How to update a released site


If you’re already up-to-speed, here’s the checklist:


Before we talk about how to update a released site, we first establish why you might need to do this. What is a released site? What other kind of pkgdown site could you have? Why does updating a released site take special effort?

Automatic development mode

Every pkgdown site has a so-called development mode, which can be specified via the development field in _pkgdown.yml. If unspecified, the default is mode: release, which results in a single pkgdown site. Despite the name, this single site reflects “the current package state”, which could be either a released state or a development state.

For packages with a substantial user base, it is recommended instead to specify mode: auto like so:

  mode: auto

This directs pkgdown to “generate different sites for the development and released versions of your package.”

The readr package demonstrates what happens in automatic development mode: documents the released version, i.e. what install.packages() would deliver. documents the dev version, i.e. what you’d get by installing from GitHub.

In this mode, pkgdown::build_site(), consults DESCRIPTION to learn the package’s version number. For a development version number, the rendered site is written to docs/dev/. For a released version number, the site is written to docs/. (There are also other signals to alert users that they are reading documentation for a dev version vs. a released version.)

Automatic development mode is recommended for packages with a broad user base, because it maximizes the chance that a user will read web-based documentation that reflects the package version that is locally installed.


Now that we’ve established the meaning of a released (vs dev) site, we have to consider how the site gets rendered and deployed.

Many people use usethis::use_pkgdown_github_pages() to do basic pkgdown setup and configure a GitHub Actions (GHA) workflow to automatically render and publish the site to GitHub Pages. Here’s an overview of what this function does:

usethis::use_pkgdown_github_pages() =
  use_pkgdown() +
  use_github_pages() + 
  use_github_action("pkgdown") +
  add the pkgdown site's URL to _pkgdown.yml, URL field of DESCRIPTION,
    and to the GitHub repo +
  (if owning org is one of: tidyverse, r-lib, tidymodels, rstudio) 
  add "tidyverse/tidytemplate" to Config/Needs/website in DESCRIPTION

As a result, the publishing cadence of many pkgdown sites is governed by the workflow maintained at r-lib/actions/examples/pkgdown.yaml. (Do not confuse _pkgdown.yml, which gives instructions to the pkgdown package, with .github/workflows/pkgdown.yaml, which gives instructions to GHA.)

Here are some of the most important bits of the GHA workflow config:

NOTE: this is from v2 of r-lib/actions, which is important! If you use usethis to add/update workflow config, make sure you’re using the dev version of usethis, which will pull from the v2 tag.

    branches: [main, master]
    branches: [main, master]
    types: [published]
<snip, snip>

      - name: Build site
        run: Rscript -e 'pkgdown::build_site_github_pages(...)'
      - name: Deploy to GitHub pages 🚀
        if: github.event_name != 'pull_request'
        uses: JamesIves/github-pages-deploy-action@4.1.4
        <snip, snip>

We build and deploy for pushes to main (or master).
We build for pull requests against main (or master).
But we don’t deploy for pull requests.

We build and deploy when we publish a GitHub release.
By convention, we assume that a GitHub release coincides with a CRAN release.
This is the primary mechanism for building the released pkgdown site.

pkgdown::build_site_github_pages() consults the version in DESCRIPTION to detect whether it’s building from a released version or a dev version. That determines the dest_dir, e.g. docs/ for released and docs/dev/ for dev. For a package in automatic development mode, this means that almost all of your pushes trigger an update to the dev site. The released site is only updated when you push a state with a non-development version number or when you publish a GitHub release.

So how do you tweak things about the released site in between releases?

That brings us to workflow_dispatch:. (Yes that dangling colon is correct.)

The inclusion of workflow_dispatch as a trigger means the pkgdown workflow can be run on demand, either manually from the browser or via the GitHub REST API. We’re going to show how to update a released site from a GitHub branch or tag, using the browser method. In the future, we might build some tooling around the API method.

Places to learn more about triggering GHA workflows:

Before we move on, I repeat:
It is important that your main branch have the latest pkgdown workflow. (Or whatever your default branch is called.) At the time of writing, this means the v2 tag in r-lib/actions. The easiest way to get this is to install dev usethis and run usethis::use_github_action("pkgdown").

Construct a branch for the update

The overall goal is to create a package state from which to update the released site that corresponds to (HEAD of) a Git branch. This package state should:

Create and checkout a branch based on the tag of the most recent CRAN release. For example, if readr’s latest release is 2.1.1:

git checkout -b update-pkgdown-2-1-1 v2.1.1

And here is the general pattern:


Now you should backport innovations from the future that you would like to retroactively apply to your released site.

Files you must update:

Other likely candidates:

Here are some tips on backporting specific changes into this branch. If you are lucky, there are specific commits in your default branch that contain all the necessary changes. In that case, we can cherry pick such a commit by its SHA:

git cherry-pick SHA

If that doesn’t cover everything, for each file you want to update, identify a Git reference (meaning: a SHA, tag, or branch) where the file is in the desired state. Checkout that specific file path from that specific ref:

git checkout REF -- path/to/the/file

For example, readr recently gained a new vignette that applies to the released version of readr, i.e. it does not document any dev-only features or functions. Here’s how to introduce the new vignette from HEAD of main into the current branch:

git checkout main -- vignettes/column-types.Rmd

Commit and push this new branch to GitHub. usethis::pr_push() can be handy for this. Just don’t bother opening a pull request (the branch will still be pushed).

Now we will use the workflow_dispatch GHA trigger. Go to the Actions page of your repo, maybe via usethis::browse_github_actions(). Click on the pkgdown workflow.

You should see “This workflow has a workflow_dispatch event trigger.”
(If you don’t, that means you didn’t do one of the pre-requisites, which is to update to v2 of the pkgdown workflow.)

See the “Run workflow” button? CLICK IT. In the “Use workflow from” dropdown menu, select the branch you’ve just made and pushed. This should kick off a pkgdown build-and-deploy and, specifically, it should cause updates to the released site.

You can keep this branch around for a while, in case you didn’t get everything right the first time or if more things crop up that you’d like backport to the released site, before your next CRAN release.


Remember GitHub search is a great way to get other people’s _pkgdown.yml files in front of your eyeballs:

Example query: filename:_pkgdown.yml org:tidyverse org:r-lib

For any given _pkgdown.yml file on GitHub, remember that its History and Blame can be helpful for seeing how another package’s config has evolved over time.