About four years ago my web design company decided to use WordPress as our go-to content management system for new websites.   We had been finding over time that more and more clients, justifiably so, wanted to update their own website and we needed a mechanism to allow them to do just that.

We specialized in small to mid-sized companies so budget was a concern.  How can we provide a robust system that was both realizable and cheap?

Even though my clients would stress ease of use and price, a primary concern of mine was how easy it would be to teach someone to use it.  It had to be easy to navigate and it had to be easy to update information and it should not use any lingo that could confuse a novice user.   I wanted to write a users guide that people could easily understand.

After testing what I swear was close to a hundred, it came down to two systems: MODx and WordPress.

I love MODx.  A matter a fact I still use it today and I highly recommend it to site developers looking for something a little more robust than a typical blog platform or simple CMS.   But it is not the easiest software package to teach.  It contains ‘snippets’ and ‘chunks’ and ‘resources’ and other elements that wouldn’t be easy to grasp by the novice user.  Website owners could not understand why PHP code could only go in a snippet and why HTML code had to go in chucks.  It ended up perfect for me, but not for many of my clients.

We ended up with WordPress as the CMS of choice.  It was becoming more popular at the time, it had a wealth of plugins and it was easy to use.  Perfect.

Other than being open-source (a term many clients still do not understand), it’s main selling points include:

  • that it can be downloaded and installed quickly;
  • that it has a very large repository of plugins;
  • that a large number of free or cheap themes;
  • that it has a large developer community where support can be found fairly easily; and
  • that it is very easy to understand and to use.

As time went on the complexities of the WordPress websites grew.  Sites were getting bigger and the functionality needs were growing.  Many sites were using 10, 20, sometimes even 30+ plugins.

It was becoming evident that a management plan was needed to deal specifically for these sites.


Why a management plan?

WordPress websites commonly need four elements:

  1. The initial WordPress installation;
  2. A theme to control the site’s look, navigation and usability;
  3. Plugins to add addition functionality; and
  4. Your content.

The WordPress software package can be downloaded at the WordPress website.  A theme can be created from scratch, downloaded for free from the WordPress site or bought from a reputable theme developer such as Themeforest, Woothemes or StudioPress.

Plugins are similar.  Some are free through the repository at the WordPress site, or you can buy premium plugins that usually have more features.

If you buy a theme and install it, and then put in a couple of plugins here and there, you have just come to rely on outside sources for three of the four elements listed above.   The reliability of your website, and therefore your online reputation, is now in the hands of people you don’t really know.

Having the ability to even use external plugins and themes is a major selling point for WordPress so the fact you are using them is not an issue.  The issue arises when they get uncontrollable.

Every now and again WordPress issues an update to their software.  Sometimes it’s a minor upgrade to fix a couple of bugs and sometimes it’s a major upgrade that may have lasting effects on other components of the site, such as the plugins and themes.  Sometimes a plugin will not work when the WordPress installation is upgraded, then you have to wait for the plugin upgrade, if it comes at all.

The same can be said with themes.  All of a sudden you start to get scared to do upgrades to anything and you have just lost control of the management of your site.

This is why it is important to have a management plan in place.


What should be in your plan?

Here are seven handy tips to incorporate into a healthy management plan for a WordPress site:

  • Make a list of every change you make to a file located outside the main theme’s directory.  These may include small changes to core WordPress files or a tweak or two to a plugin file.  It should be rare that you need to make such changes, but occasionally you do.  When you update WordPress or a plugin you want to make sure these changes you have made stay intact and are not overwritten.  By creating a list that includes the file name that was changed, and the coding change that was done, you can go back and make sure it wasn’t affected by an upgrade.
  • If you use a theme that you have purchased or downloaded for free from the WordPress site, make that same list as above for all changes to it’s files.  These changes may include style sheet additions, adding hooks to the functions.php file or changing widget areas.  This list should include all changes that would be overwritten when an update to the theme is installed.I use a plugin called Custom Dashboard Help to maintain this list.  It is a simple plugin that allows you to add text to the dashboard of the Administration section.  In it, I just list the files I’ve changed and what the changes are.  By maintaining it on the Dashboard any administrator will be able to see what has been changed.
  • Even if you do have a complete list of all the changes you have made to theme and plugin files, it can still be a nerve-racking experience to hit the ‘update automatically’ button.  If you have quite a few plugins, and if you have the resources, I would recommend cloning the site in a sub-domain of the account.  You can then do theme, plugin and WordPress updates to the cloned site first to see that everything went smoothly and then perform updates on the live site after testing.
  • Keep a close eye on plugin updates and attend to them as soon as possible.  Do some research on the plugin developer’s website if it appears to be a big upgrade and make sure that any update will not affect the site’s theme or the performance of other plugins.By doing them as soon as you notice them, you accomplish two things: you don’t get behind and have to perform an upgrade over multiple versions (e.g. going from 2.0.3 to 2.0.8), and you keep the number of plugin updates manageable.   This is extremely helpful if you have more than 10 plugins in use.
  • Keep another close eye on theme updates and perform them as soon as possible.  I have found that theme updates may require a bit more research than plugin updates so make sure you have done your homework before doing it.  I prefer to do a theme update only after all plugins are updated.
  • The same advise goes for WordPress updates – keep an eye on them and perform them as soon as they are ready.  Beware that some of them are major upgrades and may have lasting effects on your site.  Install a new version of WordPress only after updating your plugins and themes first, but be aware that if the upgrade is significant, a plugin may not work anymore.  That plugin would then, in turn, need a new update.
  • Finally, from a management perspective, try to keep the number of people performing these updates to a minimum.  If it is a small site, I’m sure one person can handle the task, but if a few people are assigned the task of updating a site, make sure those people are in constant communication.

Developing a management plan for a WordPress is a very good idea, especially if you are running a large site with quite a few plugins and an external theme.  Each plan would obviously be different for each site, but I hope some of these recommendations will help you run the process smoother.

About the Author

Other than being a digital management specialist with expertise in web project management, online audits and proposal evaluations, Glenn loves a well-pitched baseball game, a perfectly mixed double-double and a certain, usually sweat-soaked, rock star.

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