What Should Happen When You Inherit a WordPress Site (and Why)?

It’s always exciting to find prospective clients and secure new business. But it’s extra special when a client trusts you to take over development and design of their WordPress site from someone who abandoned the project or was incapable of fulfilling their needs.

Inheriting a WordPress site can also be nerve-wracking. Sure, it’s great to know that someone hired you because they believed you could improve upon your predecessor’s work. But it’s also a lot of pressure.

Before beginning a project of this nature, it’s important to understand the vast differences between tackling something like this and a traditional web development project. While it would be great if you could just dig right into the website and start working your magic, there’s quite a bit of work to do before making any updates.

You never know what state the previous developer (if there even was one) left the site in, so taking the time to thoroughly review and research the website is essential. In the following article, I’m going to cover the steps to take once you sign a contract and formally inherit a WordPress site from a client.

15 Steps You Need to Do When You Inherit a WordPress Site

WordPress developers don’t always inherit websites because the previous developer was bad at their job (though that is a possibility).

Sometimes you’ll encounter clients who foolishly tried to build a website far beyond their capabilities, and are now desperate for your services. There are also rebranding requests that may lead you down a similar path. You may also encounter cases where the web developer had to take a leave of absence for personal reasons and the client needed a quick replacement to get the job done.

Whatever the reason may be, you need to:

  • Assess what was done to the site previously
  • Review the state of the site now
  • Decide the best way to move forward

Here are the 15 steps you need to do whenever you inherit a WordPress site from a client:

1. Get the Scoop

By now, you’ll already know why the project is being handed off to you. However, before you start poking around the site, set up a call with your client and, if possible, the previous web developer or designer. You’ll want to get the full story on the website as it pertains to:

  • When was it built?
  • What purpose was it built for?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How has it performed to date?
  • What are future goals for the site?

This type of client onboarding for inherited websites enables you to decide the proper course of action going forward.

2. Collect Brand Materials

While you’re talking to your client about the state of the site, explain to them the importance of what you’re about to do. You may find that some of these clients are reluctant to hand over their brand materials (like the style guide, original logo files, purchased images, fonts, etc.)

“Can’t you just get it from the site?” is the question you’ll hear most often.

However, I’d urge you not to move forward with any inherited project until you receive all brand materials and are given full access to everything you need. This type of project requires thorough research into the state of the website. If you don’t want your progress hampered or your ability to do your job impeded, make sure you have everything in hand before moving on.

3. Gain Access to Everything

Next, you’ll need your client (or the old developer) to give you access to:

  • WordPress
  • Web hosting control panel
  • Domain
  • Email hosting
  • SFTP

Verify that all the logins work and that you’ve been granted admin access rights to everything.

4. Adjust User Access

Inherit a WordPress Site - User Access
User access cleanup is an essential piece of the inherited WordPress website review.

Once you’re inside the backend of the website, it’s time to see who has access to the dashboard and adjust accordingly. (This goes for all tools, not just WordPress.)

  • Reset the admin email address and passwords for everything.
  • Delete any users who are no longer with the company and shouldn’t have access to the site.
  • Review each user’s role and permissions against what you see in WordPress. Reassign as needed.
  • Adjust role-specific access rules if they’re not configured properly.
  • Review any plugins or third-party applications–like contact forms, payment gateways, pop-ups, CRM integration, etc.–that may have individual user’s email addresses attached to them. Update accordingly.

And while you’re cleaning up user access, take time to review the login process in general. Is the wp-admin page secure? Is security authentication enabled? Are users required to abide by safe password generation practices? If not, establish a better policy for that now.

5. Review the Hosting Plan

Unless you’re responsible for purchasing a web hosting plan for your clients, this might not be a step you have to take. However, as a WordPress professional, you have an understanding of how the choice of web hosting can have an effect on the performance of a website. So, if you have any doubts regarding the reliability or sufficiency of the web hosting plan your client currently uses, you should review this as well.

Be sure to not only review the choice of web hosting company and the plan type, but also look for things like SSL certificates, CDNs, firewall and DDoS protection, as well as other web hosting features you believe your client’s site needs.

6. Confirm Google Configurations

Inherit a WordPress Site - Google Analytics
Make sure Google Analytics captures data on all parts of the website, not just the default data set.

If your client’s site was built by another WordPress developer, it’s my hope that they already took care of installing Google Analytics and a corresponding dashboard plugin for it. If that’s not the case, you’ll want to take care of that for them ASAP. You should also review the Google Analytics setup, in general, to ensure that all features that need to be enabled (like e-commerce and goals tracking) actually are.

Inherit a WordPress Site - Google Webmaster Tools
Google Webmaster Tools and the Search Console are another Google tool you need to check in on.

Google Webmaster Tools is another Google tool that should be configured and ready to work with your client’s site. Check that:

  • The same website in the Search Console is the same one in Google Analytics.
  • The site listed is the secure HTTP version.
  • There are no other users granted access to the site other than you, the client, and other authorized users.
  • An XML sitemap has been submitted and indexed.
  • Google is crawling both the desktop and mobile versions of the site.

Once you’re assured that the settings are correct, you can do a deeper dive into any issues Google is reporting as they relate to crawl errors, security issues, and more.

7. Run Checks Site-Wide

Inherit a WordPress Site - WP Checkup
Gotta love the convenience of an all-in-one site scanner tool.

While you will eventually do a full walk-through of the site where you check every element, every page, and every interaction, there are tools you should be using to automate other necessary checks.

I’d suggest you use WP Checkup to take care of all those tests at once for security, performance, and SEO. You’ll receive a comprehensive list of all the areas that look good on the site as well as all the areas needing improvement. Suggestions on how to fix any detected issues are provided, too, which will save you time later in having to troubleshoot them on your own.

8. Check for Available Upgrades

Inherit a WordPress Site - Updates Needed
If your client wasn’t using auto updates previously, WordPress may be in serious need of an upgrade.

This step is an easy one to check off. Simply visit the WordPress dashboard to see whether or not everything is upgraded to the latest version; this includes the WordPress core, themes, and plugins. Don’t make any updates yet. Just make note of where everything stands.

9. Review Current Plugins

A plugin analysis is necessary any time you take over a WordPress site from someone else.

First, review what is currently installed on the site. Delete any plugins that are deactivated and not in use.

Secondly, make sure you understand what purpose each plugin serves on the site. If you don’t believe it’s necessary, make note of it.

Thirdly, note whether the previous developer over-relied on plugins. If those features can be replicated with code or with a lighter weight plugin, you should switch them out.

Also, verify that the plugins most critical to site performance exist. Those being:

10. Review Current Theme File

The current theme needs to be closely examined before moving forward. The first thing to do is request the original theme files from your client if they did not already provide you with them. Next, check the following:

  • Review the reputation of the theme in the WordPress repository or from whatever theme site it came from.
  • Make sure the theme is modernly designed, responsive, and performs well.
  • Check for available support from the theme developer.
  • Check in WordPress to see if a child theme was created.
  • Review the quality of the theme’s code. If you’re not comfortable doing this on your own, you can use the Theme Check plugin.

Any significant issues and concerns with the theme should be brought immediately to the client.

11. Document the Walk-Through

Next, you’ll want to do a full walk-through of the frontend of the site and take notes on what you see–the good, the bad, and the ugly:

  • What’s your feeling on the design?
  • Did you encounter any bugs as you engaged with CTAs, contact forms, or any other interactive elements?
  • Were the load times fast enough?
  • Did you experience issues with readability?
  • Would you describe the process as seamless between desktop and mobile visits?
  • And so on.

The best way to approach this is to capture your walk-through on video or with a series of screenshots. You can use a tool like Jing to do this. Or you can use the Internet Wayback Machine later on if you forget to capture copies of how the site looked before you started making adjustments.

The reason why I recommend this is two-fold. For starters, if a client tries to blame you for something that’s been present on the site long before you inherited it, you can use those documented records in your defense. Secondly, all of these visual records of the site now serve as a great “Before” shot, which you can later use as you build a case study around the work you’ve done to the site (as evidenced by screenshots and videos of the “After”).

12. Compile Your Notes

Compile all the notes and records you’ve captured along the way into one easy-to-follow analysis. Before moving on to implement updates or begin a complete redesign of the site, review your analysis with the client. Be sure they understand the problem areas, why you recommend they be fixed, and provide them with details on what you intend to do.

The more clearly you can communicate with clients now, the easier it’ll be to get their approval down the road.

13. Create a Backup

Inherit a WordPress Site - Snapshot Pro
Use Snapshot Pro to ensure you have the latest version of the site backed up.

Now is when your ideas for improving the current state of the site could potentially alter it in ways you hadn’t anticipated or wanted. So, before you do anything else, make sure there is a backup plugin installed in WordPress and save a copy of it before you move on to the next step.

Snapshot Pro is always a great choice!

14. Put the Site Under Construction

This step is optional, though it’s one you may decide is best for the site if what’s there now, to be quite frank, sucks. By putting a website under construction or into maintenance mode, you can prevent people from encountering a website that’s likely to do your client’s brand more harm than good while you work on repairing it.

15. Create a Staging Environment

Before you get to work, see if a staging environment has already been created for the site. If not, set one up so you can safely make adjustments or redesign the website without tampering with what’s there now.

Wrapping Up

Regardless of where the site came from, who had a hand in building it, and what state it currently lies in, this inherited WordPress site is now your responsibility. The prep work you do once it becomes yours will not only ensure that you have full access to everything you need to update and manage the site, but that you are only liable for changes made to the site going forward. In 15 steps (or less) you can easily accomplish this.

Suzanne Scacca
Do you find inherited website projects intimidating? Why or why not?