Strong passwords help secure your site and your reputation

Some things are so important they bear keeping in mind. This evergreen post was initially published in 2012 and has been updated to make it current.

Without strong passwords, your site is open to thieves

We want to speak to you about the importance of using strong passwords.

In recent days, we have recorded thousands of separate attempts to access WordPress accounts on our servers. Undoubtedly there could have been more, as our security software is configured to send us reports when a user has been locked out after entering the wrong password multiple times. This is not a deliberate attack on our servers. Attacks like this go constantly, day in and day out, on every web server on the internet.

Resistance is futile without strong passwords

These attacks are carried out by networks of compromised computers known as botnets. An individual computer can be infected in various ways and become part of a network which is then used, without the knowledge of the owner, in endeavors such as denial of service attacks and password guessing schemes. There are literally thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of computers involved in a single network.

Our security software allows multiple retries before imposing a lockout or total ban on your IP address.

These attacks are not very sophisticated. They do not have to be, as there is zero cost to the attacker who is using someone else’s computer for the attack. These attacks often succeed because the average person does not use a strong password. The statistics on most cracked passwords from 10,000 Top Passwords make it obvious why these attacks work:

  • 4.7% of users have the password password
  • 8.5% have the passwords password or 123456
  • 9.8% have the passwords password, 123456 or 12345678
  • 14% have a password from the top 10 passwords
  • 40% have a password from the top 100 passwords
  • 79% have a password from the top 500 passwords
  • 91% have a password from the top 1000 passwords

Check to be sure your password is not on a list of the worst passwords.

Securing your site

Your minimum goal is to make sure you are not part of the 91% using the top 1000 passwords. It is not as difficult as you may think. You can have a reasonably strong password that is not impossible to remember.

Simple / common passwords are always tried first. Cute or unusual spellings are no replacement for a good password. While you may think that unusual spelling or replacing letters with similar numbers, i.e. secure spelled s3cur3, will make it hard to guess, someone else has already come up with it many times before and it is in the common passwords list. Simple, short, one word passwords just are not good enough. In this case, size matters.

Use either a totally random string of characters, such as this, FT3GvOUZn4WOZ077hL5B (make up your own, do NOT use this one), from my password generator, which requires a password manager to remember (which is what we do), or use at least two random words and at least one random number. Go ahead, write it down (but don’t reuse it anywhere else). You are not defending against someone that’s breaking into your office to search your desk, you are defending from automated attack by a botnet.

A great resource for generating random words is unique-names.com. Just open the page and pick two or three words from the list. Stick in one or two random two or three digit numbers between and/or after the words, and you have a password with extremely low odds of being on the list of guessed passwords. The words themselves are almost guaranteed to be on the list, so DO NOT use only one word. It is the particular combination of words and numbers which is strong. If you’d like to use a truly random number, ramdom.org has a true random number generator on their front page. Just enter a minimum and maximum, say 100 and 999, click Generate, and use the three digit random number you’ve just generated. Write your password down or enter it into your favorite password manager.

Manage your passwords

Should you wish to start using a password management system, there are several good ones reviewed at InfoWorld, both free and commercial. We prefer KeePass, but read the review and see which one works for you.

Changing your password in WordPress is easy. There’s a video at WordPress.tv showing how to do this. While this video was generated a number of years ago for WordPress.com, the basic functionality still applies and works for both WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress.

One of the most important things to remember when using a password manager is that there is now a single password which grants access to all the others. It is imperative you use a very good password to access the password manager’s database. We recommend trying several words arranged into a memorable nonsense phrase (those random word lists at unique-names.com are handy for this). Again, size matters.

You may think, why should I worry about someone guessing my password, there’s nothing valuable on my website. What happens to your brand’s reputation if malware is installed on your site and all your visitors are infected? And what happens when Google marks your site as infected and posts that in conjunction with your URL? If your site spews malware, you’ll see all the hard-earned SEO efforts you’ve dedicated yourself to crumble.

Don’t share your login with others. If you must share with someone, so they can perform maintenance or install software or perform some action you have authorized, change your password after the task is completed.

Last, but extremely important, never, never, ever, reuse passwords. Once a password is guessed, the attackers will attempt to identify other accounts you own and try the password on all of them, like your online banking accounts. What about your domain registration? What would it cost your business, in money and reputation, if someone logged into your account at your domain registrar, and stole your domain? What if they then linked it to a pornography site?

Adding 2 Factor Authentication to your site

Adding two factor authentication (2FA) to your site is one way to add another layer of security. It uses something you know (like your password) with something you have (your phone for example which can generate or receive other login information.

WordPress writes:

Logging in with a password is single-step authentication. It relies only on something you know. Two-step authentication, by definition, is a system where you use two of the three possible factors to prove your identity, instead of just one. In practice, however, current two-step implementations still rely on a password you know, but use your Phone or another device to authenticate with something you have.

WordPress Beginner offers a tutorial on adding Google Authenticator as a 2 factor authenticator service.  Plugins for 2FA can be installed as well. Here’s one from techjourney.com about how to use Authy for 2FA on your site.

Make sure you have a strong password, and consider adding 2FA

We figure a word to the wise is sufficient. Create strong passwords. Don’t share them. And never resuse them. Your business and reputation depend on it.

 

Avoiding Return to Sender: The Importance of 301 Redirects

This evergreen post was published to our site in 2012. We’ve updated it and republished it.

Even Elvis can’t help you if you get a 404 for missing content

Return to Sender Gif with Elivs

Cue Elvis. We need his singing while you read this post to help reinforce this post’s message. Return to Sender.

Moving websites or deleting pages should not result in a loss of web traffic. Learn about using 301 redirects.

People relocate from one residence to another all the time. So do websites. However, most of us would never move without a forwarding address. In reality, when you move a website and don’t direct search engines to the new content from the defunct pages, you are doing exactly that.

Whether deleting pages or consolidating, use redirects

If your website has grown tired, or you have a new domain or a new site, you don’t have to loose all the search engine cred you’ve worked so hard to build up. That inbound link from an online professional directory — without a 301 permanently moved redirect — will be gone. Just. Like. That. With a 301 redirect, the search engine gods will know where to find you and will send your page visitor right along to you.

Google says

If you need to change the URL of a page as it is shown in search engine results, we recommend that you use a server-side 301 redirect. This is the best way to ensure that users and search engines are directed to the correct page. The 301 status code means that a page has permanently moved to a new location.

A 307 redirect can be used if the content change is temporary. Say for example you’re holding a special sale for a product and you’d like to direct website visitors to your sale related landing page for the product. A 307 allows search engines headed for the product page to be redirected to the special sale page.

Google knows where your content is

Google indexes and caches pages in their search engine to make browsing faster. New sites often aren’t indexed immediately and so for a period of time, Google may direct site traffic to old pages which no longer exist. IF you tell search engines where to find the new pages which replace or are equivalent to the old pages, you have essence, have left a forwarding address for Google. So, when you update delete pages or create a new site to replace an old site, make sure  your webmaster creates 301 redirects for the pages which are disappearing and being removed. The redirects tell Google and other search engines what has replaced the old content. 

If you don’t do this, people coming to find your site and pages will get a big fat 404 error. To translate from geek speak, a 404 is the Interwebs’ way of saying, “Sorry, wrong number,” Or “Recipient moved, no longer at this address.”

Tools such as Yoast SEO allow you to create redirects

If you have a great webmaster to host your site and who can create the server level redirects, that’s super. However, if you’re not so techie, you can do it yourself provided you have the right tools for your site. It’s even more helpful if your site is built with WordPress as there are lots of plugins which can help you accomplish this.

If you have the premium version of Yoast SEO, you can set redirects using their Redirects Manager. According to Yoast, “In most cases, especially for a frequently visited page, you’d want to redirect the old URL to a new one with the information you think is most relevant to these visitors.”

As an example, if you previously had an “About” page but now you’ve renamed it or moved it or changed the URL to be About Our Team, you need to be sure to tell the search engine that About = About Our Team.

There are other tools in the WordPress repository that allow you to do this as well. 

Still not sure how this works? Give us a shout. We’d be delighted to help you sort this out. 

 

 

WordPress vulnerabilities can be prevented

Because WordPress is the #1 CMS, it is a target

With popularity comes exposure. WordPress powers about 32% of all websites. It is the most popular CMS (content management software) around with 33% dominance according to W3 Techs. WordPress sites belong to both small and medium sized businesses as well as large enterprises. That makes WordPress a giant target for hackers and bot nets.

via GIPHY

According to Imperva‘s yearly analysis, the greatest number of vulnerabilities in WordPress come on the plugin side. “On the content management system (CMS) front, WordPress vulnerabilities have tripled since last year, and they continue to dominate in terms of the number of vulnerabilities published in the CMS category.” 

WordPress.org includes more than 54,262 plugins in their repository. Many of these plugins are incredibly useful and help extend functionality of your site. However, it is not at all unusual for plugins to be abandoned or not updated if the developer of that plugin loses interest or time to manage it. Sometimes plugins get forked to keep them up to date by others in the Open Source community, but just as frequently, they are left to languish. You may even have some of these outdated ones in your website.

Image showing out of date WordPress plugins in the repository
Examples of way out of date plugins in the WordPress repository.

When was the last time you audited the plugins you use on your site?

Regular updates of your plugins can prevent opportunities for hackers and bots to inject scripts or add malicious code. These bad actors know when there are opportunities to cause havoc and they have their networks scanning WordPress sites looking for them.

How do I update my WordPress Plugins?

Image - Example of how pending plugin updates are signaled in your WordPress dashboard
This is an example of how WordPress signals you that there are plugin updates pending.

Login to your site and proceed to your Dashboard and open the Plugins panel. You may see red numbers indicating how many updates you have pending to plugins on your site. Upon opening the Plugin panel, you may see yellow highlighted notes per each plugin which has a new version. Below you can see an instance of this type of note for Jetpack. You can click the hyperlink to learn what the new version details are or you can click the update now hyperlink to update immediately.

 

Example of a message on a plugin telling you that there is an update.
This image displays the note from the plugin developer that there is a new version of Jetpack available.

It is important to check which plugins have updates and to make a whole site backup prior to doing anything. Only then do we recommend updating your plugins. Upon upgrading, check how your site functions. It is not uncommon for upgrades to cause an issue with compatibility of other plugins.

Unless the update addresses a security risk, you may wish to consider waiting until the day after a new release before updating your site. While developers test their plugins, some issues are only discovered after release, when a large number of sites are running the new version. If  it’s a major release, i.e. 5.x.x to 6.0, make sure you click the link to view the details so you can be aware of major changes that may affect your site.

How do you choose reliable plugins?

Choosing dependable plugins is pretty simple.

  • Look for plugins which have had several versions and which have many thousands of active installs.
  • Use plugins which have been tested for the most recent version of WordPress.
  • Check out the Reviews and see what others have to say about using the plugin.
  • Look at the plugin support forum to see what kinds of issues others are having and whether or not the developer is responding to issues and how promptly the response if provided.

Did you update when WordPress 5.0 came out?

Another important way to prevent vulnerabilities is to keep your WordPress version up to date. WordPress 5.0 released in December 2018. Because it was a major release, your WordPress software did not update automatically as it does for incremental updates. [Read more about automatic updates.] Did you update when 5.0 was released? If you did, then you have also recently received updates to the incremental updates. If you have not yet updated your website to WordPress 5.0, you should do so very soon.

Beyond plugins and WordPress versions

It is also very important to keep your theme updated. Themes can have vulnerabilities are well. You will get notes in your Dashboard > Appearance > Themes when you have theme updates. If you purchased a premium theme, be sure you are subscribed to them and get updates and notifications from the theme foundry which produced it. 

If you have customized your theme, be sure you did so using the Custom CSS tool in Appearance. This is only available if your theme supports this function in the Customizer

WordPress notes, “Starting with WordPress 4.7, you can now add custom CSS to your own theme from Appearance Customize Screen, without the need for additional plugins or directly editing themes and child themes. Just choose the Additional CSS tab when customizing your current theme to get started!”

If you have a child theme and you update the parent theme, your changes should be preserved.

Get professional assistance updating your website

If you are confused about when and what to update, please contact us. We specialize in WordPress and have resolved many issues for people who have sought us out for our knowledge.

Photo Credit: Photo by Luther Bottrill on Unsplash