A quick fix for the impossibility of building new menus on a WordPress site with a large number of pages

I’m working on a theme migration for a WordPress site that as a lot of pages. A lot of pages. 451 pages.

The old version of the site was using page menus, not custom menus, but it was relying on a constellation of abandoned plugins, and that approach just won’t work for the new theme. We need to build custom menus.

The problem is, building a new menu on a WordPress site that has 451 pages is a daunting task. Granted, only 39 of these pages need to go into the main navigation. (A lot of them really should probably be deleted, but that’s the client’s call, not mine.) So, I’m glad I don’t have to wrangle over 400 pages into a menu, but even 39 can be difficult given the shoddy interface WordPress provides for finding pages to add to your menu.

There are three tabs: Most Recent, View All, and Search. Most Recent is useless unless you’re just adding recently created pages to an existing menu. View All is useless because it’s paginated, inside this tiny box, and it lists the pages in an entirely inscrutable order. (OK, it’s not inscrutable. I can scrute it. But just because I understand the logic of how they’re ordered doesn’t mean that order is easy to work with.) And lastly we have Search which seems like the saving grace. But it’s actually the most maddening of the three because of two things:

  1. WordPress search sucks. It doesn’t give extra weight to page titles; it searches the full content. So even if I type in the exact title of the page I want, it’s usually not first in the list. And that’s a problem because…

  2. It only returns 10 results. That’s it. Ten. No lazy loading of more, no pagination, nothing. If your page doesn’t come back in the top 10 results, it may as well not exist.

I’d really love to rebuild the internal WordPress search engine to be smarter about weighting titles. Well, OK, no I wouldn’t. That would be a project I would not enjoy. But I would like for it to be done by someone.

Since that’s not likely to happen, at least there’s a way we can modify the search results to change the number of pages returned. I found the solution, as I often do, on StackExchange. But I dislike a few of the answer’s coding conventions, and I wanted to make one specific change for myself, so here’s my version. (You may not like using closures, especially in a scenario like this because it prevents you, or anyone else, from being able to remove this logic elsewhere. If I were writing a public plugin for this, I’d definitely make it a named function, but this should be fine for a custom theme.)

add_action('pre_get_posts', function($query) {
  if (is_admin()) {
    if (isset($_POST['action']) && $_POST['action'] == 'menu-quick-search' && isset($_POST['menu-settings-column-nonce'])) {
      if (is_a($query->query_vars['walker'], 'Walker_Nav_Menu_Checklist')) {
        $query->query_vars['posts_per_page'] = -1;
      }
    }
  }
  return $query;
}, 10, 2);

The important difference between the StackExchange sample and my code is that I changed the results from 30 to -1 which, in the WordPress universe, equals . Fun!

The standard warning is that setting posts_per_page to -1 is inherently risky because it could cause performance problems. But in my testing of this change, it does not appear to be an issue on this site with 451 pages, so I’m guessing it won’t be for you, either.

Now, instead of getting back a paltry ten results, you’ll get all the results that match your search. And the exact page title you typed in should be in there, somewhere.

Add arbitrary product data to order items in WooCommerce

This seems to be way more convoluted than it needs to be, but I’m not sure how much of that is that it’s actually convoluted, how much is that Woo’s documentation sucks, and how much is that everyone else’s tutorial on it is tl;dr.

Anyway… I just wanted to do something fairly simple. I want to have each product’s short description get sent into the order data. This is a specific use case with a client who’s syncing data over the REST API with an external system, and we’re shoehorning data into the short description that maybe could go somewhere else. The point is, use your imagination as to how this might be useful to you.

I’m stripping out a lot of the other details. All I want is a way to a) add the data to the item in the cart, and b) carry that data over into the order item meta data in the database. You may need or want more, but this will get you started.

// Add custom order item meta data to cart
add_filter('woocommerce_add_cart_item_data', function($cart_item, $product_id) {
  if (!isset($cart_item['short_description'])) {
    if ($product = wc_get_product($product_id)) {
      $cart_item['short_description'] = $product->get_short_description();
    }
  }
  return $cart_item;
}, 10, 2);

// Add custom order item data from the cart into the order
add_action('woocommerce_checkout_create_order_line_item', function($item, $cart_item_key, $values, $order) {
  if  (isset($values['short_description'])) {
    $item->add_meta_data('Short Description', $values['short_description'], true);
  }
}, 10, 4);

This is a major distillation of stuff I found in these two tutorials: How to Add a Customizable Field to a WooCommerce Product and Add Custom Cart Item Data in WooCommerce.

I spent 5 hours troubleshooting this WordPress problem so you don’t have to (starring: WooCommerce Action Scheduler)

Sorry for that “clickbaity” headline. I added the parenthetical so it might be at least marginally useful. Since my WordPress-related posts are always about how I solved a particularly weird or obscure WP issue, I usually consider their titles carefully. “What would I have googled to find a solution to this problem?” But honestly, I spent 5 hours on this yesterday partly because I wasn’t sure what to google. (And I use lowercase “google” as a generic for “conduct an Internet search”; I normally use DuckDuckGo.)

OK, so here’s the situation. This particular site is — among my normally very-low-traffic clients — one of the busiest I work on. It’s a WooCommerce site with hundreds of products and 20+ daily orders. (Yeah, 20+ orders a day is not huge, but on the scale I normally deal with, it’s a lot.)

This site runs on its own virtual private server, with 8 GB RAM and 4 vCPUs. Pretty substantial for a single site. And yet, for weeks it has been maxing out RAM and CPU resources. Not to the point where the site was in crisis mode that demanded my immediate attention, but it was frustratingly slow. Just slightly below the threshold of me dropping work on other new projects to try to fix this. (At this point I feel obliged to note that I did not actually build or maintain this site for its first couple of years of existence, so I don’t know its inner workings as well as I normally would. I just know it’s running way too many plugins and desperately needs some TLC I have not had time to give it.)

Yesterday things finally got to the breaking point. For me, at least. The client had contacted me about an unrelated issue, but as I was dealing with that, I got frustrated by seeing all of this inexplicable resource usage, so I had to address it.

As it happens, this post is actually a bit of a sequel to my last post, about getting Apache’s mod_status and mod_rewrite to play nicely on a WordPress site. About three weeks ago I finally got mod_status working on this site, and had planned to come back, when I had a chance, to investigate this issue.

If you are not familiar with mod_status, you should check it out. Apache is generally a bit of a “black box” but this lets you see exactly what’s happening with each thread — the requested URL, the requesting IP address, connection time, resource usage, etc.

I noticed an absurd number of threads were coming from the localhost and were requesting wp-admin/admin-ajax.php with a query string referencing WooCommerce’s Action Scheduler. But what to do with that information?

I’ll admit, this is where I wasted a bunch of time in fruitless searches, because I don’t know a lot about Action Scheduler. I read a few threads on the WordPress support forums and StackOverflow that kind of danced around the problem I was having but never really got at it.

Eventually I ended up in phpMyAdmin, scrutinizing the wp_actionscheduler_actions table, and trying to figure out where all of the wc_facebook_regenerate_feed actions were coming from. I used my old favorite Search-Replace-DB to try to find any instances of “facebook” in the database. (This was an utter failure, for reasons I can’t explain. But that failure was critical to why this took me so long to resolve.)

I went to Tools > Scheduled Actions in WP admin and discovered there were over 200,000 actions, although there were only about 70,000 (only!) showing up in wp_actionscheduler_actions. Mystery!

I went to wp_actionscheduler_actions again, saw that those wc_facebook_regenerate_feed actions had all been scheduled weeks ago, and decided to just chuck out the lot. I truncated the table, but within seconds it started filling up again with hundreds of wc_facebook_regenerate_feed actions, with the same weeks-old scheduled dates. Where were they coming from???

What was especially maddening to me about all of this was that I had already, weeks ago, determined that the plugin that had created these — Facebook for WooCommerce — had been causing some kind of trouble, and I had deactivated it. Yesterday I even went so far as to delete it. I scoured the theme code for references to Facebook. I looked in the file system for stray files that might be responsible. And as I mentioned before, I tried to search the database for any references to Facebook. I was getting nowhere.

Eventually I realized Search-Replace-DB was having problems, so I dove into phpMyAdmin directly and started searching individual fields, in individual tables, for “Facebook”. And that’s where I finally figured it out.

WordPress puts everything in wp_posts, and that’s a problem.

I’ve complained over the years about the database architecture in WordPress. Having built multiple custom CMSes in the years prior to when I finally, fully embraced WordPress in 2014, I have a fair bit of experience designing databases. And two things I learned in that experience were: 1) clearly define what your data tables are for, and 2) indexes make databases efficient. WordPress is awesome for many things, but it has far, far outgrown its original conception as blogging software. Custom Post Types and Custom Fields make it super-flexible, but shoving everything they create into wp_posts and wp_postmeta can create a disastrous situation.

Case in point, WooCommerce scheduled actions. In earlier iterations, those were custom posts! (As are, still, WooCommerce orders, which is totally f***ed up, if you ask me.) At some point Woo or Automattic realized scheduled actions don’t belong in wp_posts, so they created four new tables specifically for managing them. Plugins that use scheduled actions had to create new scheduled actions for migrating the old wp_posts scheduled actions into the new tables.

And that’s where I found myself. Through some curious set of circumstances with this particular site, which probably at some point included someone other than me disabling WP-Cron to try to fix some other problem, 200,000+ scheduled actions from the Facebook for WooCommerce plugin (in the wp_posts table) got queued up for migration to the new tables. And as quickly as I was deleting them from the new tables, Action Scheduler (which runs once a minute!!!) was dutifully refilling them.

(And obviously they were never actually running… perhaps because I had deactivated the plugin? Or because they were simply timing out? Who knows? But here’s something I see as a flaw with Action Scheduler: it should check to see if the plugin that scheduled an action is currently active, and if not, purge the action immediately.)

At last here was the fix. I had to run this SQL query in phpMyAdmin. (Proceed with caution! Don’t just use this code… look in your database for exactly what is causing problems and adjust accordingly.)

DELETE FROM `wp_posts` WHERE `post_title` = 'wc_facebook_regenerate_feed';

Note: I’m doing this from memory — and a glance back at my browser history from yesterday. I didn’t keep notes on exactly what the title was.

For a more generalized — and drastic — approach, you could also do this:

DELETE FROM `wp_posts` WHERE `post_type` = 'scheduled-action';

I’ll just conclude here with a nice little graph of the site’s CPU and RAM usage over the past 24 hours. It was 6 PM when I finally figured this out!

How to sort empty values last in WordPress

For the past several days I’ve been hammering my head against a conundrum: how to get WordPress to sort a set of posts in ascending order, but with empty values at the end of the list instead of the beginning.

This seems like it should be a simple option in the query. But MySQL doesn’t offer a straightforward way to do this. There are some fairly simple MySQL tricks that will accomplish it, but there’s no way to apply those tricks within the context of WP_Query because they require manipulating either the SELECT or ORDER BY portions of the SQL query in ways WP_Query doesn’t allow. (I mean, you can write custom SQL for WP_Query, but if you’re trying to alter the output of the main query, good luck.)

I tried everything I could possibly think of yesterday with the pre_get_posts hook, but it all went nowhere, other than discovering a very weird quirk of MySQL that I don’t fully understand and won’t bother explaining here.

Sleep on it

I woke up this morning with an idea! I resigned myself to the fact that this ordering can’t happen before the query runs, but I should be able to write a pretty simple function to do it after the query has run.

Bear one key thing in mind: This is not going to work properly with paginated results. I mean, it’ll sort of work. The empty values will get sorted to the end of the list, but they’ll stay on the same “page” they were on before the query was run. In other words, they’ll be sorted to the bottom of page one, not of the last page. Anyway… consider this most useful in cases where you’re setting posts_per_page to -1 or some arbitrarily large number (e.g. 999).

The function

This simple (and highly compact) function accepts a field name (and a boolean for whether or not it’s a custom field [meta data]), then takes the array of posts in the main query ($wp_query), splits them into two separate arrays — one with the non-empty values for your selected field, one with the empty values — and then merges those arrays back together, with all of the non-empty values first. (Other than shifting empties to the back, it retains the same post order from the original query.)

function sort_empty_last($field, $is_meta=false) {
  global $wp_query;
  if (!$wp_query->is_main_query()) { return; }
  $not_empty = $empty = array();
  foreach ((array)$wp_query->posts as $post) {
    $field_value = !empty($is_meta) ? get_post_meta($post->ID, $field) : $post->{$field};
    if (empty(implode((array)$field_value))) { $empty[] = $post; }
    else { $not_empty[] = $post; }
  }
  $wp_query->posts = array_merge($not_empty,$empty);
}

Calling the function

As I said, this function is designed to work directly on the main query. You just need to call the function right before if (have_posts()) in any archive template where you want it to apply. Because of the way it works — especially the posts_per_page consideration — I thought calling it directly in the template was the most clear-cut way to work with it. Here’s an example of the first few lines of a really basic archive template that uses it, looking for a custom field (meta data) called deadline:

<?php

get_header();

sort_empty_last('deadline', true);

if (have_posts()) {

Using The SEO Framework with Advanced Custom Fields

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that I am not the only WordPress developer who in recent days (in the wake of their obnoxious Black Friday dashboard ad) has switched allegiance from Yoast to another SEO plugin, and that many of those who find themselves in a similar boat (to mix metaphors) have switched to The SEO Framework.

I’ve only been using it for a couple of days, but I already love it. It does all of the things I actually used Yoast for, without any of the other stuff I did not use it for. I mean honestly, maybe readability scores and “cornerstone content” do provide an SEO boost, but I barely understand how to use these tools, so good luck explaining them to my clients in a meaningful way. I suppose they’re more of a tool for full-time SEO consultants who need to pad out their billable hours. (Sorry not sorry. My opinion on the business of SEO hasn’t changed all that much since 2011.)

It wasn’t until the Black Friday ad that I really admitted to myself how much I don’t like Yoast. It does a lot of important things, and does them very well. But it’s obnoxious as hell about it. Pushing features you don’t really want or need into every page of the WordPress admin, and plastering its own over-designed admin screens with tons of garish ads promoting its “premium” features.

Yuck.

The SEO Framework encapsulates all of the key features I liked about Yoast into a single configuration screen, which kindly adheres to the standard WordPress admin UI design language instead of infusing its own brand style into every button and metabox border. It’s refreshingly boring to look at. And it just has the stuff I actually use, like title and description, OpenGraph tags, sitemap XML, the basic elements of SEO that unequivocally matter and can be a pain to build and maintain on your own.

But enough about all of its great features. There’s one key thing it lacks: support for Advanced Custom Fields. My standard “modular design” theme relies almost entirely on ACF’s Flexible Content fields to work its page layout magic, and with all of the page content stored in custom fields instead of post_content, there’s nothing for The SEO Framework to latch onto to auto-generate meta descriptions.

Fortunately, the developer has built in some hooks to allow you to customize the meta description output.

Here’s a barebones starting point:

function my_seo_framework_description($description, $args) {
  if (empty($description)) {
    $description = ''; // Add your own logic here!
  }
  return $description;
}
add_filter('the_seo_framework_custom_field_description', 'my_seo_framework_description', 10, 2);
add_filter('the_seo_framework_generated_description', 'my_seo_framework_description', 10, 2);
add_filter('the_seo_framework_fetched_description_excerpt', 'my_seo_framework_description', 10, 2);

As the developer notes, it’s very important for SEO not to just output the same static description text on every page. You need to have a function of your own that will read your ACF field content and generate something meaningful here.

Fortunately in my case, I had already done that, for generating custom excerpts from ACF content, so I was able to just stick a call to that function into the // Add your own logic here! line. You’ll need to customize your function to suit your specific content structure, but here’s the post that I used as a starting point for my function.

Have fun!