Re-imaging WordPress Support

I’ve worked as a web developer for over 20 years. A lot has changed in that time. Ever since we abandoned static websites in favour of content management systems (ie. websites whose content is stored in a database and dynamically generated from disparate pieces of content), the complexity of websites has grown greatly. This means that websites need to be maintained, and although some people have the time, the skills and the proclivity to do this themselves, most organisations do not. Working with different small businesses, I have identified a real need for an ongoing support relationship with a developer. This is more than just the classic webmaster role. This is an experienced web developer who is able to stay familiar with your site, so that they can respond quickly in times of crisis and help guide the future development of your website infrastructure.

To explain how I arrived at this idea, let me explain how the evolution of websites created a much greater demand on the maintenance. Although there are many great hosting environments, designed for a specific content management systems, and there are services that support support those systems, there is still a need for someone with a deep understanding of the environment, to watch over, tweak, upgrade and generally care about the site. For most mid-sized companies, there is someone in-house to play this role. Unfortunately, for most small businesses, this role does not exist. This means that when something goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong.

I am primarily a WordPress Developer. I really like WordPress and I think for most small businesses, it provides the kind of infrastructure they need. However, I would add that I am often integrating other systems into WordPress, so although WordPress remains my dominant CMS, I do work with other environments.

When considering what has changed for a small business running a WordPress site, I have keep track of a few things that illustrate how complex things have become.

  • Major revisions of WordPress require manual installation. This can often lead to conflicts with existing plugins which can break your site before being resolved.
  • Plugins have frequent updates. Because many are security updates, they should be applied immediately.
  • Some plugins (like Woocommerce) require manual updating of templates that have been customised for your site.
  • Real-time backups can provide comfort to enable applying any and all updates. A failed can leave your site “under maintenance“.
  • Malware in WordPress has increased exponentially. Keeping plugins patched can save your site from becoming compromised.
  • Mobile-friendly websites are essential today, and s adjusting themes to make them ready for mobile is key.
  • Performance in WordPress needs to be constantly evaluated, because the database grows and the plugins and how they are rendered changes.
  • It is generally recommended that all sites be served over HTTPS for security reasons.

The technology supporting WordPress is changing as well. This includes the whole hosting environment. A lot of hosting environments will recommend using Nginx over Apache, for speed improvements. Many WordPress plugins have switched to a new database format (Innodb versus MyISAM). PHP, the scripting language running WordPress, keeps evolving and now we are seeing some plugins that simply do not work as well on older versions of PHP (v5.6 version v7.1). Most of these can be handled by moving to a professional WordPress hosting environment like Kinsta, WP Engine, Pressidium. But keeping up on these changes is really what has changed.

I work almost exclusively with WordPress, but even I find it difficult to keep up on all of the changes. Lately, many of my clients have been using Woocommerce, which means I am much more familiar with that ecosystem, however there is always new things to learn: new potential plugins, new ways to configure or think about using your Woocommerce site. I often play the role of recommending changes to the client, because they are too involved in their day-to-day business to stay up on this.

I have watched most sites begin to incorporate social media into their site, but how that happens remains a unique process for each business. I have seen many add mailing lists (like MailChimp), e-commerce (Woocommerce), mail relays (Mailgun), SSL certificates for better security and finally caching for performance. WordPress is an amazing system, but the one major complaint I always here is that WordPress is slow. It doesn’t have to be, provided you are willing to install caching plugins (like WP Total Cache and Autoptimize), to use CDNs like Cloudflare, to optimise images (EWWW Image Optimizer). There are so many small steps that can be made that will greatly improve your site, but planning to take those steps can sometimes be too complicated to set in motion.

Throughout all of these changes, I have come to believe that small businesses, running WordPress, need to hire the equivalent of an in-house web developer. For many small businesses, this is not feasible. Nevertheless, they need someone on-hand to help maintain the site, upgrade infrastructure and software, research and plan changes, and generally guide strategy. This role does not replace existing staff. Your content management system still needs staff who can actively maintain the content, but they also need a consultant who can guide some of those changes. They can upgrade plugins, but they also need to know when a plugin is no longer working as well as it should be, or when a plugin is playing the same role as another plugin. In the end, having a relationship with a WordPress developer can help to make your site function the way you hoped it would. Rather than be frustrated that your website isn’t doing what you want it to do, hire a consultant, not just to come in and fix what is broken. Instead, hire a consultant to stick around and care about your site.