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Blogging Pitfalls: Template Fail

Here’s a scary thought for most bloggers. At some point, most likely, you’re going to screw up your site in a very bad way.

Computers are finicky things and your site is no different. With one wrong move you are more than liable to blow your site up, making it either extremely ugly or entirely unusable to your visitors.

This can be a very frightening and embarrassing thing. Not only is it a failure that creates a tremendous panic when it happens, it’s a very public blunder that, quite literally, the entire world can see.

But while there’s no shame in making a mistake with your site and borking it for all to see, it’s a pitfall that is still well worth avoiding if you can. Fortunately, there are several steps that you can take to ensure that you don’t fall into this trap and that, if you do, you can get out of it easily.

The Pitfall

A classic site fail can often start in the most innocent of ways. Wanting to add a new widget to the sidebar, needing to fix a small CSS bug or wanting to install a new plugin or feature.

However, it’s easy to forget that code is a very delicate thing and even a small change can lead to big results. Unfortunately, a lot of the time we’re editing our sites there’s no “undo” feature and we can’t simply go back to what we had, forcing us to reach in and try to find and fix the problem.

That too, unfortunately, carries its own risks. A lot of times bloggers find that, when they try to fix the mess they’ve made they instead make a bigger one, creating new problems that have to be addressed.

This can create a pretty nasty spiral, one where every “fix” leads to a new issue that has to be addressed and creates a fire that grows out of control. It can sometimes get so bad that a blogger has to either revert back to the original theme, redoing all of the edits they made to it over time, or simply switch to a new one, completely ruining the branding and recognition that came with the previous theme.

It’s a difficult pitfall to deal with and it is one that will bite almost every blogger at some point, at least in some way. But what separates those who suffer a sleepless night from those who correct the problem immediately is how one prepares for it and the mindset they go into code editing with.

How to Avoid it

The simplest way to avoid this pitfall is to have a test site, perhaps at http://test.yourdomain.com, keeping it live with a duplicate of your database, your theme, your plugins, etc. This gives you a safe environment to try out your changes before porting them over to your live site.

The problem with setting up and maintaining a test site is that it simply isn’t practical for small changes. While a good idea and even critical for making larger changes to your site, maintaining two copies of your site just so you can test out every minor tweak doesn’t make a great deal of sense unless there is a lot of money or time at stake.

Instead, for smaller changes, it may be better to simply go ahead and work on your live site, but be smarter about how you make the changes.

The key is to make your edits mindful that they could possibly wipe your site off the map. Rather than approaching site edits like a painter trying to create a masterpiece, see yourself more like a bomb squad technician trying not to blow yourself up while defusing a warhead.

With that in mind, here are a few tips to keep you from doing just that:

  1. Work on One Thing at a Time: Edit one thing on your site at a time and then test it thoroughly before moving onto the next. This way, if something does go wrong you know exactly what caused it.
  2. Copy Before You Edit: Before you edit your template files, be sure to copy the contents of the current file to a text editor. WordPres, Blogger, etc. do not have a template “undo” feature so, if your change screws up your site, you can easily retrieve the old code and revert back to it before trying again.
  3. Be Mindful of Plugins: Remember that plugins often times manipulate your theme and in ways you can’t see when editing your theme files. Exercise caution when installing new plugins and upgrading existing ones.
  4. Stick to the Script: If you’re adding code provided by a third party, unless you really know what you’re doing, don’t edit the code before pasting it. Whether it is a stat counter or a Facebook fan box, changing the code is a big risk.
  5. Learn HTML, PHP and CSS: Finally, it helps to know at least the basics of HTML, PHP and CSS. You don’t have to be able to code a whole site from scratch, but know enough to feel comfortable editing the code and be able to spot problems in formatting. That will go a long way to preventing simple mistakes.

In the end, if you are mindful of the risk and take steps to mitigate it, you probably won’t have a serious problem. Even if the worst does happen and your site is a mess, t’s trivial to bring it back and undo the damage if you were taking precautions going in.

As such, there’s a lot of reasons why your template might break, but not a lot of reasons why it should stay broken for very long.

Bottom Line

For most bloggers, this is a pitfall that they step into only once. A single frustrating, sleepless night of code editing and panic is usually enough to teach the lesson.

However, it’s a lesson that no blogger should have to learn the hard way. As a pitfall, it’s easily avoided and mitigated though few bloggers, when starting out, see the danger for what it is.

The reason is that a blog template has less in common with a Word document and more in common with a computer program. It isn’t just a format for your text, though that is in there, it’s also a set of instructions your server has to perform. Get those instructions wrong and your site doesn’t work.

Once you have an appreciation for that, avoiding this pitfall becomes much easier to do.

Categories: Blogging Tips, WordPress Themes
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Comments

  1. gina says: 4/10/2011

    good article thanks for sharing :)

    Reply

  2. Ozio Media says: 4/11/2011

    Of course avoiding making a formatting mistake and not completely wrecking the layout of your blog in the first place is the best option, but what is one to do if this does happen? An ideal solution is to come up with a creative explanation or find a way to use your blogging blunder to your advantage. Also, turn the mess into an opportunity. Have your followers vote on which template they like best, offer an incentive like a free e-newsletter subscription, and turn your blunder into a way to illicit feedback and follower interaction.

    Reply

  3. Julie W. ) says: 4/15/2011

    When in doubt while editing php files, I do one of two things: 1) comment out the original code in the .php file I’m editing i.e. That way I know where I made the change and I didn’t delete any original coding in case I need to go back to it. or …
    2) Copy the original .php file and name it NEWfooter.php for example. When I upload the NEWfooter.php, I’ll rename the existing footer.php as ORIGfooter.php, and change NEWfooter.php as footer.php. May sound confusing at first, but in the long run it’s a simple change of the file name and a refresh to switch it back. -cheers!

    Reply

  4. Adriana says: 2/27/2012

    thanks for share!

    Reply

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