Let’s face it, WordPress may be meticulously coded and carefully designed, but it is not the simplest thing to learn quickly, especially if you are new to managing a website or blogging in general. After all, WordPress is for writing, right? How are we supposed to know what settings to change or why they are important? Even designers and website specialists who setup clients on WordPress can be happily working away while forgetting essential commandments of the New WordPress Site doctrine.
Most sites that use WordPress use a special theme other than TwentyFifteen, and a handful of plugins. Oftentimes themes include custom post types and page templates to work with, or special features such as the Layers widgets and Customizer enhancements. To complicate things more, WordPress installs with some settings defaults that are not really optimal for the average site setup. Here we will take a look at the most common mistakes you can make with a WordPress site, how to set things right, and how to avoid them in the future.
Installing WordPress in a Sub-folder
If your web host offers a one-click install of WordPress, you are probably safe from this blunder. However, if you are downloading WordPress from the wordpress.org website, things are already tricky if you don’t pay attention.
The zip file you download contains a wordpress folder containing all of the WordPress files. Depending on your unzip program, this folder will either end up where you unzip it unscathed, or inside another folder such as wordpress.4.3.1. The problem with this is that the files inside the wordpress folder belong in your site root, not inside a wordpress folder in the site root an definitely not inside a folder within a folder. If you make the mistake of uploading a folder to your site root instead of its contents, you end up with an empty site root and a URL of http://www.yoursite.com/wordpress/ or http://www.yoursite.com/wordpress/wordpress.4.3.1/ rather than http://www.yoursite.com. This can cause problems with WordPress URLs and lead to broken template relationships or 404 errors.
To avoid these problems, always ensure you are looking at the contents of the wordpress folder on your computer before dragging them into your site root. The following shows a typical FTP upload of WordPress in a Filezilla window, with the contents of my wordpress folder displayed on the right, and my fresh, empty site root displayed on the left. Note that sometimes this site root is called htdocs or www.
If you have already made this mistake, the WordPress Codex provides a step-by-step walkthrough on how to fix sub-directory installs so you don’t have to start over.
Of course, there may be some legitimate cases where you want WordPress in a sub-directory of your site, such as subdomains or blogs on an existing site i.e. http://www.yoursite.com/blog/. In these cases, special steps need to be taken to setup support for WordPress sub-directory intalls on your server. In most cases, it is best to use WordPress Multisite if you need separate WordPress installs on one domain.
Forgetting to Setup Permalinks
Every WordPress install has a Permalinks option located under the Settings menu in your WordPress Admin. This is where you can manage how your URLs look. The majority of blogs and websites out there use a URL structure that is SEO-friendly, meaning they contain the post or page title and oftentimes the date, too. WordPress calls these Pretty Permalinks, but unfortunately defaults to a URL containing only your post or page ID. As stated by Google, if your URL contains relevant words, this provides users and search engines with more information about the page than an ID or oddly named parameter would. Your visitors may be weirded out by a ctyptic url containing odd letters or numbers, as these are often associated with bad sites or phishing links.
Solving this one is easy – simply choose Post Name or Post Date (the most popular) and click Save Changes. Your URLs will be updated automatically, as long as your server supports Permalinks.
Not Using Categories or Tags Correctly
Nothing is worse for your content in the beginning than publishing posts into the black hole that is Uncategorized. This is a default place WordPress puts your posts so the template structure can function, but it is not always compatible with Themes or Widgets that depend on your post being a member of a real category. Categorization is one important way WordPress builds archives of your post content, and is what sets your posts apart from Pages. The other is tags. Where these two things differ is categories organize your content into topics or groups of posts. Tags relate content, regardless of category.
For example, this blog has content divided into News, Tips and Opinions. Posts in any of these categories may talk about common subjects, such as Layers. Rather than have a Layers category, which is far too broad, we tag posts that talk about Layers with the “layers” keyword.
Post categorization also helps search engines target results more accurately. If someone searches for Layers News, Google can provide them with a link to the News category on the blog rather than the main website, thanks to how WordPress builds its Permalinks (remember those?)
Always ensure your posts are in a Category, even if you want to keep it simple with one category, i.e. “Blog.” Tagging is optional, but if you want your posts content to be as searchable as possible, choosing 1-3 keywords based on what your post is talking about will help.
Also, avoid the worst mistake of categorization – never duplicate a category as a tag or vice versa. Both WordPress and Google only need one or the other.
Editing Theme Files
This misstep is common among amateur designers and WordPress Pros who are just starting out and is a huge disservice to the client, theme author and yourself. When you dive into a theme or plugin directly and begin changing or adding code, that code is no longer in line with the original, leaving you with a product that cannot be updated easily or supported by the original author. Most theme updates involve a full reinstall of the files, which means your edits are lost and must be reapplied. While you can attempt to merge changes into your modified files, this often leads to conflicts or missed changes – a sort of Theme Frankenstein that can spiral quickly out of control.
Once you modify a theme, you take ownership of the code. The generally accepted term for this is “forking,” and refers to creating a copy of any GPL licensed code with the intent to change it, evolve it, or take on ownership of its development in the case of abandoned projects. Unfortunately, the majority of theme edits are done ad-hoc on a live server without any version control as the result of poor advice, or an unwillingness to do it the proper way.
You can avoid the problems that result from direct edits a few simple ways:
- Look for a plugin that provides the functionality you need. For example, the ColorKit extension adds additional color customization to any Layers site, reducing the need for Custom CSS to change those elements.
- Create a Child Theme. Not only does this look more professional, a child theme makes it so much easier to manage updates and maintain any custom code. Child Themes are most appropriate when you need to add additional scripting, templates or HTML.
If you are thinking, “Plugin, what is that?” then your mistake is not taking advantage of the thousands of amazing ways you can add functionality to your website. WordPress plugins can solve just about any need or desire, down to showering your home page with animated snowflakes. Free plugins can be found under the Plugins > Add New page of your WordPress Admin – just type in a word or two describing what you need and browse the results.
Be careful though, not all plugins are created equal. Possibly the biggest mistake new WordPress site owners make, after discovering plugins, is installing bad ones, and too many.
Plugins displayed in your search results each have three critical elements, the star rating, the number of days since it was updated, and whether the plugin has been approved as compatible with the current WordPress version. In the below example, we searched for “newsletter” and have several pages of results. In the results displayed first, we have two of the most popular plugins, mailpoet and Newsletter. Both have hundreds of thousands of users, a 5-star rating, were recently updated and are verified compatible with the current version of WordPress. In comparison, ContactUs has less than 1000 users, and appears not to be actively maintained as it is out of date and not verified compatible. Note that while it looks like it has a high star rating, onyl 5 people voted compared to the 2, 126 that voted for mailpoet.
So how do you choose? Click More Details on any plugin to open an overlay window with some additional information, screenshots and FAQs about the plugin so you can make the best decision on which one is right for your site. Things to look for are whether the plugin has any dependency such as another plugin or an account on a 3rd party website, and if the plugin’s options and features fit your needs.
There are several premium or paid plugins out there too, and oftentimes the extra support and updates are well worth the investment. Layers offers an easy way to browse extensions designed especially for the framework under Layers > Marketplace, where you can find several low-cost upgrades for things like WooCommerce Shop customization, extended color options or a wide variety of extra widgets and content types.
Most plugins are designed to provide a single specific feature. It is understandably easy to go a little crazy with the installs. It is important to remember that each plugin adds a little bit of load to your site and database, each of which have a limited amount of memory. Too many plugins will lead to a slow site, a vulnerable site or, most often, a broken site. Aim for as few plugins as possible by finding plugins with combined functionality, or ensure plugins you install are lightweight and compatible with your theme and other plugins you use. Always delete plugins you don’t plan on using to reduce the risk of malware infections.
Roughly 75% of support requests we have ever handled here at Obox could have been solved with an update. WordPress, theme and plugin updates are more likely to contain critical bug fixes, security updates and compatibility changes than they are new features, which make them your number one priority in maintaining your WordPress site.
Thankfully, WordPress will automatically update itself if the update fixes a bug or security concern, but it will prompt you to update to any major version. This is to give you time to ensure your theme and plugins are compatible with the new version so updating does not break your site. For this reason, we recommend updating WordPress only after you have updated your theme and plugins, or tested them to ensure they will continue to work on the new WordPress version. Some web hosts offer an auto-upgrade service that updates WordPress for you, so be sure to check your hosting control panel for the option if you want to control this yourself.
WordPress will always alert you when new updates are available by displaying a little bubble on the Dashboard menu item. Select Updates from the Dashboard menu to check out your update overview. Plugins and themes that need an update are listed at the bottom. You can update them all at once here by checking them off and clicking the button, or you can visit the Plugins page to view more detailed info on each plugin update, or perform them individually.
Premium themes and plugins available outside of wordpress.org, such as those you buy from Themeforest or Codecanyon, may not have automatic updating through these methods. In these cases, check with the author for how to update, or download the updated copy and reinstall.
Layers can be updated automatically with installation of the Layers Updater plugin, which you can download and install free under Layers > Dashboard.
Not Doing BackUps
So many WordPress site owners fail to recognize the importance of backups. Even if your host performs periodic backups of your webspace, those backups won’t help you if your site is infected with malware. On the flip-side, you may diligently backup your post content by exporting the XML file from time to time, but that file won’t restore your theme, widgets or settings if your database becomes corrupted.
In the case of Layers sites, it is doubly important to keep full backups to ensure your page content is preserved in case you do something like delete the theme (which thoroughly deletes itself, unlike some themes which leave all the data in the database). Site data can be backed up in separate chunks, making it easier to manage, such as widget data, post content and images. See How to Backup Content, Widgets and Layouts for advice specific to Layers sites.
Setting up a solid backup plan is a lot easier than you think, and can be done for free. Professional backup and restore services, like VaultPress or ManageWP are available for very cheap monthly rates. If you prefer to use a plugin, check out WPBackitUp or BackupWordPress.
You’re now one step closer to making WordPress Site management a breeze. What other mistakes do you wish people would stop making with WordPress? Share your advice below!