Each time we hear about a Web site being attacked, the owner of the hacked site doesn’t understand why their site was targeted. The short answer is that the bad guys are rarely looking to attack a specific site. Instead they are looking for sites that are vulnerable. Let’s go over some of the specifics that can make your site vulnerable and ways you can protect it.
For a minute, pretend you are an enterprising hacker and you want to make the most money possible. If you are going to attack sites, wouldn’t it make sense to go after the most popular platform on the Web? WordPress powers 28% of all sites (as of this writing) which is far more than any other platform. Because of this, it is targeted regularly.
What Needs Updated
There are three major components to the WordPress ecosystem that can be vulnerable. First is the core WordPress installation. Next are themes installed in WordPress. Every site must have at least one theme and it is common to have 2-5 installed. The third are plugins that are added to a WordPress site. Typically sites will have 10-25 plugins installed. All of these components provide a way for bad guys to compromise your site. Let’s look at each component separately.
In a given year, the core WordPress is updated 5-10 times. Updates address known security issues, fix bugs and add new features. For site security, the most important reason to install an update quickly is to make sure the security issues are patched. When you purchase hosting for a WordPress site, it may include automatic installation of the core WordPress files. It also may not. We’ve seen sites that haven’t had the core WordPress updated in several years and those sites are huge targets for hackers.
For those of you who have hosting plans that automatically update the core WordPress, you can at least breathe easy on that component. Most site owners probably don’t even know if the updates are automatic so this is something worth investigating. If your site isn’t updated automatically, you need to develop a plan to check for updates and get them installed in a timely manner.
Do You Have a Good Theme?
It is possible that a theme never has updates released. While this may seem like a good thing since you don’t have to install the update, it typically means the theme becomes more vulnerable over time. Let’s pretend you use XYZ Theme (this is a fictional name) and it hasn’t been updated in a year. In total, we’ll say this theme is installed on 10,000 sites. When the hackers find an issue with that theme, they know they can attack a large number of sites very quickly. They aren’t targeting your site, they are targeting all sites with that theme.
Other themes are updated almost every week. While this can mean you have more updates to install, it also means the developers are making sure it is as safe as possible. This is one of many reasons we like Elegant Themes. Plus they are likely adding new features! The key is that someone must login to the back end of your site and install those updates in a timely manner. This is not a feature often included as part of your site hosting. So if you aren’t doing it, is someone else doing it for you?
Since most sites have a small number of themes installed, it is important to make sure they are all updated. Even the themes not active can be vulnerable. Maybe some of them should be deleted. Even then, the best plan is to make sure they are all updated regularly.
Plugins Provide Power and Vulnerability
Plugins make it very easy to add features to your site, even by adding a layer of security. But each plugin also provides one more component that can be vulnerable. You want a form on your site for visitors to contact you, right? So let’s pretend your site uses ABC Form Builder (again, a fictional name). It is a really popular plugin with 500,000 installs. And because it allows anyone to enter information, it is especially vulnerable if the developer has missed something. When you don’t update it for six months, the hackers will gladly come infect your site with malware.
Since most sites have at least ten plugins and these plugins are regularly updated, you have to really stay on top of it. On a given site, it is quite common to have at least five plugin updates in a given week. If any of them aren’t installed, the bad guys may have a way to attack your site.
We’re not aware of any hosting plan that includes plugin updates. Maybe your Web developer has included this in the plan they sell to you. What we’ve seen is that most site owners simply don’t install updates. It is those same site owners who don’t understand why their site was hacked. Are you installing plugin updates? Is someone else installing them for you?
The Basic Level of Protection
At the very least, every WordPress site must have a plan in place to install updates to the three components we’ve discussed. Even if this is only done once a week, it could take 10-15 minutes to login to the site and get everything updated. Over a month’s time, that could add up to as much as an hour. Will you take the time to do it? Do you want to pay your Web site developer for an hour of their time to do it?
This is exactly why we developed our WordPress Maintenance Service. Even our Bronze plan does more than simply keep these components updated. Instead of just doing it weekly, updates are installed more often to make sure security patches are in place quickly. So do you want to take an hour or more to do it? Do you want to pay for an hour of your developer’s time? Or do you want it done for a fraction of the cost on an even more regular basis?
What Happens When My Site Gets Hacked?
Each hack is different. Some hacks don’t seem to have any noticeable change to a site. Other hacks will take a site completely offline. Would not having a Web site for a few days hurt you? Some hacks install malware which infects visitors to your site and causes Google to label you as a bad site and remove you from search engine rankings. Would it hurt you if your visitors are mad at you and your site no longer appears safe to Google? Getting that label removed and re-gaining your Google ranking can take quite a bit of time.
We’ve also seen hacks where legitimate blog posts are deleted and a number of spammy posts were added. Would it hurt you if the posts you created were gone forever? Would your visitors trust you if your site had a bunch of spammy posts?
Instead of asking yourself why anyone would want to hack your site, you should just assume it is being attacked every single day. Why? Quite simply, it is being attacked. Installing updates regularly is the first line of protection. More can be done by making sure your site is backed up. Should it get hacked, the backup could save you. Active security protection can also be put in place to repel the attacks. This additional protection is part of our Silver WordPress Maintenance plan.
As I write this, I think of an appliance commercial from long ago with the tagline “you can pay me now or you can pay me later.” If you want to do the maintenance yourself, go for it. It’s just most of you aren’t doing it. I’d rather you invest in a maintenance plan to keep your site working well. If not, the cost to recover your site after a hack is probably going to be a lot higher. Add to that any lost revenue from being without a working site for a period of time.
Foster D. Coburn III is author of 13 best-selling books on CorelDRAW and has been a contributor to numerous technology and graphics-related magazines. Foster has taken many projects, including this Web site, from the early design stage through to a finished piece. He has been a featured speaker at many graphics conferences. His first Web site was built in 1995 and he has been working exclusively in WordPress since 2013.