One of the biggest mistakes I see “newbies” make with WordPress is that they fail to observe all of the steps of a WordPress website edit. Just because it is easy to make changes to a WordPress site does not mean that you are ready to start making changes to it. In fact, that mindset is a recipe for disaster.
I received an urgent call from someone a week ago who had made changes to a website on the production server, and desperately needed to revert back to the previous version of the web design. Unfortunately, there was really nothing I could do for him because he hadn’t followed any of these steps for editing a WordPress website. Before I go any further, let me throw out some terminology you’re going to need to know.
- Production Server: this is the web server where your public website resides. Think of it like your grandmother’s parlor furniture. It’s pretty and you show it off, but absolutely no one uses it. The address for the production server is your normal URL, i.e. www.cdacomputer.tips.
- Local Server: this is a web server on your computer. You can take your website to the mad-web-designer’s laboratory, and do terrible experiments on your website. That’s okay, no one ever sees it but you. Throw on your lab coat and get crazy. The address for the local server can skip the www, and instead use an URL such as local.cdacomputer.tips.
- Staging Server: this is web server where you test everything that works on your local server in a public forum. Testing your work on a staging server is critical to make certain that everything works on the production server. The address for the staging server should be simple to understand, like staging.cdacomputer.tips.
- Migration: The process of migrating a WordPress website involves both computer files and database tables. You will need a solution that allows you to programmatically change the URLs and other site specific information as you move the site among the different servers. The backup software I recommend will do this automatically for you.
Even simple things, like updating Plugins and the WordPress version can be dangerous on the production server. You have to remember that for everything you update, there are many cooks in the kitchen. All of the people who contribute to the core WordPress platform, each of the individual programmers who contribute to each one of the plugins, as well as you yourself are all at their most vulnerable when updating a website. If one piece of code falls out of step it can kill your entire site.
Five simple steps of every WordPress edit
As I’m writing this I keep having to tone down my language, because I don’t want to scare you. But the consequences of jumping ahead in this area can be painful. If you follow these steps every time, then you are certain to be prepared for any problems that crop up, and significantly reduce your down time for your website.
Get a good backup plugin and use it.
Use a backup plugin to create a snapshot of your website before you make any edits. My personal favorite is Backup Buddy by iThemes. You only have to try and manually migrate a WordPress website one time to realize the price they ask (as low as $80 per year) is cheap compared to the alternative.
Keep regular backups stored on a third party computer
If you followed the first piece of advice, and you have a backup plugin, then you need a backup plan. You (or your software) should be keeping regular backups of your website on a third party computer. In other words, not on your personal computer and not on the web server that hosts your website. There are plenty of cloud options out there (iCloud, OneDrive, DropBox and Amazon Web Services spring to mind) where you can store virtually unlimited backups. Become a hoarder when it comes to data!
Make all changes on a local server
Use your backup software to migrate the website to your local server. You’ll find a recent article I wrote called Getting Started with a Local Server helpful, and you’ll probably need to set up some software, like my favorite MAMP. See the article for more options on setting up a local server. After you’ve got a local server set up, then migrate your backup from the production server. You can make as big a mess as you like on your local server, and no one will ever see it but you. If things get out of hand, just erase everything on your local server and re-migrate from the production server to start over.
Test all changes on a staging server
When you think you’ve got everything exactly right, you’re still not ready to publish to the production server. First you should publish to a staging server where you can make sure that everything that worked on your laptop or desktop still works on a real honest-to-goodness web server. Most hosting packages used for production servers includes the options to create sub-domains. There are too many details specific to each web hosting company to show you how to set up a sub-domain from this blog. Instead, use the Help tools for your provider to learn how to create a sub-domain.
Move everything to the production server
After you’ve tested everything, it’s easy to finish the migration cycle and move all the files and database information to the production server. I prefer to overwrite the content that is already out there to avoid readers getting a blank screen if they happen to land on the site during the migration process.
A final word of advice
There will come a time when you are tempted to skip one of these steps. I know because it still happens to me. But as one of my favorite pundits says, “You can either learn from my personal bitter experience, or you can have on of your own.” Don’t be the example that other people use to learn this lesson.
Best wishes for great web design!