Without a functioning website, customers can't find your business, buy your products or learn more about what you do. Building and maintaining a website requires effort, and even when you do everything right, your website can still go down.
"In the era of the internet, your business website is your identity to the world – that's your gateway," said Greg Scott, an author and cybersecurity expert with more than two decades of experience. "[When] the website goes down, get on the phone and start making calls … You'd better make sure you have a web hoster that has a good reputation for quality customer support."
Whether your business's website has been the victim of a cyberattack or questionable web hosting services, it's important to know what to do once your site is down. Your response time and action plan can help you get your site back up and running quickly.
It's also crucial to communicate with your customers and be transparent about the issue. There are several ways to do this, including updating social media accounts or creating a status page to update your customers.
Editor's note: If your website does go down, it's important to have all your important data backed up. Find a cloud backup solution that's right for your business by filling out the below questionnaire. You'll be connected with our vendor partners, who can provide free information and help you make the right decision.
Find out if your site is actually down
The first and (arguably) most important step is to find out if your website is actually down. Alastair McDermott is a website designer and developer who works with business owners on increasing online sales. He founded his own company, WebsiteDoctor, in 2007 and said sometimes a site can appear to be down because of network problems. McDermott said it's best to try and access your site from a mobile device or another network entirely.
"Sometimes the website owner is actually looking at the site and it looks to be down to them, but everybody is seeing it and it's OK," he said.
The same holds true when a business owner makes changes to their site. Often, after a change is made, the browser renders a cached version of the site, which is a previous version saved by the browser for faster load times. This can make things confusing if a change has been made and it isn't rendering. It can also be deceiving if your site has gone down or been restored, because the browser is depicting a cached version.
McDermott said business owners can use third-party websites to verify that their site is actually down. There are several of these sites listed on a simple Google search.
Important steps to take if your website is down
Once you've established that your website is really down, there are a few steps you can take. The most important step, of course, is contacting your web hosting provider to find out what's wrong. Before doing this, however, McDermott said it's a good idea to double check your email to make sure your hosting service didn't alert you to scheduled downtime due to maintenance.
If they haven't, it's a good idea to talk to other employees within your company. If someone was working on the site, updating plugins or making adjustments, it could have caused the crash.
"It's really logical – was somebody working on it today?" he said.
If this is the case, you can try and troubleshoot the changes to identify which adjustment caused the website to go down and then proceed from there. Regardless of the method, it's important to establish a process to determine why your site has gone down.
"You've have to find out why it happened, because you've got to try and prevent it from happening again," McDermott said.
While your site is down, there are some important steps you can take to stay in touch with your customers. Tammy Butow is a Principal SRE at Gremlin, a company that tests website weaknesses through chaos engineering. Butow said companies should create a status page to alert customers about the issue.
"Customers expect to get updated when you have downtime and they are impacted," she said.
Butow recommended using statuspage.io to create a hosted status page. It's important for this page not to go down with your website. You can also send alerts and communicate with customers via social media, although this may not be the most direct way to inform customers arriving at your site.
If your own troubleshooting fails, it's time to call your web hosting company. Many web hosting companies offer live chat, phone and email support. The support features are among the most important features to look for while you're shopping for the right web hosting service.
How to prevent downtime
McDermott said there are a few quick things business owners can do to help decrease the severity of a website crisis.
For starters, he suggests hosting your domain name and website with two separate companies. This practice may be disputed by some professionals, but McDermott's logic is moving a website from one shared hosting provider to another is a relatively simple process while moving a domain name can be very complicated.
If you host your domain and website with the same company and it goes dark, it can be a major challenge to get your site back up and running with another company.
"If you've got them separate, at least you can get it back up quickly," he said.
He said it's a good idea to host your email service provider with a separate company for the same reason. Besides separating your hosting provider, McDermott said business owners should try and keep their own backups of their website. If you're running a WordPress site, there are several plugins that can do this for you. If you have another type of site, this may be more of a challenge, but there are still some tools out there that can help.
One of the biggest tips McDermott provided involved web hosting plans: He said it's best to pay month to month at first. Many web hosting companies try and attract new customers with low-cost annualized plans. If you aren't familiar with the service, paying monthly is a good way to feel out the company's service offering, even if it is more expensive at first.
The bottom line
Your website going down is a big deal, and it's important to treat the issue as such. There are some ways to mitigate the damage before it occurs, like having your own backups, but once your site is down, you're at the mercy of your hosting provider. When it happens, it's important to stay calm and logical and work through the situation.
"It depends on how you react in stressful situations," McDermott said. "You can either go into cold logic, into Mr. Spock mode, or you can panic and run around."