The Secret to Extending the Life of Your Website

If you are like most people who make or manage websites for a living, you have been through more than a few website redesign projects in your time. Maybe that is your passion—especially if you're one of the makers. But if you're on the management side—the marketing or communications director—you are probably tired of doing what seems like the same thing over and over. Website redesigns come at great cost to your time, budget, and sanity. This post is primarily for you. But feel free to keep reading no matter what your job is.

The reason you have to keep redesigning your website every three to five years is because you haven't put processes in place to make your website sustainable. The redesign is seen as a project with a beginning and an end. If you have an agency that does the design and build, they walk through the process and approval steps to get you through the project with as little discomfort as possible. At the end of the project you get a great-looking, clean, modern website. Yay!

Then what? Does it start to go into decline quickly or does it continue to flourish?

New Website Year 1

First, take a vacation. You deserve it. Building a website is an arduous process. But do not sit still for long! It is time to put your processes to the test. If you did not do it already, establish a workflow for how all content will be produced. Who can create content? Who can publish content?

An example workflow for new content production

An example workflow for new content production

All that content on the website won't stay fresh for long. Set up a content review or audit cycle. Some content only needs to be reviewed once a year or when something major happens with the organization. Other content needs to be reviewed every month. Most is in between. Decide how often various content types need to be reviewed, assign someone to each type, and set the criteria for review. Each review cycle should result in some content being removed, some being updated to be current, and a whole lot that doesn't need to change at all.

Even the best internal processes won't matter if the website isn't attracting the right people and helping them. You also have to monitor analytics to see what the actual behavior is. Track the following stats at a minimum:

  • Top pages - are they what you expected?
  • Top paths - are people navigating through the site the way you expected?
  • Referrals - which websites are sending people to your site?
  • Source/Medium - what are the origins of traffic to your site?
  • New vs returning visitors - is the balance optimal? (Of course that depends; check out Google Analytics: When New vs Returning Visitor Ratios Are Useful)

If you have analytics experts on staff, establish some conversions and funnels and track them monthly. The goal is to know what is working and what isn't so you can make adjustments accordingly.

Analytics will tell you what is happening but not why. So you will want to start a testing protocol with your actual users. Choose an interval—monthly, quarterly, semi-annually—to do some short tests to find out why things aren't working as expected. Use the data from analytics to inform what to test. For example, if people are getting to an event's landing page but registrations are low, you can run a usability test to see if there is a problem on the page or if people just aren't interested. You can use what you learn and optimize the page to adjust the layout or the messaging. If you are not familiar with usability testing, get Steve Krug's book Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems. It doesn't take a long time and isn't expensive.

These four pieces of web operations will set you up for ongoing success by establishing a routine of maintenance that will keep your website optimized for the long-term.

Website optimization year 2 and beyond

Beyond the first year, you need to continue to update, upgrade, and perform maintenance on your website if it's going to last. Just like a car, or a house, or a garden. Building on the things you did in Year 1, make a plan for where to focus your efforts year to year or quarter to quarter. Not just for editorial processes but also for procedural and governance processes.

Some things that you need to take into consideration if your website is going to keep everyone happy:

  • Areas for testing with users to understand how they interact with your site
  • Experiments or pilots you will perform to try new things
  • How to grow the team to sustain operations
  • How to measure results
  • Which technology and software can help you become more efficient and effective

Keep a backlog of ideas and review them regularly to make sure your site is optimized for today and tomorrow. Change is constant. You cannot predict the far-off future but with a keen eye, you can see a year ahead. And for the unknown unknowns, have a strategy that helps you deal with them and make sure your website is flexible enough to accommodate pivots.

Note for agencies

If you're one of the people who builds websites as part of an agency team, don't think that you're going to lose all your business if people start to adopt this idea. They still need to get there with a new website based on structured content that has a flexible design, and a CMS that meets their needs. If you help them with all of these other things too, you will become their trusted partner. And perhaps they spend $25,000 - $50,000 each year on governance, enhancements, and updates. Over 10 years, that may be more than a single redesign—and much more profitable due to very few unbillable hours to keep work coming in versus the dozens, if not hundreds, of hours spent getting new business. How's that sounding now?