Case study: when WordPress plugin errors impact your blog

Plugins are powerful tools that extend the functionality of a WordPress site feature-by-feature. This architecture allows the WordPress core to remain lean so it can run for speed and performance. But it also gives you the flexibility to choose the features you want or need.

Plugins aren’t a new topic here on the blog. We’ve shared best practices for using plugins as well as some of our top plugin recommendations before. The hope is that by choosing plugins from reputable developers, you can avoid potential WordPress plugin errors such as security breaches or slowdowns on your site.

Today, we want to take a look at what happens when—despite following these best practices—a WordPress plugin error wreaks havoc on your site. To do that, let’s look at some real-world examples from Agathon clients. We’ll show you what went wrong with the plugin, what the impact was on the client’s site, and how Agathon was able to assist each of them.

WordPress plugin error #1: security vulnerabilities

While choosing apps carefully can minimize security concerns, occasionally even reputable plugins will experience problems. One notable example with widespread impact was a critical security vulnerability in Social Warfare in March of 2019. Through this vulnerability, malicious users installed malware on many, many sites. To be clear, Social Warfare was in no way malicious themselves. However, someone found and exploited a bug in their code, with damaging and disruptive impact.

As soon as we discovered this issue, we worked quickly with our own clients to address it. This involved notifying all clients on both Twitter and by email, urging them to deactivate the plugin. We also cleaned up the malicious code for those who had experienced the malware.

In addition, we identified an alternative—Social Pug by Mihai Iova, now part of Grow by Mediavine—and purchased an agency license. We offered this license to all of our clients for free. We also helped clients who were using Social Warfare to migrate their data to the new plugin. This allowed them to get their social sharing back up and running as quickly as possible.

WordPress plugin error #2: upgrade bugs

When Shortlinks by Pretty Links released version 3.0.0 in July 2019, it came with an unexpected bug. That bug used up all available disk space and made sites running the new version of the plugin unavailable. To their credit, the development team quickly fixed the bug and replaced it with version 3.0.1. Unfortunately, clients who had already upgraded to the buggy version required our help. We cleared their error logs and updated the plugin to the newer version to quickly get their sites up and running again.

Similarly, when bloggers began upgrading to Jetpack 8.0, a bug in the code caused an error to show up on the dashboard or in a notification email, prompting users to contact their host. Working with impacted clients, we could see the upgrade had actually finished successfully. In most cases, once they refreshed the Plugins page in WordPress, the error disappeared.

As with the previous vulnerability, our team worked together to respond to individual client requests and notify clients via @agathonstatus on Twitter. Because we work with so many sites, we tend to spot these types of upgrade issues very quickly. We then share this information to minimize the impact on our clients.

WordPress plugin error #3: tricky errors

While most developers strive to write bug-free code—utilizing code reviews and testing—many bugs are so specific that they remain hidden until the exact right circumstances bring them to light. That was the case with the Create plugin by Mediavine—although this bug wasn’t even Mediavine’s fault! As with a lot of software, Create uses a third-party library as part of a color picker. An error in that library meant that the accidental addition of a space in a color code—#bc2e03  instead of #bc2e03—threw a fatal error and crashed the site.

Working together with Mediavine, our support team was able to isolate and identify the error. Our team fixed the specific site where the error happened while Mediavine created an emergency patch to prevent it from happening again.

WordPress plugin error #4: hidden performance issues

And sometimes a plugin issue is even less obvious. In these situations, there’s no smoking gun or error message; instead, a client will email in concerned about a performance issue or looking to improve their PageSpeed Insights (PSI) score. In digging around, our team of experts will spot something slowing down the site. In many cases, the problem is just a “heavy” plugin that requires a lot of resources to run. Whenever possible, we’ll recommend alternatives or encourage site owners to deactivate these plugins for performance improvements.

However, just this week while working with a client, we discovered the analytics plugin Rank Math had a few database operations that were unusually slow and bogging the site down. It turns out it was missing a simple index in the database schema (say that ten times fast!), making queries take significantly longer than they should. By adding that index in, we were able to speed up those queries and reduce the load on the server. This was a case where the plugin likely performs well for many workloads but then ran into a performance bottleneck on a more popular site. The client then passed those index details along to the plugin developers so they could make the change in the original plugin, which is a win for everyone.

Support you can count on

WordPress plugin errors are never fun, but the nature of the platform makes them fairly common despite the care and precautions reputable plugin developers take. Many times, these bugs are innocuous and the site owner can either ignore them or address them easily on their own. But occasionally you may come across a bug that makes your site unreachable. Or one that throws the dreaded white screen signaling a PHP error.

When that happens, Agathon clients can rest easy knowing Agathon is in your corner. Our 24/7 expert support means you always have a tech partner to back you up. And more importantly, we have not just the willingness but also the expertise and experience to help navigate and solve these tricky situations. And because we care about your site almost as much as you do, we give these type of issues the priority they deserve to get you back online as quickly as possible.

Learn more about Agathon hosting

If you’re looking for a host who takes care of more than just your server—and can help with things like tracking down, diagnosing, and fixing WordPress plugin errors—Agathon is here to help. Contact us for a free, no-obligation hosting assessment today!

Mandi Ehman

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