A practical guide to securing WordPress sites
By Andrew Rufener
WordPress is renowned for its usability and ease of access, however it’s popularity also makes it an attractive target for bad actors. This WordPress security guide is an introduction into how to protect visitors, mitigate threats, and create a more secure WordPress site.
Recent statistics show that over 28% of website administrators across the web use WordPress. Its popularity comes at a price; often targeted by malicious hackers and spammers who seek to leverage insecure websites to their advantage.
WordPress security is about risk reduction, not risk elimination. Because there will always be risk, securing your WordPress site will remain a continuous process, requiring frequent assessment of these attack vectors.
Is WordPress Secure?
The question of whether WordPress is secure or not depends entirely on you, the website owner. Website security is about risk reduction. Follow our WordPress security best practices to harden and protect your website from threats.
How to Secure a WordPress Site
This guide is intended to educate WordPress administrators on basic security techniques and actionable steps that will help to secure your WordPress site and reduce the risk of a compromise.
WordPress Software Vulnerabilities
Keep WordPress, Themes & Plugins Updated
The WordPress security team works diligently to provide important security updates and vulnerability patches. However, the use of third-party plugins and themes exposes users to additional security threats.
By regularly installing the latest versions of core WordPress files and extensions, you can ensure that your website possesses all of the prevailing security patches and your WordPress site is more secure.
Regularly Audit WordPress Plugins & Themes
Plugins and themes can become deprecated, obsolete, or include bugs that pose serious security risks to your WordPress website.
To secure your WordPress installation and improve security, we recommend that you audit your plugins and themes on a regular basi
Sometimes bad actors will purchase a plugin to add malicious or unwanted functionality. Exercise caution when installing plugins that have recently changed owners before the latest update.
Assess Your Plugin Security
You can assess the security of WordPress plugins and themes by reviewing a couple of important indicators:
- Does the plugin or theme have a large install base?: Check the number of installs before adding a new plugin to your WordPress site.
- Are there a lot of user reviews, and is the average rating high?: Check WordPress plugin reviews and ratings before adding a new plugin.
- Are the developers actively supporting their plugin and pushing frequent updates or security patches?: If a plugin has not been updated in a long time it can have vulnerabilities used by malicious users to compromise WordPress websites.
- Does the vendor include a physical contact address in the ToS or from a contact page?: Having a physical contact address adds credibility to a WordPress plugin.
- Carefully read the Terms of Service – it may include unwanted extras that the authors didn’t advertise on their homepage. If the plugin or theme doesn’t meet any of these requirements or has recently changed owners before the latest update, you may want to look for a more secure solution for your WordPress site.
Sometimes bad actors will purchase a plugin to add malicious or unwanted functionality. Exercise caution when installing plugins that have recently changed owners before the latest update.
Remove Unused WordPress Plugins & Themes
When it comes to unused plugins, less is more. Storing unwanted plugins in your WordPress installation increases the chance of a compromise, even if they are disabled and not actively being used in your installation. Removing unused plugins and themes helps improve security and protects WordPress from hacking.
Not using that WordPress plugin? Remove it from your installation.
Keep WordPress Updated
When a new WordPress update is available, you’ll be notified in the Dashboard > Updates menu.
You should always apply updates as soon as possible to keep your WordPress site safe & secure. Logging into your site on a frequent basis will ensure that you’re aware of updates as they are released. If you cannot update your site for any reason, consider using a website firewall to virtually patch the problem and minimize the risk.
To set up automatic updates in WordPress:
Option 1: Use a plugin that provides this functionality
Option 2: Log into your server via SFTP or SSH.
Locate the wp-config.php file, normally located in the document root folder public_html.
Add the following snippet to the file: define( ‘WP_AUTO_UPDATE_CORE’, true );
To manually apply updates in WordPress:
Log into your server via SFTP or SSH.
- Manually remove the wp-admin and wp-includes directories
- Replace the core files from the root directory, /wp-admin/ and /wp-includes/ using copies from the official WordPress repository.
- Log into WordPress as an admin – you may see a prompt to update the database.
- Click on Update WordPress Database.
- Once the database has updated, navigate to Dashboard > Updates.
- Apply any missing updates.
- Open your website to verify it is operational.
Some updates can break your website, so be sure to verify your site is fully operational after an update is applied. Advanced users can refer to the WordPress Codex’s guide on updates using subversion.
Before updating your website to the latest version of WordPress, we recommend taking the following precautionary steps:
- Backup your website, especially any customized content.
- Review the release notes to identify if changes will have any negative impact on your website.
- Test the update on a development site to verify that your themes, plugins, and other extensions are compatible with the latest version.
Keep WordPress Plugins Updated
WordPress may not be able to update the extension if it has been downloaded from a third-party website. If this is the case, you may need to manually update the plugin using FTP or use an included updater to keep your WordPress secure.
To manually apply updates for plugins in WordPress:
- Verify compatibility between the plugin and your current WordPress version.
- Download the latest version of the plugin from an official source and save it on your local machine.
- Check for special update instructions from the plugin developer or vendor. If none exist, proceed with steps 4-9.
- Log into your server via SFTP or SSH.
- Navigate to /wp-content/plugins/ and download this folder to your computer to serve as a backup.
- Locate the directory of the plugin you want to update and delete it from FTP.
- Upload the latest version to the same location.
- Log into WordPress as an admin and click Dashboard > Plugins.
- Locate the plugin you just updated from the list and click Activate.
Keep WordPress Themes Updated
Keeping themes updated is another important aspect of WordPress security. If you are not using a child/parent theme for customizations, you’ll need to copy your modifications to a new theme folder, then update it to FTP.
To manually update themes in WordPress:
- Connect to your website using FTP and go to /wp-content/themes/, then download the current theme folder to your computer.
- Visit the theme’s website to download the latest version of the theme and save it on your local machine – you will now have two copies of the theme folder.
- Copy any customizations and code changes from your old theme and add them to the new theme files.
- Upload the newest version of the theme directory, complete with customizations to WordPress using FTP.
If you are using a customized child theme that is inheriting functionality from a parent theme, then updating your theme is fairly straightforward. Simply overwrite your copy of the parent theme with the latest version from the official source. Your customizations will remain intact in the child theme.
Limit Access to Your WordPress Site
Attackers frequently exploit weak user credentials to obtain access to WordPress websites. Locking down your WP Admin access can prevent hacking and secure your WordPress site.
Increase security to your WordPress website by utilizing strong, unique passwords restricting the privileges available to users through assigned roles, enabling two-step or multi-factor authentication and limiting user sessions, you can reduce the risk of a website compromise by a bad actor.
Managing WordPress User Accounts
Remove Default WP-Admin
A large majority of attacks target the wp-admin, wp-login.php, and xmlrpc.php access points by using a combination of common usernames and passwords.
By using a unique username and removing the default admin account in your WordPress installation, you make it much more difficult for attackers to guess (brute force) their way into your website.
How to replace the default “admin” account:
- Log into WordPress as an administrator.
- From the Dashboard, select Users > Add New.
- Using a new email address, create a new account and set the Role to Administrator.
- Save the new user, then log out and log back in with your new Administrator account.
- From the Dashboard, select Users > All Users.
- Hover your mouse over the username admin, then select Delete.
- Attribute old posts to the new Administrator account.
Create a nickname that’s different from your existing username and set it as your public display name. This will make it more difficult for attackers to brute force your login credentials.
User Roles & the Principle of Least Privilege
The principle of least privilege is composed of two very simple steps:
- Use the minimal set of privileges on a system in order to perform an action.
- Grant privileges only for the exact duration that an action is necessary.
- With this concept in mind, WordPress includes built-in roles for Administrators, Authors, Editors, Contributors, and Subscribers. These roles specify what can and cannot be accomplished by a user.
Follow these access control recommendations to secure your WordPress:
- Create new user accounts at the lowest level of permission.
- Grant temporary permissions and revoke access when they are no longer needed.
- Delete accounts that are no longer being used.
- Ensure that the default user role is set to Subscriber:
- Log into WordPress as an Administrator.
- Verify that your Subscriber permissions include only the ability to login and update a profile.
- From the Dashboard, select Settings > General.
- Set the New User Default Role to Subscriber.
Use Strong Passwords
WordPress password security is an important factor in hardening your website and increasing your WP admin security. Password lists are often used by attackers to brute force WordPress websites. This is why you should always use strong, unique passwords for all of your accounts to improve the security of your WP site.
Strong passwords should meet the following standards:
- At least 1 uppercase character
- At least 1 lowercase character
- At least 1 digit
- At least 1 special character
- At least 10 characters, with no more than two identical characters in a row
Using a password generator to generate a randomized string of letters and numbers is one of the simplest ways to create a secure password.
Use Two Factor Identification (2FA) / Multi Factor Identification (MFA)
Two-factor authentication provides a second level of security for your WordPress account. This feature requires a user to approve a login via an app and protects your WordPress account in the event that someone is able to guess your password.
How to add 2FA to WordPress using Google Authenticator:
- Download and install Google Authenticator on your iPhone or Android.
- Install and activate a 2FA plugin for WordPress like miniOrange’s 2FA.
- Select miniOrange 2-Factor from the left menu and follow the instructions.
- Once you have obtained your QR code, open Google Authenticator and click on the Add button on the bottom-right hand side of the application.
- Scan the QR code displayed by the plugin using your phone’s camera.
- Verify the code on the plugin page.
Limit WordPress Login Attempts
WordPress allows users to attempt a login unlimited times by default, but this leaves your site vulnerable to brute force attacks as hackers try to attempt different password combinations.
You can add an extra layer of security by limiting the number of login attempts against an account through a plugin, or by using a Web Application Firewall (WAF).
Some popular plugins that provide you with this feature include Limit Login Attempts, WP Limit Login Attempts, and Loginizer.
Use Pre-Login CAPTCHAs
The acronym stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. This feature is extremely useful for stopping automated bots from accessing your WordPress dashboard, as well as submitting unwanted spam through forms.
Popular plugins that add a CAPTCHA to your WordPress login page include Captcha and Really Simple Captcha. The most effective free CAPTCHA available that is the least intrusive is reCAPTCHA v3; see https://www.google.com/recaptcha/intro/v3.html for more information.
Restrict Access to Authenticated URLs
Limiting the access to your WordPress login page to only authorized IP’s will prevent unauthorized entries and better secure your site.
There are plugins available that can do this. If you are using a cloud-based WAF like the Sucuri Firewall, you can restrict access to these URL’s via your dashboard without having to mess around with .htaccess files.
WordPress Monitoring & Detection
In the field of Information Security (InfoSec) we like to use the phrase defense in depth.
To appreciate this ideology, you have to subscribe to a very simple principle: There is no 100% complete solution capable of protecting any environment.
In this section, we’ve listed a number of solutions you can employ on your WordPress website to provide an effective defense in depth strategy. By layering these defensive controls, you’ll be able to identify and mitigate attacks against your website.
WordPress Security Plugins
If you go to the official WordPress repository and do a quick search for Security, you will find thousands of plugins with distinct categorizations and feature sets. If you’re looking for a smaller list, be sure to check out our list of the best WordPress security plugins to help keep your website safe.
We’ll break down the categories and explain their importance so you can find the right solutions for your needs.
WordPress Security Plugin – Prevention Category
These plugins look to provide some level of prevention, otherwise known as a perimeter defense for your website. Their objective is to stop hacks from happening by filtering incoming traffic.
Prevention plugins are often limited to working at the application layer, meaning the attack has to hit the WordPress application for them to respond. Attacks against server software cannot be prevented with security plugins, which is why we recommend considering a cloud-based WAF instead.
WordPress Security Plugin – Detection Category
Protection is great for known issues, but not so great for the unknown. Being able to detect anything that gets past your perimeter defense is extremely valuable, which is where detection comes into play.
These plugins will attempt to identify intruders through File Integrity Checks, scanning for indicators of compromise, or a combination of the two mechanisms.
The effectiveness of these plugins is strictly determined by the order in which they are installed. For instance, if the plugin is based on integrity checks, then it needs to be installed on a fresh, known-good environment so that it can create a baseline to check from to keep your WordPress secure.
Some plugins may compare known third-party themes and plugins to their own repository in order to work with websites that have already been compromised, but these are not compatible with customized or little-known files.
Detection plugins are important in identifying if something has gone wrong on your website. These tools ensure that you’re informed when a security incident occurs.
WordPress Security Plugin – Auditing Category
Contrary to popular belief, WordPress security is not a set it and forget it undertaking. You have to invest time into the process and get acclimated with what is going on, who is logging in, what is changing, and when the changes are being made.
Auditing plugins can help you answer the questions above by offering basic administration features that help you identify, thwart, or respond to a compromise.
WordPress Security Plugin – Utility Category
This is perhaps the most diverse bucket of the entire WordPress Security Plugin ecosystem. Some plugins are those we consider to be the Swiss Army knives of the security landscape. These utility plugins have a much smaller set of functionality.
These plugins can be exhaustive in their security configuration options. They have every possible configuration you could or might ever want to employ and are best suited for users who like to tinker or want the ability to configure specific options to meet their needs. For example, some security plugins simply disable XML-RPC or move your login page.
We also reserve this category for toolsets like backups or maintenance plugins that address specific security function
Website Hosting Security
Website hosting security has matured in recent years, and it’s a complex topic.
Most hosts provide the security you require at various levels in the stack, but not for the website itself. There are a number of hosting providers that offer security for an additional fee, but unless you’ve purchased a security product from them, it’s unlikely that they’ll resolve a compromise for you.
There are four main hosting environments that can be used for your WordPress installation:
- Shared Hosting Environments
- Virtual Private Server (VPS) Environments
- Managed Hosting Environments
- Dedicated Servers
In theory, the environments that remove the most dependency from the user will offer the most security. If you have the time and skill to secure your own environment, then you have more options but also more responsibility.
In reality, however, the type of hosting environment you choose should be dictated by your needs and expertise:
If you’re someone that has little understanding of how websites work, then it’s in your best interest to go with a managed environment. If you’re an organization with your own network operations center (NOC), information security operations center (SOC), or dedicated sysadmins, then a VPS or dedicated server provides better isolation of your environment (assuming it’s properly configured).
Use carefully isolated FTP and user accounts on Shared Server environments to prevent cross-site contamination.
Secure file transfer to and from your server is an important facet of website security in your hosting environment. Encryption ensures that any data sent is protected from prying eyes who may be sniffing your network traffic.
We recommend using one of the following methods to connect to your server and keep your WordPress secure:
SSH: Secure Socket Shell is a secure network protocol and the most common way of safely administering remote servers. With Secure Socket Shell, any kind of authentication, including password authentication and file transfers, is completely encrypted.
SFTP: SSH File Transfer Protocol is an extension of SSH and allows authentication over a secure channel. If you are using FileZilla or some other FTP client, you can often select SFTP instead. The default port for SFTP in most FTP services is 22.
Backup Your WordPress
Maintaining backups of your WordPress site should be one of the most important recurring tasks for an administrator in order to improve security.
A good set of backups can save your website when absolutely everything else has gone wrong. If a malicious attacker decides they want to wipe all your site files or corrupts your site files with their buggy scripts, the damage can be undone by restoring your site from your backups.
There are four key requirements for employing a successful backup solution:
- Offsite Location: Your backups should be stored offsite and not on the same server as your website. Backups stored on your web server pose a serious security risk because they often contain old unpatched software with vulnerabilities, and due to their publicly-accessible location, anyone can exploit them to attack your live website. Off-site backups also help protect against hardware failure. If your web server hard drive fails, you can easily lose all your data – the live site and the backups.
- Automatic: Backup systems should be completely automated to ensure that backups are made on a regular basis. Humans are lazy and forgetful so you can mitigate user error through automation. If a manual solution is your only option, then make sure you schedule a time to perform the backups regularly.
- Redundant: Schofield’s Second Law of Computing states that data doesn’t exist unless there are at least two copies of it. This means that your backup strategy has to include redundancy or backups of your backups.
- Tested & True: Make sure that the restore process actually works. Start with an empty web directory and then make sure you can use those backups to get all your data back and the website back online with a test domain using nothing but the backup file.
Intrusion Detection Tools
There are a number of tools you can use to help identify when something has gone wrong on your website. To help you respond quickly to a security breach, employ a tool that includes the following services.
Integrity checks are an important aspect of auditing your WordPress installation and can give you an early warning of an intrusion on your website.
File Integrity Monitoring tools are normally installed on a server where they create a baseline cryptographic checksum of the critical files and registry entries. If a file or record is modified in any way, you’ll receive a notification of the changes.
Auditing / Alerts
Auditing tools give you visibility into user activity on the website.
As the administrator of your website you should be asking questions like:
- Who is logging in?
- Should they be logging in?
- Why are they changing that post?
- Why are they logging in when they should be sleeping?
- Who installed that plugin?
We cannot stress enough the importance of logging activity. Use a tool that logs and alerts you of any actions taken on your website, including:
- User authentication success and failures
- User creation/removal
- File uploads
- Post and page creation
- Post and page publishing
- Widget modification/activation
- Plugin installation
- Theme modifications
- Settings modifications
- WordPress Integrity Monitoring Alerts
Create a Response and Recovery Plan
Response and recovery aren’t just about responding to a compromise or incident, it’s about analyzing the impacts of an attack to understand what happened, and implementing controls to prevent it from happening again.
Secure & Clean Your WordPress
We offer custom services to our customers to secure and clean your website, working with a range of partners.
Hardening Your WordPress Site
Caution: The following recommendations are for server administrators with knowledge of how these files work. If you do not feel comfortable with these suggestions, we recommend using a website firewall that includes virtual hardening instead.
Secure basic .htaccess Configurations
The .htaccess file is what most vendors will modify when they say they are hardening your WordPress environment.
This critical configuration file is specific for web servers running on Apache. If you’re running your WordPress instance on a LAMP stack using Apache, then we recommend hardening your site by updating your .htaccess file.
WordPress Security Application Configurations
Move WP-Config outside the root folder
The wp-config.php file is a very important configuration file containing sensitive information about your WordPress site, including database connections.
If the wp-config.php file does not exist in the root folder, WordPress will automatically look for this file in the folder above the root directory. Moving this file out of the root folder prevents wp-config.php from being accessible from the Internet.
Setup Salts & Keys
The wp-config file includes a section dedicated to authentication salts and keys. These salts and keys improve the security of cookies and passwords that are in transit between your browser and the web server.
You can set up your keys by including or editing these lines after the other define statements in your wp-config.php file:
define(‘AUTH_KEY’, ‘include salt here’);
define(‘SECURE_AUTH_KEY’, ‘include salt here’);
define(‘LOGGED_IN_KEY’, ‘include salt here’);
define(‘NONCE_KEY’, ‘include salt here’);
You can easily generate your salts by navigating to the wordpress.org salt generator or using the reset salts + keys option in our WordPress Plugin.
If you suspect that the secret keys have been compromised, regenerate them as soon as possible. All users will need to re-authenticate.
Disable File Editing
By default, file changes can be made through Appearance > Editor from the WordPress dashboard.
You can increase your WordPress security by disabling file editing from the dashboard. This prevents an attacker from changing your files through the backend or wp-admin. You will still be able to make changes via SFTP/SSH.
To disable file editing from the dashboard, include the following two lines of code at the end of your wp-config.php file:
## Disable Editing in Dashboard
Some plugins disable file editing as part of their hardening process, or as an extra setting.
Virtual hardening is part of a defense-in-depth strategy that protects your web server and database from vulnerability exploitation. Virtual hardening is the act of adding multiple layers of protection to a website to reduce the attack surface.
If a security patch is released but you are unable to update your site, it becomes an easy target for hackers. One effective way to mitigate this risk is to employ a virtual patching service on your website.
Virtual patching can be accomplished through the use of a Web Application Firewall, where vulnerabilities are patched automatically to protect against known security threats.
WordPress Security Services
Protect WordPress with a Web Application Firewall (WAF)
One of the easiest ways to protect your WordPress website from hackers is to employ the use of a Web Application Firewall (WAF) like the Sucuri Firewall.
Website firewalls work to identify, filter, and block malicious traffic from reaching your site. All HTTP/HTTPS traffic is inspected. If a malicious bot or hacker tool attempts an attack, the website firewall blocks it automatically to protect your WordPress website before it even reaches your server.
There are a number of professional services that take care of your website security needs for you. Not all services are the same – some charge more to fix complex hacks, and others provide different tiered feature sets. You should choose the one that best fits your needs.
If your host provides security services, take some time to research exactly what features they include. They’re normally happy to advise you on ways you can complement their baseline feature sets with additional services.
The benefit to employing a cloud-based security service like Sucuri is that it provides complete end-to-end website security. This means protection, detection, and response services are included with an all-in-one platform and no hidden fees.
Our high availability Globally Distributed Anycast Network (GDAN) ensures that websites can efficiently service their global audiences while mitigating DDoS attacks.
SSL & HTTPS
SSL has become increasingly important to WordPress security in the past couple of years, not only for securely transmitting information to and from your website, but also to increase visibility and lower the chances of being penalized.
SSL allows a website to be accessed over HTTPS, which encrypts the data sent between visitors and web servers. Since 2014, SSL has been a ranking signal for SEO and Google has now started to flag non-HTTPS websites that transmit password and credit card data.
We’ve put together a free guide on how to implement SSL on your website and a tutorial on how to move your WordPress site to https. If you need assistance, you can reach out to us and learn how we can help you activate SSL/HTTPS via our cloud-based WAF.