Many clients never know exactly what’s under the hood with their WordPress website setup, which can make it challenging to plan for the future when the original developer or agency is no longer available to help manage the site. Here we explore some of the key issues, considerations, and best practices for ensuring that your WordPress website is future-proof, no matter who maintains it.

A website is the digital face of your brand, often run by content management systems like WordPress. When a WordPress website is built using a theme that follows accepted WordPress coding standards and has well-supported plugins, transitioning your site from one WordPress agency or developer to another is seamless.

This should be reassuring to business owners and organizations that need to migrate to a new vendor for WordPress support and routine maintenance. Maybe your current vendor went out of business, became unavailable, or no longer provided satisfactory service. After all, one of the inherent key benefits of WordPress is its standardized platform that makes it easy for a wide network of skilled developers to manage and maintain (it is critical for all WordPress websites to have a reliable maintenance plan).

However, there are a variety of ways that WordPress websites can be built and configured, and in some cases this can introduce a number of challenges for the longer-term management, performance, and security of the website. This is especially true in cases when a WordPress website is built using a highly customized proprietary theme and the original developer is no longer available to support it; this can even be true in cases where the original developer or another experienced developer is on-hand, if the original site is not coded in a manner that is consistent with the ever-evolving WordPress platform. Custom plugins that provide desired functionality for your site also require constant upgrades and coding changes.

From potential problems to planning for the future, website owners must take proactive steps to ensure the continued reliability and functionality of their website, particularly in cases where a custom theme is employed. In this article, we'll delve into the key considerations and best practices for maintaining a WordPress website with a proprietary theme when the original developer is no longer available to support it.

Potential Problems with Proprietary WordPress Themes

A WordPress “theme” is the collection of code files, templates, and stylesheets that collectively define the way the site displays on the front-end. In some cases, these themes are produced by WordPress themselves, or by reliable 3rd party theme publishers that ensure they are well-supported and evolve along with the new versions of WordPress as they are released. In other cases, themes can also be highly modified in such a way that they become proprietary to the original developer, in which case there is no reliable support infrastructure to keep them current other than that particular developer. In these cases, potential hazards include:

  • Theme Compatibility Issues - WordPress is an ever-evolving platform, with frequent updates to core software, plugins, and themes. If your custom theme isn't updated to stay compatible with the latest WordPress version, it can lead to functional and security issues.
  • Security Vulnerabilities - Outdated themes can become vulnerable to security breaches, potentially exposing your website and user data to malicious attacks. If the original developer isn't available to patch vulnerabilities, your website's security could be compromised.
  • Plugin Conflicts - Plugins play a crucial role in extending the functionality of your WordPress website. As plugins and WordPress evolve, conflicts can arise between plugins and your custom theme. Custom plugins require updates, as well. Without the original developer's support, resolving these conflicts can be challenging.
  • Performance Degradation - As your website grows, performance optimization becomes critical. An outdated custom theme might not be optimized for speed, leading to slow page loading times and a poor user experience. Google and other search engines modify their performance criteria often, requiring updated code.
  • Design Stagnation - Design trends and user preferences evolve over time. If your custom theme lacks the flexibility to adapt to changing design standards, your website might appear outdated and unappealing.
  • Server Incompatibility - It’s not just your site code that’s important to maintain: server infrastructure also needs updating. PHP and MySQL, two of the core requirements for a WordPress site, constantly introduce and deprecate functions. Deprecated functions are usually deleted after some time, and any theme or plugin code that assumes the existence of deprecated code will fail, taking your site offline.

Best Practices to Ensure Site Reliability

In cases where you do find yourself in a scenario where you need to support a site that was developed elsewhere with a lot of customization, there are some best practices that can be employed to help you mitigate the uncertainty of a WordPress theme with a codebase of questionable origin:

  • Seek Professional Help - First and foremost, if you do not have in-house expertise, make sure you engage an experienced WordPress developer or agency to help you assess your site, make sure everything is current, and fix any issues.
  • Update Safely - Before updating the theme, plugins or other critical server configurations, test the changes in a staging environment to identify any potential conflicts or issues. This minimizes the risk of breaking your live site.
  • Explore Compatibility - You’ll want to make sure that your site is located in a stable and well-managed hosting environment, with a current database, current version of PHP, and Apache or Nginx.
  • Child Theme Implementation - If the original developer used a third-party theme to create your custom theme, ensure that modifications are made to a child theme. This prevents customization loss during theme updates.
  • Backup Regularly - Before making any changes, ensure you have a recent backup of your website. Backup plugins or services can help you maintain a copy of your site's content, database, and configuration. Ideally, we recommend maintaining redundant backups, both locally and remotely.
  • Focus on Security - A well-functioning website is also secure. Implement security best practices by using strong passwords with two-factor authentication (particularly for admin accounts), installing security plugins, and regularly monitoring your website for unusual activity. Regular vulnerability scans, both of your site code, but also at server-level, are a good idea. Last but not least, be sure to remove or demote the roles of any prior users that have access to your site who are no longer supporting it (when changing agencies you may find many admins and editors among your WordPress users).
  • Identify Critical Components - Identify the core functionalities of your website that rely on the custom theme. This will help you prioritize which areas need immediate attention if issues arise.
  • Document Everything - Thoroughly document your website's structure, settings, license numbers, and customizations. This documentation will be invaluable for any future developers who work on your site.

Planning for the Future

When planning a transition for your website development team, first address any immediate concerns to make sure that the site is secure and operates reliably. In the longer term, ensure that the site will be easy to maintain and is future-proof in terms of compatibility with WordPress and any third-party plugins or services. The safest way to ensure optimal reliability in both the immediate and long-term is to make sure you are using a well-supported theme with a routine maintenance plan for your WordPress website.

  • Consider a New Theme - In cases where your custom theme is outdated and/or incompatible with the WordPress core updates, transitioning to a reputable and well-supported theme is probably the next best course of action on your web development roadmap. Make sure the new theme aligns with your organization’s goals in terms of design, features, and functionality on both the front and back-end. Standardized, well-supported themes such as the Divi Builder are an excellent choice for reliability and many user-friendly features that make it easy to manage your website’s content.
  • Regular Maintenance - Regardless of the situation, a regular website maintenance plan is essential, particularly for WordPress. Keeping your WordPress theme and plugins current along with your hosting environment, regular backups, security and performance monitoring, are all fundamental components of planning a productive and sustainable website presence.

The challenges of maintaining a WordPress website with an unavailable original developer can be daunting, but they are not insurmountable. By following these best practices and considerations, you can ensure the continued reliability, security, and functionality of your website. Regular monitoring, documentation, seeking professional assistance when needed, and staying informed about best practices will empower you to navigate the world of WordPress with confidence going forward, even in cases where your original developer or agency have shut their doors.

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