And how to avoid a total website meltdown
Imagine you’re an auto mechanic. Someone brings their car into your shop because the check engine light is on, and it’s running really hot. It’s also making knocking sounds. You pop open the hood and pull out the dipstick. Sure enough, the oil is extremely low. And dirty. “When was the last time you had an oil change?” you ask.
“Oh, I don’t remember. A few years ago?”
Here’s where you drop the bomb. You tell the customer that the engine needs a complete overhaul and they need to leave their car with you for a few days.
Naturally, they freak out. They need their car! You gently explain that the longer they keep driving it, the worse it’s going to get and that one day, it will break down completely.
It’s not good news, but thankfully it can still be repaired.
Now pretend that instead of a car, it’s a WordPress website. This is exactly what happened to one of my clients recently. As they quickly found out, ignorance is the opposite of bliss.
A case study in not maintaining a WordPress website
My client had a great-looking website that did very well on Google, brought in AdWords money, and was well-positioned to attract clients in her field.
Under the hood, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Then it did happen.
When I came in, I was taking over for her newly retired web designer-maintenance person. Her needs were simple: update plugins, make sure things were running well on the back end at her host, and post to the blog. Easy-peasy. Or so I thought.
When I looked at the dashboard for the first time, there were 14 plugin updates waving at me from their little red circles. Some of them hadn’t been touched in at least a couple of years. One of them was a slider plugin that was the main above-the-fold attraction on her front page. It was several updates behind – so much so that the plugin was now a paid subscription plan, and guess who didn’t have a subscription?
I was just getting started.
There was also a notice that PHP needed to be updated. Not from 7.0 to 7.4. It was still at 5.5.
To most casual WordPress users, this is like saying, “Your flobbity-leveler is under-metering on the joint acess point,” or some other nonsense. To any professional working in WordPress or in hosting, this is the appropriate response:
I started making a list. Then I checked for backups, which thankfully had been running automatically in the background. At least I had that, of which I downloaded the most recent to my own computer. Safety first!
Uncovering more WordPress issues
I started updating plugins, which mostly went fine until I looked at the slider on the front page. It wasn’t there. Because it was so far out of date, it wasn’t playing friendly with WordPress. So I purchased a subscription to get it updated (with her permission, of course). The plugin author warned me that it had to be done carefully, version by version, or it would fail and I would have to build the sliders all over again (which I hadn’t done in the first place, so it would have been.. interesting).
Mission accomplished, and the slider was looking great again.
Then the site went down. 503 error time. Double yikes. Which meant that I couldn’t even access the WordPress dashboard any longer. It’s a little like flying a plane from the rear lavatory.
I went to look at the cPanel at her host and found more disasters. The site was being hosted on the “Economy” plan server, which the company told me they didn’t even support anymore. They recommended that I move the site to the Ultimate Linux server, of which my client had already been paying for years. Yup, years.
Doing this work involved several steps, many of which resulted in a long wait for the changes to propagate over the internet. Each change could take 15 minutes to 24 hours.
You might imagine how excited my client was to find all this out. Essentially, to use my earlier analogy, she couldn’t drive her car for a few days. Google AdWords was also giving her grief, telling her that her links weren’t working and she would lose her ranking if they weren’t fixed quickly.
From her perspective, everything had been running fine until I started messing around. As an even less-than-casual WordPress user (that’s why she hired people like me), she had no interest in understanding anything except what she could see visually – which was that her site was completely ****ed up. It took some very patient and finely-tuned conversations to help her at least understand that her site was being updated to the very latest version and would be much more secure from now on.
After several days, everything got sorted out. The site was back up and running (on PHP 7.4 at least), and both my client and I were no longer suffering from angina.
What did we learn, kids?
The moral here should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: update, update, update.
If you manage your own WordPress site, you need to be checking your dashboard on a regular basis to make sure everything is up to date. All those little red circles are telling you something. Address each one. How often should you check in? I check all my sites once a week, even if I don’t have anything new to post. You could probably get by with monthly checkups, but make sure you have good security on your site (via plugins) and with your host.
If you have someone managing your site for you, set clear and realistic expectations of how often you need them to be checking in on things. While they are accountable for doing the work you hired them to do, you also need to make sure that you check in sometimes yourself. Knowing how WordPress works on a basic level means that you know whether the work is being done – or not.
If your website is important to you, don’t leave it to chance.