WordPress Backups: The Hard Way and The Easy Way

Bank Valut

Den­tal check­ups. Clean­ing the gut­ters. Com­puter backups.

Some things are all too easy to put off even though we know we should do them.

I can’t help you with your teeth, and I won’t help with your gut­ters, but I have advice about back­ups. Specif­i­cally, Word­Press backups.

Every day more orga­ni­za­tions trust Word­Press as their web­site plat­form. I do too, and I often rec­om­mend it to clients. That’s great. The prob­lem is that some orga­ni­za­tions take trust a lit­tle too far by assum­ing noth­ing will ever go badly wrong.

Backup Avoid­ance

Word­Press makes it espe­cially easy to lapse into backup avoid­ance since it doesn’t pro­vide a straight­for­ward built-in backup capa­bil­ity. In fact, unless you study the issue a bit you can think you’re back­ing up your site (for exam­ple, by using the Export func­tion from the admin­is­tra­tive menu) when you’re really only cap­tur­ing part of it.

This arti­cle should clar­ify the sit­u­a­tion and help you under­stand your options.

Who this arti­cle is for.
  • Any­one using Word­Press on their own web host (not a hosted blog at WordPress.com)
  • Peo­ple who live in a sub-optimal world
What to expect.
  • A dis­cus­sion of whether and how to back up your Word­Press site

Back­ups optional?

Some peo­ple believe you don’t really need to back up Word­Press. This is not a good belief for our non-ideal world.

Some peo­ple believe you don’t really need to back up Word­Press. This is not a good belief for our non-ideal world.

Though I don’t agree with the argu­ment, it’s worth explain­ing since it high­lights a cou­ple of lay­ers of pro­tec­tion that you already have in place.

Web host backups

If you’re work­ing with a rep­utable web host, the web host main­tains a backup of your site and can restore it in case of emer­gency. This is con­ve­nient in case of a cat­a­strophic fail­ure at your web host: for exam­ple, if the web server itself crashes. In that case your web host should restore your site from back­ups for you.

Revi­sions and the Trash

Word­Press also buffers you from the the need for back­ups by pro­vid­ing two sup­port­ing features.

WordPress Revision List

When you edit a post or page, Word­Press keeps a his­tory of that revi­sion. You can view ear­lier ver­sions or restore them directly from Word­Press. Just edit the page in ques­tion and scroll down below the edi­tor to see ear­lier revisions.

WordPress Trash

If a page or post has been acci­den­tally (or inten­tion­ally) deleted, check the trash. There’s a good chance you’ll find it there wait­ing to be restored. You can find the trash by going to your list of posts or pages in the Word­Press admin­is­tra­tor menu.

So I don’t need to back up my site, right?

That’s absolutely right if you live in an ideal world.

For the rest of us, here are a few rea­sons to make your own backup:

  • Backup tim­ing. All web hosts back up on a sched­ule of their choos­ing, not yours. Some­times you want to back up your site right before a big change, like a Word­Press upgrade.
  • Black swans. While it’s unlikely your web host will abruptly go out of busi­ness, stranger things have hap­pened in the wild world of the Internet.
  • Restora­tion prob­lems. Some­times back­ups fail. It’s pos­si­ble your web host won’t be able to restore the most recent backup.
  • Short atten­tion spans. Most hosts only retain the most recent backup. If your site got hacked two weeks ago and you don’t notice until today, your host’s backup file will con­tain the hacked ver­sion of your site.
  • Lim­ited Word­Press revi­sions. Some­times you want to see how some­thing looked a long while ago. By default Word­Press keeps a lim­ited num­ber of revi­sions for each page. If you want to see some­thing from before the ear­li­est revi­sion you’re out of luck.
  • Word­Press trash is tem­po­rary. Once you empty the trash, all those deleted pages are gone for good.

What is a Word­Press backup?

Your Word­Press site has two components:

  1. The Word­Press data­base. This includes things like the text of your pages and posts, your list of users, your menu def­i­n­i­tions, and your blog settings.
  2. Files on your web server. This includes things like the doc­u­ments and images you’ve uploaded, your Word­Press theme, and any plu­g­ins you’ve installed.

Your Word­Press data­base (which is mainly text-based infor­ma­tion) will be vastly smaller than the files on your web server (which include things like your pho­tos and doc­u­ments). For this rea­son a typ­i­cal backup approach includes fre­quent back­ups of the Word­Press data­base, and less fre­quent back­ups of the files.

The hard way

Up until recently I did it the hard way. The hard way isn’t awful, but it’s cum­ber­some since it involves back­ing up the two com­po­nents in dif­fer­ent ways.

Word­Press Database

Your data­base is the heart of your site. It has all of the text from your pages and posts, your menu def­i­n­i­tions, cat­e­gories, com­ments, and settings.

WP-DB Backup Menu

As described in the Word­Press Codex, there are many meth­ods of back­ing up your data­base. One tool I’ve used for this is the WP-DB-Backup plu­gin. Once you install and acti­vate the plu­gin, your Tools menu will have a new Backup option. To back up your Word­Press data­base, go to the Backup option, and in the Backup Options sec­tion select Down­load to your com­puter and click Backup now! This will gen­er­ate a file that you can save on your computer.

Regard­less of how you back up the data­base, it’s best to retain more than the most recent backup in case of a long-standing prob­lem that you want to cor­rect. For exam­ple, if you back up your site weekly you might keep the most recent 4 weeks avail­able, then also retain another copy every 3–6 months for long term archival.

Web Server Files

Unfor­tu­nately the best method for back­ing up your files varies from web host to web host.

  1. Some pro­vide a sim­ple one-step option on their con­trol panel to cre­ate and down­load a backup of some/all of your files.
  2. Some pro­vide a non-simple, multi-step option.
  3. Some pro­vide noth­ing at all, which means you need to down­load with FTP or what­ever other file down­load tool you have available.

The be com­pletely safe you should back up your entire Word­Press direc­tory. How­ever, espe­cially in the third sce­nario above, that can be very slow. If you can’t stand the wait you can just back up the fold­ers that are most likely to have Word­Press files spe­cific to your instal­la­tion, under­stand­ing that it’s con­ceiv­able you’ll be omit­ting some­thing you’ll want later:

  • direc­tory wp-content
  • file wp-config.php

Restora­tion pain

If you thought back­ing up the hard way was a pain, wait until it’s time to restore. Even if you have all the backup files, restora­tion isn’t prac­ti­cal for typ­i­cal Word­Press end users. You really need help from a Word­Press expert.

The easy way (BackupBuddy)

Until recently I did it the hard way. Then sev­eral weeks ago as part of bring­ing a client’s Word­Press site live, I decided to try a plu­gin I’ve heard good things about: Back­up­Buddy.

In short, Back­up­Buddy is the easy way.


My dis­clo­sure is that I have noth­ing to dis­close. I paid the same price as any­body else for Back­up­Buddy and I’m get­ting no ben­e­fit from them for writ­ing this. I wouldn’t do that. It would be icky.

You cre­ate your back­ups from an intu­itive menu within Word­Press. You can back up just the data­base or your entire site includ­ing all your Word­Press files and Word­Press itself. About to upgrade Word­Press or add a theme or plu­gin? If some­thing goes wrong you can restore not only your con­tent but Word­Press itself to its ear­lier state.

BackupBuddy Interface

As with the hard way, it makes sense to back up your data­base more fre­quently than your entire site. Ask your­self how much con­tent you can stand to lose and recre­ate, then pick your backup period based on that.

It lets you do back­ups on demand or sched­ule them to hap­pen auto­mat­i­cally, and either way it’ll email to tell you how the backup went.

Once you’ve made a backup you can leave it on your web host or, for more pro­tec­tion, down­load it to your com­puter. You can also have the back­ups auto­mat­i­cally sent to other servers if you’d like; it cur­rently sup­ports trans­fers to Ama­zon S3, Drop­box, and Rack­space, as well as trans­fers via email and FTP.

Restor­ing with BackupBuddy

As much as I’d love a one-button restora­tion process, Back­up­Buddy doesn’t pro­vide that. How­ever, its restora­tion process is much, much sim­pler than the hard way.

If you’re a lit­tle tech­ni­cally inclined you can fol­low their instruc­tions and prob­a­bly do it your­self. And if you pre­fer to hire a Word­Press expert, it’ll almost cer­tainly take them much less time than most other restora­tion methods.

Happy so far

I’ve used Back­up­Buddy sev­eral times in the last few weeks and it’s worked very well, sav­ing me a lot of time and fuss.

The least expen­sive license right now is for two sites, cur­rently $75: prob­a­bly not of inter­est for hob­by­ists, but (in my opin­ion) a good invest­ment for a non­profit or small busi­ness. I went for the devel­oper license that lets me use it on any web­site I develop for $150, but was lucky enough to find a 25% dis­count code online.

Thumbs Up!

Image credit: m4r00n3d

So for me at least, it’s has been well worth the money. And that’s not even tak­ing into account its web­site mal­ware scan­ning, excel­lent Server Infor­ma­tion util­ity, or won­der­ful sup­port for (be still my heart!) migrat­ing your Word­Press site from one web server or address to another.

When some­thing goes wrong you want things to be as uncom­pli­cated as pos­si­ble. Know­ing you have your own backup and a clear path to restor­ing it avoids all kinds of stress and tragedy.

Post image credit: Kingstonist.com

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