How to Maintain Your WordPress Site

wordpress sweetsWhen you finally got your website up and running, you probably heaved a sigh of relief that all the hard work was done. Well, I have good news and bad news.

The good news is: congratulations, you now have a solid, reliable website that can grow and adapt with your business. The bad news is: it’s not “set and forget”.  Just like a high performance car, a WordPress website needs regular maintenance to keep it running at its best.

Maintenance tasks fall into three main categories: updates, bloat control and back-ups.

UPDATES

WordPress developers are constantly improving the software. Also, every time WordPress issues a new version, plugin and theme developers issue updates to match. If you’re using a lot of plugins, this can get tedious – it may seem as though every time you log on to your dashboard, there are updates to be done!

You could ignore them – but that would be a bad idea. Developers don’t (usually) issue updates frivolously: after all, they cost money and time. Yes, they could be adding features you don’t need, but they often include fixes for bugs or security vulnerabilities, or to respond to browser changes – which you do need!

Bugs can affect the performance of your site – and even if they don’t, they can create “mark-up errors” which will affect your ranking in search engines, so it’s important to keep them under control. As for security – surely it goes without saying! It’s also important to be sure your site displays properly in IE, Firefox and Google Chrome – and when new versions come out, changes may be needed in WordPress itself, or in your theme, to adapt.

It should be obvious, then, that you need to check your dashboard regularly and install all updates.

But I’ll Lose My Customisations!

If you’ve customized your theme by adding or changing the code, then be warned – updating the theme will over-write all your changes!

For that reason, some webmasters don’t update their theme – it’s too much work to reinstate all their changes. However, if you update WordPress but don’t update your theme, some features may break. And as we’ve seen , if you don’t update WordPress, you may be exposing your site to security risks, or affecting how it appears in some browsers.

So, the answer is not to resist updates – the answer is to customize your theme correctly in the first place. This may require you to go back and re-do some of your site set-up – but it will be worth it in the long run.

The way to protect your customizations is – don’t make them within the theme itself. If you customize in a separate space, you can update the main theme to your heart’s content, and your changes will stay safe.

There are two possible “separate spaces”. Some themes will offer a “Custom CSS” screen, which will allow you to make changes – but that will only change your Stylesheet. If you want to make changes to any other files, you will need a Child Theme.

Child Themes

Creating a child theme can sound scary but is not as hard as you think. These articles will help:

http://www.wpthemedetector.com/a-wordpress-child-theme-made-easy-and-easier/

http://codex.wordpress.org/Child_Themes

Tip: Any time you want to do anything on WordPress, always check to see if there is a plugin already designed to do the job. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel, especially if you’re not an experienced programmer! This is a case in point – there is a plugin which will create a child theme template for you:

http://wordpress.org/plugins/one-click-child-theme/

All you have to do then is learn how to paste in the functions you want to change.

Mark-Up Errors

I mentioned mark-up errors. These are errors in the coding of your site. They’re important because (a) they may affect the running of your site and (b) Google can penalize you for them.

If you didn’t check for markup errors while you were setting up your site, you should do so now, by entering your site’s URL on http://validator.w3.org.

If you’re not familiar with mark-up errors, click the “more options” tab and choose “verbose output” which will provide more explanation for each error. You may still have difficulty understanding exactly what it means – if so, try pasting the explanation into Google. If that doesn’t help, join the WordPress.org forums and ask for clarification there.

Every time you make changes to your site structure, you should run the Validator again, to make sure you haven’t created another error. This is particularly true if you’re pasting in code of any kind, including code provided by affiliate partners (it’s surprising how often they get it wrong!!).

If the Validator returns a lot of errors within your theme – and they’re not your customizations – then I strongly suggest you dump your theme. Mark-up errors are a sign of poor programming and should make you question the quality and reliability of your theme, whether it’s free or paid.

BLOAT

Unnecessary files and code slow down your website, so you need to be vigilant about housekeeping.

Built-in Bloat

Bloat accumulates over time, as you make changes to your site – but a large amount of bloat can come from themes and plugins, right out of the box. So while your site is still brand new, it’s worth checking you’re not carrying too much baggage before you even start.

Don’t assume that because you’re using premium (paid) themes and plugins, they must be well-coded, streamlined and lightweight.  The truth is that “premium” themes and plugins are often more bloated than free ones!

The big problem with paid themes is that to make a sale, developers have to offer what the customer wants – not what’s best for their site! Most customers want a lot of freedom to customise their site – so paid themes often give users a huge range of configuration options, and that can be a very bad thing.

The more choices you have on your dashboard, the more code is needed to make those choices possible, and the more queries your theme has to make. More queries take up more time – and that means your site loads slower. If you’re lucky it’ won’t be slow enough to matter to your visitors – but it will matter to Google. Load speed is a major factor in Google’s algorithm, and it’s counted in fractions of a second.

There are some theme providers who are highly successful, whose themes are dismally top-heavy and slow. Sure, they look fantastic and their dashboards offer an amazing array of customizations, and they have lots of happy customers – but that’s because most of them aren’t experienced enough to know how vital speed is in a website. Don’t fall into that trap!

I won’t name those companies here because I don’t want to get sued, but this article offers information on testing which illustrates what I’m talking about:

http://foliovision.com/2011/03/paid-wordpress-themes-woo-vs-elegantthemes

Customization Bloat

If you’ve customized your theme, you may unwittingly have introduced bloat, due to (a) amateur coding or (b) the “bolt-on” effect.

Amateur Coding

I’m assuming you’re not a programmer or a developer – if you were, you probably wouldn’t be reading this! So you’re not a coding expert, and you’ve probably found your code on Google or WordPress.org, or made it up by trial and error. You’re not qualified to judge the validity or “cleanness” of that code . It may not be the most efficient way to do the job, and it may even cause some conflicts (so remember to check it with the Validator).

That’s why when I choose a theme, I always look at the support available as well as the design. For example, I use a lot of themes from ThemeHybrid.com – not because they’re free, but because when I need to customize something, I can post on their forum and they will often supply the code snippet that I need. Because that code has been written by the theme designer, I can have confidence it will work.

The Bolt-On Effect

Again, this has to do with efficiency. In general, if a feature is integrated into a theme during the design phase, the code is likely to be cleaner and more streamlined than if you try to add it on later. That’s why it’s always worth taking the time to search for the theme closest to your needs, right from the beginning.

To give you an example from my own experience. When I first learned about load speed, I started a quest to find the fastest theme. I soon found Swift, which is promoted as the fastest theme on the planet – which, when I tried it out, seemed to be true.

But here’s the catch. Swift is a very plain, stripped-down theme. By the time I’d “bolted on” all the plugins and features I needed, Swift was actually slower than my previous theme!

Cumulative Bloat

The process of changing and adding to your site causes debris to accumulate, in the form of revisions, database clutter and “dead” plugins. There’s no way to prevent this bloat from happening, so regular housekeeping is necessary.

Explanations of each of these categories are given below, but the solution for all three is the same – optimization. There are several plugins which will do the job for you – simply “Add New” in your Plugins menu and search for “optimize”. I use WP-Optimize.

Install your optimization plugin, and leave it deactivated until you’re ready to use it. Deactivate it between uses. If you’re constantly adding new material, it may be worth running it once a week – otherwise, a monthly run is recommended.

The optimization plugin will remove surplus material created by the following:

Revisions

Every time you edit a WordPress post or page, the auto-save kicks in. Although you’re not aware of them, it’s possible to amass hundreds of auto-saved posts in a fairly short time – and usually, you don’t need any of them.

Databases

As you add and delete plugins, widgets etc, old data is not always deleted and builds up over time.

Plugins

As your site develops, you’ll discover you want to do different things with it. Often the best way to achieve those things is by using plugins. Plugins are powerful and one of the great assets of the WordPress system. However, they are also a big culprit when it comes to bloat.

Like themes, a plugin can be bloated by nature (and again, just because a plugin is “premium” doesn’t mean it’s streamlined and fast). Jetpack is a good example – it seems to offer amazing benefits, but carries a heavy penalty in site speed. So it’s vital, every time you install a new plugin, to check its impact on your site load times.

You can check your plugins by installing the P3 (Plugin Performance Profiler) plugin (don’t forget to deactivate and delete when you’re finished with it!).

I say that because even plugins you’re not using can have an impact, especially if they’re not deactivated. They may still be making queries even though you’re not using the widget or shortcode they create. Even a deactivated plugin can have a small impact, so delete plugins you don’t need or rarely use – after all, it takes only seconds to re-install if you change your mind.

Also, when you delete plugins, they often leave files behind – even if you click “yes, delete these files”! Over time these files build up in your system. So run your optimization plugin regularly.

BACK-UPS

Backing up your site is another maintenance task which is absolutely essential. Don’t rely on your host to safeguard your data! Servers can and do crash, even in the best-regulated companies.

How often you back up your site will depend on how often you add or change your content. If your site doesn’t change much, then there’s really no need to do repeated back-ups – but if you’re constantly adding new content, you should consider setting up a regular schedule. There are plugins which will email you a back-up at set intervals.

If your site is somewhere in between, get into the habit of doing a backup every time you do an update. Again, you can use a plugin (but do remember to deactivate it when you’re not using it), or if you have cPanel, use the backup function there.

Many back-up programs save to the host server by default. There’s no harm in keeping a copy there, but it’s not going to be much use if the whole server crashes, is it? I prefer to email the back-up copies to myself, or download them to my own PC.