If you’re in charge of a website for a company — or are part of a team that is — it’s vital that you check your site’s security on a regular basis. Failing to do so can cause the company serious damage through lost sales and leads, data theft, compliance breaches, and more. This can definitely harm your reputation (and put your job at risk).
Fortunately, you can perform a security audit to catch and patch vulnerabilities. In most cases, if you proactively take steps to protect your website, you’ll be safe from most kinds of issues and attacks.
In this article, we’ll discuss why it’s important to perform audits and when to conduct them. Then, we’ll guide you through the process with a full website security audit checklist
Why perform a web security audit?
Some small- or medium-sized businesses might think they don’t need a website security audit. After all, if you’ve never encountered serious issues in the past, it’s easy to believe that the site is secure.
But as the lifespan and size of websites grow, they typically develop more vulnerabilities. If your organization uses WordPress, you might install more plugins or add more users, which could increase the chances of something going wrong.
Here are some of the top tasks you can accomplish with security audits:
1. Identify vulnerabilities
In many cases, malicious attacks occur because bad actors discover an easy target. They might scan and identify your site specifically, or look to take advantage of a well-known gap in security caused by a common plugin.
Going through an audit with a full security checklist helps you identify issues before someone with bad intentions. It’s a proactive approach that’s well worth the investment for any company who values their digital assets.
2. Safeguard against security threats
Through an audit, you can evaluate your website’s resistance to common security threats. These include cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injections, brute force attacks, and denial of service (DDoS) attacks.
A comprehensive audit will tell you exactly where your website is weak and will give you the opportunity to patch those vulnerabilities. For example, you can mitigate the risks of a DDoS attack by using a content delivery network (CDN) and partnering with a hosting provider that can handle sudden surges in traffic.
3. Protect user data
Protecting user data is one of the main reasons for conducting a website security audit. It can help you ensure that any sensitive information — like personal details and credit card numbers — is well-protected.
You cannot ignore data protection in today’s climate. Exposing personal information will not only lead to a loss of trust between you and your clients, but it can also result in huge fines.
4. Maintain compliance
An audit that goes through a detailed website security checklist can help ensure that your business remains compliant with customer data protection regulations and industry standards (like the GDPR). Data breaches can impact both your reputation and your bottom line.
Of course, regulated industries like healthcare, legal, and finance must typically meet more stringent compliance rules governed by the local and national jurisdictions in which they do business. This is all the more reason to invest in strong security for your site — it’s typically much cheaper than penalties for falling out of compliance!
5. Protect brand reputation
As mentioned earlier, a website security audit can protect your brand’s reputation. It provides reassurance that your website and systems are secure and that you’re taking every measure to avoid potential breaches.
You’re obligated to report any breaches to the relevant authorities and inform customers of any threats to their privacy. Therefore, a single data breach can lead to substantial reputational damage, leading to customer churn and loss of business.
6. Minimize legal and financial risks
Beyond compliance for regulated industries, various jurisdictions have their own legal requirements meant to protect site visitors and users from harm. Failing to identify threats and safeguard your site may put you in jeopardy of legal trouble with real criminal and civil penalties.
Beyond governmental oversight, individual visitors who suffer damages may take legal action against your company.
The overall point is simple: Mitigate your liabilities by patching issues before they can be exploited.
7. Enhance security awareness
One often-overlooked aspect of a website security audit is its potential to raise awareness within your enterprise. Audits provide detailed insight into your organization’s operations. Reviewing these results with your team can help everyone understand the importance of better security practices and their role within your organization.
Take credential security as an example. Most people are aware that they shouldn’t use passwords that are easy to guess, but some of your employees might not take this precaution seriously. A security audit gives you the perfect opportunity to educate members of your organization in basic security practices.
8. Validate security controls
Finally, website security audits are crucial for validating your security controls. For instance, you can evaluate whether the security measures you have in place are effective against the risks they were designed to mitigate.
Executing periodic audits means your security controls should improve over time. In theory, this will lead to your website becoming even more secure. Plus, it should help you keep up with the latest practices in web security.
What are the prerequisites for a security audit?
There’s some preparation work you’ll need to do before carrying out a full website security audit. This will help ensure that you don’t run into any major issues during the process.
Here are the main prerequisites for a security audit:
- A detailed sitemap. You’ll need a comprehensive outline of your website and network infrastructure.
- Full access to the website and hosting environment. A full website security audit will require you to have administrative access to the site and the hosting environment. Alternatively, you’ll need to work alongside a network administrator to conduct several of the steps involved in this audit.
- Website scanning tools. These tools are used to scan your website for known vulnerabilities. We’ll take a closer look at them later in this post.
- Penetration testing tools. These are also known as pen-testing tools. This is a type of software that can help you test your website’s defenses against simulated cyberattacks.
- Access to website logs. Website logs provide a wealth of information on how users interact with your site. This includes any attempts to access or manipulate data on the website. Analyzing these logs can help you identify patterns that indicate security issues.
- Knowledge of compliance requirements. If your organization is subject to certain compliance requirements, it’s important to keep these regulations in mind when performing your audit. Non-compliance can lead to penalties.
- Incident response plans. As part of your audit, you’ll need to review your incident response plan to make sure it can handle potential security breaches. The plan should clearly outline the steps to take in the event of a breach, and who is responsible for each step.
Additionally, you’ll want access to the results of previous security audits. If this is your first time conducting a full WordPress website security audit, it’s important that you keep a record of the results and make them available for future tests.
An 18-step guide to conducting a website security audit
We recommend that you follow all the steps in this checklist, as each one can help you uncover different security issues with your site.
1. Evaluate your current security policies and procedures
The first step of any security audit is to take stock of your current procedures. This means creating a document that outlines all the different policies your organization follows, including information on how you handle:
- Login credentials
- User data protection
- Data encryption
It should also contain information on how your business chooses which tools to be used on the website, and which people get certain user permissions. Creating a summary of these policies will make it easier to reference them during the audit.
All of this information should be available within your organization’s documentation. If not, you’ll want to create a record so that you have everything available before the next security audit.
2. Conduct an inventory of assets and interdependencies
By “assets and interdependencies”, we’re referring to all the elements that enable your website to work. For a WordPress website, this may include the following components:
- The domains and subdomains
- Your hosting server
- The content management system (CMS) that you use (like WordPress)
- The plugins and themes on your website
- Any other software that you use
This process should be fairly straightforward, but it’s critical to the rest of the audit. Understanding your website’s structure gives you an idea of the elements you need to check for vulnerabilities.
We recommend creating a graph for easier reference:
This approach will also help other members of your organization better understand the interdependencies between each element.
3. Document configurations and interdependencies
For each asset in the inventory, you’ll need to include information about its configuration, version, and how they connect to each other. To elaborate on the WordPress example, an inventory of assets might look something like this:
- WordPress version 5.2 (with automatic updates disabled)
- PHP version 5
- Jetpack version 11
Those are just some of the elements that you might find in a WordPress website. Having this information quickly available will help you spot a lot of potential vulnerabilities. You should be able to find these details in your cPanel or web hosting account.
In the example above, all three elements use outdated versions. If you configure WordPress not to update automatically, that could be considered a security risk unless you regularly check your website for updates. We recommend updating all the components to their latest versions to avoid potential vulnerabilities.
4. Identify outdated, unsupported, or unnecessary components
As mentioned above, outdated components can affect your site’s security. To fix that, you’ll need to identify the software that needs updating and any tools that are no longer supported.
With WordPress, you can head to the Updates page to see which of your site’s components have updates available.
Recent updates indicate that the asset is still receiving support, which is critical from a security standpoint. If you have plugins or themes that haven’t received updates for a while, the best course of action is to replace them with more secure alternatives.
It’s also a good idea to check the plugin’s page in the WordPress plugin repository. If it hasn’t received recent updates, there will be a banner at the top that says, “This plugin hasn’t been tested with the latest 3 major releases of WordPress. It may no longer be maintained or supported and may have compatibility issues when used with more recent versions of WordPress.”
You can also check the “Last Updated” date in the right-hand column.
As for unnecessary assets, they can lead to security vulnerabilities on your website. If you’re not using a particular plugin anymore, there’s no need to keep it installed. On top of making your website more vulnerable, it can take up resources that can be used by other assets.
5. Scan for known and potential security vulnerabilities
Scanning for vulnerabilities is one of the most important steps in a website security audit. This process involves using a tool that has access to a database of known vulnerabilities and that can match them with your site’s configuration and assets.
WPScan provides a database of vulnerabilities for WordPress websites. You can access that database and scan your website by connecting it to the WPScan API or by using the WPScan CLI Scanner. Small businesses or independent website owners can access the database and check for vulnerabilities as well, though they should use Jetpack Protect to do so.
The scan should reveal any known vulnerabilities on your website, including exploits related to specific versions of WordPress, themes, or plugins. Armed with this information, you can choose to replace vulnerable assets or change their configuration to mitigate the threat.
6. Schedule regular vulnerability scans
Considering how important vulnerability scans are, you’ll want to conduct them on a regular basis. To avoid extra work, you can schedule or automate your scans.
Again, smaller organizations can do this through Jetpack Protect. Every day, the plugin will automatically scan your website against the WPScan database to look for vulnerabilities. If it finds any potential security issues, it will notify you and provide recommendations on how to patch them.
7. Assess and monitor third-party integrations
As a result of the first steps in this audit, you should now have a list of all third-party integrations on your website. Besides making sure they’re all up to date, you’ll also want to re-assess whether they’re secure.
Some website integrations and third-party tools can work perfectly, but they might not follow the best security practices in terms of coding or data handling. A website scanner will reveal any immediate security risks, but it’s up to you to assess and monitor other types of standards.
For each tool, you’ll want to do an online search to see if there are any vulnerabilities or data breaches. This information should be public and easy to find.
If there’s any software that doesn’t follow proper practices, it’s important that you remove it. It’s usually easy to find replacements for popular tools, so this shouldn’t be a problem.
8. Engage ethical hackers for penetration testing
Engaging ethical or white-hat hackers is a proactive way to improve your website’s security. In fact, this is a pretty common practice for larger organizations.
Ethical hackers use their skills to identify and fix vulnerabilities. They mimic the tactics of potential attackers, but with the intent to improve security rather than exploit weaknesses.
To engage ethical hackers, we recommend hiring a reputable cybersecurity firm that offers penetration testing services. Alternatively, you can host an ongoing bug bounty program, where you invite ethical hackers to find and report vulnerabilities in exchange for rewards.
A bug bounty program can help you reveal vulnerabilities on your website at any point. On the other hand, hiring penetration testing services will provide immediate results, often at a higher cost.
9. Inspect server and network configurations
Inspecting server and network configurations is a crucial aspect of improving your website’s security. The server is the backbone of your website, and its configuration can significantly impact how vulnerable your site is to attacks.
The easiest way to inspect your server’s configuration is through your web hosting dashboard. Depending on which hosting service you use, this should give you either high-level or direct access to the server.
If you can connect to the server via secure shell (SSH), you should have full access to all of its settings. This level of access is only available on some types of hosting plans.
It’s not advisable to tweak server or network settings unless you’re a network administrator (or have similar expertise). These are sensitive processes and a misconfiguration on a server file can render your website inaccessible.
10. Evaluate data backup procedures
Every website should have data backup procedures in place. These procedures determine how you create backups, how often you do so, where you store them (and for how long), and who has access to them.
Ideally, you should perform backups as often as possible and store them offsite. If the resources allow it, you’ll also want to store multiple copies in different locations to minimize points of error.
That might sound unnecessary, but it’s standard procedure for secure organizations. If you use WordPress, you can easily automate backups using a tool like Jetpack VaultPress Backup.
If you have manual procedures in place, we recommend looking for automation options. Backups are a critical link in the chain of website security, and automating the process can help prevent an attack due to human error or negligence.
11. Analyze website code and content
Once you’ve finished analyzing your website’s components, it’s time to take a look at the site itself and the code that powers it. This means going through each page and checking for unauthorized changes or anything that could pose a potential security issue.
This task should be handled by the development team. If you’re using the same professionals that created your website, they should be able to easily spot any errors or malicious code and fix things accordingly.
When it comes to your site’s content, you’ll want to look for any suspicious changes. Common signs of security issues may include links to unrelated pages, elements on your site that have stopped working, and not being able to interact with certain parts of your site.
12. Review user roles, privileges, and access controls
Reviewing user roles, privileges, and access controls is a critical step in enhancing your website’s security. This process ensures that users can only access the data and perform the actions necessary for their duties. This way, you can reduce the potential damage in case a user account is compromised.
User roles define what actions a user can perform on your website. For instance, an editor might have the ability to create and edit posts, while a subscriber might only be able to view the content.
Regularly reviewing these roles can help you ensure that they align with the principle of least privilege. This means that users are given the minimum levels of access necessary to perform their assigned tasks.
13. Review incident response plans
If your website has been around for a few years, the organization should have set response plans on how to act in case of security issues or breaches. For example, if your website goes down due to maintenance, you might want to reach out to customers to let them know when it’s back up.
In the case of a data breach, you’ll also need a strategy to notify users. Your security response plan should include a section on how to handle that scenario and the process you’ll follow to inform users.
Your organization doesn’t need response plans for every type of security issue, but you should be prepared to deal with the most common ones. These include data breaches, loss of information, downtime, and more. The way you approach these problems can determine the public’s perception of your brand.
14. Report findings and prioritize efforts
Once you collect all the information from the previous steps, the best course of action is to organize it into a full report. This report should cover all the audit’s findings, your comments about them, and potential solutions for each security issue you uncover.
This should be a team effort. You’ll need information from everyone involved in the audit, from network administrators to penetration testers, developers, and more.
The goal of the report is to provide you with a clear outline of all the tasks you need to assign. Then, you can organize these tasks according to the level of priority.
15. Develop a clear plan of action with deadlines
Since your audit report will include suggestions on how to fix each security issue, you’ll need to narrow down those options to one specific plan of action. This plan will tell members of your organization what they need to do and the timeline they need to follow.
Implementing a clear timeline is important, particularly when it comes to critical security issues. Any high-priority vulnerabilities need to be patched as soon as possible to avoid potential breaches.
16. Implement and monitor remediation
Now that you have a plan of action in place, it’s time to implement it. Your job is to oversee that every step is followed and look for alternative solutions if any of the proposed actions are ineffective.
These alternative plans will vary, depending on the type of security issue you’re dealing with. If it’s a plugin vulnerability, the best course of action might be to look for a substitute. If there’s no other tool you can use, you’ll need to deactivate the current plugin and adjust your website accordingly.
Being able to remediate plans on the fly is essential as some fixes might not work. Your website’s security is paramount, so it’s important that you monitor each team’s progress and come up with new solutions if needed.
17. Schedule regular security audits
Security audits can be an exhausting process, but they’re a necessary part of running a website. The larger your website and the more user data it handles, the more important it is to hold these audits.
Running a security audit is a great first step, but this process needs to be periodic. For a lot of organizations, this will mean doing a security audit once or twice a year. If your enterprise deals with extremely sensitive information, you’ll want to check your website more frequently.
18. Implement real-time vulnerability monitoring
Automatic vulnerability scanning is a common thread you’ll find behind all the most secure sites. Some of these tools take things a step further and offer real-time vulnerability scanning. They do this by monitoring changes to your site’s files and code, and analyzing them immediately.
This is a common feature in a lot of WordPress security plugins and scanners. If you use a tool like Jetpack Security, you’ll get access to both automatic vulnerability scans and real-time malware scanning. This will help you catch potential safety issues on your site as they appear.
Enterprise organizations that need custom solutions should reach out to WPScan to find the perfect fit for their site.
Frequently asked questions about website security audits
Do you still have questions about website security audits and how they work? You’ll find answers below!
What is a website security audit?
A website security audit is a step-by-step analysis of your site’s security practices and potential vulnerabilities. It involves testing and reviewing different aspects of your site’s configuration, the software it uses, permissions, and more.
The goal of an audit is to analyze each aspect of your site to find weak spots. This enables you to patch potential vulnerabilities before they turn into big problems.
What are the benefits of a website security audit?
There are many benefits to conducting regular website security audits. First, they help you identify vulnerabilities in your online business and its infrastructure. These vulnerabilities can leave your website open to attacks and put your customers at risk.
On top of protecting your site, security audits can help ensure that you remain in compliance with security regulations. The governing bodies behind these regulations can impose fines on your business if they find that you’re violating data protection rules.
How often should I conduct web security audits?
The frequency of website security audits can vary depending on several factors, including the size of your organization, the nature of your business, your risk tolerance, and any specific regulatory or compliance requirements that apply to your industry.
As a general rule, we recommend conducting a full website security audit at least once a year. This ensures that you stay ahead of new threats and vulnerabilities that emerge over time. It will also help you keep up with new compliance requirements and security best practices.
Depending on the size of your organization, you might need to employ full-time cybersecurity professionals. As part of their duties, these experts will regularly review different aspects of your site’s security to help make sure that it’s not vulnerable to attack.
What types of vulnerabilities can a website security audit identify?
A comprehensive website security audit can help identify a wide range of vulnerabilities in your web infrastructure. Some of the most common attacks you might need to protect your website against include DDoS attacks, injection vulnerabilities, and brute force attacks.
How can I ensure that third-party integrations and plugins are secure?
Using secure third-party integrations and plugins largely comes down to developing a comprehensive selection policy. A good policy for finding secure plugins might involve looking at user reviews and ensuring that the software gets regular updates from its developers.
Additionally, you’ll want to avoid downloading plugins from unknown sources. It’s also important to keep all plugins up-to-date, as outdated software can lead to security vulnerabilities.
What are common website security best practices that organizations should follow?
There are a lot of WordPress security practices that enterprises should follow to prevent attacks and keep user data safe. The most important ones include:
- Checking for software updates and security patches. Keep all systems, including your server’s operating system, CMS, and plugins updated with the latest patches.
- Using HTTPS. Implement HTTPS for your website to encrypt data in transit and protect it from interception. This is particularly important for any pages that handle sensitive data, like login or checkout pages.
- Enforcing strong authentication. Implement robust authentication mechanisms, including strong passwords, and consider adding multifactor authentication for additional security.
- Making regular backups. Regularly back up all website data and ensure that backups are stored securely. This enables you to restore your website quickly in case of data loss.
- Implementing access controls. Limit access to sensitive data and systems to only those who need it. You should implement “least-privilege” principles, which means giving users the lowest level of permissions necessary to perform their work.
- Educating your staff on security. Conduct regular cybersecurity training to educate your team about risks and best practices. This should include training on recognizing phishing attempts, secure password practices, and how to handle sensitive data.
On top of these basic security practices, you’ll want to conduct regular security audits. A full audit should cover potential security issues as well as emerging security threats.
How can I prioritize vulnerabilities and risks identified during a security audit?
Prioritizing the risks that you identify during a website security audit requires some understanding of basic vulnerabilities and what they mean for your website. As an example, if you have multiple users with administrative-level privileges and all of them are using weak credentials, that’s a massive security oversight that you’ll need to fix right away.
The proper way to classify risks is to consider how vulnerable they make your website. This involves thinking about whether you’re risking exposing user data, how well-known the exploit is, and how long it would take to fix any specific security loopholes if someone were to take advantage of it.
In most cases, the best way forward is to eliminate all vulnerabilities as soon as possible after you identify them. This way, you’ll minimize your exposure and the chances of your website being attacked.
How can I keep my website secure from emerging threats and new vulnerabilities?
Keeping your website completely secure from all issues can be a challenge. This is because new vulnerabilities emerge almost every day.
Monitoring all these potential threats is too much work for a single organization unless you’re planning on devoting yourself to it full-time. The smart move is to leverage security vulnerability databases and use them to check your website against them.
What are the benefits of an automated vulnerability scanner?
An automated vulnerability scanner is not a replacement for a full website security audit. But this type of tool can help you automate one of the key processes within a manual security audit.
Depending on the scanner, it might be able to check all of your website, its files, extensions, and integrations for potential vulnerabilities. If the scanner’s security database is up-to-date, it will be able to identify even the latest security issues.
Automating this process means you don’t have to wait to find out if your website is exposed to attack. Since these useful tools run in the background, you can use them all the time and know that your website is secure.
WPScan: WordPress vulnerability scanning for enterprise sites
WPScan is an open-source database of WordPress vulnerabilities. It includes information about security issues with WordPress core, plugins, and themes.
The database is updated by a team of WordPress security experts, and you can use it for free via the WPScan CLI.
If you want to use WPScan to automate security scans, you can do so through Jetpack Protect. With this plugin, you’ll get access to daily automated security scans. If the scanner detects any vulnerabilities that match the WPScan database, it will notify you about them and suggest potential fixes.
Perform a website security audit today
Conducting a full website security audit involves some level of preparation. You’ll need access to the right tools, as well as administrative privileges for your site and its web host. Once you have all the preparations in place, you can get to work on identifying any flaws in your site’s configuration. You can use this website security audit checklist to help guide you along the way.
A successful audit will point you in the right direction as to where you’re vulnerable. You can use that information to tighten your website’s security, educate your organization on best practices, and protect user data.
Plus, you can use a tool like WPScan to continuously scan your website for vulnerabilities. Talk to a WPScan expert today.