Rules For Website Success Part 3: Keep Your Site Healthy

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Well, we’re finally here.  We planned a great site, we built it and launched it, and now it’s live and ready for your users!  I will be releasing a post in a couple weeks about user acquisition strategies, but for today, I want to talk about the things you should keep in mind for the ongoing maintenance of your site.

I know, it’s the least fun part of the entire experience, but we need to talk about it because your site is going to spend the vast majority of its lifetime being maintained, as opposed to being built.  We’d be remiss to avoid talking about some of the considerations involved in effective website maintenance.

This Is Just The Beginning

Your work won’t be finished when you launch your site 

Think of your website like a house.  Creating a website is like taking an empty lot of land and building a new house on it.  The launch is when you throw a housewarming party to invite people in for the first time.  Everything is great!
Plastic workmen removing the 2 key from the number pad of a black keyboardUnfortunately, you’ll soon find that just like a physical structure, your website is going to need maintenance.  Maybe over time the roof will start to develop a leak, or your software will fall out of date. Your website content will eventually be old and stale, and it will need to be refreshed, just like putting a new coat of paint on the house.  Even though you’ll have finished the vast majority of work, you should still plan for some routine maintenance that you’ll need to do to keep your site in good shape.
You should realistically expect to spend somewhere between 5% and 15% of the your building costs for the site each year in website upkeep costs - even though they don’t give a percentage in the linked story, they’re in the same ballpark as my estimate for similar systems.  You can think of this in the same vein as the rule of thumb that you should expect to spend 1% of your house’s value in maintenance each year.  It may fluctuate, and it is unlikely to be exactly that much at any one point in time, but planning to be ready to handle the associated costs will help you address any unexpected maintenance issues.
Additionally, you should be thinking about assigning someone the specific task of website maintenance.  It doesn’t matter who is doing it, but it does matter that the buck stops somewhere.  Assigning this task to a single person removes all ambiguity and ensures that everyone knows what the expectations are.  Even if you have an external company that handles your website, you should appoint a member of your organization as liaison to make sure the chain of oversight stays clear.

Expect the unexpected

There is a relatively famous quote from the early years of this millennium:
“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”
Let’s decouple that statement from its original context and think about it in terms of the management of a website. As far as maintenance issues, there are going to be things that you can foresee in their entirety, problems that you can roughly guess will occur but are unable to fully predict or divert, and problems so far outside the realm of expectation that you’ll never be able to realistically stop them from occurring.

Known Knowns 

The known knowns are things that can be problems if you fail to properly plan for them.  Many of these are billing and automation related. If you own and maintain your domain name, you will have to pay a renewal fee every year for the domain.  That will not change in the foreseeable future, and you should be planning from day one to make sure that bill gets paid. You’ll also have to pay for some sort of hosting.  Whether you own and operate your own server, or you pay a hosting company for space, you’ll need to make sure that your hosting platform is paid for and well-maintained. Realistically, you should aim not to let yourself be tripped up by one of these problems; the scope is well defined and the problem limited.  You should be able to prevent these from becoming issues.

Known Unknowns

Young woman reacting with surprise and distress to what she is seeing on her computer screenThe known unknowns, on the other hand, are aspects of the site where you are basically aware that a potential issue could arise, but you aren’t really sure how it could manifest itself.  For example, you should absolutely expect that your site will be targeted by hackers at some point.  Even if it hasn’t happened yet, you’re more likely to be targeted than not targeted.  You can engage in the most extreme risk-mitigation efforts imaginable, and some clever hacker will probably eventually get around them (that’s why we always suggest keeping your software up to date for the newest security patches).
Another example of a known unknown is the ever-changing nature of Google’s search engine algorithm.  They give a significant amount of warning, in fairly generic terms so that they don’t divulge their trade secrets, when they are making changes to the algorithm.  The problem is that you’ll be unlikely to notice these communications unless you’re constantly getting news updates about Google or you begin to notice your site traffic falling off.  
So how do you handle these known unknowns?  A large part of it is identification. If you know you rely on lots of organic traffic through Google, you can either commit the effort to handling the parsing of news bulletins and getting constant Analytics reports.  Review them regularly to make sure there are no new problems.
Another part is minimizing risk.  If you assume a hacker is going to get access to your system at some point, you can make decisions about how you handle data to keep your users as safe as possible.  For example, never store a full credit card or social security number yourself. If you know enough to safely administer and run a fully PCI compliant environment, feel free to disregard that advice, but if you don’t, you should settle for asking your web developer about their information security.  They probably have it under control, but ask anyways. They’ll appreciate a client who knows enough to ask that question, I promise.

Unknown Unknowns

Finally, for unknown unknowns, you need to flip your conception of the problem.  Since by definition you’ll be unable to project what form these issues could possibly take, instead ask yourself, “what state do I want my website to be in?”  The obvious solution here is taking backups, not just of the site code, but ideally of the full server.  I say this because sometimes server updates can break your software.  If the site is dependent on a certain version of a Linux package, for example, updating the server could break your site without changing a single line of your site’s code.  

You won’t always be able to get a full server image if you share hosting with other users, but a good hosting company will be able to give you a full account backup from their shared hosting environment, which is almost as good.  Being able to restore a complete image of the server, or of your account on shared hosting, will be a quick fix for many types of problems.
Additionally, you should maintain control over at least some of your backups.  Even if you just log in and download them from your hosting platform, you should keep some form of site backup in a different location than where your site is hosted.  This will hopefully be overkill, but a hosting company going out of business, a large scale infrastructure disruption, or a natural disaster could affect the entire server cluster where your site is hosted.  Again, usually a hosting company will have their backups configured to be as durable as possible for precisely these reasons, but you should still take the matter into your own hands to guarantee you have access to those backups.

That’s it for my Rules for Website Success.  I hope there were some ideas in this series that you found interesting or informative.  Thank you for reading along! If you missed Part 1 or Part 2, make sure to go back and give them a read.  
Also, if there is anything that you think I missed, or if you have an idea for some content or a discussion that you’d like to see from us, let us know in the comments below, or send us a message through our Contact form.

By Ben Jacoby on 04/05/2018 2:57 PM

eLink Design is a national web design, application development, SEO, and business consulting firm, founded in 2001 that specializes in custom solutions for over 800 clients around the country. With this blog, we hope to provide insights into what we are working on, areas where we think we can help shed light on problems we hear, and sometimes just cool things we have come across.

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