How to Prepare Your WordPress Site for a Surge in Traffic
OK, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for: there’s a huge surge in traffic on your WordPress site. Success! But then you get a message from Hummingbird or your web host or whatever uptime monitoring service you use, and it’s saying your site’s gone down. What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks?
Right. So let’s focus on the positives here. It’s exciting that your site’s become so popular. Then again, that sucks pretty badly that your site went down. What if there were visitors coming back to finally make a purchase they’d been mulling all day, but instead they found an HTTP status code telling them there’s something wrong with your site? That could be just as bad for your site’s reputation as having an ugly design or slow loading pages.
So, what now?
In this article, I’m going to cover:
- How to anticipate traffic spikes,
- How to prepare your site in advance for traffic surges, and
- What to do when your site crashes or slows down after a surge.
Learn How to Predict Spikes in Web Traffic
Alright, so it’s awesome that your site experienced an uptick in traffic. Kudos on being so popular! This was your goal anyway, right? Build a beautiful site, have a unique selling proposition that’s in high demand and watch as thousands (and, some day – fingers crossed – millions) of people flock to it.
While traffic spikes can be a positive indication of how well your business is doing, the effects they can have on your site if unprepared for them can be devastating. Sure, sometimes they’ll force your site offline completely, but there are other times where they just make page load times so painstakingly slow. Either way, the effect is the same on visitors.
Think about it like this:
- Visitors realize something’s up with your site. Either access is blocked or the pages won’t load, so they bail.
- You now need to call your web host and see if they can help get it back up. Maybe you have to pay for more server space or maybe you need to find a new hosting provider.
- There’s also the cleanup to think about. The site’s back up, but is everything still in one piece? Do you need to do a clean sweep to ensure the continued surge of traffic doesn’t do more harm?
- And what about your customers? Do you need to issue an apology and let anyone know that the site was offline?
That’s a lot of time, money, and new business you might potentially lose simply because you hadn’t anticipated this problem.
Here are a few things you can do to try and predict when these surges will hit:
Establish a Baseline
Study your site’s analytics very closely, even if it’s only been up a few months. Take this time to gauge what exactly your site is capable of doing in terms of traffic. You can then use this baseline and the small incremental shifts in traffic each day to predict where your site will be six months, twelve months, or even a couple years from now.
By understanding your site’s natural growth pattern, it’ll be easier to spot fluctuations in its rhythm when traffic spikes are about to occur.
Review the Mini Spikes
While a mini spike may not seem like a big deal, it’s probably at least piqued your curiosity about what happened that day to make it happen in the first place. This is why reviewing your analytics regularly is so helpful. Watch for these mini spikes and do a deep dive to figure out what caused it:
- Is there one specific place where the traffic came from, either in terms of a source website or geographically?
- Are you seeing these spikes happen on the same days or at the same times?
- Do you know of a specific event that occurred right before the hit in traffic happened?
Think of traffic surges like earthquakes. While the mini spikes might not do any harm, there’s a lot you can learn from them in preparation for the “big one”.
Pay Attention to the News
If you don’t have a Google alert set up for your site, go make one now. Even if you don’t have pingbacks activated on your site, you should always be in the know when your site or business makes a splash on Google. Same goes for social media.
Watch Your Site’s Activity
Obviously, you want to know what’s happening in terms of the number of visitors, but it’s just as important to watch for other signs of growing interest. Keep a close eye on the comments section of your blog. Stay in the know whenever someone signs up for your newsletter, RSS feed, and so on, too. If you’re suddenly seeing a ton of new followers and engagement with your posts, something may be brewing.
Be Mindful of Your Marketing
Marketing should never be an out of sight, out of mind kind of thing. Any piece of content or campaign you put out into the world should be closely monitored and cultivated. For one, it lets you know how well it’s doing. Secondly, it can help you prepare your site for whatever kickback in traffic comes from it.
Preparing Your WordPress Site for Traffic Surges
There aren’t always warning signs that let you know when a traffic spike is about to occur. Maybe one of your older posts hit the jackpot and went viral. Maybe your company got a write-up on a major blog and you missed the pingback. Or maybe people are suddenly flocking to your site because they saw a sign at your restaurant promoting a free taco giveaway for the first 50 email subscribers.
There’s nothing good that can come from being unprepared for a traffic surge, which is why anticipating it is only half the battle. You also need to prepare your site for it ahead of time with the following tools:
#1. Web Hosting
The first tool you should turn your attention to is your web hosting. If your site’s traffic is steadily growing each day and you’re starting to notice mini spikes of traffic, or if you’re about to ramp up your marketing efforts, it’s probably time to get off that shared hosting plan and move to something more fluid and scalable.
The last thing you want is for your hosting company to call and threaten to pull your site down because it’s negatively affecting others who share server space with you. Cloud hosting plans with load balancers are a good option to consider, but if you’re unsure, talk with your web host to see what they recommend.
Your next stop needs to be a content delivery network (CDN) service. Think of this like a web hosting plan that sits on top of your web hosting plan. Does that seem like too much? It’s not if you have a large global audience who would benefit from being able to access your site from servers located closer to them. If speed and reliability of service is a concern, then a CDN is a must.
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#3. Caching Plugin
If you’re not sure how your site’s caching is currently performing, the SEO Site Checkup tool will give you an idea of what’s going on.
#4. Optimize Your Images
Ideally, you’ll want to do a general assessment of your site’s bottlenecks. You might have some really cool animated transitions or other dynamic content floating around on your site, but if they’re going to mean the difference between your site staying up or going down during a spike, it might be worth it to ditch them. The one thing you shouldn’t have to compromise on, however, are your images. All you need is a good image optimization plugin to keep those bad boys in check.
Obviously, we recommend Smush for image optimization. Not only is Smush active on 800,000 WordPress installs, this year it won Torque’s Plugin Madness Competition.
#5. Stress Test Your Site
In addition to testing your site for caching issues, don’t forget to run it through the wringer with a stress-testing tool. What these tools do is allow you to create hypothetical traffic surges for your site and then test how well it performs under pressure. See your server’s limits first-hand and use the data to create a plan to scale your site.
#6. Web Performance Monitoring
While there’s a possibility that a spike in traffic will be a one-off occurrence, it’s always best to play it safe and assume that surges are an indication of things to come. If your site has reached a point where traffic isn’t entirely predictable or you’re worried about how much you’re pushing the limits of your web hosting plan, it’s probably time to sign up for a web performance monitoring service. They’ll not only check for uptime issues, but they’ll watch for the actual user’s experience on your site and let you know if or when they spot potential issues.
We recommend our own Uptime monitoring tool included in Hummingbird. Uptime lets you know the second your site goes down.
#7. Security Plugin
You’ve no doubt seen the news stories whenever major sites like Twitter get taken down by a massive onslaught of hackers. These DDoS attacks don’t always bring sites down entirely, but they do always cause issues with intermittent uptime and sluggish on-site performance. Imagine what would happen if they targeted your site? While I don’t think you need another reminder that security is important, I do think it’s worth mentioning it again in the context of this topic since not all sources of traffic are benevolent.
WordPress as a content management system is very easy to use, which is why there’s absolutely no excuse for leaving a mess behind in there as you work. This is particularly relevant to the subject of traffic surges since lightweight sites tend to handle them better than those that are weighed down (which is why file compression and caching are so important). If you haven’t taken the time to do your spring cleaning this year, then I’d suggest you get to it now. Ditch any unused plugins, themes, images, posts, or pages.
The inspiration for this post came from a recent trip I made to one of my favorite local restaurants. Typically, I know what to expect from a night out there, and I think the same holds true on their end of things since they’re always timely with the service and food is always served hot and fresh. However, on this one particular night, there was a line out the door, their hosts and servers looked totally frazzled, and it took about an hour to get our food.
Needless to say, it was a bad experience for me and my friends and there were three or four times when we discussed the possibility of leaving. Here’s the thing though: I think that night turned out just as poorly for the restaurant, too. They clearly had no idea that kind of foot traffic was about to come in as they were undoubtedly unprepared for it. In all likelihood, their servers probably got tipped poorly, customers cancelled orders they were frustrated waiting for, and their business ended up with way too many bad reviews on Yelp and Facebook that night.
Don’t let your site become like that restaurant. Because no matter how many customers (visitors) you have that are loyal, who knows how many bad experiences it’ll take to destroy their confidence in you. It doesn’t take much to turn people off from a website. Your best bet? Enact a three-pronged plan of attack against traffic surges:
First, know your site’s traffic patterns inside and out so it’ll be easier to spot them before they happen.
Next, prep your server and site for any unexpected traffic spikes.
And, finally, have a post-crash plan in place, just in case something happens. This should include daily backups of your site, bookmarked contact information for your web host, and a visitor/customer notification strategy for social, email, and your blog.