It’s common practice for WordPress website owners to install plugins to extend the features and functionality of their website.
There are plugins that provide enhanced security and allow you to monitor your site’s performance. You can install plugins that will manage your backups, help you run a forum or chat service, improve SEO, minimize spam, and perform countless other site management tasks.
As useful as they are, there’s a potential downside to using plugins:
They can break your website!
However, if you use them carefully, you’ll have nothing to worry about. But there are a few things you need to consider when selecting, testing, and maintaining them.
In this article, we’ll describe some of the ways that a plugin can be responsible for crashing a website, then we’ll cover five ways to avoid the problem. We’ll wrap up with a discussion on the first thing you should do if a plugin brings your site down.
So, What Could Go Wrong?
When your website goes down unexpectedly, there’s a chance that one of your plugins is at the root of the problem. These are some of the most common ways in which a plugin can be involved in your site crashing:
- WordPress Update Aftershocks—Compatibility between your CMS and your plugins must be maintained. When WordPress is updated, your plugins may require an update or a configuration change in order to continue working properly.
- Plugin Update Side Effects—When you update to the latest version of a plugin, you may assume that the new version will work with your current version of WordPress. That’s not always a safe assumption.
- A Custom Code Mismatch—If you have added customized source code to your website, you might discover that a newly installed plugin doesn’t play nice with your code, or that a well-trusted plugin starts acting up after you make a change to your custom code.
- Plugins Sapping Your Server Resources—Plugins can eat up a lot of your server resources, which can hurt your site’s performance, and maybe even bring it down.
- A Malicious Plugin—Unscrupulous developers create plugins that, on the surface, are doing what they’re meant to, but in reality, they’re up to no good. For example, they could be flooding your pages with ads, redirecting your visitors, etc., all with a complete disregard for the performance and stability of your website.
- Theme and Plugins Clash—The integration between your plugins and the theme you select must be robust. If you’re using an overly complex theme or one from an untrustworthy developer, there may be conflicts between the plugin and theme.
As you can see, the role that plugins can play in unexpected site problems is pretty significant. Now, let’s look at some ways you can prevent these issues from happening.
5 Ways to Avoid Plugin Crashes on Your WordPress Website
In this section, we’ll explain five things you can do to stop a plugin from bringing down your website.
Implement a Plugin Approval Process
Before you install a plugin, put it through an approval process that’s designed to keep out low-performing, unnecessary, and untrustworthy plugins. It’s as simple as assessing any plugin, with a focus on these three questions:
Is the plugin popular?
It’s OK to let the crowd pick your plugins for you. If a plugin has thousands (or, hundreds of thousands) of users, you can be sure some of them will have encountered problems, that is, if problems exist. Nevertheless, a plugin that has a lot of happy users is usually a safe bet.
Is the plugin regularly updated by its developers?
In order to stay in sync with WordPress and offer up-to-date security, a plugin will need to be updated periodically by its developers. Check out the plugin’s release history and latest release date. If the developers do not keep their plugin secure and current with WordPress, this is a plugin that should not be installed on your site.
Does the plugin pass your testing?
We’ll get into this more in the next section, but it’s imperative that you test any new plugin to make sure it doesn’t conflict with other ones, with your site’s theme, or with your custom code.
If you make it a rule that no plugin will be installed unless the answer to all three of these questions is “Yes,” you’ll avoid a lot of bad plugins, and maybe prevent a plugin-related site problem.
Test After Any Update
In the world of software development and quality assurance, the term regression testing applies to testing that’s done after code changes are made. The goal of that testing is to ensure that the changes don’t break any existing behavior.
The concept of regression testing also applies to your website, its custom code, and the plugins you use.
You may update plugins and change custom code frequently or only a couple of times per year. Either way, you should thoroughly test your site after any change, including every CMS update, plugin update, or modification to your database.
The easiest way to do that is to document ten to fifteen things to check frequently—menus, landing pages, the behavior of your ads—you should come up with a list, but keep it manageable. Aim for a test run that takes about an hour.
By coming up with a repeatable test, you’ll build continuity into your site maintenance process and, because it doesn’t take all day, you’ll be more willing to run through the test as often as you need to.
Pick a time to test when your site gets very little traffic. You’ll be able to roll out any changes, immediately run through your checklist, and be confident that your site is running properly.
Keep Your Plugin Count Low
Your site could break because you have too many plugins. Although high-quality plugins are typically designed to use server resources economically, the cumulative impact of numerous plugins running at the same time can have a major impact on server performance, and it can even bring down your website.
There’s an easy way to lower the total number of plugins you use. Review all the plugins that are currently active on your site and look for any that overlap in functionality. If you do find any, this is an unnecessary duplication that should be eliminated.
In addition to ensuring that you don’t have multiple plugins providing the same service, you should also consider consolidating everything by installing a plugin that has multiple uses. For example, JetPack can handle security, performance monitoring, automated backups, and numerous other site management tasks. If you have separate plugins that could be replaced by a plugin that has a broad functionality like JetPack, you should definitely consider this. You’ll enjoy more centralized control, and you won’t tax your web server’s resources as heavily as running multiple plugins would.
Don’t Let Your Theme Be the Problem
Some plugins will need to integrate with your theme more completely than others. For example, a plugin that directly impacts how information is displayed on your site will need greater integration with your theme than one that helps you manage passwords. Nevertheless, there’s some level of compatibility required between your theme and most plugins.
For that reason, you should put your theme through a vetting process that’s similar to the plugin approval process suggested above. Is your theme popular? Is it regularly updated by its developers? Does the theme pass your testing?
If you select a common theme that many other sites use, you may be slightly less original, but you’ll gain stability. The mass acceptance and ongoing use of such themes is proof that they’re compatible with WordPress and many popular plugins.
Optimize Site Performance
Having a reliable hosting provider that offers a fast and stable platform for your website is fundamental in avoiding plugin-related site crashes. You should avoid free, or very low-cost, shared hosting services, because your site’s performance could be negatively affected by something happening on other users’ sites. If you choose a service with dedicated hosting, you’ll get more control over the server that houses your website.
It’s smart to grow your server resources as your traffic increases, because WordPress and the plugins you have installed will be dealing with an ever-increasing workload.
First Response: What to Do When a Plugin Crashes Your Site
When a plugin crashes your website, the first step in bringing it back up should be to shut down the offending plugin via the WordPress dashboard.
The problem is, in some cases, the error created by the plugin makes it impossible for you to access your WordPress Admin Dashboard. If that happens, you should disable the plugin manually. The simplest way to do that is by disabling the plugin files, and that’s easily done by renaming a specific folder on your website’s server.
You can use an FTP client, or a similar tool to access all your website’s files and folders, including those used by your plugins. Access the /wp-content/plugins folder, and temporarily rename it. That will cause all plugins to stop, including the one that has crashed your site, thus putting your web server in a stable state that can be brought back online.
When your site is back up and running, you’ll need to revert the plugins’ folder name and selectively allow only critical plugins to begin running again. Then, start looking into which plugin caused the crash.
You Can Avoid Plugin-Related Site Crashes
We’ve touched on some important topics, starting with the fact that plugin selection and maintenance both require careful attention, and that being aware of the ways in which plugins can cause problems on your site is crucial if you want to avoid any crashes.
These five ways to keep your plugins from impacting your site’s stability should come in handy, as you’ll have created a repeatable process for plugin assessment and testing, as well as a better understanding of how some factors can allow plugins to break your site.
If you choose and manage your plugins carefully, you may never have to deal with a site crash, and if one does occur, you’ll be able to rule out your plugins, and identify the reason why even faster.