a duplicate copy of your site to a new host while keeping business as usual. 

As a result, the process will be smoother and you’ll be able to keep your visitors happy with little to no downtimes. 

Backups help you avoid the pitfalls of trusting your web host

Web hosts offer backups, but they either provide them as a courtesy or only after you upgrade to higher plans. In other words, if you think that your hosting provider can provide you with backups whenever the need arises, you’ll be in a lot of trouble. 

Server crashes can happen anytime, more so if your WordPress site is sharing a server with sites that are vulnerable to security threats. Once the ship sinks, there goes your website and all of its backups too. 

By performing your own backups, you’re taking matters into your own hands. So whenever your web host is hit by a mishap, you won’t go into a panic mode and simply wait for things to settle. 

Quick Tips to Improve WordPress Backups Today

Automate your website backups

When you’re juggling several tasks to grow your WordPress site, it’s too easy to push website backups to the bottom of your priority list. By automating the process, however, you let others take care of them so you can focus more on improving your bottom line.

Automatic backups can be done at predetermined intervals. Depending on the type of WordPress site you have and how often you publish content, it can be hourly, daily, or weekly. 

There are two ways you can automate the process of backing up your site. Either let your hosting provider perform it on your behalf or use a third-party service to take care of it. 

Hosting providers usually offer website backups for free. This is pretty much standard in the industry although more backup features are available if you pay for the service separately. 

The danger of depending on your web host for your automatic backups is the fact that they store it on the same server as your website. In other words, one server outage is all it takes for these backups to be gone for good. If you’re going to take this path, make sure your web host keeps the backups on a separate server.

Alternatively, you can also install a WordPress plugin that can do the same job. Just make sure the plugin has its own server to put your website backups in otherwise you’ll run into the same snags as before. 

WordPress plugin eats up additional drive space so unless it’s capable of storing your website backups off-site and off-host, it’s not worth the risk.

Backup plugins do their jobs differently. There are plugins capable of full-site backups which means they can generate complete copies of your website every time. To save server storage space, other backup plugins only provide incremental backups. This type of plugins generates a duplicate copy of your website initially and only performs subsequent backups each time you make changes on your site. 

So instead of performing full backups each time, it will only home in on the website theme you changed and update the stored backups accordingly. 

Incremental backups are ideal for most websites but especially ecommerce sites where the database gets updated each time a customer orders a product. In this case, complete backups aren’t practical at all as they will only put a strain on the server, leading to more server timeouts than the website visitors can tolerate. 

The downside of using a plugin is the risk of exposing your website to security vulnerabilities. Free plugins also don’t have their own servers so any backup they’ll generate will go down with your website each time there’s a downtime. 

Fortunately, there are backup plugins like BlogVault that offer a cloud-based backup solution. 

BlogVault is a managed WordPress backup service that doesn’t work like your regular WordPress plugin. It has its own dashboard where you can set up the website backups to run on autopilot. You can also create multiple backups and store them in third-party cloud storage services like Google Drive. 

BlogVault offers incremental backups so only the recent changes you’ve made are backed up instead of the entire site. Most importantly, it stores the backups in its own server so your data will always be safe and ready to be restored anytime. 

Make sure your website backups are complete

Complete backups ensure you’ll be able to restore the exact duplicate of your website. You don’t want to revert to your most recent backups only to realize several images are missing or your WordPress theme is broken. 

Partially restored websites defeat the purpose of backups so make sure your automated backup solution captures everything. 

For a website backup to be complete, it must store both the website database and files. 

Website files refer to the structure without which your WordPress site can’t stand. These include the WordPress core installation, themes, plugins, media files, and all the critical configuration files like .htaccess and wp-config.php. 

On the other hand, the database is composed of all the posts, comments, and other user-generated data like usernames and passwords.

Between the two, the database is the website’s lifeblood and therefore should be prioritized in your scheduled automatic backups. But content without a theme is not a website at all, especially if it’s a customized theme designed specifically to showcase your website’s unique brand. 

The key is to perform the automatic backups systematically so both database and files are stored without taking up a lot of server space. If you’re using a WordPress backup service that offers incremental backups, this shouldn’t be a problem. 

With incremental backups, you can save your entire site initially and then perform backups only when there’s a change or update in your website. This way, you can keep regular backups of your website without eating up a lot of disk space.

Keep multiple copies of your backups

When the safety of your website is at stake, you can never afford to put all your eggs in one basket. So when doing backups, don’t expect your hosting provider or a cloud-based backup solution to do everything for you. 

WordPress actually recommends keeping at least three copies of your website backups. So in addition to the backups stored in the server, you can also download two more copies and store them in an external hard drive or a cloud-based storage service like Google Drive, Amazon S3, One Drive, or Dropbox. 

Redundancy may seem like overkill but you’re going to thank yourself later in case one or two of these copies get corrupted or lost. 

Secure website backups with encryption software

Keeping multiple copies of your backups in various places may be a good practice but it also comes with security risks. Once cybercriminals are able to infiltrate the server or cloud storage where your backups are residing, it won’t take a while before they steal all your critical website data. 

Adding an extra layer of security can protect your passwords and other sensitive information from online theft. Encryption software like Folder Lock and AxCrypt is a recommended solution to make your website backups impenetrable and out of reach from hackers.

Schedule website backups according to your needs

By default, most WordPress backup solutions stick to a daily schedule. This benefits a lot of websites including those that don’t publish posts frequently but receive comments every day that they can’t afford to lose.

However, a daily schedule may not be the right frequency for your website. Your decision will ultimately depend on how often the website gets updated. For example, a static website will be fine with occasional backups but forums, blogs, news websites, or ecommerce sites won’t survive without a more consistent backup schedule in place. 

Here’s a quick reference you can use to determine the precise backup schedule suitable to your website needs: 

  • Monthly – perfect for small websites that don’t generate profit or blogs that only publish new posts twice a month.
  • Weekly – ideal for blogs that publish an article every week. 
  • Daily – is the backup schedule that most backup services are offering by default. It’s the best choice for WordPress sites that publish posts, receive comments, and update their content at least once a week.
  • Every 12 hours – great for sensitive websites with daily content updates or changes.
  • Every 6 hours – is the preferred schedule for websites that apply multiple changes within a day. 
  • Every 1 hour – is suitable for websites that require their content to be updated every hour like membership sites or other websites that need frequent updates. 
  • Real-time – is offered by WordPress backup plugins to ecommerce sites that need a more robust backup schedule. By setting up real-time backups, every change in the product, pricing, or other critical information is tracked and saved around the clock. This ensures the store won’t lose any data that can impact the business dramatically.

Backup schedules can also be customized granularly depending on the type of data being saved. 

For example, if you’re running a WordPress blog that publishes a new post every day but hasn’t changed themes or plugins in a while, you can keep backups of the database on a daily basis and only perform theme-only backups as needed. 

In the case of ecommerce sites, frequent backups can be performed on orders, inventory, and customer data that can change every day. A weekly schedule, on the other hand, may be enough to save products, images, and blog posts that are not updated as often. 

Long-Term Strategies for WordPress Backups

Automated WordPress backup services do almost all the heavy lifting so users can just “set it and forget it”. For those who want to get their hands dirty, there are other ways to take website backups to another level, albeit some require more experience to pull off. 

Perform manual website backups occasionally 

Manual backups are often not recommended especially if you’re not tech-savvy. 

The process involves getting access to your website files and database and one mistake can permanently ruin your WordPress site. Not to mention manual backups put additional pressure on your server so website performance may be affected in a way.

Having said that, manual backups can provide an additional insurance policy to disaster-proof your website. With a combination of automatic and manual backups, you can have peace of mind knowing your website is always a one-click restore away each time disaster strikes. 

The downside is it takes technical skills and a stable connection between the computer and the server to complete manual backups. 

Experienced WordPress users can perform manual backups in two steps. As mentioned earlier, backups involve both the website files and database. The website files include all the themes, plugins, and media files that you can access directly from your cPanel or remotely through a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) client. Once you’re done with the files, you can then back up the website database which includes posts and comments using phpMyAdmin. 

Let’s discuss the two steps one by one. 

Manual backup of website files

To access the root directory where your website files reside, you can either log in to your cPanel or connect to it via an FTP client such as FileZilla. If you’re going to access it remotely through an FTP client, you will need to log in by providing your host, username, password, and port number, all of which can be obtained from your hosting provider. 

Once logged in, look for the WordPress root directory called “public”. Download the entire folder to your computer and rename it to the date and time when you completed the manual backup. You can save it in a zip folder to save storage space and later move it to a cloud storage platform so it won’t slow down your computer.  

Manual backup of website database

Meanwhile, the database can be accessed through the phpMyAdmin that is already pre-installed in your cPanel. You can also download and install an external phpMyAdmin software if you don’t have access to your cPanel, as in the case of those who use a managed WordPress hosting.

After logging in, go to the Export tab, select the quick method, choose “SQL” as the format, and then wait for the database to download. 

If you’re ready to restore the backups of the website files and database, the process can be just as tricky. Again, only do manual backups and restoration if you’re already adept with WordPress. Otherwise, you may settle with plugins that provide automated backups and one-click restore. 

To restore backups of website files manually, simply upload the zip folder containing the backup files to your server. Once uploaded, delete the current root folder and rename the new one to its original value. 

Backups of the website database can be restored by returning to the phpMyAdmin and selecting the Import option. Upload the database backup and wait for the import process to finish. Check your website to see if the right changes have been applied. If everything is in perfect order, then you’ve just successfully restored your website backups on your own. 

Always back up your WordPress site prior to a major change 

Are you planning to tweak your WordPress theme code? Moving to a new host? Changing your website domain? Whatever change your website is about to go through, it’s best practice to always back up your site or ensure the automated backups are up to snuff. 

A lot of things can go wrong during these changes so it will be best to check that your backups can save your website in case things don’t go your way. Nothing can be as frustrating as working hard to improve your website only to go back to an old, clunkier version because you failed to secure recent backups. 

Test restore your backups using a staging site 

Backups aren’t immune to failures. The backup plugin you’re using may be experiencing bugs or the backups files have been broken or corrupted without your knowledge. 

The last thing you want to do is restore the backups and discover your website is worse off than before. 

To make sure your backups are intact, you need to apply them on a test site or a staging environment first. This way, you can check them and spot any errors without touching the live site.

There are hosting providers that offer a staging environment to enable users to identify faulty backups and incompatible theme or plugin updates before deploying them. Some WordPress backup plugins like BlogVault also provide their users with a staging site so they can always test restore the backups to ensure they’ll work well in the live site. 

Next Steps 

Backing up your website files and database is just one piece of the puzzle that is website security. In fact, backups are considered the last resort when there’s a security breach. You don’t have to go through the process of restoring your backups if your website is already secured in the first place. If you want to protect your website from hackers, spammers, and all sorts of cybercriminals, make sure to follow our best tips for ensuring optimum website security.

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