Setting up an online store involves a heck of a lot of moving parts. From products and shopping carts to inventory management and shipping, there’s a lot to consider, configure and organize.
One very important aspect of running a store is maintenance. WooCommerce is a fantastic eCommerce platform that powers over 28% of all online stores, but it’s not something you can simply “set and forget.” In fact, no eCommerce platform is.
WooCommerce store owners still need to invest time and resources in maintenance to ensure your store is always running the latest software updates available and is safe and secure for shoppers.
In this article, I’ll share some essential tips to help you keep your store running smoothly.
1. Make Time for Handling Updates
Keeping your store’s core software (including WooCommerce), other plugins and your theme up-to-date is absolutely essential. New releases typically include bug fixes, new features, performance improvements and, most importantly, security fixes that keep out nasty bots and hackers.
When it comes to updates there are two big problems: store owners either forget or neglect to do it or just straight up don’t want to do it. A lot of people hate updating their store, according to the WooCommerce support team. It’s not fun because you don’t know whether your store will make it out alive and in one piece when you click that little “Update” button.
So what’s a store owner to do?
First thing’s first: set aside some time for handling your store’s updates. Whether this is an hour every month for a small store, or a whole day every couple of weeks for a large one, it’s important that you schedule time in your calendar so you know it’s coming up.
Doing it this way, you can go about updating your store in an organized fashion knowing you’ve got the time to handle anything unexpected. This is going to be more time efficient than updating your store on the fly with your fingers crossed, hoping that it won’t break, then panicking when it does.
To Auto-Update or Not to Auto-Update? That is the Question
WordPress introduced auto-updates for the WordPress core software a few years back so that when minor maintenance and security releases (i.e. WordPress 4.9.1) are made available, the software will automatically update itself. It doesn’t, however, auto-update when a major version (i.e. WordPress 5.0) is released or when new versions of plugins and themes are released.
Many store owners prefer to turn off auto-updates altogether to avoid unwanted surprises when an update breaks a store. To do this, check out the WordPress Codex for detailed instructions.
Note: If you do decide to turn off auto-updates, you must schedule time in your calendar to manually handle updates. If you don’t regularly update your site, you’re leaving yourself open to brute force attacks and other security threats.
2. Set Up a Staging Site
Updating your live store is risky. You’ve probably done it before – clicked “Update” for a supposedly small plugin update, thinking it’s not a big deal. But, when product pages start looking weird, or your entire store goes down and you get the white screen of death, that’s when the panic gets real.
Living on the edge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The open source nature of WordPress and WooCommerce means there is the potential for code conflicts with other extensions or even your own custom code. That’s why WordPress developers know that testing changes on a staging site first is a no-brainer.
A staging site is an offline clone of your live store that only you can access since. With a staging site, you can test updates and mess around with your store without fear of consequences. It allows you to try things and avoid any errors, issues or downtime that might otherwise affect a user’s experience on your live store.
There are lots of different ways you can set up a staging site. Many good web hosts offer staging as a service, so check your hosting to see if this is something you can organize. Otherwise, there are lots of fantastic free plugins and services available:
- Jetpack – This popular plugin offers a “staging mode,” which you can use to clone your site.
- WP Staging – This free plugin brings one-click staging into the WordPress admin.
- Duplicator – This free and hugely popular plugin is easy-to-use if you’re new to staging.
Alternatively, check out this great guide to staging sites by the folks at Elegant Themes.
3. Run Regular Backups
Backing up any website is crucial. But, when it comes to your online store you want to be saving backups even more frequently than usual. An error that breaks your site or an attack on your store could cause you major disruptions and lost sales. So, it’s important that you are able to restore your store quickly in the event of an emergency.
It’s important to have several backups available. This means automating backups with a plugin and having different copies of your site stored locally on your server and on third-party websites in the cloud.
Since online stores are transactional and shoppers are spending money and saving items to their wish list and shopping cart, you should be taking any and all precautions to prevent having to restore your store from a backup. Let’s say your store is hacked and goes down at 5pm. If you restore a backup that was saved at 1am and you’ve been taking sales all day, then all those sales will disappear from your system. Not only will you lose money, but you’ll disrupt the shopping experience, causing a hit to your reputation.
The WooCommerce blog offers some useful information on how to backup your store using Jetpack.
Alternatively, you might want to check out WooCommerce Settings Backup and Migration from our plugin marketplace. This solution enables you to save all of your store’s settings as a CSV file, which you can then use as a backup or import into another WooCommerce store.
I’m also a big fan of Snapshot Pro by WPMU DEV. This plugin allows you to schedule regular backups and even take snapshots of your site before and after backups so you can compare changes.
For more information on backing up WordPress, check out Design Bomb’s 8 Best Backup WordPress Plugins Compared – 2018
4. Always Be Testing
“Don’t use hope as a strategy. Test everything.”
This was my favorite quote from Brian Richards’s excellent presentation, Test everything, or just set money on fire, at WooConf a couple of months back.
Once you’ve got a staging site set up, you should be testing everything, including updates and changes to your site, before you update your live store.
But what does testing mean? Essentially, it means being patient and not clicking that shiny “Update” button as soon as you get a plugin update notice. A lack of patience is what leads to strange-looking themes and broken sites.
So restrain yourself. Update any new plugins, themes and extensions on your stage site one-by-one and then carefully test the following:
- Click through to your site and check the design and layout looks good and functions well
- Check your product pages work properly, including pricing, variations and adding items to a cart
- Complete the checkout process
- Pay special attention to any products or pages with custom code or elements of your store that might’ve been particularly impacted by the update.
If you come across any issues, you’ll need to solve them on your staging site before making any changes to your live site. Once you do apply the changes to your live site, you’ll need to test it all over again a second time through to make sure there aren’t any conflicts, errors, or weird-looking changes that you’ll need to fix, too.
Testing is boring, I know. But doing it thoroughly will save you a lot of stress and anxiety in the long run, not to mention time and money.
Robot Ninja is a great testing service for WooCommerce sites that takes care of testing for you in the background.
If you’d prefer to automate the process, I highly recommend you check out Robot Ninja, a relatively new automated testing solution for WooCommerce. It takes care of all the manual work involved in testing your store and is easy to use – just set up an account and connect your store. You can even schedule testing so it happens in the background, saving you a bunch of time.
I hope these tips help you come up with your own plan of attack for maintaining your WooCommerce store. Just to sum up, in order to keep your store running smoothly you should:
- Make time to regularly handle updates,
- Use a staging site,
- Regularly save backups of your store, and
- Always test your store to make sure it’s working properly.
Doing these four things will ensure your WooCommerce store is always stable and in tiptop condition, and shoppers can go about making purchases without running into issues.
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