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How we resurrected hacked Wordpress website

A hacked Wordpress website for Meteor News publishing platform that was resurrected and brought back to glory

Vera Nesvadbova
Vera Nesvadbova

Meteor News is a citizen science project and a publishing platform for authors around the world to bring meteor related content to a single place.

The website enjoys a steadily increasing traffic from 144 countries, and 25 authors delivered a hefty 662 articles. In 2019 alone it has seen a readership increase of 46%, which is the largest one yet. But that’s today!

Let’s rewind to 2018. Back then, the website was compromised and completely destroyed. It was initially hosted on a shared environment it was exploited by root access, a common issue with cPanel type shared hosting environment where multiple accounts reside on a single server.

Meteor News came to Empire Elements with a simple task, to revive the website and save as much valuable content as possible. Our team accepted the challenge and set to work by creating a Wordpress development plan:

  1. Set up a new cloud hosting platform
  2. Migrate content
  3. Set up backups

The original domain name was, but after SEO analysis we determined that the domain reputation was so severely affected, so we decided to start with a fresh domain name

Part of our evaluation was to see how we can store large amounts of data necessary for EDMOND catalogue. Storing all data on a hard drive on a server is not ideal; we wanted something more permanent.

Choice of a shared hosting was quickly ruled out as an option. It’s simply too risky, and we did not want to relinquish VPS control to some other third-party provider. Cloud Computing Platforms like Amazon Web Services and Digital Ocean were the only feasible choices. In the end, we picked Digital Ocean for simple panel, administration team panel that offers access to critical resources and predictable pricing. Knowing exactly how much money would need to be raised for a non-profit is very important. And this was even before Empire Elements became Digital Ocean partners.

Digital Ocean cloud infrastructure

And so we set to sail in the world of Digital Ocean.

Setting up a WordPress website is not all that difficult. Anyone can do that with one-click install option on Digital Ocean Marketplace. We especially like the option of worry-free, high availability, managed database hosting. That’s a long way of saying the database runs on a separate server cluster. Making it very stable, resilient and easy to back up and restore.

Next service we like was Digital Ocean Spaces, object storage with a content delivery network. A fantastic technology created by Amazon Web Services, S3 buckets are like folders but distributed, not on a single machine or disk drive. The primary benefit is stability and of course, virtually unlimited size. Once set-up, we did not need to ever worry about running out of space.

Digital Ocean Spaces admin panel Digital Ocean Spaces admin panel

Digital Ocean Spaces also have an optional content delivery network. A concept we are familiar with AWS. The idea is to store assets like images in data-centres around to world and serve that content from closest one to the website visitor, an important factor for Meteor News.

Broad audience from 144 countries requires proper planning. Back then we did not know Meteor News will be so popular, but we planned for it anyway.

Planning the running cost was very important. Digital Ocean offers easy to understand pricing structure: $15 per month for a droplet, $15 for a database and $5 for Spaces. SSL certificate is free thanks to Let’s Encrypt with auto-bot for certificate renewals (this is a DNS verification method).

Now we had Meteor News running on a Droplet in Frankfurt; global CDN enabled to serve assets closer to the visitor and a scalable database.

So we picked a theme, and after quick modification, we were ready for the next step, the data migration.

Wordpress content migration

After exploring several options of automatic migration, it became apparent that we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and do this manually. It took several days and a team of two editors to move the 300 or so articles. But we saw that as an opportunity to update the content and make edits where necessary. We introduced a completely new menu structure, as well. Much easier to follow and navigate through topics like news, research, fireball reports and even archive.

Meteor News now offers an email newsletter to get those juicy fireball pictures directly to your inbox as and when they happen. An exciting phenomenon those fireballs, they light up a sky for a couple of seconds, and everyone loses their minds 😂

With enhanced content and brand new setup, Meteor News website rose up from ashes like a Phoenix, ready to show itself to the world. But how can we make sure this does not happen again. We enforced strong user passwords, set up regular updates of the Wordpress core and plugins. Any unused plugins were removed, and we even got lifetime updates from Divi template.

Last effort is the easiest one. Backups!

There are two types of backups running regularly and taken off-site. First is the backup plugin UpdraftPlus which sends the data to our AWS storage, because well why not. The second one is an extra $5 per month Digital Ocean server image backup. Digital Ocean has a straightforward recovery process in the case of catastrophic failure.

Digital Ocean Spaces server backups Digital Ocean Spaces server backups


Top three reasons Wordpress websites get hacked are:

  • insecure hosting
  • using weak passwords
  • lack of updates

Because Wordpress powers roughly a third of the internet websites, it becomes a popular target for exploits. We see this over and over, cheap shared hosting environment, weak passwords, and out of date WordPress plugins are gateways for exploits.

The business impact of a hacked website is immense. Take security seriously, revise your backup strategy and if necessary change your host to make your Wordpress website robust and always, always up to date!

Meteor News server load averages Meteor News server load averages

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