I’ll set the scene. You receive an email from a client and it does not look good. There are suspicious-looking links scattered throughout the entire site and visitors are leaving, wondering whether they can trust the site again.
Well, now what? Typically, we log in to the client’s website and, oh boy, there are a lot of red notices. The entire list of plugins needs updating. WordPress core (the tight code that runs the content management system) is three versions behind and there are other odd issues seen throughout the dashboard. WordPress core is struggling, there are no backups of the site, and plugins are conflicting with one another.
I am here to tell you that it does not have to be this way. Some things in life are easy and maintaining a website (or having someone do it for you) should be one of them.
Well, if it’s so easy, can’t I just do it?
Alright, let’s get this out of the way. Yes. You can maintain your own website and run into zero problems along the way. But that rarely happens. Some sneaky plugin update will come along sooner rather than later and break the site.
Getting around to doing website maintenance is no small task, either. Most companies don’t have dedicated IT personnel and, when they do, they usually have other things to do. So if you (or your IT team) have the time and ability to maintain a WordPress site, then it is definitely worth doing it. But there a number of critical tasks that need to happen to ensure your site maintenance proceeds well.
Step One: Backups
It is of the utmost importance to have monthly, weekly, or daily backups running on your website. Let’s say one of those pesky plugins we mentioned earlier broke your website. Nobody is going to have a magical copy of the plugin exactly as it was before the site was taken down — and if they do, it might be anywhere between four hours and an eternity on tech support trying to retrieve it.
The easiest way to backup your site is to install a well-regarded plugin. It will automatically backup your site to a remote server without your lifting a finger. Manual backups, which take a lot longer, never hurt anybody either.
Step Two: Updates
Code. We love code. And WordPress core and various third party plugins are made of pure code, a substance that is prone to conflicts, disagreement and breakage.
The first thing I do when tasked with WordPress maintenance is carefully update plugins. It’s not impossible that, after updating a plugin, the entire website literally turns into a white screen. Not a single bit of text is displayed. Not even a helpful error string.
There are a few things you can do in this situation. Downloading a plugin that rolls back other plugins to a previous version (before the site broke) is the first and easiest option. If that does not work, restoring your site from one of those backups discussed earlier is a second option.
Figuring out why the plugin broke the website is another can of worms. Sadly, there is no instruction manual for this — it just comes down to how well the WordPress developer knows the website and how good the plugin developer’s support team is. If a given plugin is irregularly or rarely updated, it will become outdated incredibly quickly and pose a security threat to the site.
Ignoring a plugin that needs updating on a WordPress site (without a very good reason) is not a good idea. This leaves the site susceptible to security vulnerabilities that the update was meant to fix in the first place. When one thing starts going out of date, everything starts going out of date. (Thing A relies on Thing B but Thing B can’t be updated so Thing A can’t be updated and before you know it, half of the plugin list is outdated.)
If the plugin cannot be updated without breaking the site, a new workaround must be put in place. This could take a few minutes to a few days depending on how large a role that the plugin played.
WordPress core updates are extremely important. So important, in fact, that if your site allows, WordPress will automatically update non-major versions as needed. If an error comes up on one of these it is important that it is addressed otherwise the same thing as the plugin updates will happen. You’ll be missing out on the newest security enhancements. More importantly, an older WordPress version basically puts a big sign on your website that says “hack me!”
With that being said, these core updates can also mess up an entire site, so doing a thorough backup before pushing the update button is recommended. Major version updates should be done with care. If you like shiny new things, these updates are sometimes interesting because along with security patches, there are usually new features such as better data protection or more streamlined WordPress dashboard elements.
Step Three: Routine Cleanup
Again in terms of security, leaving old files, photos, and blog posts laying around your WordPress site is asking for trouble. It’s also never a bad idea to have a good content organization system in which everything has a place. In general, organizing content should be done by the person most often writing and generating new content for the site. While a site maintenance person can set up these systems, it’s likely that they won’t know what files are old and no longer useful.
Here’s a general list of things to keep tabs on for routine cleanup:
- User list (suggestion: remove old users and merge them whenever possible)
- Passwords (recommendation: ask all users to update these often with strong passwords; check out a post on re-using passwords)
- Media Library items (recommendation: look at your largest assets and delete them if they are not used)
- The Comment section (suggestion: approve/disapprove if your site has commenting enabled)
- Page snippets/meta descriptions (recommendation: Yoast SEO is a very helpful tool)
- Contact information (recommendation: check the site footer, contact page, individual forms, etc.)
Step Four: The Yearly Check-up
It’s good practice to keep tabs on a few things once your site has been up and running for a year or more. About once or twice a year is a good benchmark for most smaller sites.
First, review all or most pages of your website and make note of any copy that could improve or that has not aged well. Also, review pages for design flaws or display issues in a number of browsers.
Coding languages, site browsers and web technologies are rapidly advancing every year and, sometimes, browser manufacturers stop supporting older coding practices in favour of new and better ones. For instance, Google rewards sites that are mobile-friendly and use updated code and it ranks those sites higher on search results. It’s a dog eat dog world out there!
If you’re noticing that your site is getting slow and sluggish, it’s time to investigate why. There are many reasons for this: from having too many large images and video on the home page to issues with your hosting provider. At Manoverboard, we use tools like Google PageSpeed Insights and HubSpot’s Website Grader — both can be a good place to start — but not finish: online resources that check your website can show you red flags right away but no automation or artificial intelligence can provide an exact diagnosis. These tools and applications are a good resource and can pinpoint specific problem areas, but because they generate generic reports, a specific website’s intricacies are not taken into account.
While website maintenance includes the above four steps (plus a number of others, depending on the website and its needs), there are a few things that you might keep in mind if you are responsible for the ongoing content or update of a website.
Images and Files
Here is a rule of thumb for putting images on your website: Never upload an image larger than something you wouldn’t want to download on a tight data plan or email to your best friend. Your website shouldn’t be the reason someone goes over their quota or your friend can’t see the photo of you winning the marathon. Large images and files can bog down even the fastest of sites. The larger the file, the longer it simply takes to load on browsers (especially on smartphones).
Consistently uploading massive files and images into a website’s media library also isn’t eco-friendly. If those videos and images aren’t being responsibly uploaded, they will add more data that needs to be served every time somebody visits your site. You can learn more about creating a sustainable web on our blog under Sustainability. You can also check out our educational site dedicated to serving greener websites at Serving Green.
The best practice is to resize and compress your images before uploading. As a rule of thumb, your image’s height and width should be the largest size that will display well on the desktop version of your site. WordPress will take care of the rest. A few excellent online resources for compressing your images and files that we use include Image Compressor and PDF Compressor. (As an example, the header image of the bike above, by Lance Grandahl, was 905 KB after Photoshop’s Save for Web feature. After using Image Compressor, the photo is 216 KB with very little loss in image quality and the file is 26% the size of the original.)
About 15 per cent of the global population lives with some form of disability. People that are blind or partially sighted should also be able to make use of your website. The easiest thing to do is provide a meaningful alternative to any visual assets for these visitors. This article at Yoast will show you how to make your images more accessible. People that are hard of hearing or deaf also rely on text alternatives for images. To allow these visitors to access your audio content, make sure to provide content alternatives for video essays or podcasts. For videos, offer good quality captions (no more craptions!)
If you keep these things in mind when creating content, you will be taking steps towards making the internet a better place for everybody. How you create web content matters.
I hope this helps to make site maintenance, and the many tasks that surround it, a little less mysterious. In general, WordPress maintenance is best done by a professional developer and on a consistent basis. When done right, maintenance simply goes unnoticed — and that’s the way it should be!
P.S. In the coming months, WordPress is releasing a major update: Version 5.0 (also known as Gutenberg). Like many WordPress developers, we expect that many sites will be challenged by this update. If you have questions or concerns about Gutenberg or anything in this post, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.