Last month, a business colleague referred her client to me. The client’s #WordPress website had broken. When you typed in the domain URL, the only thing that would display is an ugly error message; something about the “watch-a-ma-call-it file in the thing-a-ma-bob plugin could not be found, and the website had experienced a WordPress fatal error.”
This state of the website was reported to the business owner when a prospect with whom he was about to sign a contract went to the website to review the before-and-after photos of the high-quality construction the company does.
Ouch…I would hate to find out about errors from a high-probability prospect!
At any rate, the construction company owner was pointed in my direction. I recognized the plugin immediately, and, after working with WordPress for over 16 years, I was confident I could quickly resolve the issue.
3-Step WordPress Fatal Error Recovery Strategy
- The first goal was to get the website displaying again.
- The second goal was to find out why that WordPress error was triggered, and
- then determine what to put in place to have it not happen again.
WordPress Fatal Error Investigation
After logging into the client’s Dashboard, I discovered that WordPress, the plugins, and the theme files had not been updated since 2016.
Incredulous upon this discovery, I logged into the backend (via FTP) to look at the last-modified dates on all the files. What I found, made me sad. The website software had never been updated since being built in 2016.
I was sad because the client shouldn’t have to manage this. A client doesn’t want to manage the infrastructure – and – doesn’t even want to know about it. It is technology. It should be managed by professionals.
WordPress Needs to be Updated Regularly
WordPress is not a set-it-and-forget it tool. In fact, no website should be set and forgotten. Stagnant files attract hackers. When files are not updated, hackers understand that no one is looking at the file(s), and they feel free to build far-reaching hacks embedded in those files. You can read more about the importance of keeping WordPress files up to date.
As a WordPress specialist, my expectation is that every other WordPress developer is helping their clients understand that updating the WordPress software on a regular basis ( I recommend monthly ) is to their advantage. The website can then incorporate the latest technological advances including the latest security features.
WordPress Plugin Error Fixes
Putting my dismay aside, I deleted the two offending plugins. The website came back to life, except for the photo galleries. Then I wrote to the owner of the construction company, giving two options with pros and cons for each.
Solution A: The band aid option: Not guaranteed to work – and – not guaranteed to not cause additional issues with other plugins. Attempt to fix the galleries, then attend to the upgrading the other files when the company is ready to develop a brand new website.
This option was the least expensive, but, the most risky with the highest possibility of failure. If it failed, it could end up costing more to remedy than solution B. It was not guaranteed to work because there would be two plugins using 2019 technology and the rest of the website would still be using the technology from 2016. Increasing the odds of failure was the fact that in December 2018, the WordPress ‘foundation’ was significantly rewritten.
Imagine that you have been living in a ranch house your whole life. Then in 2018, your family tears down the house and builds a colonial on top of the ranch foundation. There would be huge gaps between the foundation and core of the house. That is the kind of situation we would have when adding 2019 code to 2016 code. They might not even speak the same language as pieces of WordPress were renamed.
Estimate to complete was $200 – $300, and, the client had already spent $100 on a fix. Approx. total was $300.00 – $400.00.
Solution B: Do the right thing: Update all the software, take the hits now, fix any issues, start a program that will keep the website up to date. Let a professional webmaster manage the software upgrades every month so that the business owner has peace of mind. This is the more expensive option, but, sets the business up for success for the next 12 months. The owner wouldn’t be wondering about what would break next, and, whether a high-probability prospect would be the one to report it to him. He would be free to focus on his core competency – building beautiful and impressive homes.
Estimate to complete was $997.00 for the year-long program (and the $100 already incurred would be absorbed into the program fee). The WordPress Upgrades program not only includes updating the software, but, running scans for viruses and broken links, adding security programs that notify me when there are heightened attempts to log in to your website, creating additional remote cloud backups, reviewing the plugins for aging (upcoming end of life), a few more little checks, and a monthly report with recommendations to the client.
My recommendation was Solution B – Take the hit now, and, move forward with security. For me, the “right” solution is the solution that is in the client’s long-term best interest.
I’ve experienced how costly it can be to apply band-aids and ignore issues. It is tremendously expensive to recover from a full website down situation, especially when there are hundreds of files that have not been updated for years. That situation results in hundreds of suspects. Each suspect (file) needs to be interrogated. That takes time and time costs money.
Many website owners have a false sense of security about their hosting companies. They think that they are creating backups for them all the time. Hosting companies do backup on a schedule, but, some require you to sign up for the backups separately, and back up schedules differ among hosting firms. And… when it counts, sometimes those backups are useless or non existent due to time lapses between issues occurring and the reporting of the issues.
Which Fatal Error Recovery Solution did the Client Choose?
I emailed the client these two options. We set a time to discuss.
What I learned was that the client simply wants a set-it-and-forget-it website. He does not use the website as a lead generator. He only gives the website address to high-probability prospects just prior to clinching the deal—in order for them to review his construction portfolio and set quality expectations about what they might experience and have for themselves.
I explained that WordPress is not a set-it-and-forget-it tool and that it needs to be updated; monthly is my recommendation.
He did not want to invest any money in website maintenance, and, suggested that he move the website out of WordPress. I provided some high-level information about how the Internet works, that the Internet is a fluid environment improving and becoming more efficient and secure every day, that hosting server code and programming languages are being updated all the time, and that for security reasons it was not in his company’s best interest to remain stagnant in a hosting account regardless of the software on which his website was built (WordPress or other).
So the client didn’t know what he didn’t know about websites and hosting. I shared information about how things work and my professional opinion about what was in his company’s best interest given how he used his website and the fact that his competitors are online and they use their websites for lead generation. I compared the cost of the monthly maintenance program to the cost of losing a high-probability prospect, when that prospect goes to his website and finds it broken.
In the end, he chose to re-frame his perception of websites and software maintenance. He chose to invest in himself and free himself from even having to think about the website. He chose Solution B which frees him to focus on his expertise.
If you also want to be free to focus on your core competency and forget about the mechanics of keeping your WordPress website updated, you are a good candidate for the WordPress Upgrades Package. Call me—(508) 480-8833