Plugins are an essential part of WordPress because they help extend the core functionality of the content management system. Plugins can be tricky, though. Too many plugins can adversely affect the performance of WordPress, and poorly written and maintained plugins can take down the site entirely.
It’s best practice not to add too many plugins and also to keep them up-to-date. If webmasters don’t frequently check and update their plugins and themes, they could be exposing their site to exploits and bugs that have already been fixed in newer versions.
To solve the maintenance problem, WordPress added the ability to auto-update plugins and themes in WordPress 5.5. Sites that have version 5.5 or later can now go to the Plugins page and turn on auto-updates for individual plugins.
They can also go to the Themes page and turn on auto-updates for individual themes.
WordPress auto-update caveats
Experienced WordPress admins know what it’s like to update a plugin or theme and then break the site. That is always a risk when updating plugins and themes, but if you’re manually doing it, you are immediately aware and can fix it if you can quickly restore the site from a backup.
The problem with auto-updating plugins and themes is that they might break the site, but you may not know about it until hours or perhaps days later. If that’s not a risk you’re willing to take, you should probably avoid enabling auto-updates.
If you’re feeling a little risky, consider only enabling it for plugins and themes that you know are well-maintained and haven’t had problems with before. Even better, only enable it for plugins that don’t directly affect what gets rendered on pages.
The only safe way to auto-update WordPress plugins that I’ve found is with WP Engine’s Smart Plugin Manager. The Smart Plugin Manager creates a backup of the site and automatically updates plugins on a test version of the site. It then runs a series of tests, including taking before and after screenshots of pages and comparing them for differences. If one of the tests fails or the screenshots detect a significant difference, it will abort the update. However, if everything checks out, it will update the live site with the latest plugins.