What to do when your WordPress just refuses to load?

What should you do if your WordPress site just stops loading? This article shares the writer’s experience with this issue where a step-by-step solution for the problem is given. Also highlighted is the usage of Page Builder plugins & their associated supporting plugins. Never update plugins en mass is the key message.

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Just under four days ago, I found out to my horror that my website-blog running on WordPress just refused to load. This was after I did the routine updating of plugins and themes. So I Googled what one is suppose to do (and what could have gone wrong). I tried several “remedies” found on Google and am sharing my learning on this with my readers.

Don’t click the “Update” button!

Previously, as advised by many experts, I dutifully would go to the “Plugins” page to manually update each affected plugin. I was getting lazy and lately had been clicking the “Update” tab found at the top menu of my Dashboard. That was the key to all my woes (as shall be divulged below).

There were several plugins to be updated. I clicked the Update button, the updating proceeded, but it then STOP! The screen of my website (aka this one that you are reading) went totally blank!

My website went ‘dead’! Panic set in! “What the devil did I do?”, I asked myself.

Frantic search for the solution

Off I went to Google “wordpress site won’t load after update of plugins” and found several useful sites.

The best of these was one with a good advisory which gave more or less this message: “Don’t trust the Update button, do your plugin update one by one so that if you hit trouble, at least you can easily identify the culprit.”  So I learned that I had to do a lot more to overcome this outage. I followed the instructions given and here are the steps I took.

  1. I accessed the control panel (cpanel) of my website hosting.
  2. Using “File Manager” I traced my path to the public.html and found the folder with my WordPress installation.

  3. Diving deeper, inside my WordPress folder, I located the subfolder “wp-content” where it has a sub-subfolder called “plugins”.

  4. I renamed “plugins” to “brokenplugins”. Then created a new folder which I named “plugins”.
  5. I opened another tab on my web browser and tried my luck in accessing my website.  And it was back on! But as the “plugins” folder was empty, none of the plugins worked.
  6. I then went back to the “File Manager” and copied the plugins from “brokenplugins” to “plugins”, doing so one at a time. For each plugin that I copied over, I would go back to my website and reload to see if the newly copied in plugin caused any problematic files (aka corrupted files) that would crash the website.  All the plugins seemed to have uncorrupted files. But in this way of copying, all the plugins are still inactivated.
  7. Next step was for me to activate each one of the plugins, one by one. And I found the culprit! It was Caldera Forms. WordPress was good that it detected the problem and did not allow me to activate Caldera Forms.
  8. I deleted Caldera Form from the “plugins” sub-subfolder and I thought my problem was solved.

Removal of a plugin, removed content associated with it too!

Of course when you remove a plugin, the associated features and content would be removed too! In my case it was the contact form and order form. The latter actually was put in as “shortcode” on multiple pages of my website.

Once bitten, twice shy. I realized that I should have just used the “default” contact form from WordPress instead. I could also create a simple order form that served my needs from this too.

However, I noticed another issue!

I couldn’t load Elementor, the page builder plugin!

During earlier updating of Elementor and the third-party supporting plugins, I presume somehow the main Elementor editor was prevented from loading. Elementor is a very useful page builder plugin that takes that pain out of having to learn html coding for WordPress users like me. It allows users to do lots of web page design work using its standard elements which are supplemented by many third-party’s plugins too.

With Elementor not loading, although all the content I created using it was still showing, I was prevented from editing any content created with it. Hence I could not replace the forms previously made using Caldera Forms (and the ‘shortcodes” for these forms which remained after Caldera Forms was removed as a plugin were very glaring on the affected pages!).

Lot’s of advise on Google but …..

I found a lot of advisory via Google to tackle the Elementor plugin not loading issue. Well, at least I was not alone. One of these was from Elementor itself which gave instructions to change some settings. This did not work for me!

I then found another page from Elementor which advised that increasing the memory allocated to WordPress may solved the issue. But I would have to edit the associated php file, wp-config.php which was found in the main WordPress installation folder. I was a bit apprehensive about messing around with a php file but the instructions given by a different web page seemed to be showing that this was just a one-liner addition. So I increased my WordPress allocated memory to 128 Mb. But this did not bring back Elementor’s editor either.

I went back to Elementor’s support page and followed its advisory and proceeded to deactivate and reactivate each plugin in turn to see if any one of these was stopping Elementor editor from loading. I found out that the culprit was indeed a supporting plugin for Elementor, “Premium Addons for Elementor”. I could not even deactivate this plugin (after it was activated earlier). As such it would not be possible for me to just delete it via Dashboard of WordPress. I ended up having to remove the culprit using “File Manager”. However a warning message kept showing up at the Dashboard which warned about the missing “Premium Addons for Elementor”. Emptying the cache several times did not remove this message. [But after a reload of the website, on the next day, this message was gone!]

Again, I had to rewrite all the content that was created by the elements provided by “Premium Addons”.

Lessons Learned

  1. Never update plugins on WordPress en mass! Do it one at a time so that if something fouls up, at least you can pinpoint the culprit!
  2. If you create forms using a third-party plugin, such as Caldera Forms, it is best to have at least a screenshot of the form so that you can recreate the content if things go wrong and you have to remove the offending plugin.
  3. Always keep a copy of the content that you create with Page Builder and its supporting addons plugins. You will lose the content if you have to delete the addon plugins or the  main Page Builder plugin.
  4. You should keep life simple. Non-design heavy content, such as a blog page like this should be presented using the “native” WordPress editor. This will save you from a lot of headache and work which using a Page Builder will cause should the same page building plugin has to be deactivated or removed.

Learning to work with WordPress plugins & add-ons

Due consideration must be given when applying plugins to WordPress software, especially when a plugin is an “add-on” to a core plugin for a page builder. Incompatibility after an update may render elements of an “add-on” not functioning & thus losing your content.

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When this blog was hosted under WordPress.com with a domain name registration using the “free hosting” package (which is no longer available to new registrants), the decision to update plugins was not provided to subscribers. WordPress.com takes the responsibility to update/upgrade plugins and solves any technical issues that might appear. All themes and plugins offered under WordPress.com are “tried and tested”.

This makes life relatively easy for the subscribers, with one big major drawback. The themes and plugins available under the “free hosting” being pathetically few in numbers and provide only a plain, “vanilla” version of WordPress.

[In fact, the “free hosting”  is not really free if you want to use your own domain e.g. theplantcloner.com as you have to pay for the registration of the domain as well as the “redirection” of the “free hosted” site to your domain name. This came to US$18 for my package, unfortunately, this package is no longer available.]

If you want features, you got to pay a lot more!

Only if you pay for the “Business” package (at US$25 per month) then you can install any plugin (I think these have to be pre-verified by WordPress.com as well). The other “cheaper” packages; “Premium” at US$8 per month and “Personal” at US$4 per month only give you a better selection of themes.

Image Source: https://https://wordpress.com/pricing/

Thus it was not surprising that when I gained more confidence in working with the WordPress software I found the limitations of my “free hosting” package not something I could live with. Hence the consolidation and relocation of this blog to a “self-hosted” WordPress site in Mar 2018. WordPress (under WordPress.org) is offered as an open source software.

Plugins galore but which are the most suitable?

I installed a lot of plugins and test-run many more before settling with a core number of around 30 plus plugins. The most useful, as far as the design and customization of the look-and-feel of my site was concern were the page builder plugins. There are many different “brands” of page builders. After trying and testing a few major page builders (you can identify these as “major” plugins by the number of downloads and reviews shown), I had settled down for the free version of Elementor. The reason was clear, other page builders (the free versions) might have more features and had downloaded more often, with better reviews, Elementor was the easiest to use.

“Add-on” plugins are specially designed to expand the functionalities of the core features of page builders, some are specific for a brand of page builder, such as Elementor while some may be meant for another page builder brand, but some of its features may be compatible with Elementor.  I applied a few features, called “elements” from these “add-ons” to make my website and blog look more aesthetically pleasant. Page builders like Elementor also add a lot more functionalities at my disposal.

Should I update the plugins?

When you self-host your website using WordPress, you will have to decide if you need to update your plugins and themes (as well as the core WordPress software) when these are available. Generally, the WordPress software itself will highlight which plugins need to be updated. You can also check the relevant plugin page under WordPress.org (right inside your WordPress software) for compatibility.

Thus for “standalone” plugins, I think if you go by the compatibility indicator, you are pretty safe in installing the update in most cases. However, if you have “add-ons” to a key plugin such as Elementor, the end result may be very troubling, as I found out.

Where is my Post Carousel? Where is my Modal Box?

I had installed three “add-ons” for page builder, two of which were specifically meant for Elementor while the third, “Widgets Bundle for Siteorigin” was meant for another page builder named Siteorigin. Somehow the widgets from “Widget Bundle“ worked well with Elementor as well as the native WordPress editor.

The attractiveness of “Widget Bundle” was that many of its elements were installed as widgets. Widgets are small additional features that you can apply to almost anywhere in your website whereas most of the page builder’s add-on features are only available within the confine of the plugin. Thus if you are not editing a post or a page using the page builder’s interface, these additional features are not available.

One particular widget, “Post Carousel” from “Widget Bundle” was very useful. It allowed me to put a random selection of my blog posts in a carousel at the front page of my website. However, one day, after doing the routine updating of plugins, I discovered to my horror that “Post Carousel” was missing from my front page. Mysteriously, “Widget Bundle for Siteorigin” too was missing from my list of plugins! I tried to re-install “Widget Bundle” but was informed that the folder for it was already in the system! I had to search, test and re-configure another, standalone plugin to return Post Carousel to my front page. But this plugin was not as features-rich as the one from “Widget Bundle”.

Then the next shock came just a day before this piece was written. The Modal Box which came via “Premium Addons for Elementor” went missing from my front page! A Modal Box is a box (text & image) that pops up when a page is loaded. I used it to welcome and inform my readers redirected from theplantcloner.com of how to find old articles. I resorted to using the “Alert” element, native to Elementor to replace the Modal Box. But “Alert” does not pop up when visitors come to the front page. “Alert” also does not come as a widget which would have allowed me to insert it near the top of the front page. Instead, I had to contend with putting the “Alert” box right at the bottom of the page (due to the design of my theme). Hardly an ideal location to carry a welcome message!

Lessons learned    

  1. Not all updates bring better utility and functionality to your WordPress software.
  2. If you install “add-ons” to a popular plugin, you will need to be aware of incompatibility of these add-ons upon an update of the core plugin.
  3. It is better to look for a standalone plugin (e.g. Post Carousel) to do what you want than to use a widget from one of the “add-ons”.
  4. Elements from add-ons that are compatible with the core page builder such as Elementor at installation may be rendered useless upon upgrading (e.g “Widget Bundles for Siteorigin” was fully compatible with Elementor but when the latter was updated, problems arose!).
  5. It is better to live with the native elements from a page builder.
  6. You must check your website regularly to spot missing content due to plugin issues.