Why WordPress websites break (and what can you do about it)

Why WordPress Websites Break

You may not realise it at first, but your website is part of a delicate stack of hardware and software which all needs to play together nicely to avoid issues. Furthermore, this stack is constantly evolving – new versions of software come out all the time which means that this stack is changing constantly. And a breaking point can be reached unless everything is kept in tip-top condition.

Note: if you are a little confused over the terms presented here, you may first like to read ‘A simple guide to DNS, domains, email, & hosting‘.

Your host

Your host is where your website is located.

Website hosts have hardware and internet connectivity to maintain; if these have any issues, that could lead to an outage on your website.

Accidents can happen to any hosting company so there are no guarantees – however, a quality hosting company will have solid procedures in place to maintain the health of their hardware & network, plus a solid procedure for keeping customers informed of any such issues. E.g. we tend to use WordPress specific hosting companies such as FlyWheel, WPengine, or other specialist hosting companies such as CloudWays.

If you’ve had a lot of issues with your host, perhaps consider migrating away.

PHP Version

WordPress is not a programming language, it is a ‘framework‘ built on top of an existing programming language: that language is PHP. And PHP, like all other forms of software, improves and evolves all the time, with new versions being released. Some updates fix security issues, some larger updates introducing new concepts which frameworks that use PHP (like WordPress) can take advantage of.

Minor updates to PHP should not normally cause you website issues; however, major releases can. In a major release older features can be deprecated which can break older plugins that use those features – for this reason, you should test your website against the new PHP version first.

The good news is that decent hosting companies make this easier for you e.g. you should be able to create a test environment and test which version of PHP you wish your WordPress installation to run against (e.g. this is WPEngine’s documentation on the subject, and here is CloudWay’s take on it).

Domain Expiry

If you accidentally let your domain name expire then your website will vanish and your email will stop working – yes, it’s that drastic! This is one of the reasons we use a company like 123-REG for my domain names as they can automatically renew key domains for us (& our clients).

The registrar of your domain name should be able to help if you act quickly in such a scenario – however, prevention is better than cure so please don’t forget to renew your domain names!

DNS changes

As mentioned in the previous article that explained the difference between hosting/DNS/domain names etc – DNS is like a signal box which explains to the Internet things like “who hosts my website?” and “who handles my email?“.

Mistakes made when updating DNS records that can easily cause outages. Or sometimes there can be longstanding mistakes in how then DNS is configured which eventually come to the surface.

If in doubt speak to who hosts your DNS records or your technical support.

Nameserver Issues

This is actually related to DNS. Your ‘nameservers‘ are provided by the DNS service and infrastructure which answers the questions mentioned in the previous point. And, like with all infrastructure providers, there is good quality and poor quality alternatives out there.

For DNS infrastructure, we typically use the CloudFlare service to host our (and our client’s) DNS records. Even if you chose the free account, you’ll have an excellent, robust DNS & Nameserver service.

DDOS

DDOS stands for ‘Distributed Denial of Service (Attack)‘. This is when some person or group decides to cause trouble on the internet.

The internet works by constantly sending packets of information back and forth – think of it like motorway traffic.

The underlying equipment which routes these packets of information around the Internet can be accidentally configured incorrectly which can cause traffic jams – this does happen, and can take a while to sort out.

Also, skilled people and entities can flood random traffic to weak spots on the internet which cause issues for everyone else. Such attacks don’t typically last long and are typically handled and resolved without you having to do anything. However, they can cause issues with people accessing your website.

Services like CloudFlare (mention previously) are typically well placed to help mitigate against DDOS attacks (here is what CloudFlare say on the matter).

WordPress Core

As we mentioned above, WordPress is not a programming language – it is a framework. And it is constantly evolving – fixing security issues, deprecating old code, adding new facilities etc.

WordPress has a roadmap of upcoming changes, so that you (and plugin/theme authors) are aware of what is coming down the road.

Unless your website is old and brittle, small changes to WordPress should not ‘break’ it. However, major updates to (such as the recent WordPress 5.5) can and, if you are risk-averse, you can test your installation against it in a private environment.

If your host is decent, your website is healthy, your plugins/themes are good quality and kept up to date, WordPress Core updates should not normally cause you issues.

WordPress Theme/plugins

Following on from the above – you do need to keep an eye on all the plugins you have installed and the theme you are using.

For starters you are best off removing anything you don’t need (sometimes people install a plugin to test it, and then leave it there); the fewer plugins on your site, the less that can go wrong.

A plugin audit can also reveal if any of your plugins are not supported or not compatible with the latest WordPress version – you want to be aware of such situations as this will eventually cause issue son your site. Decent plugin authors will keep their plugins up to date so if you have something which is out of date, there may well be an alternative you can use.

Adding new plugins

We see issues on sites where users add plugins which are either poor quality or which have conflict issues with existing plugins – the result here can be minor oddities on your website all the way up to a complete outage.

Ideally, you want to speak to your technical partner before installing a plugin because they may have some experience of it, or maybe able to suggest alternatives.

A separate test environment is an ideal place for you to test new plugins etc.

User error

Websites & WordPress is ultimately software – and if something is deleted, things can go wrong. We have seen issues where key content is accidentally deleted, or WordPress settings have been accidentally changed which then have drastic consequences.

Always tread carefully with WordPress settings – for our managed sites, we typically shield clients away from admin settings so that mistakes can’t accidentally be made.

Another user error we see (especially on older sites) is where a ‘template’ is changed for a page – this can cause issues on the front end (i.e. the public aspect) of your website.

Hacking

As mentioned in a previous article, hacking does occur and it can do anything from disrupting then website, slow it down, or completely take it offline.

If you maintain a healthy WordPress website, then you minimise the risk of hacking.

When a hack is discovered, the website needs to be reset to a previous known, safe state to get it back online. You then want to see why the hack occurred, and what extra steps can be put in place to help mitigate in future (this could involve the use of a security plugin¬†or the use of CloudFlare’s Web Application Firewall).

Browser Changes

Web browsers like Google Chrome are the software applications that interpret web page files and then display them nicely on our laptops, computers, and mobile phones.

Like any software, web browser applications evolve, embracing new standards and techniques. For instance, at one point Google Chrome began flagging security issues of non SSL websites; if your website was already HTTPS/SSL, you were fine.

Again, if you keep your website healthy, you should not have any issues here but this does go to show that the web browser software is yet another facet to the ever-changing environment within which your website exists.

What can you do about it?

We’ve already touched on this at various points above but you want to:

  • Keep your website WordPress version (+plugins etc) up to date
  • Use a quality hosting company
  • Be careful when making changes
  • Use a test environment for testing new plugins/changes etc
  • Have a solid backup and recovery strategy (again, good hosts should help with this – but check!)
  • Use an independent website monitoring service like Uptime Robot.
  • Activity Logging – use a plugin like Stream to keep a record of every change on your website.

Hope that helps!

If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions – feel free to join #TheWPshow – which is our free community for businesses who run WordPress over on Facebook (there is also a live event every two weeks).

 

Joel

p.s. If you think your website is down, it is typically worth checking if it is down for everyone as this can isolate whether the issue is local to you.

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