A website is not a purchase; it’s an ongoing investment. This is perhaps the most important thing you can hear before having a site built.
We’ll be exploring this distinction by looking at what proper website maintenance requires. Before that, though, we’ll be using a (we hope memorable) metaphor to examine the ways most websites eventually come to grief.
The Internet is Full of Ghost Towns
If the internet were a landscape, it would be mostly abandoned. Each booming metropolis would be completely surrounded by tiny, antiquated ghost towns, half-built skyscrapers, and highways that abruptly stop in the desert.
Some of these abandoned communities were supposed to be cities—but the builders got something crucial wrong.
Some of these abandoned communities were supposed to be cities—but the builders got something crucial wrong. Maybe they failed to secure roads in from other communities; maybe they couldn’t manage to attract any residents (city planners can be surprisingly shy and tentative about promoting their cities); or maybe they never truly figured out what the city was there to do, other than just “be a city.” (Tourism? Coal mining?) The result is a tangle of ambitious but unfinished infrastructure projects, abandoned when the builders understood that they would never repay their costs.
Another type of abandoned town was more or less solidly established at one point, but the founders’ interest waned, so they let it crumble—leaving a ramshackle monument to a past enthusiasm, like a Colorado gold rush town.
Other towns chug along for years, then suffer catastrophic infrastructure collapses or criminal takeovers, the result of indifferent monitoring and maintenance. Many are able to recover, but some never do.
Investment and the Web
A website that is not being regularly maintained, improved, and promoted is in the process of dying.
Like a town or city, a website is an ongoing investment. Every dead city and every dead website dies of underinvestment: they die when no one will put in the resources to maintain and improve them. In other words, a website that is not being regularly maintained, improved, and promoted is a website in the process of dying.
Conversely, every thriving site or city requires the constant investment of time, money, and other resources. This investment, if done well, can be self-sustaining, and can even snowball dramatically: a properly maintained and energetically promoted website, like a great city, can be a massive engine of growth and prosperity. It all depends what you do with your site after the initial skeleton is built, because your website is an investment.
What is the Site For?
Investment only makes sense if you have a defined mission for your website.
An important early warning: investment only makes sense if you have a defined mission for your website—a specific, important benefit that you have reason to believe your site can help you realize. In other words, why are you building the site? What specific good do you have reason to expect could come of it, and how will you know if you’ve succeeded?
Some sites are built as an experiment, as a learning project, or to kill time; and some get built simply because having a website feels like “something businesses (/artists/etc.) do,” meaning that the main goal is to reassure the site owners. Both of these types of sites are built around very limited aims with little room for further growth and thriving, and don’t justify ongoing investment.
Other sites are in the more dangerous position of being ambitious but very badly conceived: site owners do have important aims for themselves or their businesses, but haven’t thought at all clearly or realistically through how a site can help in achieving them. Like a city arbitrarily plunked down with the instruction “Prosper,” a vaguely conceived site is very unlikely to yield a good return on investment. These are the ghost cities described above; “underinvestment” in them comes all at once, when the project’s strategic flaws become apparent and the planners abandon ship.
Continuing to pour resources into sites whose mission is either vague or very limited in scope doesn’t make much sense. If, however, you are earnestly looking to solve a large, important, specific problem for yourself or your business through your website, then you’ll need to approach your site as an investment. The following section explains many of the details.
What You’ll Need to Invest
Your website will take two main resources to maintain: time and money.
Your website will take two main resources to maintain: time and money. Some of your needs will require one or the other, and many will require both.
Here we’ll be looking at the highest-level categories of expenditure that a responsible site owner should make.
People will not automatically find your website on their own.
This is a huge consideration. People will not automatically find your website on their own. You must find ways to make people aware of it, or it’ll sit completely empty. Check out our guide to content marketing to understand the basics of making your website a destination for sustainable web traffic.
You’ll also want to maintain an appropriate social media presence, and you may be interested in paid promotions through Google AdWords or another advertising provider. You should also pay some attention to your position in search rankings (SEO), and may want to hire an SEO agency if you have a particular need to scale your organic traffic. All this takes time and/or money, and, in many cases, is best handled by an expert.
Marketing is the challenge of almost any web project.
Marketing is the challenge of almost any web project. In other words: everything’s up and running, the content (or products, petitions to sign, etc.) is all there, now how can we get people to see it? I’d estimate marketing accounts for around 80% to 90% of the time that gets devoted to most healthy, up-and-running websites.
Anything that changes a site takes some amount of time.
Anything that changes a site takes some amount of time. This is true even for a perfectly built site with very easy and intuitive user interfaces. For example, Facebook’s “upload and tag photos” interface is masterfully designed—but using it still takes time.
On your own site, if readers can leave comments, you’ll need to administer them. If you want to add a new page or a new content area, you’ll have to set up the page and write and publish the content. Perhaps your site has a message board that you need to moderate, or a testimonials section that you need to curate. These things all take time, and the time mounts quickly if administering the site isn’t your primary responsibility.
Even a well-functioning site needs a steady, ongoing commitment.
To pick another example, many sites have “upcoming events” calendars that are badly outdated. The calendar interface usually works just fine, but the person who originally kept it up-to-date has stopped actively administering it.
The point is that even a well-functioning site needs a steady, ongoing commitment from one or more people if it is to stay current.
Maintenance, security, and updates
Whatever type of site you’ve got, internet technology is a constantly shifting landscape, and you’ll need to put time into keeping your site current or it’ll become unusable as new internet-capable devices, security practices and threats, etc., come into being.
Hosting and infrastructure
Unless you’ve built your site through a free service like WordPress.com, paying for web hosting and registration on your domain name are a drop-dead necessity. Domains are cheap, and hosting is usually cheap, but the cost scales with your need for increased site speed and larger traffic volumes. (You can read an introduction to the different types of web hosting here.)
Troubleshooting and support
All websites break with time, and you’ll usually need a paid expert to figure out a fix. You can reduce this problem by having a website built right the first time, but there are simply too many moving parts to keep errors from cropping up.
Improvements, redesigns, and rebuilds
A given site version has a very short shelf-life.
A site that was entirely built five years ago is obsolete. It was built in obscure ways to cater to browsers that are now dead, had likely never heard of an internet-ready smartphone, and followed design and development trends that have since shifted dramatically. If it’s a WordPress site, it was built on WordPress 2.x and is a security liability if you haven’t been updating.
If you’re serious about having a web presence for the long term, you’ll need to budget both for frequent development tweaks (bugfixes and minor feature improvements), and for periodic sweeping rebuilds as the technology or the design underlying the site becomes too dated. Hiring a developer’s time for these processes can be the most expensive investment you make in your website.
The investments we’ve listed above aren’t in any way comprehensive. The overall point is to start to understand the kinds of commitment required to make your website meet your goals, and to begin your website project ready to properly make those commitments.
Thanks for reading, and we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Image Credits: Don Graham
Having worked on a website for almost 3 years now – trying to decide all the different pieces of the puzzle is much more difficult than one initially imagines and the whole things is ten times more complicated than initially thought – THANK YOU for this information which is obviously as a result of a great amount of experience.
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