How To Be a WordPress.com Detective

Last year, we looked at the art and science of getting good WordPress support.

Now, let’s jump into some of the more advanced troubleshooting techniques you can use to tackle the trickier problems you might come up against.

Have you heard the old joke:

Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
Doctor: Then don’t do that!

With advanced troubleshooting it’s exactly the opposite! You want to be able to reliably reproduce your symptoms. Knowing exactly how to recreate the problem will be a huge help in figuring out how to fix it.

Your visual editor isn’t loading! You can’t drag-and-drop widgets! Your sticky posts aren’t sticking!

Finding the cause of a WordPress.com problem is like detective work. You look for clues. You find likely suspects. You narrow down the perpetrators.

The first question to usually ask yourself is: What did I change most recently? Undoing your last action very often finds the culprit immediately. But sometimes it’s not that easy, and you need to roll up your sleeves and hunker down in troubleshooting mode.

Most problems fall into one of several distinct buckets. With experience you’ll start to guess which bucket yours falls into. Let’s look at them.

laptop with magnifying glass

Theme

You can rule out a theme-specific issue quickly by temporarily switching to a different theme. Picking a rigorously-tested default WordPress theme like Twenty Twelve, Twenty Thirteen, or Twenty Fourteen is a good bet. If you don’t see the problem with one of those, you know the issue is likely related to your theme.

Heads-up: once you switch back to your original theme, you may need to reset theme-specific settings under Appearance  Theme Options, or Appearance  Customize  Theme Options. If you have custom CSS, you may need to restore it from your revisions.

Post

Sometimes the content of a specific post is enough to mess up your site. Often, this happens if you paste content from another program, like Word or an email app, without turning it into plain text first. A typical sign of bad code in a post is that your sidebar has dropped below the rest of your page content. It can be tricky to figure out which post is causing the problem, but one way to troubleshoot is to temporarily set your blog to display one post at a time and turn off Infinite Scroll, both under Settings  Reading. Now you can easily navigate through one post at a time until you find the culprit.

If you’re comfortable looking at HTML code, you can also try validating your site’s HTML using a tool like the W3C markup validator. It can show a stray or unclosed tag that’s throwing your layout off.

Heads-up: if you paste plain text into the post editor, be sure to add back formatting and links using the buttons in the Visual Editor.

Custom CSS

The ability to add your own custom CSS opens the doors to a huge array of customizations you can make to your site.

If you suspect some CSS might be picking a fight with your site, try removing all your custom CSS temporarily. If your problem goes away, then you know the culprit is living somewhere in your CSS. Add back one or two CSS styles at a time, checking your site after each bit, until you find the culprit.

Browser

Very often, an issue is specific to one Web browser. Fortunately, verifying this kind of problem is pretty easy to do, and doesn’t require touching your site. All you need to do is check your site in another browser. It’s always a good idea to have at least two or three popular browsers installed on your computer to make sure your site looks right, since not everyone uses the same browser as you. Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari (for Mac) and Internet Explorer (for Windows) are popular browsers. You can quickly find the latest versions over at Browse Happy.

If you do see that the issue is only happening on one browser, what then?

Browser Cache

Clearing your browser cache as a solution to all woes is a bit of an inside joke within tech-support circles, akin to asking someone to turn their computer on and off. Here’s the thing: it often works!

So, what does clearing your cache actually do?

Browsers save files from sites you’ve already visited to make it quicker to load it the next time. But sometimes those files didn’t get loaded fully, and may prevent the site from working properly in the future.

Clearing the cache is like cleaning off your plate before putting more food on it. You won’t taste garlic on your chocolate cake if you clean it in between courses!

Browser Extensions/Add-ons/Plugins

Many people run extensions, plugins, or add-ons to add extra bells and whistles to their browser. They sometimes interfere with the proper display or functioning of your site – for example, an ad-blocking extension might mistakenly see a banner on your site as an ad, and hide it.

Turning off all browser extensions to see if your issue goes away is a quick way to rule them out as the cause. If the problem does disappear, you can turn them back on one at a time to find the culprit.

In some browsers like Firefox you can turn off all extras quickly by running the browser in “safe mode” – this temporarily returns your browser to a basic state by deactivating all the fancy stuff.

Heads-up: remember to reactivate your browser extensions after you’re finished troubleshooting.

Browser Cookies

Removing individual browser cookies just for your WordPress.com site can sometimes solve a sticky issue, particularly those related to login problems.

Setting your browser to not accept third-party cookies can also cause issues, particularly when previewing posts on a site with a mapped domain.

Heads-up: Try to avoid clearing all cookies, since this can remove saved login info for all sites you regularly visit. Most browsers let you pick and choose which specific cookies you want to clear.

Platform and Operating System

Remember that not everyone uses the same platform you do – there are all manner of Macs, PCs, Linux, Android, and iOS devices floating around. Sometimes a site will work fine everywhere except one particular OS – say, iOS 7.0.4 on iPad minis. Knowing on which specific setup your site is running into trouble can be a huge help.

For example, some older versions of Internet Explorer don’t support responsive-first design techniques, so more recently crafted themes designed to look good on mobile platforms simply aren’t going to display properly.

Heads-up: remember to tell support staff on what platform and OS you saw an issue, particularly if it’s a mobile OS. If you’re not sure what operating system you’re running, visit Support Details.

Security Software ­

Some anti-virus and other security software can interfere with the proper display of sites, whether it’s blocking images or not connecting with WordPress.com’s servers at all. This sometimes crops up at large organizations that aggressively restrict what sites can be viewed by their employees. Try varying where you view your site, whether it’s home/office/school/library. If you can, try turning off your security software temporarily to see if the problem persists.

Heads-up: remember to reactivate your security software after testing.

Computer

Sometimes an issue is specific to the settings on one machine. Think about whether you recently changed anything on your computer? Did you upgrade the operating system? Install anti-virus software? Fiddle with your network settings? Change them back to how they were before and see if your site issue goes away. Try your site on another computer – ask a friend or colleague, visit the library, or make a pilgrimage to the Apple Store. ;-)

Heads-up: if you have both a laptop and desktop machine, test your site on both.

Network

I won’t lie. Networking issues can be some of the trickiest ones to diagnose and fix. Often they affect not only your site, but all sites running on WordPress.com.

Symptoms of possible network-related issues include a slowly-loading site, certain elements not loading at all, or images looking fuzzy.

Suspected network issues can require a bit of work on your end to get support staff the information we need to get to the bottom of the cause. We may ask you to so something that might be a little scary-sounding, like run a traceroute or check the JavaScript console – but don’t worry, we have guides on how to do those things and we’ll walk you through it if you have any trouble.

Heads-up: Be sure to provide all the information you’re asked for by support staff. It may seem like a lot, but the more complete your info, the more efficiently we’ll be able to help you.


The more troubleshooting you do, the easier it gets to recognize potential causes of different kinds of issues – and their solutions. A great way to get experience is by moseying through the WordPress.com support forums regularly and watching how experienced volunteers and staff help others. Once you’ve dipped your toes in, try answering few questions yourself. You’ll probably discover you know more than you think!


Missing out on the latest WordPress.com developments? Enter your email below to receive future announcements direct to your inbox. An email confirmation will be sent before you will start receiving notifications - please check your spam folder if you don't receive this.

Join 17,229,850 other followers

Kathryn P.

49 Comments

Comments are closed.

  1. Lee

    You still need phone support. Some of us are not that PC smart.

    Like

  2. narami

    Best. Post. Ever. *insert happy blogger face here*

    Like

  3. Marilyn Armstrong

    Funny that this should come up right now. My theme went wonky on me last night for no reason I could pin down, so I migrated to a new template and it’s fine. All the text went pale silver. I hadn’t changed colors or fonts — and changing them didn’t affect the font color which just got paler and paler until it was nearly invisible (Zoren). It was much easier — and faster — to migrate to a new theme than to track down the problem. Whatever ailed it was clearly theme specific. Fortunately, there are many themes that work for me. I like the new one – Suits – better anyhow.

    Lee is right. Even those of us who ARE PC smart can’t always track down the cause of a problem. Phone support would be deeply appreciated!

    Like

  4. Cornhusk

    GREAT POST! I’m saving it in ‘references’. I think I want a cheeeep site that nevertheless I ( and you) can run ads in. I need more exposure to sell in.

    Lee

    Like

  5. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez

    Good information, thanks!

    Like

  6. nrathmell

    A useful checklist but leaves out some important information. CSS? What’s that? Clear the cache? How do you do that? It’s easy for techies to forget how ignorant the rest of us are!

    Like

    • Kathryn

      I hear you! If you’re brand-new to websites and troubleshooting, this article may be a little advanced. You can learn more about CSS through the link I gave above – it gives a good overview. We link to some instructions on how to clear your browser cache from the Browser Issues page.

      Like

      • nrathmell

        Thanks for the super-fast reply! Just something as simple as saying what the letters stand for would be a good start and would help us feel less stupid! It’s all about building confidence.

        Like

  7. skjones333

    Excellent information – I’m saving for future reference!

    Like

  8. ipanase

    great post madam..
    i wanna be :D
    still having problem with CSS

    Like

  9. teleskier12

    Good info for a WordPress novice like me ;)

    Like

  10. marydekokblowers

    This is helpful! I hadn’t found the support forums yet.

    Like

  11. sue3034

    Thanks, I was having trouble with weird code showing up whenever I posted from ms word onto the post box, but now to first turn into plain text first.

    Like

  12. roughseasinthemed

    Very good post. Neatly summarised covering a load of issues. Mind you, I do pull my hair out when someone tells me a) to turn the computer on and off b) to clear the cache and c) to resent Safari (my main browser). I’ve invariably done all that and more before I ask for help. But still, it’s worth reminding people. It’s also one of the reasons I close everything down at night. When I go to sleep so does my computer. We all need a rest. Non-techy speak there but shutting down means the cache is emptied, etc etc.

    I only know Macs, but often it is worth keeping your computer clean, so for example, I use disk utility to see if there are any broken permissions, and repair those. No idea what the windows equivalent is.

    Like

  13. chely5150

    Thanks wordpress! I love that you offer such great guidance and support, especially for us newbies). I’m certainly no computer whiz, but i’m happy that I got my site up and going and even though no pictures yet i’m happy with my site (for now). Check me out @ http://www.chely5150@wordpress.com

    Like

  14. Martin (IQ)

    Nice work. :) Some of it kind of reminds me of the “How To Ask Questions The Smart Way“.

    If you ask me, your post belongs into the support pages. Maybe in the FAQ category. At least the procedure of finding the problem (from general to specific) is something that is missing in Help! Getting WordPress.com Support.

    Like

    • Kathryn

      Martin – thanks for the kind words and for the the idea. I added a link to the post from the “Help!” page, as you suggested.

      Like

  15. Norman

    Very helpful post. Saved for reference later. Thank you!

    Like

  16. curvygurl5

    Thanks a lot. You gave me a lot of ideas.

    Like

  17. Carl D'Agostino

    Very helpful and appreciate your effort with this sort or post.

    Like

  18. Daggi Dinkelschnitte

    Additional info: Your foto/ JPG upload is impossible? You get a ERROR – message? Delete the EXIF dates from the pic. Forget delete “Cache” or “Cookies” or trying any “Browser changes”.

    Like

  19. Kerry C. Mitchell

    Great article, and very informative.

    Like

  20. excel2007master

    I have always been uncertain about my menus in my blog. I would appreciate a full walk through of setting up and maintaining a menu, therefore.

    Like

  21. Deli Lanoux, Ed.D.

    Gotta love it! Yes. One must be proactively engaged at all times!

    Like

  22. pattimaricacciolfi

    Oh my you are so impressive.

    Like

  23. Carol Daniels

    Great article, I consider myself fairly computer literate and take pride in doing some troubleshooting before asking questions I’ll be keeping this one in the memory banks. Thanks

    Like

  24. Professor David Simpson

    Very helpful. Clearly written. Thanks for being an excellent role model.

    Like

  25. Musings from a Tangled Mind

    Excellent article! I appreciate having the different steps outlined like that — thanks for sharing!

    Like

  26. jpeggytaylor

    This is a very timely post for me. As a blogging novice I am seeking to resolve one or two irksome quirks in my WordPress world at the moment. I am hopeful that some of these troubleshooting pointers will help. Many thanks.

    Like

  27. jpeggytaylor

    UPDATE: I am pleased to report that with the aid of this problem-solving post (and a bit of help from one of my technical whizz-kids) I have been able to resolve my minor glitches with WordPress. We discovered it was an easily rectified browser/cookies issue. I have saved this post for future reference! Thank you.

    Like

  28. cosmotrans

    An article of great help! I being new to wordpresstill now have never faced any of these problems but it was better to know in advance what problems I can face and I know where to come back if I ever face any issue

    Like

  29. JenT

    Thank you for another excellent addition to the Support self-help articles. I learned something new too. :)

    Like

  30. Otmane EL RHAZI

    I like the “Doctor it hurt when I do this”! thanks for sharing.

    Like

  31. wiggy2bad

    When I try to update my wordpress/themes, I get this error message: Fatal error: Call to undefined function mbstring_binary_safe_encoding() in /srv/disk1/1180940/www/entrepreneur.homepublishingonline.com/wp-admin/includes/class-wp-filesystem-direct.php on line 62.

    What can I do?

    Like

  32. Tchaikovsky

    Hello,
    I have the most weird experience whit my WordPress blog.

    I want to suspend my blog as soon as possible and can not do it !!!
    there is NO WHEY to set Dashboard>Settings>Reading>Site Visibility Click on the third option “I would like my site to be private…”

    Watt is this everything is just blocked in this blog.
    Thanks for your Help.

    Like

  33. fouad abo rgela

    informative very thanks you help me to solve many problems

    Like

  34. Sofía

    Thank youuuu!!!!

    Like

  35. gauravnayal

    great post. very informative. Thank you Kathryn.

    Like

  36. frankiesfeast

    Thanks so much for this post! I have 2 posts on my site that are causing my sidebar to drop below the rest of the content and one of those posts is doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things. I had a look at the markup validator link you provided but unfortunately it is wayyy to advanced for me. Any other tips or suggested reading?

    Like

  37. Bonnie Lendrum

    Kathryn, I am keeping this post because it will be the first thing I turn to the next time I have issues. Thank you for your clarity!

    Like

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,229,850 other followers

%d bloggers like this: