How to Manage a Live WordPress Website Like a Pro
For many of us, our websites are our bread and butter, even our pet projects. And though they hold a significant position in our lives, unfortunately we mismanage them regularly. While this is okay for smaller sites, the problem persists when we start tackling larger projects.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some tips, tricks, and pitfalls of managing WordPress websites. The larger your site the more you have to gain from these ideas but any of them can be started right from the get-go.
Website Downtime and Its Financial Impacts
Your main concern for your live website should be keeping it up and running because time is money.
If you have an online store and your site goes down in the middle of someone’s shopping spree you lose money.
If your site makes money from ads your uptime directly impacts your income.
Even if you use WordPress for a personal portfolio, a potential client might want to look at your work, only to find your site down. How unprofessional is that?
Downtime is not just something you can blame on your web host. Your site could fail due to bad plugins, bad settings, bad coding, and even bad decisions (installing multiple caching plugins).
We’ll look into mitigating these issues in a moment.
Time is Money
According to salary.com, web designers in the US make around $72,000 a year. Let’s assume that 20% of that business comes through your website, around $15,000 a year. If you do the math, your site makes about $1.70 every hour.
Your website is probably most active during business hours, so let’s double that and say that every peak hour your site makes you around $3.40. If your site is down for 100 hours a year (just 1.14% of the time) you loose $340.
And that’s just for a personal site.
If you own a webshop that makes $300,000 a year, you suddenly make $68.5 an hour, 1.14% downtime would cost you $6,850 a year. And that’s just from actual downtime, it doesn’t include mismanaged content and other factors.
Keeping Your WordPress Website Live: Your Goals
There are a few goals I like to associate with websites, aside from publishing quality content of course:
- Keep your live site running all the time
- Speed your site up as much as possible
- Know what’s going on on your site
- Get as much data as you can
Data is especially important as it feeds back into the first two goals. By gathering data, you’ll know if your site is down and why and see what your speed bottlenecks are. You can also gather crucial intelligence on visitor behavior, which can help optimize content and increase your revenue.
Keeping Your WordPress Website Live: Solutions
The three most important items on this list are: creating a staging environment, setting up Google Analytics and website monitoring.
Solution #1: Good Hosting
Before anything else, you need good hosting. “Good” is deliberately vague because it really depends on your needs. A $1,500/month hosting account is better than a $10/month one, but probably unnecessary for a personal blog.
Solution #2: Staging Environments
A staging environment starts out as a copy of your live site but lives on its own subdomain. You can modify it any way you wish and is perfect for testing and tweaking. Nothing you do here will impact your live site, it’s a safe sandbox environment, but more on this later.
Solution #3: Google Analytics
Google Analytics needs no introduction. It has been the go-to place for insights about your visitors for years. It certainly has its flaws but is more than adequate for all but the most exceptional cases.
I recommend using it even if you don’t know too much about it. It will gather data in the background, which will become useful when you are ready to get started. In addition to answering the simple questions of “how many visitors do I have” and “where are they coming from?” you can set up advanced goals that can tell you how effective your WordPress website is and where there is room for improvement.
Solution #4: Website Monitoring
Website monitoring will tell you how fast your site is loading, what your speed issues are and what your uptime stats are. It can help you identify problems before they become critical issues and can inform decisions about your hosting solution.
Solution #5: Workflows
Workflows will help you know what’s happening on your site. It can be as simple as a set of rules that determine when comments are moderated, when posts are published and so on. For more involved projects like a webshop you can set up checklists and other rules that must be followed when publishing content.
Finding Good Hosting for WordPress
I’ve been working in the hosting industry for a while now and I’ve had various sites for 12 years – I know my way around hosting. While this is far from a comprehensive article on this subject, I’ll write the nutshell version here.
If you have a WordPress website you take seriously, go with managed WordPress hosting. Also, go with companies that only do managed hosting. They have far more WordPress expertise than companies who do a little of everything.
I would immediately drop WordPress VIP from the list unless you have a spare $20,000+ to spend on hosting monthly. It is an amazing – truly elite – service but unnecessary for all but the top 1% of websites.
WPEngine may be the best-known of the bunch but gets very mediocre results. If I wanted cheap plans I would go with Flywheel or Presidium. If I wanted more expensive plans I’d rather go with Pagely or Kinsta. For mid-rage plans ($100 – $250) I would choose Kinsta or Pressidium.
Note that this is a quick and dirty guide to hosting – you may well find the perfect plan elsewhere, but it’s a good place to get started.
Staging Environments for WordPress
If you choose from the six options above you’ll have access to staging environments (be sure to check your selected plan, Flywheel does not offer staging for its Tiny plan, for example). Here’s how the creation looks at Kinsta:
Once you’ve created your staging environment it will be an exact copy of your live site. You can (and should) test all new plugins here and push code changes to a staging environment before applying it to the live site.
Once you are happy that all is well you should be able to push your changes to your live site. Take care as this changes your live site and you may not be able to undo this action.
Staging environments reduce the risk of your website going down or slowing significantly. They do require the investment of additional time but the payout will be worth it in the long run. Once you get into the habit of this workflow it becomes less and less of a burden.
Always Backup Your WordPress Website
Backups are extremely important because at some point in your site’s life something will go wrong. You may make a fatal mistake, the data center your host uses may burn down, who knows? The mentioned six hosts back up your site at least daily.
Most of them, like Pagely, keep backups off-site, which means that backups are not on the same machine as your actual site. Pagely keeps them on Amazon S3, which means that they aren’t even in the same data center.
Backups will make sure that your site goes back up as quickly as possible when disaster strikes.
Also, if you have a WPMU DEV membership, your account comes with 10GB of free backup cloud storage, which you can upgrade when you need more space. You can choose to automate backups and even save them off-site to Amazon S3, Dropbox and Google Drive.
Google Analytics provides a plethora of information about visitors – their technology, where they go, where they come from, how long they stay, what they do, and so on.
Aside from data available out of the box, you can set up your site to do oh-so-much more. You can figure out how many people are arriving from your email campaign, from a specific social media outlet and more.
You can also set up goals that allow you to track revenue from your products. This opens up a whole new world. You can see underlying patterns like which source provides the most income, the route people take to get to your product, which route produces the most income and the least.
You can then start to optimize your site, removing avenues that generate less money, funnelling visitors to more lucrative paths.
My go-to tool for website monitoring is Pingdom. They offer a free tool that displays speed results but their paid plan is where the muscle is at. Uptime reports, customized alerts, speed reports, scheduled speed tests, load time by country, it’s all there.
Initially you’ll want to do speed tests. You’ll get a full report with great tips on what to improve. Getting in the 92+ range is great, for some large sites you won’t be able to go as high as 99%. Whenever you make a change, be sure to do a quick speed test, just in case!
Once your site speed is satisfactory you should keep an eye on uptime. Pingdom will send you notifications whenever your site goes down (and back up). You can view all this information in the uptime monitoring section and see the cause of each downtime.
I find it useful to look at Real User Monitoring (RUM). Instead of using Pingdom servers to run a test on your site, RUM uses data from actual visitors to compile data. This provides more accurate results and shows load times from various countries. If your user base is primarily non-domestic, this is a great way to optimize to their needs.
If you manage more than simple blog posts, adding content may take considerable effort. You make need to add product details, make sure multiple images are uploaded – conforming to your standards, you may want style guidelines to be enforced.
Many large online magazines require an expert to check each and every article and work with the author to make them even better.
Whatever your needs are, putting them on paper in the form of a checklist is a good idea. You can build them right into the backend or send out a PDF copy to everyone involved.
Checklists also ensure you know who is responsible when something goes awry. This can help further streamline the process, not to mention how useful these documents are when training new staff members.
Each item on the list has a couple of levels of depth we didn’t go into here. For an even better staging workflow, you could incorporate version control like Git. You could use command line tools like WP-CLI for managing WordPress tasks much faster.
There are a number of tools and host-specific options like activity logs, security logs, organization management you could utilize to your advantage.
Whatever you do, keep your main goals in sight: don’t let your site go down, don’t modify your live site directly and gather information for informed decisions.