Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

Why and how you should be backing up your WordPress website. Tutorial for setting up backups with the UpdraftPlus plugin.

When I first got started in web design, a friend/mentor told me that to always keep three copies of my files. That’s right, the originals plus 2 backups. TWO BACKUPS.

This was his suggestion:

  1. Keep one copy on your computer. You’ll have easy access to work with these files on a day-to-day basis.
  2. Keep a second copy on an external hard drive. At least once a week, back up your computer files to an external hard drive. This will protect you in case of a computer crash.
  3. Keep a third copy on a different external hard drive, stored out of the house/office. This is the worst case scenario copy–in case you get robbed or your house catches fire. (Yes, this was his actual reasoning.)

Maybe this guy was being a tad anal, but he had the right idea. Backups are important.

Backups might not be the most exciting aspect of website management…ok, they might actually be the least exciting. But they’re a just-in-case measures that you must take as a website owner. Backups protect you and they protect your investment.

Backups are like umbrellas. You couldn’t care less about them 99% of the time. And they probably seem like a hassle to carry around, especially when the forecast calls for sun.

I get it. I live in San Diego, where it rains…well, never. It would be perfectly reasonable not to own an umbrella. But even in America’s sunniest city it rains sometimes. Now that it’s El Niño season, I’ve found myself reaching for that umbrella.

We take site backups as protection to help us weather the storm. If you don’t have one and it starts to rain…well, I hope you didn’t like that suede jacket you were wearing.

Why you need to back up your website

In case your website gets hacked

The unfortunate reality is that the internet is a dangerous place. No website is completely safe from hackers. Of course, there are plenty of ways to increase your website security and reduce your risk. (You should be doing this, by the way.) But still, stuff happens.

Without a backup, you’ll be left to dig through infected code if your website gets hacked. It’s tedious, it’s technical, and you probably won’t be able to handle it yourself. That means calling in professionals, which can cost big bucks. It’ll also cost you time. Because you can bet Google will slap a big red malware warning on your site the second they find out.*

*It could be before you even find out. Many website owners don’t know they’ve been hacked until Google blacklists them.

It’s easier, faster, and cheaper to repair a hacked site if you have a backup. You can simply delete the infected site and restore it from a clean backup.

In case an update breaks your site

One of the security measures I mentioned above is staying on top of updates. Updates will keep your defense against hackers strong. Ironically, though, they pose threats of their own.

Usually, WordPress updates without any problems, but there are no guarantees. When updates get released, it means that changes were made within the code. These changes can cause conflicts, affecting the functionality of your website. Most conflicts are minor. Sometimes a plugin will stop working, and you’ll have to find a replacement. But I’ve also experienced updates that break an entire site.

Having a backup on hand is always a smart idea in case things go wrong.

In case your files get deleted

Accidents happen, even to those of us who should know better.

Occasionally, I get swept up in cleaning binges–both in the physical world and the digital world. During one of these binges, I decided to clean up my development server. It was bogged down with websites for old projects and needed tidying. Well, I got a little to careless and accidentally deleted the test version of my own website.

I had recently been working on the test version. I had updated the copy and design but hadn’t moved these changes to my live site yet. The test site was the only place I had these changes saved. And I didn’t have a backup.

Let’s just say, lesson learned.

I’ve always kept backups of live sites, but I never thought I would need them for my test sites too. Now I make backups of EVERYTHING. Even the things I feel like have no business backing up. You just never know.

How to back up your WordPress website

If you’re the kind of person who likes to make things harder for yourself, you can manually back up your site every week. If you’re like me, you’re in the business of automating as much as possible. You know, so you can spend more time on the fun stuff. For me that’s building beautiful websites.

You can spend 10 minutes today setting up automatic backups and never have to worry about it again.

1. Install UpdraftPlus

There are a TON of WordPress backup plugins out there, but I’m partial to UpdraftPlus. That’s why I included it in my list of 12 essential WordPress plugins I install on every site I build. For one, it’s easy to use because it doesn’t have a bunch of options you don’t need. Just the basics. Plus, it makes restoring backups insanely easy. Most backup plugins don’t even have that feature.

You can install UpdraftPlus just like any other plugin in the WordPress repository:

  1. Navigate to Plugins > Add New
  2. Search for “UpdraftPlus”
  3. Click Install Now
  4. Click Activate Plugin

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

Voila. Installed.

Related: Three Easy Ways to Install a WordPress Plugin

2. Configure UpdraftPlus

Make your way over to Settings > UpdraftPlus Backups

First, you’ll see the Current Status page. This gives you a quick overview of any past or pending backups. It also has buttons to run a manual backup, restore an old backup, or clone and migrate your site (available with paid add-on). Since you’ve just installed the plugin, this page will look pretty bare.

Let’s click on the Settings Tab to get things set up.

Here’s where we’ll tell UpdraftPlus how often to make backups and where to store them. We have a few different options to configure:

Files Backup Schedule

The first option tells the plugin how often make backups of your site files. You have a few options, but daily or weekly is optimal in most cases. It all depends on how often you’re updating your site and adding new content. I add new blog posts once per week, but draft and edit posts almost daily. In my case, I daily choose daily backups. If you’re updating one a week or less, weekly is probably fine.

The second option tells the plugin how many backups to keep at any given time. After it reaches the set number of backups, UpdraftPlus will delete the oldest backup to make room for a new one. I choose 4, just because it feels safer than 2.

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

Database Backup Schedule

You can set different schedules for your files and your database, but I like to keep everything the same.

Choose Your Remote Storage

It doesn’t matter where you choose to store your site backups, as long as you don’t store them on your server. This means don’t select FTP or SFTP/SCP. Why?

First off, we’re making backups for worst case scenario situations like if your site is hacked or if your files get erased. You don’t want to be keep your backup files on your server right next to your live files. They need to be located off-site, where they’re safe from the threats of a live server.

Secondly, shared hosting providers don’t allow you to store your backups on the server. Yes, they advertise unlimited storage space. No, they don’t actually give that to you. Most hosts speciify (in their terms of service) that storing backups is against policy.

Here’s a quick look at what Bluehost says:

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

That said, both Dropbox and Google Drive are great options. I use both services in my workflow, but I use Dropbox for storing my site backups. The only reason is that it’s slightly easier to set up backups with Dropbox than Google Drive.

I’m going to select Dropbox. We’ll have to come back and authenticate with Dropbox later.

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

Include in Files Backup

You’ll want to check all 4 boxes here. This makes sure every single file gets backed up. The only files that don’t get backed up are the WordPress core files. If you ever need to restore, all have to do is download a fresh WordPress install from WordPress.org.

UpdraftPlus also makes sure it doesn’t back up any of its own backup files. This would be redundant and add unnecessary bloat to your backup files. That’s what the exclude these setting is for. It’s best just to leave these boxes alone.

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

Database Encryption Phrase

This is a premium feature only.


If you like confirmation that your backup is running successfully, check this box. Like it says, you’ll get an email confirmation when your backup is completed. It’ll also let you know if for some reason the backup couldn’t be completed.

Expert Settings

It’s safe to ignore these.

Authenticate with Dropbox

After you’ve saved your settings changes, scroll back to Authenticate with Dropbox.

Clicking the link will take you to the Dropbox login page. Log in with your Dropbox username and password, then click Allow to give UpdraftPlus access to store files in your Dropbox. You’ll be taken back to the WordPress dashboard when you’re done.

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

3. Test Your Settings

Now that we’ve configured the settings and told UpdraftPlus where to save our backup, let’s test to make sure it works.

Click back to the Current Status tab. You should now see some data on this page. You might also see a status bar on the page called Backups in Progress. This is a good sign.

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

If you don’t see the status bar, click Backup Now. A dialog box will pop up with a few settings. Keep everything checked and click Backup Now. This will perform a manual backup. You can use this feature any time you want to back up your site. It will not affect your regularly scheduled intervals.

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

While the backup is in progress, you’ll see a status bar on the Current Status page. When its done, you’ll be able to find your backup in your Dropbox under Dropbox > Apps > UpdraftPlus. If you used the same settings as I did, you’ll have 5 .zip files.

You can also see and download your backups from the Existing Backups tab.

Why and How to Back Up Your WordPress Website

4. Restore a Backup

If you ever need to restore a backup, you can do so from the Existing Backups tab.

Click Restore next to the backup that you want to restore. This will probably be your most recent backup. You’ll be presented with a popup box that lets you choose which parts of the backup you want to restore. Check the appropriate boxes and click Restore.


And To Answer Your Final Question…

You’ve now setup automatic backups for your WordPress websites. That gives you two copies of every file: the original one on your server and the backup one stored in Dropbox.

So the question is: do you really need three copies?

Probably not. Fortunately, we now have this glorious thing called the cloud to protect us from robberies and fires. You probably don’t have to be quite as diligent. BUT, if you’re not taking any backups…well you’re just asking for trouble.

The comments are closed.

  1. March 15, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Man, I needed this info. Bookmarking it so I can try to figure out how to actually do it when I have a bit more time. I back up my computer, but haven’t done my website. I’m sure I need to do this! Thanks for sharing this info.

  2. March 15, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    You’re welcome, Becky! I tried to make the steps simple enough that anyone can follow. I’d love to hear your feedback when you go through the setup so I can clarify as needed. 🙂

  3. July 25, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Thank you for the step-by-step! I was using a different plugin for backups but it wasn’t doing a file and database backup – just database. It also didn’t have the option to automate it, so I was stuck doing it manually and often forgetting.

  4. August 31, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Aileen, I hope you were able to get UpdraftPlus installed and working properly. It’s important to get a backup of your files and database, just in case. Automatic backups aren’t necessary, but they are a HUGE timesaver. I’m a fan of anything you can set and forget. 🙂