How to troubleshoot common errors on a WordPress site

by Nate Hoffelder

After a decade of running The Digital Reader, Nate is a veteran web publisher with experience in design, maintenance, recovery, and troubleshooting. What little he doesn't know, he can learn.

December 30, 2017

WordPress websites are complex, and that is both a blessing and a curse.

You can add new features by installing a plugin, replacing the theme, editing the code, or inserting a script, but each addition is one more source of problems. Sometimes those plugins, scripts, and code tweaks don’t play nice with each other. This is how WordPress developed a reputation for errors showing up on one site that don’t appear on any other site, and why troubleshooting WP errors is such a highly valued skill.

I can’t teach you all I know about troubleshooting WP in a single post, but I can cover the basics and explain the process I use.

Whenever I have to fix a broken site, the first thing I do find out whatever setting was changed last, or whatever plugin was just installed/updated, or if anything else has been added to the site. Whatever it is, I undo it. A lot of the time this will solve all the issues.

Next, I see if anyone else can confirm the problem exists, because sometimes the problem has nothing to do with your site.

When you think your site may be broken, you might actually be seeing a problem caused by:

  • the site,
  • the hosting company’s servers,
  • your ISP, or
  • some part of the internet between where your computer and where site lives on the server. Seriously, on a certain level the internet really is like a series of tubes; sometimes one of those tubes break and causes problems.

That’s why the very first step is to ask friends on social networks and elsewhere to visit your site and tell you if they see the same problem. If they can’t, then the problem might not be your site at all.  The problem might be with your ISP, or some part of the internet just decided to stop working.

If someone can confirm the problem exists then the next step is to examine any error code that happens at the same time.

If the code is a 3-digit html code, it doesn’t help so much, but sometimes the broken site will present an error message with a long line of code specifying where or why the site crashed.

If there is a line of code then what I do is look at the last section of that line of code. Sometimes googling that last section will lead to clues that tell me me which part of the site is misbehaving. That clue might be a search result on the plugin developer’s website, or a forum post created by someone with the same problem,

If the problem is:

  • A plugin: The best option is to disable the plugin and find a replacement.  It’s not worth wasting your time trying to fix something when you can delete the problem in a few minutes.
  • The theme: Consider contacting the theme’s developer and asking them for help.  There’s a good chance they will be able to help.
  • A service you are using with your site: You should contact that service’s help dept so they can explain how to fix it. They’ll know the solution, or at least will be able to help you get closer to a solution.

If googling the error code doesn’t help solve your problem, the next step is to go to your plugin menu and disable the plugins one at a time. After you disable a plugin, check to see if the problem has gone away.  If it has vanished, great – the plugin may have been causing the problem with your site (on the other hand, maybe not).

If you disable all of your plugins and the problem is still happening, then repeat the process. And again.

No, seriously, sometimes you only find the cause after several tries.

But if you can’t find the problem, here is the point where you might want to call in an expert.

If the above post hasn’t solved your problem, then you have encountered a 1% problem – one so arcane that you really need an expert because fixing it at this point will take serious skull sweat.

I am looking forward to it.

Hi, I'm Nate.

I build and fix websites for authors, and I am also a tech VA. I can build you a website that looks great and turns visitors into fans, and I can also fix your tech when it breaks. Let me fight with tech support so you don’t have to.

My blog has everything you need to know about websites and online services. Don’t see what you need. or want personalized help? Reach out.

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