In the past, we’ve discussed how to get started with WordPress plugin development. However, what happens after your plugin is finished and in the hands of users? Of course, your job is far from done at that point, as it’s important to maintain your plugin after launch.
After all, you’ll want to make sure that anyone who downloads and installs your plugin can use it effectively. What’s more, keeping your plugin secure and compatible with recent versions of WordPress is also a key consideration. This will ensure that it remains relevant over time, and doesn’t have a negative impact on anyone’s site.
In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of plugin maintenance, and cover some of the most important tasks involved. Before that, we’ll offer some insight into what WordPress plugin maintenance actually consists of. Let’s take a look!
An Introduction to WordPress Plugin Maintenance
For the uninitiated, let’s briefly summarize what a typical plugin development workflow looks like. At a minimum, this involves the following steps:
- A planning (or even pre-planning) stage
- Actual development time in front of your code editor
- Bug testing
- Writing the initial documentation
Of course, this process can vary somewhat depending on a number of factors. These include each project’s goal, your own personal preferences, and so on. For example, if you’re working on a personal side project, you may just open your code editor and jump right in. On the other hand, a project for a paying client may see you bound to their schedule, time frame, and considerations.
However, once all of the necessary steps are complete and the plugin goes live, you’ll be in the maintenance phase. In a nutshell, this consists of your efforts to keep the plugin relevant, usable, and secure. You can do this by developing updates, carrying out technical support, and so on. Basically, you’re managing the day-to-day use of the plugin by its users.
As with the development portion of your project, there are plenty of steps to take here. We’ll discuss them in more detail later on. Before that, we need to talk about why this maintenance phase is so vital.
The Importance of Maintaining Your WordPress Plugin After Launch
When it comes to why you should be maintaining your plugin, many of the reasons are fairly obvious. However, given the recent purge of unused plugins, it’s clear that many developers neglect this post-publishing procedure. Since some plugins aren’t created with mass consumption in mind, it’s understandable that the end of a project can signal a halt to development.
What’s more, it’s easy to assume that a niche plugin with a handful of users doesn’t need to be maintained, especially if its functionality is simple. However, keeping your plugin in tip-top shape is vital regardless of its end goal or focus. This is true even for custom plugins developed for clients, and niche plugins that will only be useful for connecting APIs.
There are many reasons for this, including that:
- Regardless of its functionality, a plugin can still become incompatible with newer versions of WordPress.
- Even a small user base will need dedicated support from time to time.
- Regular updates can offer a lot of benefits to you as well as to users. They can promote trust, and provide a clear indicator that you’re still ‘on board’ with user needs.
Of course, the most important argument is that keeping your WordPress plugin maintained is simply the right thing to do as a developer. Of course, maintenance for a plugin nobody will be using is pointless. However, even plugins with small or fluctuating user bases will still need to make a strong first impression on potential new users.
Finally, for plugins created as products or for other monetization opportunities, regular maintenance is a prerequisite for strong customer relationships and sales. In fact, in these cases, it’s best to create a clear schedule related to upkeep, or you might end up leaving money on the table.
How to Maintain Your WordPress Plugin After It’s Published (2 Key Considerations)
Now, it’s time to get a little more practical. We’ve been talking a lot about why maintaining your plugin is so important, but we haven’t talked much about the how. Therefore, let’s look at two key considerations, which together will form the foundation for your plugin maintenance strategy.
1. Customer Support
Every plugin published in the WordPress directory receives a dedicated support forum once it’s live. Even if you’re planning on offering support through other channels as well, this forum is a perfect way to collate, monitor, and administer to all of the requests you receive. If your plugin’s home is elsewhere, it’s still vital to find a way you can offer users help when they need it.
How you actually provide that support will vary based on your plugin’s goal and development. To get you started, we’d recommend checking out a few pieces that Automattic’s Andrew Spittle wrote on the best approach to support and resolution speed. Jetpack’s website also has some excellent information on how users should submit bug reports – this is worth its weight in gold if you deal with non-technical users.
Ultimately, what matters is that users of your plugins have a way to get answers to questions and help with issues, whether that’s from you or from other community members.
2. Compatibility and Security
Along with maintaining your plugin by providing support, you’ll also want to update it from time to time. The most important reason to do this is to ensure compatibility with WordPress core. As we suggested earlier, a plugin that’s incompatible with WordPress itself is as good as useless. Plus, there’s almost a knee-jerk response from users when they see a seemingly-abandoned plugin (the response being to avoid it).
Keeping your plugin up to date is somewhat beyond the scope of this article, as far as the actual coding required. However, we can offer some tips to help you get your updates correct, without incurring the wrath of the WordPress plugin team:
- You’ll need to be familiar with the Subversion (SVN) control system. Both the Plugin Handbook and the WordPress Codex have tutorials on this, and there’s a comprehensive Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on the Make WordPress site.
- Don’t push every iterative change from Git live. SVN should be used for your current release versions, and Git for versioning.
- Speaking of which, don’t clog your release repository with older versions, as they’re not often needed. Instead, simply keep the last few in place.
- Make sure your readme file is populated correctly, as this impact the metrics and information displayed on your WordPress.org page.
Finally, maintaining plugin security is also vital. The bulk of this should have been taken care of during the development phase. However, there’s still merit in taking a fresh look at security during every update. In particular, you’ll want to capitalize on any new developments that can help you keep your users safe.
To do this, your best bet is once again the WordPress Plugin Handbook, specifically the Plugin Security section. This is kept up to date and should be the first place you go when looking for ways to shore up your plugin’s potential vulnerabilities.
There’s plenty of content online that will help you master the planning stage of creating a WordPress plugin. There’s also a wealth of advice on how to actually carry out development and design during your project. However, many developers are left in the cold after that point, as there’s little discussion on how to keep your plugin stable and your users happy.
In our opinion, your users should be a primary consideration both during development and afterward. Given this, running a welcoming support channel will be of benefit, as will providing regular bug fixes and updates. Making sure your plugin is secure and stable over the long term also keeps you ahead of the curve when it comes to the future evolution of your project.
Do you have any questions about how to carry out proper WordPress plugin maintenance? Let us know in the comments section below!
Featured image: Chillsoffear.