I was struggling with deciding upon a concept for this week’s blog until I remembered that sometimes a reminder can go a long way… So, I want to focus on three common mistakes which are somewhat unrelated but which we see on a regular basis, especially with onboarding new clients. While these issues may or may not be related to each other, there are similar consequences to each mistake: they end up costing clients time, money and frustration. Luckily, with a bit of planning, preparation, and adherence to best practices, each is avoidable!
So, in no particular order, please review these scenarios and work to ensure you don’t allow them to happen to you!
Understand What Lives Where
This one really surprises me - more than occasionally a new client reaches out to us and has no idea how their site or application works, and even scarier where it currently resides. This is basic, 101-level stuff. Yet, over and over again when we onboard new customers they don’t even have knowledge of the most straightforward information about their site’s current operations. This makes me wonder, who do they call when something goes wrong? At a fundamental level, you need to have complete understanding and documentation for these items. So, I have assembled a basic list organized by each item’s level of importance – with “importance” being defined as what can do the most damage to your company if the information were in the wrong hands or there was downtime which you had to troubleshoot quickly. On that note, if you were ever to have a handover of agencies or employees, this would be an excellent place to start regarding documentation and access you would require as well.
1) Your domain: This is where you should always start. Where is the domain registered? Do you have access to that account? And, most of all, where is the DNS hosted? These are the most significant risk factors for your site or application - if your domain isn’t renewed, or someone runs off with your DNS access, you could not only lose access to your site but your email and all tertiary services as well. Obviously, if you are a corporate user, your IT department knows all of this information. However, we’ve had publicly-traded companies come to us and have no idea where this information is. Get ahead of this early – not only do you want to make sure you have the access in the right hands – but you also wish to avoid the unlikely scenario that a domain accidentally expires!
2) Email: I’m always concerned about email first, above even a website, just because your email is most likely an essential tool needed to restore access to everything else. So, make sure you know where your email is hosted, and you know how to administrate emails on your domain. Again, corporate users have entire departments for this, but I’m still always shocked by other organizations who have no idea. If you were to lose a website, that hurts, but losing email can be catastrophic.
3) Web Hosting: Where your site is hosted is something you need to know. This question often gets greeted with a shrug when I am talking to new customers. “Does IT own that?” is a common question which is in reply to my inquiry. Understand where your site lives, and what access levels you have there. Also, be careful about who owns the account that you are hosted with. Many times we hear that a site may be hosted by a provider such as AWS, only to find that another agency owns the account where the server is housed. That is a dangerous scenario – it’s always best to own your own hosting account wherever possible.
4) CMS & Management Software: Finally – when all the above are secured, please do understand where your content management system lives, and ensure that you also have administrator access to be able to lock out other users if necessary. This step will encourage the safety of your content and the messaging of your business to the outside world.
Again, I will reiterate… This is website management 101. Be careful to keep all of this in safe keeping, so you are not in a position to be surprised when something catastrophic happens, a key employee leaves or you attempt to transition agencies.
Failure To Keep Current
As we have written about lately, the industry has been deluged with software updates in recent months. The PHP 5.x end of life issue and WordPress 5.0 being released are just a couple of timely topics that we have faced in the tail end of 2018. Whenever these updates or upgrades are well publicized, we always see a slew of requests from customers to update their websites or applications. It is in these requests that we can see the difference between the clients who made an effort to maintain their sites and those who let them fall by the wayside.
All of this makes it apropos to remind everyone of the inherent responsibility of a website owner: keeping software up to date.
The indisputable fact is that all software needs maintenance and upkeep. Websites are powered by a piece (or better yet, a series of pieces) of software that deliver information to an end user. Typically, the more complex the application, the more maintenance is required. All-too-often the mistake is made that once a project is deployed, clients just let it sit as if it was a “one and done” type of project.
The fact is, the longer you let it sit, the more likely you will run into issues down the road when necessary updates are required. With the examples I just mentioned, the PHP update is much easier to handle when you were already updating software along the way. The community pretty much prepared us all for it. And with WordPress, the same example is correct. Ongoing updates not only secure your site against harmful actors but also make iterative software improvements easier to stomach for the software and environment (and your budget).
Staying current makes all the difference in the world concerning avoiding software rot, technical debt, and the possibility of updates racking up time and dollars because past maintenance was not performed. So, keep current. But, make sure you do it the right way... Enter my next point!
Trying to Do it Yourself
This is particularly frustrating. I had a client recently run a CMS update themselves directly on the live site. The update failed, and the site responded with a plain white error page. Yep – the entire company site went down when a marketer decided they would run an update on a sophisticated CMS implementation themselves. I think what is so frustrating is that this is a customer with maintenance coverage who was just trying to speed up the process.
I’ll say here what I tell every client: running updates on any software, whether it be your own Mac or a CMS can be risky. With a CMS, if an update fails, there is a good chance that your entire site will run into issues. And, in the worst case, be unavailable to customers. Much like how software companies remind you to back up your important files, you need to have a procedure in place for running updates.
To avoid a crisis, follow proper protocol. If you are going to take the DIY route, at least make sure you have a test environment setup where you can run the updates first. If it breaks there, that’s a good indicator that it won’t work on the live environment. And if you succeed there, at least you have a preview of any turbulence encountered when you take it live.
However, if you have any level of anxiety about downtime of any type, don’t attempt complicated updates without the guidance of your dev team. Most of the time, even a lousy update can quickly be reverted when the team is already on the case. When you call in help after breaking things, you can be looking at a hefty diagnostic fee in addition to the fix itself.
I blame to an extent the CMS vendors and open-source projects who have attempted to simplify complicated software updates by providing users with a one-click option to update. I think this is foolish because updates touch so many pieces of the software at one time. Hitting that update button when you haven’t got the depth of knowledge surrounding the inner-workings of the software can be problematic, to say the least.
As I wrote this post, I identified many other issues that arise over and over again. To a certain extent, it’s unavoidable that things may go wrong. But, when I think about what the most significant problems are that were caused by poor planning or a simple wrong turn, these three mistakes stick out to me. With planning, preparation and procedures, all of the above errors can be avoided, leaving budget to spend on iteration, innovation and achieving your overall goals and objectives.