Your website is like your pet—it needs continued care and maintenance. Website content updates (the new posts, text, photos, events, etc, that you do regularly) will help keep site visitors and search engines happy. Yet content updates aren’t the same as technical care and updates. Technical updates are essential for a healthy, fully functioning website. Your website is built on thousands (and thousands and thousands) of lines of code. Even with regular maintenance and updates, you may still experience glitches.
Even if you’re a technophobe, I beg you not to glaze over the following information. If you own a website, you need to be a responsible website owner.
Your WordPress Website Basics
There are four main layers that make up your WordPress website: the web server, the WordPress platform, the theme and optional plugins. Here’s a brief description of each of these layers and how they work together:
- Web servers. These are the computers that host your website files. Your hosting company has the vault of web servers that keep your website files safe, in a temperature controlled, secure environment. The web servers are machines that require servicing, repairs and upgrades for the sake of function and security. These changes typically run in the background but on occasion can affect your website by conflicting with scripts on your site or forcing you to make site updates.
- WordPress. WordPress is a pre-made platform that started years ago as a blogging platform and has evolved into a wonderful Content Management System (CMS). It has a Dashboard that allows non-techs to locate pages and posts on their site and make changes to the content. WordPress belongs to an open source community and allows you to freely use it’s products. WordPress also releases updates. These may be new features, bug fixes, or security related. These changes may create conflicts in the theme or plugins you are using.
- Theme. The theme is what gives your website design and functions that aren’t a part of the rather sparse, default WordPress platform. Themes help determine the color and layout of your site and often provide extra features that help your website shine. Themes also require updates for new features, bug fixes and security. These changes may create conflicts with plugins. Not all themes have ongoing author support which means your theme may have conflicts with other system updates (web servers, WordPress, etc.) It’s nearly impossible to know which themes will have ongoing support however over time, nearly all themes will be discontinued as new themes emerge that are designed for more up-to-date user expectations.
- Plugins. Plugins allow you to really amp up the capabilities of your website. Each plugin also has updates for features, bug fixes and security. Plugins are wonderful but they are also one of the easiest entry points for hacks and most common cause for bug issues or script conflicts. Free plugins should be used with care, because they often don’t have ongoing support. In general, don’t keep any plugins in your Dashboard that you aren’t actively using. Some common uses for plugins include:
- Enhanced SEO capabilities
- Site caching for faster page loads
- Form editors that allow non-tech people to create and edit forms
- Membership forums
- Site analytics
- Special slider or portfolio effects
- Shopping carts
- Polls / Surveys
- Social media feeds, etc.
If you don’t keep up with the tech updates, your site may become vulnerable to hacks or conflicts with any of the advancing tech layers that support them. Certain features may quit working, including the ability to edit your site at all!
But first, backup!
Before you do any updates, it’s strongly advised that you create a backup of your site in the event that the updates create a conflict with other scripts on your site and “break” the site, thus requiring a developer’s repair. You should be running backups of your site regularly anyway, because “stuff” happens (server failures, hacks, etc.)
There are plugins that you can use for backups. Most web hosts also offer backup services, too. Some are free, some aren’t. While it’s easier to backup your website to the same server that hosts your website, you need to be aware that if the server fails, you’ve lost your backup copy as well. It’s best to save your backup to your own computer. If that’s not a possibility, then save it to a location on your web host that’s different from the place you keep your regular website files.
Most backup services allow you to schedule backups. This is very helpful but be sure to check every now and then to be sure backups are indeed happening.
When Your Site Breaks
If an update causes a script conflict, you then have a choice to:
- revert back to the previous version of whatever was updated (if you have been saving your backups)
- have the developer find the conflict and write a custom repair
- work with the author of the theme/plugin to issue a repair (if they’re still offering support for what you’re using)
- find another theme or plugin and convert your content over to it
Your choice will depend on the severity of the issue, of course. While WordPress, themes, and plugins make amazing websites tangible (both financially and feature-wise) for the average person, each layer comes with its own vulnerabilities. On the tech side, responsible website ownership requires three things: website maintenance, backups and security. In order to avoid as many problems as possible, you need an experienced web technologist that’s up to date with WordPress and (best case scenario) your website.
Speaking of Security
When it comes to security, you have a few options. You may wish to use a plugin to amp up security within WordPress. Your web host may also offer extra security (for an additional cost, naturally). Many web hosts are setting up servers especially designed for WordPress websites which includes security to address issues common to WordPress. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as an un-hackable website. Big budgets can use mirrored hosts and a plethora of security layers. As a small business, you may simply need to make your choices based on the level of budget and effort you want to contribute.
Web Vets: For the Health of Your Website
Be sure to keep a good relationship with your web technologist. Quite often, staff changes overlook passing on website information. I can’t count how many clients we’ve helped over the years by keeping records of their website credentials and other key details related to their websites. If you change any web-related passwords, let your technologist know as well. Familiarity with your website and current credentials will save time and stress if an “event” happens.