The Complete Cohhe Guide to Future Proofing WordPress
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To “Future Proof” a WordPress website is to set it up in such a way as to make future updates and/or customizations as seamless and easy to implement as possible. This includes the possibility that at some point down the road you may want or need to make significant changes to your site design, add or subtract key functionality, or even completely re-invent yourself.
In this post we’re going to talk about why future proofing your WordPress site from the beginning is so important and then we’re going to provide you with the tips and tutorials to do it.
Why is Future Proofing WordPress Important?
Often when creating a new WordPress website the temptation is to find a combination of the “shiniest” (I’ll get into that term later), cheapest and most ready to use tools for the job. This is only natural. We’re looking for whatever empowers us to fulfill our vision right now. We’ll figure the rest out later.
However, what many WordPress users find several weeks or months down the line is that setting your site up for long term success is essential early on not at some indeterminate point in the future after trouble has arrived. In fact, it can be nearly impossible once you’ve gone down certain paths–whether that be via themes, plugins, or something else–to get your site “unstuck” from past decisions and on track to where it really needs to be.
My WordPress Future Proofing Cautionary Tale
Back in late 2011/early 2012 I bought a theme from Themeforest that was literally the coolest thing I’d ever seen in WordPress theme form. It had more design options than any other theme I had come across and I loved it. Mostly because it did everything I wanted to do at the time, but required no coding; something I was still utterly intimidated by.
It came with endless shortcodes, a few different custom post types, theme specific sliders, and a whole lot more. It was everything I wanted all in one package. And that should have been my first warning.
At the time it never occurred to me that having my most used shortcodes, post types, image formats, sliders, and literally every other important aspect of my website wrapped up in my theme was a bad idea.
I mean, what if I ever wanted to change my theme?
It would mean replacing every instance of a shortcode, every custom post type (including portfolio items, reviews, and more), losing all of my image galleries/sliders, and a hundred other little things that when combined together formed a massive problem. One that only got worse the more content I created.
When this was brought to my attention, I had already spent hundreds of hours working on a doomed website. A website that contained a rather large archive of content whose writing I could keep, but almost nothing else. All of my work had to be meticulously undone and then redone using themes and plugins that follow WordPress Development Coding Standards and Best Practices.
In my case this meant choosing a reputable (and well coded) WordPress theme framework, a child theme, and plugins that housed all of my primary functionality (as opposed to my theme). In addition, of course, to the other best practices listed below.
In the end it all turned out fine for me. I was able to switch themes, rebuild my website, reformat all of my posts/pages (even better than the first time), and go about my business. But it was still a painful lesson on a number of fronts.
For one, I missed out on a lot of paying work. I had to spend a ridiculous amount of time redoing my website when I could have been on assignment paying my bills. This created all kinds of other minor problems, not the least of which was a lot of unnecessary stress.
Secondly, it invoked a time consuming, embarrassing, and (again) expensive sense of responsibility in me that I had previously been ignorant of. My responsibility to all of the friends and early clients I had worked with and for who’s websites were just as doomed as mine had been.
Updating them on the situation resulted in many more hours of free or highly reduced labor, getting their sites up to the standard they expected when they made their initial purchases from me. Talk about a metaphorical headache for the ages! But in the end, worth it.
Except you know what would have been undeniably better? To have done it right the first time around. Which, in a nutshell, is what future proofing your WordPress website is all about.
Essential WordPress Future Proofing Best Practices
Naturally, this post is likely to find you in one of two places. 1) Getting ready to embark on the journey of creating a new WordPress website and looking for guidance; or 2) Having already started that journey and possibly realizing that you’re headed down a path of extreme limitations.
In either case, the best practices below will point you in the right direction. It’s possible that, like me, you may have to bite a frustrating bullet to properly future proof your WordPress websites. But knowing that your site is adaptable enough to meet the future head on is well worth the trouble.
Back Up Everything (Regularly)
Even before you have much to back up, get a backup plan in place. There are a ton of great tools and services out there ranging from free to premium that can keep your files copied, saved, and on hand in case of an emergency. Or even just a simple mistake.
If you’re not sure where to start, give BackWPup a shot. It’s free and will keep you covered while you read up on your other options.
Don’t Neglect WordPress Security
Similarly, don’t neglect WordPress security simply because it seems like overkill or you have no reason to expect disaster/attack. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post here, WordPress attacks are often automated and random. You don’t have to be an intentional, specific target, of some malicious WordPress hacker to fall victim to an automated script.
If my story above wasn’t convincing enough I don’t know what will be. That said, the point here is not that you have rule out every WordPress theme that comes with built in functionality, shortcodes, or custom post types. But rather that you should use whatever you get wisely and in smart conjunction with a child theme and plugins.
I’m not advocating the adoption of over-bloated WordPress themes or frameworks either, but the reality for many is that certain features you need will only come packaged alongside features you either don’t need or that may even be counter productive.
That being the case, I think it’s wise to remember that just because a theme or theme framework comes with something “baked in” doesn’t mean you have to use it. A perfect example being shortcodes. Unless those are packaged in a separate plugin that can make the journey from one theme to the next, it might be better not to indulge in using them.
If you’re wondering what else makes a good theme or theme framework, the following articles on the Cohhe blog might make for good reading:
No matter when you decide to do in terms of a theme or theme framework, it needs to be paired with a child theme. I’ve recently written two separate posts here on Cohhe about this very topic, so I won’t linger on it.
I’ll just say this: a child theme is something that takes minutes to create and saves you hours of tedious work later. Whether you’re just getting started and you haven’t done anything with your site yet, or you’ve customized the junk out of your theme without child themeing it first, these posts will help set you straight.
Hopefully, if you’ve read the rest of this post, you understand by now how keeping too much functionality housed inside your WordPress theme or even theme framework can lead to problems. This section is meant to simply be an iteration of that point.
In general you should follow this rule: if it’s a function that you wouldn’t want to lose when switching themes then use a plugin for it.
Take Advantage of WordPress Snippets, Hooks, & Filters
Remember up above when I was talking about “bloated”‘ themes and theme frameworks? What I was actually referring to is the performance reducing nature of some themes that offer “too much” in one package. More, in fact, than most people need.
More functions, features, style options–they all require code that has to run, many times whether you’re using it or not. To avoid unnecessary bloat, you might try looking for themes that have fewer features built in, but that offer (usually via a plugin) easy access to some handy things we call Hooks and Filters.
What are WordPress Hooks and Filters, you ask?
Hooks and Filters allow you to attach additional functions to specific sections of your WordPress core code. All you have to do is write or copy and paste a specific code snippet into a Hook or Filter and that new function is now a part of your site.
Why would you want to do this instead of just adding another plugin?
Because code snippets are extremely light weight. Much lighter weight than a plugin and yet they can add some fantastic functionality to your website. This is a topic you can definitely expect more on from us in the future, but in the mean time here are a few great articles by other blogs to get you started on WordPress Snippets, Hooks, & Filters.
Or, if you’re a real nut about using code snippets in WordPress you can check out WPSnipp; a blog dedicated to nothing but WordPress code snippets.
Create a Staging Area (And Use it!)
Finally, I think one often overlooked but necessary tool for keeping your site future proof is the ongoing use of staging area. This is nothing more than a separately hosted clone of your live website where you can make changes, test updates, run experiments, and generally do anything you would normally do to your live site–just safely. Without the risk of taking down your whole website/business over a plugin or theme update.
WordPress and its accompanying themes and plugins offer a truly incredibly range of empowering capabilities to users of just about any skill level. But ignoring basic best practices like the ones above can really limit your future, even with WordPress.
Have you had to learn any of these lessons the hard way like me? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below. And of course, if you have any questions feel free to ask and we’ll do our best to help you out.
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Nathan is a professional writer and digital publisher. He's been using and writing about WordPress since 2010 and enjoys supplying useful WordPress news, reviews, tips, tricks, and tutorials. You can connect with him at his personal website or on facebook and twitter.