Website Lifespan: Tips for Keeping Your Website Useful Long-Term

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Back when I was working as one of InMotion Hosting’s Support Agents, one of my most memorable moments assisting a customer involved a webpage designed and maintained using Microsoft FrontPage. Now, Microsoft FrontPage had been discontinued about fifteen years before I found myself helping out. Despite this, the website still did everything it needed to do and, after a bit of troubleshooting regarding an SSL, seemed like it would last another decade.

This was the moment I became interested in how long a website could last. How could you design a site to maximize the website lifespan? There are some interesting discussions about this topic — I think Brown University Computer Science Professor Jeff Huang’s writeup on the topic is worth a read if this sort of thing interests you. Most of what I found tended towards industry wide surveys or skilled developers getting deep into the technical considerations of website longevity and resilient design.

I thought that a lot of this material would be useful for the small business owner and the independent developer. Thinking about how long a version of your site can last, and how it is likely to change over time, can help you better plan your initial site design and focus on your site’s most important features. Below, I’ve reframed some of the things I learned investigating website longevity in ways meant to help someone planning the design of a small business or project website.

Website Lifespan: An Overview

Think of your website’s lifespan as the continued functioning of your website over time in response to changing technology, design trends, business needs, and customer behavior. Every website involves numerous tradeoffs between functionality, appearance, development time, and user-friendliness.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of even the simplest websites. Because of a few memorable examples of decades old websites still operating on the web, it’s tempting to equate site longevity with visual simplicity. This is not the case, though. Some surprisingly complex, high maintenance sites that would fall apart without constant developer maintenance look as simple as can be — search engines are a great example of this.

Accurately understanding your website’s expected lifespan, and what you’ll need to do to maintain it and adapt it, are vitally important for small businesses and nonprofits that may have limited developer resources or rely on volunteers. You need to accurately understand the strengths of your site and its most likely failure points so unexpected problems don’t sneak up on you.

What Contributes to Site Longevity

In my opinion, the best examples of functional websites that have been around and relatively unchanged for a long period of time share a clarity of purpose. If you visit these sites, the primary purpose of the website is clear. It’s still easy to do or learn whatever you need to on the site. The famously spartan Berkshire Hathaway website is a great example of this. The design is minimalist; I’d say a beginning web designer a few chapters into a book on HTML could make their own equivalent site without too much trouble. But, the site does everything it needs to do — provide links to company documents and investment information. CSS preferences can change, JavaScript flavors of the month may come and go, but a decade from now this site will still do the job.

The primary interaction the site’s visitor has with a site should be resilient to changes. Whatever the primary purpose of your website is, it should work simply and reliably. Any maintenance you do on your site should prioritize the primary visitor interaction.

Your site should be easily navigable. Visitors should be able to tell where to go on a site for whatever they are looking for. Don’t reinvent the wheel and, unless you’re a web designer trying to show off on a portfolio site, don’t over-complicate your customer journey.

What Harms Site Resiliency

Storing critical site files separately from your site: you’d be surprised how many people design sites by linking out to simple JavaScript files and font packs without putting a copy on their server itself. This is excusable in the early stages of design and testing, but presents an unneeded vulnerability down the line.

Please note, I’m not referring to keeping user data in a database on a different server, or using JavaScript to retrieve data from other services. That is a popular modern design trend that can introduce a bit of fragility to a site, but also helps keep data secure and pages loading fast when done correctly by a skilled developer. I’m literally referring to core site files here.

Over-reliance on third party software: I should just be able to say Flash based websites in a scary voice and get my point across here, but there’s more to it than that. After all, at the time of its popularity, Macromedia/Adobe Flash was well loved by many designers, including beginners who found it relatively easy to design exciting, interactive web pages in a toolset that was much more user-friendly to those of us used to graphical user interfaces.

Here’s the problem, though — we never know what tools will be completely unusable a few years later until it’s a few years later. I’m not advising you to avoid third party software, just make sure that you understand the role it plays in your business and the services you offer customers. Have a disaster readiness plan for your niche software; understand exactly what it does for your site and your business. Get at least a cursory understanding of what similar software is like, what it costs, and how you could recreate something if needed.

Another aspect of the “disaster readiness” I’d recommend based on personal experience is to always keep an archived copy of your media in its original formats. A college professor acquaintance of mine once tried to move an old online course to a new format after the software he was using was no longer going to be supported by his university. Unfortunately, the original media recordings had gone missing at some point since it was created and all we had to work with were the files on the site itself, created with a no longer maintained educational authoring tool — think Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline except defunct. Original recordings could have easily moved into an equivalent software program and uploaded to a new site, but the course site’s media had to be remade from scratch.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many university professors have personal websites coded entirely in basic HTML, this is why.

If you really want to ruin any chance your site has of staying relevant, simply avoid learning what is new and changing in the world of web design. Refusing to adapt to new technology — or worse, not even realizing it exists — is a sure-fire way to break your site. If you want your site to grow and thrive, you need to keep on top of changing trends.

Budgeting Time and Money For Site Lifespan

One of the articles that compelled me to look at website longevity was this Forbes article on website lifespans. While the article emphasizes how much website lifespan can vary from business to business and from one industry to another, all of the estimates were much shorter than I expected — and I thought I was a pessimist about this sort of thing to begin with!

People used to view websites as a necessary component of a business; these days, though, the website is the business for many of us. Even brick and mortar stores require a web presence to attract the attention of customers. Many of us have essential parts of our business online.

Think of it this way: if your business requires your website to function, and every website has a limited lifespan, then your business is facing a countdown to a crisis just by existing online. The longer you go without updating your site, the more fragility you introduce in your site’s design, the more likely it is that this potential crisis will catch you off guard.

Luckily for us, this “crisis” is easily prevented through routine maintenance. You don’t have to let it hurt your business. In fact, with a little prior planning, you can build a routine of evaluation and analysis that keeps your business thriving!

Maintain the Primary Customer Interaction

Let’s go back to the point I made above about famously robust, simple websites. They work because they do exactly what they need to do as directly and efficiently as possible. You should constantly evaluate your business’s website. Have your customer interactions changed in any meaningful way in recent years? Has the primary purpose of the website changed as well?

A site looking a bit tacky or a bit stuck in the past can be embarrassing, but a site that cannot carry out its primary tasks is far more of a detriment. If you run an online store, keep up with news regarding your payment processors. If you run a restaurant and post the menu to your site, make sure it stays up to date. Maintain the primary site to customer interaction loop above all else.

It’s easy to think I’m stating the obvious, but I spent a few years in some very, very small towns spread among eastern Virginia’s three peninsulas, and the number of restaurant websites advertising holiday specials from three years ago was quite high. There were a lot of “under construction, coming soon” pages I saw in 2015 that were still “coming soon” three years later.

Budget for Developer Time

Here’s why that happened — businesses were not properly accounting for the cost of their developer time. Maybe it was an actual developer’s time, or maybe it was ‘developer time’ the site owner needed to carry out. Either way, there were ‘developer hours’ that needed to be put into the site to maintain it and necessary upkeep wasn’t getting done.

If you hire a developer to make your site, and intend to pay that developer for further maintenance and upkeep, you will need to budget appropriately. Plan ahead how often you will need to update your site to keep it relevant. If you expect to maintain your site on your own, be absolutely certain that you know how to do so.

I saw just as many businesses in those small towns with excellent, well maintained websites. You must build in a routine of upkeep and maintenance if you want to keep your site helpful and relevant.

Mitigating the Challenges of Frameworks

There are a few issues I see showing up with website frameworks and content management systems like WordPress when used by small businesses and independent developers. We’ve covered these topics before in guides like our WordPress Optimization Guide, but I just wanted to mention a few here as they relate to website longevity.

First, avoid unnecessary complexity. WordPress makes it very easy to install plugins, but don’t install a plugin without reason. It’s fun to add stuff to a site because it looks cool or has an interesting feature when you’re practicing site design, but keep your business’s site precision focused. Unnecessary complexity leads to unneeded fragility.

Don’t fight against the overall trends and best practices of the tools you’re using. WordPress has recently been focused on Full Site Editing, and the WordPress developers are building the entire WordPress experience around these new pieces of software. If you intend to use a WordPress website over the next few years, it’s a good idea to go ahead and adapt to this change now. Otherwise, every WordPress update will require you to painstakingly reconfigure your site to adapt to these changes.

Lastly, focus on finding problems early: they’re easier to fix that way. This ties into what I mentioned above about keeping up with the latest developments in your business — keep up with changing technology as well! A lot of WordPress plugins still rely on older versions of PHP and return errors if you switch to a more recent version of PHP. If you learn about this ahead of time, you can focus on replacing the plugin with something more up to date. Giving yourself plenty of time to deal with these changes before they become problems will help keep your site online, accessible, and helpful well beyond the two or three years most websites are expected to last.

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