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Website Hosting & Maintenance: Don’t Skimp!

We recommend careful consideration when it comes to your server selection and how you’ll maintain your site.

Whether you are starting to design and build your website or already a proud owner of a fabulous website, you need to consider where your site is hosted and how it’s regularly maintained.

We build dozens of websites every year, and routinely guide clients through this decision-making process.  We also rescue a few sites every year from poor hosting and maintenance practices. This blog should help you make an informed decision and avoid being a website owner in need of an emergency rescue.

Hosting

A hosting company owns and operates servers where your website resides. This could be on mega-machines in temperature-controlled rooms and, increasingly on a server in the cloud. There are hundreds of hosting companies out there. Most of them are probably OK, but from experience, we’ve learned that the old adage, “you get what you pay for”, is largely true. 

If you have a good server, you probably won’t have to think about it very often. A high quality hosting company will prove their worth with an absence of negatives each year. And conversely, a low-quality host will remind you of why they are cheap with the number of headaches you’ll deal with in a given year. 

Shopping for a server can be frustrating. A server is not something you can see, touch, or test out. There isn’t one perfect answer. Servers are not “one size fits all.” We would be happy to personally recommend the best in the business. The best hosting companies deliver on the following attributes that determine quality of server:

Uptime: the percentage of time your site is guaranteed to be up and running on the world wide web.  The best servers guarantee 99%+.

Server security: all of the built in protocols the hosting company has in place to prevent your site from being hacked. It’s essential to have an SSL certificate and firewall. Search engines and visitors alike will knock your site, so your hosting company should provide this. You’ll also want to make sure they have built-in threat detection and blocking. Common security features also include: access restriction, network monitoring, and malware detection. The best servers will also offer two-factor authentication and DDOS mitigation.

Server speed: the amount of time needed to do processing, and for users, the time it takes for your pages to load. While some sites are heavy with pages and images, a strong server can help to offset drag and improve the speed for your users. Some hosting companies will also offer premium CDNs to speed up extra heavy sites.

Server capacity: the amount of storage and amount of traffic your site can handle without slowing down or crashing. As you evaluate hosting options, look for a plan that gives you some room for growth, especially if you have a seasonal business with natural spikes.

Frequency of backups: You’ll want your site automatically backed up daily. Then, ideally, you’ll want to have an additional back up made and stored offsite every month. This is what we do for our clients.

Server compatibility with website software: your server needs to “speak your site’s language” so to speak. If your site is built in php, you’ll need a compatible server. If your site is built in .net, you’ll need a different kind of server. Most of the sites we build are in WordPress (the most widely used platform in the world). We recommend hosting companies, like WPEngine, that specialize in WordPress platforms.

Customer service: how responsive and reliable the hosting service is when you need help. Ideally you won’t need this too often, but when you need it, you REALLY need it. The early indicators of a hosting company are things like:
• How readily available is their phone number?
• What hours are they on call?
• Do they have a live chat?
• Will you have an actual representative whom you can contact if in need of help ASAP?

Monthly Maintenance

Just like the software on your phone or computer, most sites need periodic software maintenance. This maintenance covers the software platform your overall site is written in–WordPress, Drupal, Ruby, etc. Every so often–usually ~12 times per year–the software will have an update and your site will need to follow suit. Plugins also need regular updates. These are bits of software that allow certain functionality: forms, calendars, custom fields, commerce, and premium SEO. You can think of plugins like the apps on your phone. The developers of the plugins are regularly fixing bugs and making upgrades to their code. Again, when those updates are made, make sure your site’s plugins are also up to date about every month.

While maintenance might sound like busy work, and you might question the need for its frequency, trust us when we say it’s essential. When your software is out of date, your site becomes more vulnerable to hackers. When you plugins are out of date, they often cease to function, creating a poor experience for your visitors.

Unfortunately maintenance is something you want to leave to a developer. If you see those enticing “update bubbles” on your dashboard, practice self-control. Do not be tempted to update them yourself. Updating the software and plugins can cause compatibility issues. Ever updated your phone only to find your apps aren’t working any longer? That’s the same sort of thing. A developer will be able to update your software and plugins. He or she will then run a compatibility check to make sure these pieces are back to running smoothly together. Think of this monthly service like an insurance plan. There’s no way to predict when those updates will cause compatibility issues. That’s why we advise a monthly dose of updates to keep your site in peak health.

Long-term Upgrades

Most sites have life-spans of 3-5 years even with religious monthly maintenance. Simply put, technology changes. If your site is four or five years old or more, it’s likely showing signs of wear under the hood. This wear and tear can lead to security issues and can signal to users that your company or brand is a bit behind. Think site speed, interactions, and browser compatibility. To extend the lifespan of your site, sometimes developers can make core-file updates. Much like a 100,000 mile tune-up for your car. While this won’t create significant upgrades for your visitors, it can buy you time. This time allows you to budget for and begin the process of redesigning and rebuilding your site for the next 3-5 years. Remember your site is your number one sales tool!

Rescuing Websites From Attack

Sadly, a few times each year, we get a call from a desperate would-be client, whose site has been hacked. Maybe their backend was hijacked and they can’t get in. Or their site is overrun with R-rated imagery. Perhaps it’s been maliciously redirected away from their content. This happens regularly. “Bots”, or computer generated hackers, continually search for cracks in site’s armor. They can gain access to the server and the controls of the site. Once this happens, make sure you have a solid and secure backup of your site and the database so that it can be successfully re-installed. Your hosting company’s customer service will definitely come into play here.

Rescuing a site is a high-stress, urgent situation, where time costs you money. When your site is down, so are your sales. When your website gets hacked, your reputation is on the line. We don’t like to rescue sites, because it’s often a wild-goose chase to find the crack and fix things fast. We must charge rush-rates, as we drop everything and attempt to get things back on track quickly. Without sounding like a broken record, the importance of monthly maintenance and a high-quality, secure server can prevent brute-force attacks on your site.

Don’t Skimp on Your Investment

Net-net, you made a big investment in building your site. Selecting a top-quality hosting company, and keeping your site maintained month-to-month are both critical to maintaining your investment.

Anne Weber helps run the agency, leading both the strategy and account teams. She currently resides in Minneapolis with her family, and plays a mean game of tennis.
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