There’s a mentality among some website owners that you can Set it and Forget It (a la Ron Popeil). I ask clients on my website project questionnaire what level of updates and maintenance they expect to do on their site and the overwhelming majority answer something to the effect of – “very little” or “never”. That’s no good. Websites are a little like cars in that they need maintenance and upkeep. Here are 5 essential website maintenance things you must do to keep your site working well and prevent future break-downs.
Keep in mind that each of these items could go into an entire encyclopedia of best practices and tasks to perform, but I wanted to let you know of some high-altitude things to be aware of that you can do to make sure your site is in tip-top shape.
- Creating regular backups.
Many people fail to realize how susceptible their site actually is to going down, from a variety of threats. The most common threat is actually the site owner, themselves. Unless you are a pro web developer (and even pros make mistakes), it’s probable that you will accidentally erase something or do something that causes your site to error. I’ve heard from frustrated clients who have spent hours trying to recover mistakes they’ve made. How much easier would it have been if you had a backup to restore? It’s something so simple that it can so easily be forgotten. It’s easy to overlook something like backing up a site because the information isn’t tangible and we’re usually not storing it at our own location. It’s usually on a server located somewhere else. You may think, “phew, it’s not susceptible to a fire at my location since it’s store offsite”. This may be true, but websites are also very vulnerable to hacking and threats to the host server that isn’t at your location. That’s why it’s critical to back up your site regularly, making sure you get all of the different parts of the site, specifically if it’s a database-backed site.
Different types of sites require different kinds of backups. If you use a WordPress site, make sure you’re backing your site up the right way. My favorite plugin for this is BackupBuddy. Other Content Management Systems (CMS) will have their own backup plugins or services. If you have a regular HTML/CSS site with no database, backup is a little more straightforward – you can just copy all of your site files to another location regularly. Be sure to consult with your webmaster, hosting provider, or software maker to find the best backup solution for your site.
- Update your software.
If you use a CMS like WordPress, there are core and plugin updates that are continuously being released. With WordPress in particular, these core updates are critical, as they contain patches and fixes to security bugs that make your site susceptible to hacking. Most people ignore the updates, thinking they don’t need every new bell and whistle that comes out and that they’re happy just the way their site is, not even realizing that the updates are more important from a security standpoint, rather than getting all the new fancy gadgets.
Other CMS platforms will have updates and releases as well. Be sure to stay on top of how often they are released and research whether or not the updates are critical from a security standpoint. If you use any third party software or scripts on your non CMS site, check to see if those can be updated as well. The updates I’m referring to are usually free.
- Checking for broken links.
Broken links within your site are fairly common, and happen easily. Often times, small changes to files on your site will leave you forgetting to update some obscure link and then your subsequent pages domino, creating broken links that can drive people away from your site faster than a cheetah on RedBull. Also, Google really doesn’t like broken links and if you’re ever seen a 404 error page, you’d either laugh, or understand why. Checking for broken links is fairly simple and thankfully there are tools to help you do it. W3C Link Checker is free and does a good job, but you have to check every page on your site individually. There are oddles of paid services you can subscribe to that checks your entire site in one foul swoop, but who likes more paid subscriptions?
Great new for WordPress users – (another reason why WordPress is awesome!) – there’s a plugin called Broken Link Checker that will scan your entire site and monitor it for broken links, sending you an email when a new one occurs. Couldn’t be easier!
- Checking Analytics
If you don’t have your site hooked up to Google Analytics, what are you waiting for? It’s a good idea, if not critical, to the success of your website and online marketing strategy to check up on the popularity of your site and to analyze how visitors are using your site. It can also provide some helpful troubleshooting information for things like pages that may or may not be doing well, how people are finding your site, and to discover how things may link together and what order people are looking through your website.
Analytics can be very complicated and I’m planning on doing a post or video on understanding it and learning how to apply changes to your site. Be sure to sign up to receive my emails so you can be notified when it comes out.
- Use Google Webmaster Tools
Here’s a secret weapon for website maintenance: Google Webmaster Tools. This is a special set of tools that allows you to improve the way Google searches and indexes your site. It can greatly reduce the amount of time your pages take to rank on Google searches and can give you important information about the health of your site.
The first step is to create an account and register your site. Then, submit a site map to tell Google how your site is laid out. Here are a few free tools to help you do this: XML Sitemaps, Sitemap Doc. WordPress users, you have an assortment of plugins to choose from. Just search, install one, and submit to Google. A day or two after you’ve submitted your sitemap, you should begin to receive all sorts of helpful data about how your site looks to Google. You can see crawl errors, you can check for malware, and check for issues with your site’s HTML code. Take some time to study these tools and they will give you some good ideas for technical improvement to your site. Don’t worry if they overwhelm you. It takes time and learning to understand what’s going on. Google’s help documents should by useful.