Tech Talk: Don’t neglect site updates

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This column is written specifically for the smaller, family-style businesses. It’s about maintaining your website’s technology (not the content), and why it’s time to start paying attention.

Companies that don’t regularly access and update their Web technology tend to operate under the natural assumption that once a website is completed and launched it can sit around on the Internet untouched for years. “There’s no such thing as dust on the Internet,” is something I’ve heard before. Believe me when I say your website is not a Ronco Rotisserie, (“Set it and forget it!”) and you do need to have someone checking on it from time to time.

If you do leave your site untouched for years, you’re headed for this fun and exciting event called “catastrophic site fail.”

You’re crazy, my site can’t fail.

The problem with the Internet is that it isn’t finished yet. We haven’t hit the pinnacle of stability, user experience and awesomeness that would cause all developers, spammers and hackers to sit back and revel inactively at the splendor of the Web.

Therefore, the programming languages are constantly changing and updating — even base level languages like PHP and HTML are still being rewritten every couple of years. The Web is constantly getting better, more secure and more robust.

The flip side for businesses with neglecting their site is this: a site that is never updated/upgraded, will eventually degrade, break or be erased as the code bases continue to change.

Isn’t there a beginner’s Web?

I know it isn’t fair to ask business owners who are not particularly passionate about the Internet to keep upgrading and updating. It would be fantastic if there was a Web nursery where we could keep all of the sites that don’t want to update alive. But that doesn’t actually exist.

The really unfortunate part about it is that the average small business owner doesn’t know when these catastrophic language/server/software updates are going to hit their site. They receive cryptic notes from their host that say something like, “Tonight we’re upgrading your Joomla site to PHP 5.3.1,” which sounds like a good thing, but can break every page of your site.

So now what, smarty pants?

The best advice I have for you all is to stay friends with the person/company that developed your site. It’s a knee jerk reaction to distance yourself from your developer as soon as the site goes live, but that’s actually counterproductive. Let them work on your site every now and then for small projects, or get a maintenance contract so they keep looking at your site. If your deployment was so unpleasant that you don’t want to talk to them anymore, then find a new developer to maintain the site, but do have someone technical checking in at least once each quarter.

A good developer will give you a heads-up when the site is headed for a meltdown and can provide a technical plan for mitigating the situation if they know you want their advice. By working together your site will continue to function at a high level and you can avoid all future unpleasant surprises handed down by the programmers of the Web. Stay safe out there.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.