How to back up a WordPress site for free

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Making sure to back up a WordPress site regularly is absolutely critical and you can do it for free. Even if you put in place every possible security measure, you are never safe from a hack, a technical error, or a serious stroke of bad luck. A WordPress backup will prevent you from losing all your work if something goes wrong, and you’ll be glad you had it in place.

1. How can you « lose » or « break » your site

There are many ways to lose or break a WordPress site
There are many ways to lose or break a WordPress site

1.1 Technical error or mishandling

Technical errors remain the most common way to lose or break a WordPress site. After modifying a file, adding some code to your theme, or cleaning up your server, an error occurs and you lose access to your site completely. This happens regularly and will not cause you any trouble if you have a recent backup.

1.2 Bad update

It also happens that the error comes from a plugin or a theme. You make an update that you think is harmless or « minor » and suddenly the site doesn’t work. Here again, this will not be a problem if you have made regular backups. Incidentally, I would advise you to always test updates on a staging site, but that will be the subject of another article.

1.3 Hacking

Hacking of WordPress sites is obviously one of the major factors in losing a site. In this case, you will need to have a backup that is recent enough, but which does not contain malicious code. Indeed, your most recent backups could be useless if they were made after the hack.

1.4 Hosting issue

Finally, your hosting company may have a more or less serious problem that wipes out your site. A landmark example is that of OVH in March 2021 whose data centre in Strasbourg was the scene of a major fire. Luckily, there were no human casualties, but a considerable part of the servers, i.e. the hardware that hosts websites, burned down.

As a result, many OVH customers who did not have a backup simply lost their site. For others, OVH was able to restore their data, but only after several weeks of waiting.

2. Basic rules of good backup

For a backup system to be effective, it must take into account the most severe and unlikely situations. By implementing a redundant process, you insure your site against loss and hacking and you can restore it quickly, without losing traffic or revenue.

2.1 Don’t rely on a hosting company

To continue with the OVH case, some of the customers who had subscribed to an automated backup service from the hosting company had the unpleasant surprise of discovering that these were kept on servers in the same room, and sometimes on the same server, as the production sites.

The moral of this story is that a backup service offered by your host can only be an addition to your own system. In the event of an anomaly in the latter, you can, as a last resort, recover a backup made by your hosting provider. However, you usually do not have the opportunity to check whether or not the company is working conscientiously before a major problem occurs.

2.2 Backing up in multiple locations

A WordPress backup should be kept in several places
A WordPress backup should be kept in several places

The media on which you keep your backup sets is crucial. Ideally, you should have at least three separate locations to provide redundancy to your system. It is unlikely, but obviously not impossible, that three or more media will be unavailable at the same time.

Therefore, the ideal process is to save copies of a site on an online medium, such as a cloud storage service (Dropbox, Google Drive, S3, etc.); on an offline device, such as an external hard drive; optionally, on your server; and finally, the last copy is the production site.

With this system of multiple copies, you’re immune to the most outlandish of failures. In this context, the backup of your host, which is usually on the same server as your site, is only an additional copy that may be useful if the problem that forces you to restore is not related to the infrastructure.

2.3 Back up automatically at regular intervals

The more a site changes, the more important it is to back it up regularly. To set up a robust system that will require as little work as possible, you should take advantage of automated backups. Indeed, it is laborious to do this work manually and regularly, and it greatly increases the possibility of an oversight.

Today, many plugins do this work for you, and we will look at one of them later. You will need to decide how often to back up, which depends on each site and its particular needs. For a site where content is often published or for an e-commerce site, I recommend scheduling a daily backup.

On the other hand, for a brochure site on which you don’t publish any content and which is not or hardly ever modified, a weekly backup is more than sufficient. Finally, it is important to make a backup, even a manual one, or to make sure you have a recent enough one before making updates to a site.

2.4 Keep multiple sets of backups

I have already mentioned the importance of having recent backups that do not contain malicious code. For a site that is frequently modified and backed up daily, one week’s worth of copies seems sufficient.

However, keeping seven sets of copies of an e-commerce site can take up a lot of storage space. You should therefore make sure that you have enough space. For a site that changes little and is backed up once a week, four sets, i.e. a month in total, will be more than enough.

3. What to back up

For a WordPress backup to be useful, you need to have the database and files. The latter is still the most important, but without the files, a site will likely be defaced. So be sure to make a full backup of the site through your automated system.

In addition, depending on the type of site, you can also schedule a daily database backup and a weekly file backup. This allows you to reduce the amount of space used while being fairly redundant.

4. How to back up a WordPress site for free

As I’ve already mentioned, the best solution for automating WordPress backups is to use a plugin. The most efficient of these back up a site at regular intervals, which you schedule, keep a copy on your server, and send another copy to one or more remote storage spaces. Finally, restoring a backup should be quick and easy.

4.1 UpdraftPlus

UpdraftPlus allows you to back up a WordPress site for free
UpdraftPlus automates WordPress backups

UpdraftPlus is one of the most installed backup and restore plugins on WordPress and rightly so. When I discovered it, my work was considerably simplified. I recommend you use it.

It allows you to choose the frequency of database and file backups independently, send your backup files to a remote storage space and restore a site in a few clicks. It also saves a copy of your backup files on your server.

UpdraftPlus is, to my knowledge, the only plugin that offers all these features, i.e. to fully back up a WordPress site for free. Other plugins will charge you to send backups to a remote storage, or to schedule automated backups or even to restore an existing backup. UpdraftPlus also has a series of add-on plugins that, depending on your needs, can simplify your work.

4.2 Manual WordPress backup via FTP

If you can’t or don’t want to use a plugin, backing up your WordPress site manually is also free. This method involves downloading your files and database at periodically.

To do this, you will need to connect to your server via FTP on the one hand to retrieve the files. And on the other hand, to phpMyAdmin to export a copy of your SQL database. This method is obviously slower and more laborious, but if you have no other solution, it is still much better than not backing up a site at all.

5. Conclusion

Whether you choose a plugin or the manual option, the important thing is to make regular backups. By taking a moment to set up an automated system today, you’ll congratulate yourself the day you need to restore your site due to mishandling, accident, or hacking.

Tell me in the comments your worst stories of broken or lost sites!

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