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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