Categories: Tips

Why websites need to be updated

10 years. That is our current record for the longest time an active website went between its original launch and having any sort of significant update. The site was launched in 2000 and clung on for just over a decade without having any real work done to it. Despite a maintenance schedule that was close to neglect it continued to serve tens of thousands of visitors per month and generate revenue for the owners.

If you are now wondering how to get 10 years of active use out of your next website, let me start by explaining why you really don’t want to try to do that today.

So, what’s changed?

HTML is dead… long live HTML

HTML is the code that makes webpages. Although there have been a few versions of HTML along the lines, the most frequently used parts have remained largely unchanged. Simple sites built 10 years ago using just HTML still work in roughly the same way today.

Almost all websites are still built using HTML today, but the HTML goes hand in hand with other technologies to power the more demanding websites that we now expect. You probably have a CMS (Drupal, WordPress etc – or maybe something bespoke), powered by a server-side language such as PHP, to allow you to make changes to the site. The site might use JavaScript to create intuitive user interfaces. Your website might even interact with third party services, such as using a Facebook “like” button or embedding YouTube videos or maybe a Google Map.

All of these things add complexity. Whereas HTML just deals with static appearance these examples (and hundreds of others like them) rely on programmes and scripts to be run somewhere which starts introducing possible compatibility issues.

Server side compatibility

Modern websites are effectively applications that are installed on your webserver.

The problem is that webservers need to be updated regularly to keep them bug-free and secure. Once a server is made available on the web it will always eventually be targeted by someone trying to abuse it. When this happens you need to be confident that you are running suitably patched and secure versions of all of the server software.

Issues arise when your server software is updated, but the programmes running on it aren’t. As server software updates new coding standards and requirements are introduced and as this happens it can cause previously good code to fail.

Client side compatibility

Web applications (including websites) face an additional challenge, in that they also have to remain compatible with every device and browser that the user uses to view the website.

Browsers, such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet explorer are the interface between your website and the user’s computer. Just as changes in server software cause problems, so can browser changes. Even ignoring minor changes and bug-fixes, the number of times per year that the 3 major browsers are upgrading is increasing rapidly – as shown in the chart below

Major Browser Releases by Year

Data source – Wikipedia

Add in the rising popularity of other browsers, including Safari, Opera and scores of others and the browser landscape is increasingly complex.

The Rise of Mobile

If your website was built before 2010 and hasn’t been tested or updated since then it hasn’t been built with the iPad (or any other tablet computer) in mind. The same year saw the launch of Android, the most popular Smartphone operating system. With mobile and tablet use already overtaking desktop use in some segments, this could be a massive shortcoming.

The rise of mobile computing is the biggest story in website use of the last few years. Mobile devices, and roaming use introduce numerous new challenges that your website needs to face. Ignore those and you could be alienating an ever-growing proportion of your users.

But it’s not all about the technology

User expectation

It’s not just the technology that has changed. The expectations of the users have as well. We, rightly, expect more from the sites that we visit. We expect our sites not only to be up to date, but often to include live data. More detailed information and interactivity are the baseline against which your site is measured (and measured against your competitors). Design trends too play a part. Sometimes driven by fashion sometimes by technology, style trends evolve quickly on the web and the look alone is often enough to date a website with surprising accuracy.

Best practice – Iteration

Rebuilding a website from scratch is one way to bring it up to date. Starting from a clean sheet provides the opportunity to address every issue in big push and lay out your stand for years to come.

There are definitely times when a new site is the best option, but a fresh start doesn’t make the issue of site updates go away. The Internet is changing at an ever-faster pace and planning a website now that will be competitive in even 2 or 3 years is becoming increasingly challenging. In some faster moving markets it can even be tricky to look forward 12 months.

A continuous cycle of Ideas, Change and Measurement is the modern, efficient approach to website management and fits perfectly with our pro-active management approach. Changes are pushed out continually and the impact of those changes measured. This means benefitting from change earlier rather than waiting for the annual update. It also ensures that the changes that are happening on a website are supporting and furthering the goals of that project. Most importantly though it means introducing means to measure the success (or otherwise) of change and to replicate those successes.

The second best time is now

There is an old proverb that the best time to plan a tree is 50 years ago and the second best time is today. 50 years might be a push in the web world, but the concept holds true for managing your website.

Well managed websites perform better and cost less long term. Whether your website is still being built or has been up and running for years today is a great time to look at whether it can be managed better.

Mat Bennett :