October 7, 2016

How to Avoid Costly Downtime While Redesigning Your Website

A Tale of Two Websites

Business A needs a new website. Their old one is falling apart as old code becomes incompatible with today’s computers, old styles become cringe-worthy, and an old structure simply isn’t performing. A few months later, the new site goes live. Users are impressed with a great-looking, modern website. Search engines pick up the fresh content, giving the website a boost in search rankings. And the business is enjoying a steady stream of qualified visitors.

Business B needs a new website. They go through the same process, and a few months later, the new site is ready to go live. But when the switch is flipped, the site goes down while files are transferred, new styles are applied, and back-end technicals get to work on the changeover. Users are frustrated when they’re unable to access the site. Search engines can’t find any content, so rankings start sinking fast. And the business is hurt by the lack of visitors, the time it will take to get rankings back up, and the reputation hit from frustrated users.

Downtime usually occurs when the server is unavailable, which means that it is impossible for someone to access your website. When you’re redesigning your website, if the process isn’t planned well, downtime can wreak havoc on a company’s web presence. The good news: it’s completely avoidable.

Know the Downtime Differences

In order to take the necessary precautions to dodge any unnecessary downtime, you should understand the two primary types of downtime:

  • Planned: Sometimes, it is necessary to bring the site down for a short period to do maintenance or to install security updates. Both of these essential tasks prevent damages that would be much worse than a little downtime.
  • Unplanned: Security breaches and similar emergency situations can create long-term downtime that costs thousands of dollars and potentially thousands, or tens of thousands, of visitors.

Avoid Downtime Completely

In all other situations, it is both possible and necessary to avoid costly downtime. If your company is redesigning your website, there are a few important steps you can take to keep your website as functional as possible.

Do the Work Somewhere Else

Changing parts of your live website one at a time will cause confusion and problems, so it stands to reason that you should temporarily take it down to work on your changes, right? Wrong. In today’s digital world,

In today’s digital world, it is no longer safe for a company to leave its “Under Construction” sign up for months at a time.

Therefore, instead of closeting your website for any lengthy amount of time, you can simply create a copy of your website on a local or separate virtual server. This step allows you to take as much time as you want to make changes.

After you’ve perfected your updates, you can roll the new website out all at once, minimizing downtime and complications for your server.

Announce the Shutdown as Temporary

If it is impossible to avoid a temporary shutdown, you need to inform your visitors and search engines that you intended to shut down, and also intend to return at some point.

When able, make sure that you state exactly when you hope to bring the website back online. This step gives search engines and visitors a solid date upon which to return to your website and resume the flow of traffic.

Avoid Common Mistakes

Whether you can avoid any downtime or not, there are two major mistakes that you absolutely do not want to make:

Removing Files From the Server

If you are redesigning your website in such a way that certain pages are not going to be used anymore, you’re not in the clear to simply remove the files.

If you remove the files immediately, anyone who lands on that page will find a 404 error instead of the information for which they were looking. This error indicates that the page isn’t found, but that explanation for the problem doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.

The worst-case scenario for a 404 error is that people assume that your website is gone and will never try to look it up again. Search engines will react in a similar way: if they see a 404, the search engine will determine that the page doesn’t exist anymore and will delete the page from its index.

Using a Basic Web Page to Explain a Closure

Instead of removing just a few files at a time, some people might think it wise to remove all of the files and use a single page that states the reason the website is down temporarily.

This option informs a human visitor, but it doesn’t mean anything to the search engine, so the search engine will think this is the new permanent website, and that is not good for your business.

Depending on how redirection was handled, the search engine may think the other pages were deleted and will only count the front page for search result rankings. Consequently, this move becomes a quick and easy way to ensure that your business becomes less visible on the Internet.

Follow the Codes

When it is not possible to completely avoid downtime, there is one good solution for manual changes: HTTP status codesStatus codes give the search engine and the browser a better idea about what has happened to a page:

  • 200 OK: This is a normal response for successfully reaching the page.
  • 301 Moved Permanently: The page you’re trying to reach has been moved to a new location where it will remain permanently. This request, as well as any future requests, should, therefore, be pointed towards the new destination. This code is used for a 301 redirect and is usually the best way to handle a redirect. This code will usually pass on all of the traffic from the original page.
  • 302 Found: The page you’re trying to reach is located somewhere, but this is only a temporary absence. Using this instead of a 301 redirect indicates to a search engine that this move isn’t permanent.
  • 404 Not Found: As previously stated, this is the code given when the server did not find anything at the requested location. There is no message provided to the search engine as to whether this is a temporary or permanent solution. As such, it will soon be removed from the index of that search engine.
  • 503 Service Unavailable: Whether due to maintenance or overload, the server cannot be reached. Search engines know this is temporary, so use this code whenever you must take the site down for maintenance.

Begin When Ready

Following these tips will go a long way toward keeping your digital presence (and consequently, your business) accessible when you’re redesigning your website.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published in June 2015 and has been updated to make it even more killer.

Brandon West

Brandon West founded PHOS Creative at the age of 26 out of his home office. A strategy-first digital marketing agency headquartered in Florida, PHOS’ growth and culture have been highlighted in the Inc. 5000, Gator100, Florida Trend Magazine, and the Best Christian Workplaces Institute.

Author of It Is Not Your Business to Succeed, Brandon has shared his insights on over seventy stages, addressing topics such as purpose-driven leadership, people-first culture, business as a ministry, authentic branding, and inbound marketing.

Away from his desk, Brandon enjoys dating his wife, mostly losing to his sons at board games, playing guitar and piano, exploring underwater caverns, and pastoring leaders at Salt Church and in the marketplace.