I spend a lot of my time talking to potential clients who are interested in website maintenance services. Many agencies don’t want to bother with maintenance, with many thinking it’s a burden dealing with ongoing requests. Honestly, day-to-day support is sorta fun, because it adds a layer of unpredictability to our work. Agencies typically are more interested in the more extensive build-outs, focusing on getting those contracts and when wrapping up the project, moving on. Also, many agencies simply aren’t positioned or equipped to handle both ongoing maintenance and upkeep and large-scale builds. So they don’t bother, leaving clients unaware that they even require maintenance to begin with.
Many of those clients find their way to us, where they are somewhat surprised to learn that there will be an ongoing component to their website project, in that it’ll need to be managed by someone to keep up to date, secure and humming along correctly. Unfortunately, clients think of websites as a “set it and forget it” type of endeavor, but the inverse is the reality. In truth, websites require more maintenance than your typical business asset. Sure, buildings need maintenance as well, but your digital presence needs much more regular monitoring and upkeep than any physical asset you may have.
With all of that said, the conversation with new clients typically evolves into a discussion of just how much time you need, at a minimum, to keep your site operating correctly. As I’ve had this conversation about once or twice a week for the last 10 years, I figured finally I’d put it into one comprehensive post to cover all the basics. First, I want to impress upon you two points as you are planning your maintenance requirements.
First: Maintenance vs Continuous Improvement
First, I want to point out that these are two different things. By “maintenance”, I mean the ongoing updates, security upgrades, backups, and routine tasks needed to keep everything running like a well-oiled machine. Any other tasks really fall into the realm of continuous improvements. New pages, templates, new functionality – these are site improvements and not necessarily maintenance tasks. You should always budget for the constant cycle of sharpening the saw or making your property work better for both yourself and end users. But those are the “nice-to-have” updates, not the critical things you need to do to stay reliably online.
Second: Plan for it
My second point worth considering is that you absolutely need to plan for ongoing maintenance tasks as part of your budgeting and preparation for a new site rollout. Maintenance is a non-discretionary requirement of running a website. Now, whether or not you acquire an agency to help or do it yourself is something you can debate. However, you must consider how you’ll handle the tasks we talk about below in a timely fashion on a regular basis.
So, what are the bare minimum things you need to keep everything copacetic?
The first thing you need to ensure reliable site delivery is to know what is going on, at all times. This means monitoring website performance. The first thing is to set up 24/7 uptime monitoring. This simple task will let you know when your site is no longer available to the public. It would be better to install sophisticated monitoring, something that digs deeper than merely reporting on if a website is working or not. But, at a minimum, uptime monitoring is essential. Secondly, you should also set up tracking for security vulnerabilities and breaches – especially if you are utilizing off-the-shelf software such as WordPress or Joomla. Services such as WordFence are suitable for this purpose. This step should not be skipped, because if your site is down or is compromised and you don’t know, you’ll start to pay the price with either lost business, lost credibility, or being blacklisted or otherwise punished by search engines.
It’s worth mentioning that monitoring isn’t just an automated thing. You also need to be monitoring for things such as updates as they become available, and any other industry news or issues that arise. This is more of being in the know, versus just watching any one thing. Agencies can really be of assistance here, mostly because they are dealing with many clients and therefore stay in the loop out of necessity. Being ahead of critical software updates by simply knowing they are coming or were recently released is an essential aspect of running a website day-to-day.
Unlike a house or a building, where problems arise slowly, and you can take time to diagnose them accordingly, the majority of issues you will encounter with your website will be emergencies. Website operators are notorious for putting off what doesn’t seem urgent until it is critical. With physical assets, it’s not often that something so catastrophic happens that the entire thing is unusable. Sure, a small roof leak is a problem, but you can put a pot under it and wait for the next day or so, right? With a website, when a problem arises, you need a near instant response, as each minute you are down can result in problems for your company.
With that said, the most important thing for you to have is a plan to respond to issues, a point at which your support team (more on that below) will take over when a problem is found via your monitoring platform.
There are really two skillsets that you need access to, at relatively short notice, to prevent things from going haywire. First, you need access to quality systems support. This means someone who can handle networking, server configuration, and understand the basics of how to diagnose what is going on. This may be something you can do yourself, or it may be something your host can provide. Typically, a systems administrator will work with the server and the network but stop short of the software running on the device itself. With that in mind, you’ll also need development support. Development support means a developer who can handle the intersection of the software running your website with the server and the overall environment handled by the sysadmin. These two services are essential, and it’s important that you have a pre-arranged agreement wherein these resources are available at reasonable notice to help you with any issues that may arise.
How Much Time Does It Take?
So, how much time does all of the above take? First, installing monitoring and security scanning is easy. That doesn’t take much time at all. The ongoing support, however, is a bit more unpredictable. No one formula makes sense for all clients and all sites. I can say what is typical, however. For most clients running off-the-shelf software such as a WordPress, Drupal, Joomla or similar, the most common engagements require an hour or two a week of maintenance services. That is averaged out, in that some weeks it can be zero time spent, and in other weeks you could spend 4 or 5 hours. But, this is a pretty good range in which you can expect to reliably and responsibly accommodate all of the above-required tasks.
Can You Piecemeal it?
Clients who scoff at recommended maintenance engagements frequently end up attempting to piecemeal their support and maintenance using a variety of solutions. Adept customers can have success with this approach. But, it’s like anything else – when you do it yourself, you accept responsibility, and that means at times things can get stressful. However, at other times, you may be just fine.
How would one piecemeal the above approach? Well, first install your own monitoring and make sure you are notified when issues arise. You can have third party services handle things like security cleanups if you have a problem and get infected. Where you run into issues is when things really go awry, and you have no support mechanism. This is where the “DIY” approach fails for most folks. If you don’t have a maintenance arrangement in place with an agency that includes both sysadmin and development support, you could be facing real downtime when you run into issues. Much like anything else in life, it’s all about your level of exposure to risk. If you can handle the worst-case scenario of downtime in the area of hours or days, then going it alone is a doable approach. However, if that level of an outage is more than your company can bear, you really need a professional approach to your maintenance and monitoring.
In wrapping this post up, I want to impress one point to you... Maintenance must happen, as things can and always do go wrong. I had a side project running on WordPress, which I admittedly got a bit lazy with, and it ended up being hacked so badly that it took down an entire server and the search reputation was destroyed. And I only let it go for a week or two. Realize that you must do something to keep your website safe, secure, and running well - the consequences of not doing so can be catastrophic.