TL; DR: Millions of site owners worldwide have turned to WordPress because of its flexibility and the thousands of plugins available to customize web applications. However, many of these users have also experienced the frustrations that come with the constant need to install security patches and software updates to the content management system (CMS). That’s where Liquid Web steps in. Widely known and well-respected in the hosting industry, Liquid Web has been making web professionals’ lives easier for 20-plus years. And the company’s new fully managed WordPress platform continues this trend. We recently caught up with Liquid Web’s VP of Products and Innovation, Chris Lema, who told us how the host’s latest release zeroes in on security and WordPress technicalities so web entrepreneurs can focus on their core missions.
When WordPress launched in 2003, site ownership became accessible to a much broader audience. However, the new content management system (CMS) also came with a number of issues, including concerns over security and the need to continuously update the software’s core. Hosting veteran Liquid Web recognized this and aimed to address these frustrations.
“Initially, when people were just trying to host a good WordPress website, you still had to download your own version of it,” said Chris Lema, Liquid Web’s VP of Products and Innovation and WordPress Community Devotee. “Sometimes you went to WordPress.org, but other people were getting it from the one-click installers of their host, which may have been several versions out of date.”
These out-of-date files left many site owners in gridlock, unable to address any issues that would be solved with a simple update for fear of breaking their WordPress installation even further.
“Once you had it running, you had security problems almost invariably,” Chris said. “Likely, when people uploaded those files, they ended up changing read-write permissions and other settings.”
As a result, Liquid Web drew from its two-decade experience in the hosting space and, true to form, devised a solution. The host’s new fully managed WordPress platform is yet another tool it has developed to make site owners’ lives easier. Chris told us Liquid Web’s goal is to do the dirty work of performing updates so customers can focus on running their online businesses.
Handling WP Technicalities so Site Owners Can Focus on Their Missions
At the heart of many WordPress frustrations is the instability caused by outdated installations. This creates an environment where outdated plugins and core files become widely distributed, leaving many hosts and their customers with broken or inefficient WordPress installations before sites are even launched.
While updates may seem like the obvious, quick answer to such a dilemma, they must be performed carefully so the WordPress Core and plugins play nicely together. Naturally, the outdated versions of software leave site owners vulnerable to known attack vectors; just like WordPress is the most popular CMS, it’s the most frequently attacked.
“Many people are still running old versions of plugins, and when we ask them why, their answer is always ‘I don’t want to break anything,’” Chris said. “If they update one of their 30 or so plugins, how do they know it won’t break something else?”
To safely update all of one’s WordPress plugins is a daunting task to tackle alone, especially with larger installations and multiple websites to manage. To combat this, Liquid Web’s managed WordPress platform is capable of automatic backups and systematic updates managed by the Liquid Web team.
“If you ask the developers of the world how they go about checking things, they recommend customers use a staging environment to make a copy of their website and test each plugin on its own,” Chris said. “Despite recommendations, no one’s really doing it. So that’s why it’s one of the core features we’ve rolled into our WordPress solution.”
With the technical details out of the way, webmasters can more easily focus on their business goals with a site that runs smoothly.
Automatic Updates Powered by Visual Snapshots & Actual Humans
Liquid Web’s managed WordPress update system is run by a combination of automated processes and human involvement.
“Each night, we scan every site to determine if any of them have any outdated plugins. If so, we make a copy of the website,” Chris said. “Before we test updates, we take visual snapshots of the site, update the plugin in a separate environment, and then take more snapshots for comparison.”
Successful updates are sent to production and old copies are deleted, while customers are emailed before and after snapshots that illustrate the possible impact of questionable plugins.
Chris cited managed updates as one of Liquid Web’s biggest differentiators, as the careful and thorough process is performed on every plugin to ensure site stability. Not only does the automated process take the guesswork out of fixing one’s site, but it also empowers the site owner with easy access to substantial improvements. The decision to upgrade is ultimately still left in the hands of the webmaster, with all the research and testing done by the Liquid Web team.
“It’s why we think that innovation in WordPress is still possible,” Chris said. “We feel like there’s a lot more to do to make customers feel like ‘managed’ really means ‘managed.’”
A Fully Managed Experience That Zeroes in on Performance & Security
Aside from broken plugins, other common WordPress pain points include security concerns and poor performance. Slow load times are commonly caused by oversized image and video files, prompting many users to instead use a combination of embedding and offsite hosting.
While this alleviates performance concerns, webmasters may have to pay these storage providers on top of their existing hosting bill. With automatic image compression, Liquid Web seeks to make the entire process much easier and cheaper so clients do not need to deal with another service.
When WordPress was first launched in 2003, digital cameras had much lower resolution capabilities, making even the highest quality photos relatively small. Since then, image files have gotten much larger, while load times have suffered. In addition, outdated formatting can cause high-resolution photographs to appear distorted on some sites.
“Over the course of the last decade, we’ve seen customers take those photos and upload them, only for that image to show up in a 300 x 200 display,” Chris said. “When you look at the presentation aspect, it’s showing that tiny 12KB file while actually loading that 10MB image.”
Liquid Web’s automated compression process preserves the aesthetic aspects of these photos while reducing file size. Chris told us some customers using this process were able to save up to 78% of page load time.
In addition to addressing performance concerns, managed WordPress also keeps sites secure for both webmasters and end-users. Liquid Web privately owns all datacenters and can act quickly in the event of hardware or software failure. Aside from keeping files up to date, managed WordPress also comes equipped with automatic SSL and daily backups. Clients are also able to do some testing on their own using the provided staging environment and have access to 24/7 phone, email, and chat support.
Looking Ahead With New Synchronization Features
Liquid Web’s approach to innovation has been — and still is — heavily driven by existing site management issues. Considering the popularity of the WordPress platform, Liquid Web would naturally place a big focus on WordPress innovation.
Looking ahead, Liquid Web plans to zero in on dataset synchronization, which allows for easier changes to existing website structure.
“Say you’ve got a magazine site and you need to go from 35 categories to 10. For the next two weeks, you’re going to be in staging while you edit every single post to be re-categorized,” Chris said. “During this, people are still adding posts and comments, because the business never truly stops. The question is how to synchronize those two data sets.”
The widespread popularity of WordPress is a testament to how well it does its job, despite its flaws and temperamental nature when it comes to upgrades.
“We’re targeting all the problems that everyone already knows exist,” Chris said.
Liquid Web, like many hosting providers, fills a variety of webmaster needs. Unlike the competition, however, Liquid Web prides itself on being one of the very few truly managed WordPress providers — effectively taking the burden of upgrades, the frustration of poor performance, and the worry over security and privacy issues off the shoulders of site owners.