You’ve just launched your new WordPress website. It’s exciting – all those cool features for lead generation, blog subscriptions, product sales. WordPress can do just about anything.
Launching a new website is a lot like getting a new delivery van for your business. Both your van and your new website are faster, prettier, and can deliver more goods to your customers.
To keep that new van running well, you follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. On the list of regular maintenance tasks, you’d probably see:
- Change the oil every 5,000 miles
- Wash every week
- New tires every 40,000 miles
Take care of your van and it will perform reliably and make a better impression on your customers. The van is an asset and maintenance is required. That’s just part of the deal we accept when we purchase a business vehicle or any tool.
Websites are also business tools that need care and maintenance. For many business owners, once the website is launched, they don’t think much about it… until it breaks.
When you receive a service bulletin for your delivery van, you take it to a mechanic. After all, nobody wants their brakes to fail at a stop light, or their windshield wipers to quit working during a rainstorm.
WordPress Update Process
WordPress Websites receive service bulletins, too. They’re called “update notifications” and they appear in the WordPress Dashboard. You’ll see them when you’re logged in.
WordPress is the most powerful web development platform in the world. And WordPress sites get lots of traffic because Google, Bing, and all the search engines discover WordPress content easier than content on other platforms such as Wix and Squarespace. And if Google can find your site easily, it will serve your pages to the right visitors, who, in turn, will become your clients.
WordPress is like the fastest van that can carry the most cargo – it’s that good. If Wix were a van, it would be simple to drive, but have a tiny cargo area and go only 35mph. If SquareSpace were a delivery van, it might look beautiful on Instagram, but would only take right turns and be almost impossible to locate in a parking lot.
The strength of WordPress lies in its almost limitless customizations. Those customizations have made WordPress sites capable of remarkable load speeds, massive data management, and an unmatched ability to style for a custom presentation.
Thousands of developers over the years have poured their lives into making WordPress able to do almost anything from delivering your blog posts at near light speed to selling thousands of products.
Those WordPress Developers work in three main areas, all of which make up the WordPress ecosystem:
- WordPress Core
- WordPress Themes
- WordPress Plugins
Core, themes, and plugins are the three care and maintenance areas that most website owners should be familiar with. There are some others, including PHP, which occasionally requires and update. PHP is a computer language that allows WordPress to serve up content such as blog posts and all the other data that makes your website such an effective business tool.
As a site owner, updates are your most important WordPress maintenance task.
WordPress Core Updates
“Core” is the WordPress platform itself. It’s the skeleton of your website. It’s like the frame of the delivery van. It supports the website and all its functions.
As of this writing, WordPress Core is on version 5.4 (released March 2020), also known as “Adderley.” Nat Adderly was an American jazz pianist.
Major and minor WordPress core updates are released with unpredictable frequency. That’s because an update can introduce a cool, new feature such as Project Gutenberg, which is an easy way for to create and edit web content. Or maybe the WordPress update is a security fix, addressing a site vulnerability.
All WordPress websites should be upgraded to the newest version of WordPress Core as soon as it’s released.
WordPress Core updates are free, as is WordPress itself. But the update process, done correctly, takes some skill and planning. In fact, think of updates as a process you follow every time. It’s just like repairing a delivery van – you need to make sure you have the right tools, a garage, time, and the correct skills before you start the project.
WordPress Theme Updates
WordPress Core doesn’t have any styles, colors, or fonts. Everybody’s WordPress Core is the same. It’s the theme that makes your website unique.
There are thousands of WordPress themes. Themes dictate the look and much of the function of a website. Some themes are designed for bloggers. Some themes are for eCommerce. Some themes are for real estate agents or sports teams or political campaigns. You name it and a WordPress theme probably exists for it.
Those types of themes can be free or purchased in a Theme Marketplace. They’re fairly easy to install and configure.
There are also custom themes, which are developed for just one client. DecemberPress usually builds a custom theme to give the client exactly what they want. If you bring a WordPress developer a crayon drawing of your dream site, they can build it with a custom theme.
It doesn’t matter which theme you have, or who built it or installed it. It will need an update at some point. WordPress Themes are updated to address security or performance issues. As WordPress core evolves, themes must evolve in response to those updates.
If a theme you downloaded from a marketplace has been customized by a developer, care must be taken to prevent updates from wiping away all the customizations. If the site was built correctly, that won’t be a problem because customizations will be protected within a “Child Theme.”
Theme updates are made at the discretion of the theme developer. There is nothing predictable about theme update timing.
WordPress Plugin Updates
Plugins are like tools WordPress uses to add functionality to your website. For instance, you might ask your developer to include a form for visitors to complete to download your free eBook. The function of that form could be handled by a plugin.
Another plugin might allow your website to display some unique font or allow appointments to be scheduled online, or maybe handle ordering and payment for a restaurant website. The possibilities are endless.
Just like themes, there are thousands of WordPress plugins that do millions of different things. And, like themes, these plugins must be updated regularly to maintain performance and security.
As WordPress core updates, all the plugins and theme developers must respond with their own updates to ensure they continue to work properly. Sometimes, these plugin and theme updates conflict with one another, or with WordPress core. When this happens, your site can break or you may lose some functionality.
How WordPress Updates Are Performed
The easiest way to update your website is to just click “update all” and let the process begin.
But that’s a terrible idea. Don’t do it.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes plugins and themes and WordPress core don’t play well together. If you just “update all” without a process, you may break your site.
A broken site can behave in unexpected ways. Maybe your form doesn’t appear, or your fonts look wrong. Perhaps you’ll see the “White Screen of Death,” which means your site is completely down. Repairing a broken website can be time-consuming, frustrating, and expensive.
WordPress Updates Start With A Backup
Professional WordPress developers use a safe process to update websites.
First, a backup of the entire site is created so, in the event of an update problem, the site can be restored in minutes.
A backup contains the website and the database. The website files include the static information such as the theme and all plugins. The database is the dynamic information such as blog post content and user details – basically all the data the website is designed to manage.
Staging Environments Are Safe Places to Test Updates
All website care and maintenance tasks, including updates, are performed on a “staging server,” a secret place on the internet that is hidden from visitors. On the staging server, the developer will install a copy of your website that, once live, will be given a temporary web address where it can’t be found by Google or anyone else. This protects visitors (including Google) from getting confused.
Staging sites can also be hosted “locally” on a computer not at all connected to the internet. The choice is up the the developer. At DecemberPress, we use both staging and local servers to test our updates before going live. It depends on the circumstances.
The staging site is like a test kitchen for any core, theme, and plugin updates. If anything breaks, no harm is done. Issues can be addressed on the staging site and, once the update is successful, the same solution can be applied to the real site, also known as the “production site.”
It’s essential that, after the updates have been applied to the production site, every page be tested for function and presentation.
After performing hundreds of updates in my life, I’ve concluded there is no way to predict a problem with an update. The best practice is to make a backup, test thoroughly, deploy, and test again. In other words, follow the process.
WordPress Security Maintenance
We live in a dangerous world. Everyone knows that the internet is full of nasty people who want nothing more than to steal your stuff. Just like in real life, some people want to steal your delivery van. Those people are called “car thieves.”
People who want to steal your website are called “hackers.”
The motivations of hackers are similar to those of car thieves. Maybe the car thief wants to sell the car to make a quick buck. Hackers may want to access to a banking website to steal money. Or perhaps the car thief wants to go for a joy ride and knock down a row of mailboxes in an act of vandalism. Some hackers just want to vandalize websites.
It really doesn’t matter what a hacker’s motivation is. The job of web security is to keep them out.
What happens when a website is hacked?
One of the powers of WordPress is its ability to generate messages and notifications for site visitors. A hacked site may start sending out spam messages containing pornography or private business information. I’m sure you’ve received a spam email. Much of that comes from hacked websites whose email functions have been hijacked.
Good website maintenance and care includes the following tasks:
- ensuring all users have strong passwords
- monitoring the website with scanning software to identify malware, which is damaging code injected into the website
- removing any suspected malware caught by the scans
- maintaining quality backups of the website just in case
- watching for news of hacker exploits and being prepared to protect the website
Website Security Certificates
In addition to daily and weekly website best practices, protecting your website visitors is the responsibility of site owners. Your visitors should know that the website they’re visiting is, in fact, the website they intended to visit. This is done with the help of an SSL Certificate, or Secure Socket Layer Certificate.
Good maintenance includes making sure each page of the website includes a padlock icon at the left end of the address bar. That padlock should be followed by the name of the website, spelled correctly. If there is no padlock or the website’s name doesn’t match the visitor’s intention, the site may be a fake, also known as a “phishing” site.
Phishing sites are common in the financial services industry. It’s easy for a hacker to build a website that looks exactly like, for instance, Bank of America’s website. A visitor might log into that fake site and assume they entered an incorrect username or password. What’s really happened, however, is the hacker just collected a valid username and password.
Good website care and maintenance includes making sure your website is protected with a security padlock. When you click on that padlock, the website name on the security certificate should match your destination site.
Website Maintenance and Care Includes Keeping The Site Information Up-To-Date
Perhaps your business hours have changed. Maybe you’ve hired a new store manager. Regularly updating the information about the business is important to site visitors.
It’s frustrating for customers visiting your website to see Christmas content still posted on your homepage in June.
What happens to the website visitor who looks up your business hours, and makes a trip only to discover the door is locked? That’s a failure of site care and maintenance.
Budget about an hour a month of website maintenance and care – more for complicated eCommerce and membership sites. Your website should be working hard to generate business for you. Time spent keeping that site updated, secure, and full of relevant information is well worth it.
DecemberPress offers three WordPress website care and maintenance plans, all of which include hosting and development/design time.