WordPress offers quite a large array of plugins that cater to an enormous amount of tasks. That's one of the main reason behind its fast adoption rate.
The ease of finding and installing a WordPress plugin might lower your attention to whether that plugin will be a good and cost-effective solution for your website. In fact, it's not only easy to install a new plugin, often it's the very first step you might take to adding a new functionality to your WordPress site.
Problem is that being able to browse through thousands of plugins, both free and paid, and install them in a matter of seconds, opens the gates to a proliferation of unnecessary plugins being added to WordPress installs. And this deliberate approach could have negative impacts on site performance, security, and maintenance costs.
However, given the number of WordPress plugins available and how important their role is, it is easy to be intrigued by their longevity and ask:
Will my WordPress plugins be compatible forever, if I don't update them?
Why do WordPress plugin updates are released?
Let's start with an example:
Caldera Forms, a well-known contact form, suffered from a Multiple Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) security vulnerability which might have compromised the sites it was installed into. Because Josh Pollock and his team are well-reputable developers, guess what they did:
They fixed the security issues and they did it by releasing a newer version of their WordPress plugin (along with other bug fixes and new features).
This is just one of the main reasons why plugins updates occur.
Plugins are pieces of software that enable or enhance a new functionality on your website. There's a plugin for almost anything: contact forms, image galleries, backups, seo, cache. The list is endless. As software, ultimately, WordPress plugins are updated on a non-standard schedule by their developers for the following reasons:
- To introduce new features
- To improve performances
- To update bug fixes and improve security (like in the Caldera Form example above)
- To maintain backward compatibility
So let's get a bit more data-driven here and let's try to understand more about plugins updates and how frequently they are released.
How frequently are WordPress plugin updates released?
It's not an easy question to answer because there's no publicly available historic dataset to analyze. Does it mean we can't get any insight on this topic? I say: "Hell, no!"
There's an official website from which we can collect release dates information: the (almighty) WordPress Repository. In my research for an average time span for plugin updates, I looked at the latest release dates for all of the 1386 WordPress plugins labeled as "Popular" on the WordPress repository:
This bar chart shows how many popular WordPress plugins and the time they've been officially last updated (as of the time of this writing).
Interesting, uh? I mean, it sure is revealing seeing that there are 300+ plugins grouped under the "popular" category which haven't been updated in more than a year. But that's another story, one that might see a fix sometime soon-ish.
For the sake for this discussion, let's agree that plugins which have been updated more than a year ago and less than a week ago have either reasons hard to identify or have to do with incidental facts (like the time and day I checked the plugin repo). For these reasons, let's remove this data from the equation for a moment, and let focus on plugins which have been updated in less than 1 year and not in the last week.
Here's what we get:
- 253 plugins have been updated less than the last 6 months (26.5%)
- 244 plugins have been updated less than 1 month ago (25.6%)
- 236 plugins have been updated less than 3 months ago (24.8%)
- 220 plugins have been updated less than 1 year ago (23.1%)
With the data we have, it seems that the most popular WordPress plugins have a less than 6-month update cycle. Close to that, we see plugins being updated less than 1 month ago.
So for example, if your WordPress site is powered by 10 plugins, it means that on average you should expect to get updates for 1/4 of your plugins within each of these time spans.
This data-informed experiment wants to provide you with a closer look at the frequency of plugin updates release cycle. Given that the data comes from plugins available into the WordPress repository, it means we're only accounting for free products or their free version at most. It's very likely that for premium WordPress plugins, as they're paid products, their developers have a shorter releases cycle.
Now that you have data to look at, let's get back to your main question, and let's give it a proper answer:
Will my WordPress plugins be compatible forever, if I don't update them?
The hard truth about plugins: no plugin comes with lifetime compatibility
Well, the answer is: "Unfortunately, no."
You might have heard or have been told this kind of undocumented, well-known truth around WordPress plugins. I provided you with data to give you a raw idea of how frequently plugin updates are released.
As harsh as it might sound, WordPress plugins are simply not designed to keep working at their best and stay compatible with your site for an indefinite time. The case might seem different (read again: it might seem) with small and specific plugins that do one non-critical task, like adding an image to a post. Even in that use case, that plugin will require you - or your developer - to look after proper maintenance. WordPress developer and Codeable expert Francesco Carlucci elaborates:
WordPress is an ever-evolving ecosystem, and it's constantly improving and changing. Plugins that have been built months or years ago, but not exclusively, could use functions that are no longer compatible with the current version of WordPress or are they're simply in a 'Legacy Version', meaning that they're deprecated and will likely disappear in the future.
The good news about the hard truth: plugins must be updated or your site will start experiencing issues (sooner or later)
Plugin updates, why do even bother talking about them?
It's not plugin updates per se. It's ignoring these updates that sprouts issues quickly. This is the beginning of quite complex problems because there are a wide variety of issues that could be generated from literally not paying attention to plugin updates.
Why do website owners do that?
More WordPress users you could imagine disregard plugin updates trying to save on costs and time. They do this because they see some of their plugins running apparently quite well, even though they see the notification of a new update being released.
So they think: "Why should I even bother updating my plugins?"
But that's just a poor and short-sighted decision: neglecting plugin (and website) maintenance is your path to failure. As Francesco points out:
Unfortunately, this is a very common mistake: site owners just forget or ignore plugin updates. The problem with this approach is that, for example, if you have to update a plugin from version 1.4 to version 2.6, it's very likely that it'll break some functionality or the whole website. That's why it's a best practice updating plugins on a recurring basis like every week or so.
Periodic updates are important because skipping two major versions (or even more) can bring in a variety of issues you could have prevented just by having your plugins updated. Also, by having a maintenance routine in place where these updates are made consistently, you'll be able to intercept issues before they become major ones and have greater impacts on your WordPress site.
Custom WordPress plugins are a different story
What about custom plugins: do they need updates?
Well, yes and actually dealing with custom WordPress plugins is a bit more complex. These plugins have much more elaborate needs when it comes to updates and maintenance. This is because they have been custom built to address tasks and functions specific to a website.
Custom plugins require more time and attention when it comes to updates because your developer has to go through and check each and every file, line of code, element which your custom plugin interact with. If you have a custom theme or other customizations, things will take more time. That's a thorough and detail process. Once all is checked and gone through, your developer will work on your custom WordPress plugin to provide you with an update. Highlights Francesco:
If we talk about custom plugins, which have been developed just for a website, compatibility is something you'll be required to look at over time. What I mean here is that if a plugin was developed using a specific function of WordPress, or a hook by another plugin that's been recently updated as well, your custom plugin needs to be updated too.
So, if you ask something along the line of: "Will my plugins work forever on my WordPress website?"
The answer is "No!" and it has to be that way otherwise you'll be using pieces of software that aren't working for you, rather against you. Custom plugins fall under this rule as well.
Good developers do their best to follow best practices when developing plugins to keep them as most compatible over time as possible, but it's not something that can be guaranteed 100%. That's why you should never disregard updates and set up a recurring update and maintenance schedule, which you can put on autopilot, to take advantage of their latest releases.
This blog post features Francesco Carlucci, a technology expert and software developer helping companies to reach their goals since 2007. He specializes in enterprise-level WordPress development, custom integrations, e-commerce, and performance-oriented solutions. When he is not writing code, you can probably find him writing blog posts for internet entrepreneurs.