When customers invest in a new website, there is a common mis-conception that it “should work flawlessly forever” - unfortunately, it won’t. One day something was working just fine, the next day not.
So for example, one day your ‘Contact Us’ form is successfully sending emails to your sales team, and the next day it’s not. Or yesterday customers could successfully complete a purchase on your e-commerce store, but today they can’t.
It can be time consuming and therefore expensive to fix a broken site. Cause and effect is, on occasions, far from obvious. For example, sometimes a coding change in one part of a site can have an undesirable knock-on effect in an apparently unrelated part of the site. Or perhaps a problem is being reported by one or more of your customers, but you’re struggling to reproduce the error yourself.
Particularly aggravating is where, apparently, no-one actually did anything to the site itself. It appeared to break all by itself.
How is this possible?
The bottom line is that websites and related public-facing technologies operate in an extremely dynamic (some would say ‘hostile’) environment that changes every day. There are lots of things going on around a website that can cause things to break, temporarily (yes, some issues appear to fix themselves) or permanently, until a web developer is able to fix things up.
Most modern websites, (especially those using databases and built on web Content Management Systems) contain thousands of lines of code and depend on specific software that runs on your web host. Depending on a system you use to power your website, the code contained within it may have been written by numerous developers at different times and with various skillsets.
Here are a few reasons how and why websites sometimes appear to break all by themselves:
- Browser changes/versions. i.e. changes to the software that people use to view and interact with your website. A website can only be future-proofed to a degree. So your website might work just great on Internet Explorer 9, but a subtle difference when you upgrade to Internet Explorer 10 causes your site to misbehave. But don’t forget that there are multiple browsers (e.g. IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari), multiple versions of those browsers, multiple operating systems and versions upon which these browser run (Windows, Mac, Linux), and multiple hardware platforms that run all this software (PCs, tablets, smartphones, etc.). Changes in any of these have a tiny but real potential to impact how a website behaves.
- Software updates. e.g. security patches. These can, and typically need to, occur directly to your site, and/or the software environment around them (e.g. to the web server, operating system, database, or programming language used by your site). Apparently innocent and well-intentioned updates to any of these components has the slight but real potential to break your site to some degree or another.
- User error. Content Management Systems (e.g. WordPress, Drupal) are powerful things.They can give potentially inexperienced users the ability to manipulate websites in a multitude of ways, i.e. far more than just managing text content. Despite the best of intentions, a CMS user might make a change to a site, unaware that it has unintended consequences for other parts (e.g. functionality) of a site. And sometimes it can be very challenging for a support person to trace the problem back to the actions of the CMS user. Too many administrative users opens up the potential for errors on the site. We suggest limiting the roles and permissions to one or two key people, with more ‘basic’ roles allocated to staff who only need to edit content etc.
- Changes/updates to 3rd party systems or software. Perhaps that ‘Contact Us’ form on your site is working just fine, but the mail server that receives and stores your email is misbehaving. Or maybe your site integrates with Twitter or Facebook, but Twitter or Facebook just made a fundamental change to the rules by which sites are allowed to integrate with them. Or maybe the 3rd party service that processes credit card payments on your site is experiencing technical difficulties. Or that page on another website that you were linking from your site is broken because the other site just had a major update with lots of renamed pages.
- Hardware failure. e.g. errors on a hard drive causing intermittent glitches.
- Computer viruses. A computer virus on a PC can make a web site do very strange things.
- Pop-up blockers, or other software specific to the IT environment of the website visitor. So things like anti-virus or parental control software can cause apparent problems on a website – such as making it appear completely unavailable – but without the computer user understanding why.
- Firewalls. Some organisations have very “locked down” IT environments. A website operates perfectly when viewed outside the organisation, but misbehaves when viewed inside the organisation.
What’s the solution?
In the first instance it’s about education so that people have a better understanding of the challenges. After that it’s all about the speed and efficiency with which issues are identified, reported and, ultimately, resolved.
Your website is very much like your computer and car. They'll need maintenance to keep running smoothly. You may expect a computer to run flawlessly forever as it is largely a collection of software and electronics with very few mechanical parts that could let it down. As you know, the reality of computer ownership is completely different. When your computer starts running worse, gets viruses, or can’t run the most modern programs at an adequate speed, you feel like it’s time to run some maintenance tasks on it. When your car is acting strange, moving slower, making loud noises, you take it to a mechanic. Whether it is a car, website or computer, sometimes it can take longer to diagnose the fault then it does to fix it.
If my website breaks, who’s fault is it?
It’s a good question with simple answers:
- It’s your web designers duty to provide you with a working, bug free and professional website product upon delivery.
- It’s your web hosting companies duty to ensure the hosting environment is running updated software, applying security patches and taking regular backups of your website.
- And it’s your responsibility as a website owner to ensure your website is receiving regular attention and maintenance.
A website is not a final product to be put somewhere and forgotten about. It should be treated as an evolving entity residing within a fast paced evolving environment that gets attention on a content and a technical level.