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Website maintenance for WordPress

Gone are the days when you would set up your web pages and you would be done for the next 10 years or so. In today’s world, most websites require some sort of maintenance work and that is especially true for WordPress.

Why is maintenance important?

The number one reason is security. Your site is not alone. It exists in an ecosystem and it is connected with many other systems for it to work and do its job. All of this is in a continuous state of change. Change means that potentially new software problems are introduced that could affect your site. This change also means that new security exploits are discovered that could make your site vulnerable.

Unless you are a security expert and keeping on top of web security issues is your job, it is a daunting task to keep up with all this change. I get it. But that is no reason to just give up on it entirely.

At the very least keep your website components updated (core and plugins) and have good backups in place [link to backups].

The second reason is to continue to be relevant. As the services and business around you evolve, your website needs to evolve to keep up or even to lead the way. So maintenance, in this case, can go from simple website updates to constant incremental improvements so that your users’ experience gets better and better. The most common issue here is that integration points with other services change and without a maintenance plan in place, your site would just stop working at some point.

The third reason is to make sure your website is still functioning properly. You don’t want to hear from your customers that your store is not working. How many sales did you lose before someone took the time to contact you? You don’t want to wait months to discover your most valuable page is broken and so Google dropped it from the search index. The solution here is to have a test plan in place. Once a week you could check your home page, your purchase process, and the signup process and make sure they work. For bigger businesses, an automated test plan may be a better solution.

The Cost of Website maintenance

There is a cost for maintenance. That is time if you need to do it yourself, or money, if you need to hire someone to do it for you.

Instead of thinking just in terms of costs and maybe decide not to do it, ask yourself how much would it cost you in the long run *not* to maintain your website. In that sense, maintenance is a form of insurance that you pay for your peace of mind. It can also be an investment that you make in your business growth.

How to do it?

At the most basic level, you need to keep your software updated. For WordPress, that means updating to the latest stable version, and also updating your plugins. It also means that you delete (not just deactivate) old plugins that you no longer use.

A more intermediate level would also include some database operations to keep lean, optimized and fast.

For more advanced users you may have to hire someone to do this for you constantly: monitor the uptime, make sure that the core business processes are still functioning, check the integration points and update the software as required, optimize for performance and so on.

The Take-Away

Don’t ignore maintenance. When you build a new website make sure you include a budget for it and that you also discuss it with your developer. And if you already have a website, you should also have a maintenance plan in place.

Do you have any “lessons learned” the hard way? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Facebook ads? Love them or hate them?

Let me start by saying that I am not a big fan of ads in general or social media for that matter. In fact, I used to dislike the word “marketing” altogether. It seemed that marketing would be something that only con-artists would do to get a sale :).

But that was because of all of my bad experiences with ads and marketing in the past. However, it turns out that there are good ads and good marketing!

Here is a definition of marketing that I like (probably by Seth Godin):

“Marketing is generously solving other people’s problems”.

So marketing in this sense is serving not only selling.

And out of this definition follows a good ad. A good ad is one that is more of a training than a sales pitch. It adds value to your life just because you paid attention to it. You have learned something and if you are ready and willing to go deeper, then yes, you can buy the product, service or training.

I cannot say that I am an expert with Facebook ads, but I have run ad campaigns on Facebook for a couple of years so I have learned a thing or two.

What I like best about them is that you can really focus on your target audience. That is very useful when you are looking to reach people who are interested in what you have to share.

The next thing I like is the format. At least on Facebook, it feels organic and if crafted correctly it looks like a regular post and not like an ad.

Next is the way you can control your budgets so you have a clear picture of your spending.

There is one thing that I don’t like, however. That is tracking the results.

Maybe I am still doing something wrong, and I still have to fine tune my processes, but I have not yet figured out a reliable way to determine which ad is performing better, especially when it comes to converting into sales.

The setup I have worked most with is a WordPress site with a WooCommerce store. On top of that, I have used the “Pixel Your Site” plugin to integrate all of it with Facebook.

If you know of a good resource about conversion tracking with the Facebook pixel, drop a link in the comments below!

Why use Facebook ads?

After testing this for some time, it is clear to me that Facebook ads are a good way to reach new people, or just to send reminders to your current audience. Ideally, new prospects would find you through word of mouth. What you have to say is so remarkable that it has to be shared with other people! But when that does not happen, you can test out ads and look for a new audience. (I am assuming of course that what you have to say or offer is indeed really good, but you did not find the right audience yet).

WordPress and the Email Problem

Have you ever had a WordPress site and your outgoing email was just getting sucked into some kind of black hole, never to be seen again?

I have discovered through experience that this is very common. And the problem is not with WordPress, it is actually with your hosting provider.

The only reason WordPress seems to be the most affected it is because it is so widely supported by hosting environments and that it is free. And not all of the hosting providers do a good job with delivering your email.

When your website is using what is called a “shared plan”, this means you share the server resources with other websites as well. And those websites may not be as friendly and ethical as you are. In fact, because it is free and so easy to use, there are many people who abuse the email feature of WordPress to send spam.

The easiest solution for the hosting providers, in this case, is to just block the outgoing email capability for everyone, including you!

This does not only affect shared plan users.

After 10 years or running an online business, and keeping an email quality score of 9+ out of 10, our email got suddenly dropped. We had a dedicated server, so we were not sharing our IP with anyone else. And we only found out of this problem because of our customers complaining about not getting their orders delivered. Yaiks!

Contacting support did not help. There was just a general reply that all outgoing email was now routed through a different grid and they were very strict in their rules. The problem was that everyone was treated the same: spammer or genuine business! And of course, the common rules were those applied to spammers. The good history and reputation of our business did not matter anymore.

Complaining did not help so I had to look for

Alternative solutions

There are two that I found:

1) Move to a different hosting that knows how to manage outgoing email well. At the moment of writing, the only one I can recommend is SiteGround.

2) Buy an outgoing email service.

I will focus on the second one because there are some mistakes I made and lessons that I learned.

Since we were used to having free outgoing email with our server, it did not make sense to me to get a paid service. So I just looked for companies who offered free email delivery if you stayed under a certain quota.

This plan backfired big time. Most of our email was sent all right, but it was going straight into the spam folder of most of our customers.

Out of the Spam Folder

The problem was that the free plan was again shared with other people who were in fact spammers.

It was time to do the math and it became obvious that we were losing a lot of customers because we could not communicate with them any longer. At this point paying for a high-quality outgoing email service began to make much more sense. Once I took the leap I had no regrets. The kind of tools you get with a paid service, and most importantly the deliverability, generated more than enough customers to cover the costs.

For an online business where it is important to stay in touch with your audience, it makes sense to have a paid email solution.

I have used SendGrid in the past and I was very happy with them. But I have moved to MailChimp because of their better automation and better integration with WordPress.

Some Technical Details

Correctly setting up outgoing email involves some technical details about DNS, MX records, DKIM, SPF and others. These are beyond the scope of this article, but if you need some guidance ask me in the comments section.

What is Value Based Pricing and Why should your business care?

If you hire me to do a website for you and it takes me 40 hours to do it, would you pay me $6,000 dollars? What if it takes me 20 hours? Should I charge only $3,000 because it takes less time and effort?

I used to think that indeed, if something takes less time to do, then I should charge less.

But there is a problem with this approach. Charging for time punishes me for being good!

As I have built many websites, I can work really fast, I have a lot of prebuilt components that I know how to integrate, and I can foresee and prevent a ton of problems. This means that I can produce a quality site much faster than a couple of years ago. But because I put less time into it I get less money for much better work. The better are more efficient I get, the less money I make.

Because of this conflict, there is always a counter pressure that says: “don’t work fast, don’t be efficient… because the slower you work the more you can charge the client”. When I charge for time-spent there is no incentive for me to deliver high-quality work fast, other than my personal integrity.

An alternative way is to do “value based pricing”.

This means that you should charge what is worth to the client, regardless of how much time or effort you put into it.

This may sound unfair to you. I know that was my first reaction! Just because I have more money to spend this means I should be charged more? That sounds like a rip off!

So let’s look at an example.

You have realized that you have more mobile users on your website than you used to. But your website is not mobile friendly! This means you are potentially losing a lot of customers.

After crunching the numbers you realize that if you got 10% of the mobile users to buy from you, you would double your annual revenue from say $200k per year to $400k. So that is an increase of $200k per year.

Do you think is fair to spend $20k to get that increase in revenue? That is 10%. I think it is fair. And there are people willing to spend 50% to get that increase because they will continue to generate the new revenue year after year.

So the question should not be how much does it cost, but rather how valuable is this to me and how much of that value am I willing to spend to get it? 10%, 50%, 80%?

Why would you spend 50% and not 10%? The answer is that spending more reduces the risk of failure. You know the saying “don’t spend a lot of effort to solve a small problem and don’t spend little effort to solve a big problem”.

Why is value based pricing important to your business?

The short answer is that it gets you to think on how you can add value, instead of how you can cut costs. There is no limit on how much value you can add, but you can only cut costs so much before there are no more ways to cut.

And when you think about value, instead of cost, you get clarity.

Here is what I mean. When a client wants to hire me to do something I try to work with them to determine the value of what it is they are trying to do. And in some cases, they realize that they were focusing on the wrong thing. They were willing to spend money on a change that did not actually add any value to their customers.

Thinking about value first made that clear and allowed them to make better decisions on how to serve their clients!

Credits

This post was inspired by Chris Do from TheFutur. Thank you, Chris!

Custom Web Application versus WordPress

Have you ever had this problem of wanting to create a specialized service for your clients and not being able to implement your vision because of the limitations of your website?

Have you ever wished your website was more flexible and more customizable so you can easily differentiate from your competitors?

Let us explore together a way of thinking about this.

When you hire someone to build your website to deliver your products and services, you may be faced with the decision of building on top of a standard WordPress install or creating something totally custom.

So how do you decide what to choose?

To discover the answer you need to consider a few factors:

  1. What are your business goals
  1. How will you manage your site
  1. How will you update your site
  1. How fast do you need to be ready to go live

If your business goal is to have an online presence via a blog, a newsletter and a store then it may make sense to go with something standard like a WordPress based website.

WordPress was built for blogging. It is a very popular choice, so it has a big community developing plugins and extensions that will allow you to have an online store and a newsletter subscription very quickly.

A big advantage to using WordPress is the ability to apply automatic updates and the user-friendly administrative dashboard. With very little training you can learn to manage your own website and apply the updates yourself.

Another big advantage is the large range of templates and themes that you can use to quickly customize how the website looks, without having to hire a designer.

WordPress looks like an amazing choice. Why not use it all the time?

Paradoxically, WordPress’s strengths are also its biggest weaknesses.

WordPress strives to be useful and easy to use for a broad range of users. And because of that, it has to be very generalist in nature and make a lot of assumptions about how it will be used. And while you can use plugins to add features to it, ultimately WordPress is a blog platform that has been optimized for blogging. It some cases it can feel bloated with features that you may never use.

But if your business adds value through a custom service it provides, then that works against what WordPress was built for. Yes, you can do it by extending the platform, but the performance and flexibility of what you can do will suffer.

This is where a custom solution shines. Like a bespoke suit, a web application built just for your customers will be optimized to deliver that service. The obvious advantage is differentiation. You will be able to offer a user experience that may not be possible with WordPress. If built properly another advantage is performance. Since you know what this web application is supposed to do, very specific optimization strategies can be employed.

What are the disadvantages of a custom web application

Custom web apps shine when it comes to delivering your business goals and the flexibility to implement specific user experiences for your customers. But how do they fare when it comes to managing the website and updating the website?

Since it is custom work, you will have to rely on your developer for updates and maintenance. And the administrative dashboard may also have to be built from scratch to serve your needs and your customers. This adds some risk to your business. If you ever need to change developers the new one has to be comfortable and knowledgeable enough to be able to take over and maintain the website.

A custom solution also adds a higher cost with managing the website. It may not be as user-friendly as WordPress. And if you want to get the administrative backend to be super polished it will add to development time.

Another risk added by a custom solution is the higher probability of unforeseen problems and bugs. WordPress has such a large user base that the problems are likely to be discovered quickly and dealt with. That is not the case when you build a custom solution that only you are using.

It is not all bad news. Most of these risks are mitigated by using time tested frameworks, best practices, and standards when building the custom website. Just like with bespoke suits, you don’t have to reinvent the industry to have something custom-tailored and of very high-quality.

How fast can you go live with a custom website? Not as fast as with WordPress, that is for sure. If you are in a hurry, custom work may not be the way to go.

Conclusions

If you only need an online presence and the ability to blog then just go with WordPress. It is low cost, it is fast and easy to manage. And if you have some free time on your hands you can do it yourself.

If you need to put something up quickly and time is of the essence, stat with WordPress and plan for an upgrade later on.

If your goals are more sophisticated, then we need to talk about value first. How much value will the website bring into your business? The more you base this on data and research the better. If the yearly revenue from the site covers the costs of a custom solution (including development and maintenance) then I would suggest you go with a custom solution because of the flexibility and growth opportunities. Otherwise, go with WordPress and plan for an upgrade later.

A word of caution

There is an advantage to being quick and show up on the market place. A simple but fast website launched quickly is much better than a perfect website launched too late.

That being said, too many times I was hired to fix a website built on a shaking foundation with obsolete technology that was very limiting to the business.

What I suggest is a good practice is to give yourself a deadline. Something like: I need to launch this month, but I know that will have to build something more complex and stable so I will plan and prepare to do it in 12 months.

In 12 months you will have learned a lot about your business and your customers, so when it’s time to “get serious” you will have a much better understanding of what it needs to be done and that will dictate the choice of technology. You will also not be in a hurry, so you can do things right.

To Backup or not to Backup

Some years ago I had the opportunity to work alongside a veteran software developer. That was a treat for me and also a way to learn big lessons fast.

I remember being overconfident in my abilities, fresh out of school, and making silly mistakes when all that knowledge had to be put into practice.

I wanted to be quick, and agile, and free! I wanted to get in, fix the problem and move on!

But there was an incident that taught me a valuable lesson.

The server we were managing got hacked and crashed.

Working alongside the Veteran we managed to identify the security vulnerability, fix it and then restore the website within 6 hours. This was a big and popular forum. 6 hours recovery time was much shorter than the couple of days that this usually takes.

Shortly after restoring access, I heard from one of the members saying: “The way you recovered from this and the speed at which you did it is nothing short of impressive. In my career, I have worked for big software companies and none of them have in place such a good recovery plan.”

I could not take much credit for that, so I decided to pay attention to “the Old Veteran” because it was clear now he knew was he was doing :).

The Importance of Backups

We were able to bounce back so quickly because we had backups. Now only that, but we had versioned backups. Meaning we could go “back in time” to before the problem, see what changed and fix it. And then restore almost all of the user data, with minimal loss. Without versioned backups, this process would have been long and tedious and I do not know if we would have been able to spot the point of entry.

This is a happy ending story and here is what I have learned:

1. You always do backups – even if you think you don’t need them.

2. You test your backups – an untested backup is no backup. I have a story here where a client was paying their hosting company for a remote backup system and when the time came to use it, the backups were corrupted and so not usable.

3. You never delete things – you rename them and then archive them – this way you can always retrace your steps back to something that was working

4. When writing software you always, always use source control – which is basically a system that does smart backups of your work that allow you to “go back in time” and fix problems.

A beginner’s mistake- “I am too good for Backups”

As I have said, fresh out of school, I had bright ideas and I wanted to move very fast, but I did not ever have to deliver work that was used by real people, in a real situation, facing potential attacks from real online threats.

When you are prototyping and testing out an idea, it is OK to be quick, because if the idea is bad or not useful, you need to find out fast. But once you have something that you want to build out for the long term, then you need to switch gears and sacrifice reaction speed for being more organized.

I confess that this did not make sense to me for a long time. But as I worked in bigger and bigger projects it became obvious how the “slow work” of thinking of a structure to organize your code, setting up source control and doing backups was actually the fast lane. Why? Because it reduces risk and allows you to easily maintain the project as you move forward.

The opposite of this is working at neck-breaking speed, not “wasting time” with backups or source control, in order to put something on the market quickly. All the projects that I managed or I was a part of, that did not put in the time to be organized, eventually ground to a halt and had to be abandoned or rewritten.

I have done this mistake enough times to learn my lesson: for quality and sustainable work always do backups and use source control.

Client’s point of view – Do backups make business sense?

It is now obvious for me that backups are not just a good idea. But why should you care about them?

It depends on how well you can manage risk and how important is your data and your customers’ data to you and your business.

If you can afford to lose it all, then you don’t need backups.

If you can afford the downtime of having to rebuild your application from scratch, then you don’t need backups.

But in my opinion, good backups are a cost-effective way to mitigate the security and data loss risks associated with running an online business.

Do you have a backup policy in place? And if you do, have you tested your backups lately to make sure that you will find in there what you expect to find?