What I’ve Learned About WordPress Maintenance


For the past decade, much of my design and development work has been centered around WordPress. I’ve spent a good bit of time both building and maintaining websites that utilize the world’s most widely-used CMS.

Not coincidentally, I’ve learned a lot in that span. Thus, to paraphrase the old saying: When you know better, you do better.

Thinking about my experiences, which has included a lot of ups and downs, I wanted to share what I’ve learned with a wider audience (that is, one beyond the pets in my home office). As a part of that quest, I gave a presentation on maintaining multiple WordPress websites at WordCamp Lehigh Valley 2019.

In that same spirit, below is a collection of some of the most important lessons that I’ve learned – many of them the hard way. Hopefully, they help you avoid some of the same misconceptions and mistakes that got me.

Updates Are Rarely an Emergency

If you spend enough time using and reading about WordPress, you’ll certainly hear a lot about keeping your sites up-to-date. Sure, updates to WordPress core, themes and plugins are important for keeping up compatibility and security.

Awareness of the issue is vital. It’s never a good idea to ignore new versions as they come out. However, it’s also not usually necessary to apply updates immediately.

The websites we build are growing in complexity. And they often rely on a lot of disparate pieces from various third parties, not to mention the custom code we add to that mix. The more complex a site is, the more possibilities for something to go wrong.

Unless an update directly affects your site’s security or functionality, it’s okay to wait for a little bit. Look at changelogs and support forums and see if others are having issues. When you’re satisfied that things look stable, go ahead and update.

A sign that reads "And Breathe".

No Two Websites Are the Same

One of the great things about WordPress is the fact that you can configure a site in so many ways. Want to add some SEO functionality? You have a ton of options. Need an awesome portfolio theme? There are many to choose from.

However, there is a downside to all of this choice. It leads to a certain level of unpredictability in terms of how a site will react to change. Software updates could cause problems. The continued use of an old, abandoned plugin may keep working – until it doesn’t. There are any number of other factors that can come into play.

This all makes maintenance even more difficult. Because each site has its own intricacies, it’s important to know everything you can about them and keep documentation.

For instance, documenting information regarding the plugins, theme customizations and the hosting environment is a worthwhile habit. Keep it all in a text file and it will serve as a handy reference as the site ages.

A person wearing two differently colored shoes.

There Are Some Things We Can’t Control

As web designers, we put our heart and soul into the things we do. We build websites with the goal of helping our clients to achieve theirs. When things don’t go as we’d hoped, we can take it personally. It’s especially bad when a situation goes beyond our ability to rectify it.

A prime example of this is discovering that a theme and/or plugin just isn’t working correctly. Many times, it’s the combination of two different pieces that are in conflict with each other. The result is that a specific feature or functionality becomes broken.

Ever the tech superhero, you attempt to work with the developers of the offending product(s). You provide bug details and perhaps even grant them access to your install. But, once in a while, it seems like all of that effort goes for naught.

These providers don’t necessarily see things with the same urgency. They may or may not fix it. They may tell you that they’ll research the issue and you never hear from them again. It’s frustrating and can make you feel like you’re letting your client down.

While it’s never ideal, the reality is that there are indeed some things that are beyond our control. In these cases, the best thing to do is to pick up and move on to find a solution that will work – with or without a particular product.

And it’s also worth noting that, while there will be times when your efforts to procure a bug fix don’t work, there will be that time when they do. That alone makes it worthwhile.

A hand reaching towards the sun.

Tools and Processes Can Help

If you’re managing a few WordPress websites, keeping up with their needs isn’t too difficult. But as your portfolio grows, so do the chances that you’ll miss something. This is natural, as you can’t be everywhere at once.

Thankfully, there are some amazing tools to help. For instance, a unified dashboard service like ManageWP, InfiniteWP or Jetpack (among many others) will allow you to manage each of your WordPress sites through a single UI. Update plugins, run backups and generally know exactly where you stand. If you’re a designer who manages a lot of sites, this type of system can be a lifesaver.

But tools are only one part of the equation. Developing processes for dealing with your websites is equally important.

Sometimes, it’s easy to get a bit scared when someone mentions a “process”. But never fear – it doesn’t have to be complicated. Just having a routine day and time when you research and perform updates is process enough for most situations.

A person holding a lightbulb.

You’ll Learn as You Go

Maintaining a WordPress website is a bigger responsibility than it may seem at first glance. Simply clicking the update button every now and then just isn’t enough. It also takes some careful thought, research and planning to do it right.

But the more sites you take care of, the more opportunities you have to learn best practices. Not only that, it’s also a chance to find out the most efficient ways to develop a maintenance workflow.

In the end, it’s all about keeping on top of things and doing so in the easiest way possible.

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