In 2025, our 650 members of parliament will leave the House of Commons for a temporary home in Richmond House. Nobody really wants to, but it’s got to the point where, as the BBC puts it, “the deterioration is now happening faster than can be remedied at weekends and during holidays.”
On paper, there’s probably very little similarity between a 149-year-old building and your shiny, brand-new website, but there is one, and it’s important: modern websites, like ageing buildings, need regular maintenance to stay shipshape. And if you cut corners, or let things slip then things can begin to go very wrong, very quickly.
I appreciate this may not be everyone’s idea of inspiring reading: perhaps the only thing duller than website maintenance is reading about it, but hear me out because this is important.
While it’s true that the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Google make headlines through innovation and thinking differently, something else they have in common is considerably more prosaic: their basic data and distribution networks are incredibly well maintained. Try and remember the last time you couldn’t log in to Netflix, or access Amazon, and you’ll likely be thinking for some time. That’s why Gmail outages make headlines: it’s practically unheard of.
That doesn’t mean that maintenance is an easy sell to decision-makers: dull things rarely are, especially when they’re invisible and broadly thankless. It’s far easier to point to a brand new website as a fix-all magic bullet (spoiler: it seldom is), or an increased marketing budget for big, memorable stunts that will hopefully become the next big viral sensation. Hopefully, this post will help you make the case for something which is as much a cultural shift as it is a financial one.
Why it matters
Aside from the doomsday scenario of complete website collapse hinted at at the top of the page, there are other reasons why it makes sense to stay on top of web maintenance.
Firstly, security. Cyber crime is a growing problem and if your website has vulnerabilities, then you’re making yourself an easy target. No matter what platform you use, make sure you take time to update to the latest version of software as soon as possible. This won’t catch everything – there’s such a thing as zero-day bugs which are exploited in the wild before the bugs are known about – but as is the case in the real world, just thinking a little about security makes you that bit harder to infiltrate than some of your rivals who don’t. And hackers would love an easy life above all else.
Then there’s user experience. In the charity sector where you’re relying on trust, this is especially important, and more so with brand new donors. If a website has dead links left, right and centre, would you be inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt? If pages take an age to load, would you stick around and make the donation?
But it’s not just people you need to impress: it’s bots. Specifically, the web crawlers (known as “spiders”) that index pages for Google, Bing and more minor search engines. Page load times and linking are just two of the things which algorithms account for when ranking pages, so if your site isn’t in tip-top shape, your Google ranking could suffer.
In other words, failing to stay on top of your maintenance could have a direct impact on your traffic and your conversion: the lifeblood of any charity website.
What needs to be done?
Fortunately, the task of website maintenance needn’t be all-encompassing. The trick is very similar to how you keep a house tidy: little bits as you go and a commitment to a regular schedule.
Here are some of the things you should stay on top of, and how regularly you need to think about them.
Keep an eye on your analytics package of choice and look out for any ‘canaries in the coal mine’. Are fewer people finding the site than normal? Are certain pages getting more or less clicks than normal? Are fewer people converting than you’d expect on a given day? In most cases, there will be factors out of your control causing these fluctuations – a big news story, a national holiday, even the weather – but it pays to check.
What exactly should you be checking? Well, for smaller sites, the best way of checking is to physically load the site and go through the user journey yourself. Is everything loading quickly? Any dead links? Do contact forms work? Check all these things, and fix as appropriate.
For larger sites, this might be easier said than done, although it’s still worth ‘spot-checking’ your most important pages. For the rest, Google Search Console is your friend: in the ‘crawl’ section, you’ll find details of any errors it’s found, so you can flush out broken links and dead pages.
Finally, set aside some time each week to check for updates to any software your website is using: platforms, plug-ins, scripts, you name it. These should be updated as soon as physically possible – but bear in mind that any new versions will call for a fresh round of site testing, just to make sure nothing has broken in the process.
If you’re a Fat Beehive client, your SLA will cover a chunk of the tasks above – get in touch if you’d like to know more.
Less frequent tasks
That’s the main meat of website maintenance, but there are other things you should schedule less frequently. Testing your website in new browser versions as they’re released is a good way of staying ahead of potential problems – both desktop and mobile. Look out for load times and see if anything is causing things to slow down. Remember that A/B testing isn’t just for design and copy changes – if you can come up with a faster design that also converts better, then you’re laughing.
You should also be making backups of your website reasonably frequently – and immediately if you plan on making any drastic changes that could cause problems.
I get it: none of these sound hugely exciting, and if you don’t find any problems, it can feel like a waste of time. But keeping your site in tip-top shape is possibly the most important building block in attracting visitors and ultimately converting them into donors.
That’s why charity website operators need to make the case for an ongoing maintenance budget to the accountants and trustees – one that’s entirely independent of the cash ring-fenced for marketing and general site upgrades. A big marketing push or a shiny new website is nice, and can be essential in turning around fortunes – but neither will be effective if the basics aren’t invested in.