There Will Be Bugs

by Michael Van Houten | March 27, 2018

In my 20-plus years as a web developer, I’ve answered lots of questions about design, code and hosting in countless web site planning meetings. But there’s one question I haven’t heard very often that is perhaps the most important: what happens when the web site goes down? Clients and vendors alike don’t want to imagine that possibility, so they ignore it or relegate it to the ongoing maintenance part of a contract, secretly hoping that they won’t need to worry about it at all.

Such worries didn’t exist when I worked in magazine publishing in the mid 1990s (at least not to the extent that they do in 2018). My team worked through a comprehensive editorial and production process each month, and we knew that an issue was DONE as soon as we sent it to press—no “ongoing maintenance” necessary.

A web site, of course, is a different story. Sure, you have the advantage of fixing typos or changing content quickly if need be, but the number of things you’re still up against post-launch can seem insurmountable. Browser updates, software conflicts, web server maintenance, faulty networks and expired domain names are just a few of the things that can conspire to bring your web site to a crashing halt. So how do you get back up and running quickly when you don’t even know what’s tripping you up?

The answer comes from an unlikely source. Back in 2002, just prior to the beginning of the Iraq War, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked about the importance of planning for the “unknown unknowns.” And while Secretary’s wording was a bit convoluted, his point was actually quite simple and insightful: you need to leave room in your planning for the things you cannot foresee. You might know what content your web site needs to be an effective marketing tool. You also might know that you should leave the design and code to your web team. What you CANNOT know, however, is what on earth would cause your web site to suddenly stop working at midnight on a Saturday, months after you’ve launched it.

Luckily, you can plan for these potential pitfalls right now by remembering four simple things to do should that dreadful moment ever arrive.

1. Ask Questions
Before you even contact your web team for help, take some time to stop, think, and ask yourself some specific questions:

  • Whatever your issue is, are other people experiencing it, too? Ask your co-workers or friends to visit your web site. If they can see it “just fine”, then the problem might be your network or something that’s happening with your specific device.
  • Are you sure your domain name hasn’t expired? And is your domain hosting payment information up-to-date? Be sure to log in to your domain hosting provider’s web site (GoDaddy, for instance) to double check.
  • Did you or your web team make any recent changes to your site? What were they?
  • Did you or your web team install any new software or plugins on the site recently?

2. Take Notes
If your web site isn’t loading at all, do you see any error messages on the screen? If so, write them down or take screen shots. Then do a Google search of those error messages to see if other people have ever encountered them (there’s a very good chance they have).

3. Be Prepared
Answering questions like the ones above can profoundly help your web team to diagnose issues more quickly when you DO contact them. But do they have access to your domain name account, web site files or email addresses? More importantly, do YOU? Hopefully, you’ve kept good records of usernames, passwords and other information to pass along to them. If not, now is the time to start. There are plenty of tools you can use to securely store your usernames and passwords, and having that information at your fingertips can be the difference between getting your site back up in minutes rather than hours.

4. Remain Calm
Dealing with a site that’s down is understandably a stressful and tense situation. Your first instinct will be to call, email, or text anyone and everyone you think might be able to help you fix the problem. And you’ll probably want to shout your messages with ALL CAPS and exclamation marks to get your point across!! Instead, try to communicate in a measured way and not in a way that might scare off the people who can help you. In fact, if you’ve followed steps one through three, you won’t need to shout because you’ll be giving your web team what they really need: a plethora of necessary information. They already know the situation is serious, but if you want to motivate them further, give them all the tools they need to start digging in.

With our world becoming increasingly “connected”, you can count on the fact that at some point, technology is going to trip you up. But when those issues arise, the objective and educated approach to finding solutions will serve you far better than wildly swatting at the bugs.