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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