* While this post was originally written in 2013, Alastair did a complete rewrite in 2015 to make sure that the Mirasee Audience has access to up-to-date information!
Imagine that you’re hosting a dinner party where you really need to make an impression.
You’ve been busy rushing around preparing your signature three course meal, setting the table with your good dishes, making sure the lighting is appropriately mellow.
You know your guests are arriving any minute – but you’re good to go – everything is perfect.
As you open the front door to your guests, you happen to glance down and notice that you’re wearing the wrong shoes and your socks don’t match!
Odds are that no one will even notice, but it knocks your confidence right out.
That feeling sucks.
You wanted to welcome your guests confidently; wearing your best to highlight all the hard work you’ve been doing and make the experience as pleasant and memorable as possible.
But you can’t forget about your shoes and socks.
As a website owner, just like a dinner host, there can be an awful lot to keep track of!
And small mistakes – even ones that most other people don’t notice, can have a bad impact on you and the overall impression that you make.
You wouldn’t want to greet your guests in bad shoes and socks – and your WordPress blog shouldn’t greet your readers without a clean appearance and smooth functionality – on the front end OR the backend. But what do you need in order to know you’ve got it all under control?
Here are some tips and lists to help you keep your WordPress website running smoothly, like a boss, so you can be free to focus on what you’re really great at – serving your customers…
Five Essentials Your Website Must Get Right
There are some general points that apply to all websites, WordPress and otherwise. These are the kinds of things you need to have in order to be taken seriously at all – and you’ve probably got all of them down pat – so I’ll just go over them quickly before getting into the cool plugins and other helpful stuff.
- Does your site have a professional appearance, and work in a variety of different browsers?
Some people just know, but if you’re not sure, get some other opinions.
- Does your site have a professional appearance on mobile and other devices like tablets?
I strongly recommend using a responsive design – there are some arguments both for and against this approach, but the positives outweigh the negatives and responsive design is fast becoming a new standard for websites. With Google’s latest changes it’s essential. Test your site for mobile-friendliness here.
- Does your Home page have a clear purpose and call-to-action?
Does your home page ask the visitor to Sign Up, or Buy Now, or Find Out More, in a clear unambiguous manner? If you’re not sure, start out by having them sign up to your email list and figure out your best call-to-action.
- Do you have an informative and interesting About Us page?
After the homepage, the About Us page is typically the most visited page on a website, so make yours professional and engaging.
- Do you have a Blog, and is it updated regularly with content relevant to your customers?
If it’s infrequently updated, first consider removing the dates from the posts (here’s a quick tutorial on how to do that!), and next start thinking about blogging more frequently!
A Single Change That Can Get You 40% More Visitors
Is your site loading quickly enough? How long do visitors need to wait for typical pages to load? The faster the better; even minor changes can add up!
It’s good for your SEO, and better for your visitors – stats show that 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load, and a 1 second delay can result in a 7% drop in conversions!
Slow load times can be caused by too many (or too large) images on a page, bad web hosting, bad coding, or even too many plugins. Compressing and resizing your images with kraken.io or webresizer is a great start. If you suspect a plugin is slowing your site, see the section below!
Do You Have Nice URLs (aka Permalinks)?
Does your blog exist at www.example.com/blog and your about us page at www.example.com/about-us, or are you stuck with a default www.example.com/?p=1431 in the address bar?
If so, set your permalinks – I recommend “Post name only“. (Advanced: if you set a custom structure of /blog/%postname% you can have your blog posts appearing off www.example.com/blog, while your regular pages appear off www.example.com/ – it’s a bit of a hack but it’s worked for years).
The Plugins You Absolutely Want to be Using
I’m often asked “how many is too many plugins”?
The answer is simple: one bad plugin is too many!
The secret to using a lot of plugins for your business WordPress site is to add them one at a time, and get familiar with them and how your website and hosting react.
As a rule of thumb, I like to keep it under 20 active plugins, even down as low as 3-4 when possible. (Advanced: check your plugin performance with Plugin Performance Profiler).
For your security, always get plugins from the WordPress.org plugins website unless it’s a premium plugin you’ve bought from the creators – using the plugin search directly from your WordPress install automatically does this.
Here are the plugin categories I consider “essential”, and some options for each one.
It’s nice to have a plugin that takes care of the small SEO details that can be tricky. Many themes claim to be SEO-friendly, but very few theme designers have the depth of SEO knowledge that the top SEO plugin creators have, so I always use a plugin. I recommend Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin, and another good alternative is All-in-One SEO plugin.
I like to offer an easy way for site visitors to send me a message without forcing them to open an email client or risking my email to spambots. I love Contact Form 7, which has a really simple contact form out-of-the-box, but also gives you the option to create detailed questionnaires to get all those important details from prospects. (Advanced: Really Simple CAPTCHA adds CAPTCHA functionality).
All bloggers know the pain of dealing with spam comments – the installed-by-default Akismet is a great solution. It’s no longer free for commercial use, so you can also consider a simple but effective alternative like Growmap Anti Spambot Plugin, or even a full blown commenting solution like LiveFyre (which I prefer to Disqus because LiveFyre writes the comments to your database).
My first tip on caching is that it’s better to have high quality hosting with no caching plugin (i.e. a professionally setup VPS) than low quality hosting and a caching plugin.
But many people are starting out on shared hosting so a caching plugin can help increase site performance. Here’s what I recommend to those folks: the two big guns of the caching plugin arena are W3 Total Cache, and WP Super Cache. Both are good, and I’d recommend both equally.
I’ll also add that I’ve had difficulty using caching plugins with membership sites and any kind of protected content – in those situations it’s far more important to have good hosting.
Advanced tip: if you’re running your own server (e.g. VPS) then nginx with batcache can provide extremely fast WordPress performance as it cuts out MySQL which is normally the bottleneck in speed terms. You can sometimes get even speed more if you use HHVM rather than PHP.
A lot of people use WordPress plugins for backup so I’ll mention that here. I recommend that a WordPress plugin is not your only method of backup, because if something goes wrong with WordPress, your site doesn’t get backed up!
Personally, I use a service called CodeGuard which backs up all of my website files and databases every day, and can even email me a list of changed files.
If you do want to use a WordPress plugin, ensure that it backs up both parts of your site – the files and database – on a scheduled basis, and (very important) you also need to ensure it doesn’t fill up your entire hosting disk quota within a week or two. To avoid this, be sure that it deletes older backups automatically!
There are a few different options available; my favorite options are BackWPup and BackUpWordPress – just remember to check the schedule and keep an eye on disk usage! (Advanced: WordPress Backup to Dropbox needs a little more setup, but you get offsite backup, which is really nice.)
Other Useful Plugins
I really like the following plugins, which either provide a better experience to the visitor, or make life easier for the site owner:
This plugin emails you when it finds broken links (note: this is a server intensive plugin, so if you find your site running a bit slower, consider switching it off again).
This plugin allows visitors get email updates about replies to their comments.
This plugin sends thank you email to commenters at a scheduled time period after their comment.
This plugin easily embed tweets in your posts and pages by posting the tweet URL on a line by itself.
This plugin creates a list of relevant posts at the bottom of the current one.
This plugin provides some nice options for RSS feed management.
This plugin displays code with nice formatting, which is great for geeks like me.
How to Avoid Having Your Website Hacked (90% of Site Owners Don’t Do This)
This one is simple: update your WordPress, Plugins and Themes regularly. Go ahead and put a weekly item in your calendar to log in and click the update button.
Some people are wary of breaking their site with an update. However, it’s almost always better to update when you see the update icon than not to update.
Let me say that again: it is almost always better to update when you see the update icon.
The only exceptions are if you know for sure something on your site is incompatible and will break, or if your web developer told you specifically not to update (and if they did tell you that, ask them why and get a second opinion on it)!
I see WordPress sites that haven’t been updated in years – it’s hugely insecure; in fact you’re almost guaranteed to get your website hacked. It also means you’re missing out on new features. So keep WordPress updated regularly.
Advanced tip: Use a test site in parallel with your live site and test changes there first. Ideally you should have a staging or test site that you’re running in parallel to your “live” site, with all the same plugins and themes, and you test the update there first. Most web developers will set this up as part of a web design project so ask them to leave it in place for you to use when they’re finished with the project.
If you don’t have one, you can create it yourself. Here’s a quick overview: create a subdomain called “dev” in your hosting control panel, install WordPress on it, export your posts and pages with Tools – Export, Import on the new WordPress site, and install the same theme and plugins.
Set “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” to on in the Settings-Reading option screen on the dev site (but not the live site). You can now test plugins and updates on your dev site before the live site.
Advanced tip: I like to follow 4-5 days behind on major updates to avoid bugs often encountered by early adopters, so if I see WordPress 5.0 released, then I’d hang on for a few days to see if a v5.0.1 was forthcoming (and if it is, I’d update to that immediately).
Always update Plugins when there’s a new version available.
Inactive plugins can still be a security risk so make sure to update them if you have any that you haven’t removed (which I recommend doing).
Update the built-in themes (TwentyFourteen, etc) when available unless you have customized them and you are not sure whether or not you are using a child theme (you generally should always be using a child theme).
Check with your developer or local WordPress expert if you’re not sure.
3 Simple Ways to Fix Problems Yourself (and Avoid Calling In an Expensive Web Developer)
If you do run into trouble after updating WordPress, here’s how to troubleshoot some common issues.
First, check if it’s the theme
- Switch to a different theme (e.g. TwentyFourteen) temporarily to see if your theme is the problem (don’t worry, your customizations and settings will be saved for when you switch back to your regular theme).
- If your site works with the new theme, then your theme is broken somehow – time to talk to the theme author or a WordPress expert. If the site doesn’t work, move on to the next step.
Next, debug your plugins
- Disable all your plugins and see if that solves the problem.
- If it does, start re-enabling them one-by-one.
- When you encounter the problem again – then the last one you switched on is the culprit.
- Look for a fix on the plugin forum, or delete and replace it with another.
If you’re still getting problems after changing to a default theme and disabling all your plugins then it’s time to contact your hosting company and ask if there are other issues that could be causing the problem.
Getting a “White screen of death” where you can’t log in?
If you can’t access the WordPress admin dashboard and instead you see a blank white screen, try following the solution in this video.
WordPress is an incredibly powerful and flexible system that offers almost infinite possibilities. If you follow these tips you’ll be using it like an expert in no time at all!
Agree, disagree, or want to share an awesome plugin? Please let me know your tips for getting the most out of WordPress for your business via the comments below!