As you’ve probably seen, a new version of WordPress 5.5 was released on 11 August 2020 which includes many new features. Broadly speaking, all the changes come under the banners of speed, search and security. In this blog post (and accompanying video) we’ll talk you through the major changes that will affect your experience of using WordPress.

Before you upgrade…

As a general rule you always want to be running the latest version of WordPress (and the same is true of your plugins and themes). Each new version includes patches for any security issues uncovered in older versions, so the more out of date the version of WordPress you’re running is, the more at risk your site is of a security breach.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should immediately upgrade to WordPress 5.5. without doing a bit of due diligence and preparation first. This is a major upgrade to the core functionality of WordPress – the changes go beyond simply cosmetic to significantly change how WordPress works ‘under the hood’. There have been quite a number of reports of sites breaking after installing WordPress 5.5 so it’s not a thing to do without some thought and there are definitely some sites that will not be able to upgrade to 5.5. or at least where the work involved in doing so will be more trouble than it is worth.

  • If you are currently running a much older version of WordPress – say your site was built several years ago and you’ve not updated the version of WordPress since – then you’re likely to run into problems if you simply upgrade straight to WordPress 5.5. now
  • Similarly, if you’re running an old theme on your site that isn’t itself being updated regularly then you’re likely to run into problems
  • If you had a bespoke theme built for you several years ago then it’s unlikely to play nicely with WordPress 5.5.
  • If you’re using a complex page builder to put your pages together then that could cause problems
  • The same is true of older plugins – users are reporting problems with WordPress 5.5. which are as a result of incompatible plugins running on their sites that do not work with WordPress 5.5.

In summary, there will definitely be some sites out there where the work involved in getting it to run on WordPress 5.5. is going to be roughly equivalent (or potentially more than) the work involved in just building a new site. Going forward, this is one of the reasons why it’s really important to keep on top of WordPress and theme updates as they come along rather than waiting for years to jump versions, although I appreciate those aren’t particularly useful words to hear if you’re in that position!

What should I do before I upgrade?

Before you take the plunge and upgrade to WordPress 5.5. it is vital that you take a backup of your site. That way, if you do run into any problems, you have a copy of the previous version of the site that you can restore. We recommend using the UpdraftPlus plugin for quickly and easily enabling you to backup your whole site.

If you have a staging version of your site or a development copy then you should upgrade your WordPress version on that copy first, check that it works and everything is functioning as it should before then installing it on your live site.

Some of the known issues with upgrading to WordPress 5.5. can be addressed by installing the Jquery Migrate Helper plugin – we have a separate post that explains what the Jquery Migrate Helper plugin is and how it works.

So…what’s new in WordPress 5.5?

There’s a video tour of 5.5 here, as well as the blog post below.

Speed – lazy loading now included in the core WordPress functionality

Lazy loading is a method of deferring when some elements of the page are downloaded so instead of sending everything at once when the page is loaded, elements are only sent when needed – this can make the initial loading of the page much faster.

Lazy loading means that when someone first views a page the browser only loads those images that appear ‘above the fold’. Only when the user scrolls down do the images further down the page begin to load.

Without lazy loading all the images on the page need to load before the page can be displayed, so you can see that lazy loading makes a big difference to the speed of a page.

Previously we had to use a plugin to use lazy loading on a WordPress site, but now it’s included in the core CMS.

Search – XML sitemaps can now be generated from within WordPress

Similarly, XML sitemaps were previously generated using plugins. A sitemap is a list of pages, posts and other important content which Google and other search engines use to understand the structure of your site. Indeed, we produced a video recently explaining why sitemaps are important and showing how to generate them using the popular Yoast SEO plugin.

Now WordPress will automatically generate a sitemap for you and make that visible at www.yourwebsite.com/wp-sitemap.xml.

This means that everyone can give Google the extra information that helps with their site SEO rather than just those using third party plugins. If you’re already using Yoast to generate your sitemaps you don’t need to do anything – Yoast says that it will automatically deactivate the WordPress sitemap and default to its own which is more richly featured.

Security – plugin and theme auto updates

Plugins and themes can now be set to auto update. Rather than you having to check which plugins need updating or remember to manually update them, this will now happen automatically. These changes are important for site security. Bugs and security loopholes can be automatically fixed.

However, you need to decide which plugins you’re happy to auto update and which you want to update manually. Most updates to plugins are new features and other improvements which can sometimes break aspects of the site or the way that your processes work.

WooCommerce, for example, periodically releases major updates which would need a thorough testing before being made live. If your business or site relies on a plugin working perfectly then you might want to resist setting it to auto update.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. You have to look at the plugins on your site and the theme that you use and decide for yourself.

Whatever you decide, we recommend that you use a reliable, regular backup plugin such as Updraft Plus or Jetpack’s backup subscription service so that you can quickly revert back to an earlier version of your site if a plugin update breaks it.

Gutenberg updates in WordPress 5.5

Along with the main speed, search and security updates, there are also some significant changes to the Gutenberg block editor (we’ve produced a video which explains what some of them are). Also, the classic editor has finally been dropped. It’s a good time to get to grips with the new editor if you haven’t done so already.

Changes to the “new block” button


In the block editor you’ll see that the “+” in a circle has been replaced with a “+” in a square. Instead of a list of blocks appearing below, it will now show the blocks in the left hand side.

The new block picker interface is much neater than the old popup. Blocks and reusable blocks can be accessed easily along with new prebuilt “patterns”. Patterns are “curated collections of blocks whereas reusable groups are block collections that can be saved and reused later.

The block options header has changed as well. Moving blocks up and down seems more straightforward, but drag and drop has disappeared is harder to find than it was before. Check out our video and accompanying blog post which explains how to access this now.

There are many new blocks available as well. Some are bundled in with WordPress 5.5 and some are available in the new block directory. Instead of plugins with many blocks, developers can now create and list individual blocks.

The block changes might be the biggest single improvement for WP users, and the thing that we’ll use every day.

Inline image editing (editing within the image block)

Another big change is the inline image editing. Images can now be rotated, cropped and zoomed without having to leave the editor. This is a big improvement on the old method of tweaking an image in the media library, or worse, having to fire up software on your device to change the image and then upload the revised image.

We have put together a separate video that goes into the new image editing functionality in more detail.

Accessibility

There are some important changes about the way that some elements on the page are sent, making it easier for screen readers to describe what is on the page. We plan to blog further about accessibility shortly so watch this space for more information about this.

Changes for developers

There are also a bunch of changes for plugin developers. These won’t be immediately obvious to those of us who just use the CMS system, but it will mean that updated plugins will be more useful in future.

One feature that looks interesting is that it’s easier in the backend to define the environment (development, staging, production, etc) and then be able to run certain bits of code. This will prove useful to those working on large, business critical sites.

Summary

This is a big update for WordPress and all users will notice a difference. Despite the speed, search and security headline, the change that users will see the most are the improvements to the Gutenberg editor. As with all big updates, we recommend that you take a backup of your site before updating and check that everything works after you’ve run the update.

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