The Lowdown on Downtime: Avoiding Website Crashes

By Kate Loyola | Last Updated: December 11, 2017

Your website is your home on the internet. So what do you do when the doors slam shut — or disappear altogether?

Downtime sends shivers down a website owner’s spine, and for good reason. In a world where split-second differences in page loading times can determine whether or not a user continues browsing your website, service lapses and failures can prove disastrous.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the ins and outs of downtime: its causes, its effects, and what you can do to prevent and troubleshoot it.

What Downtime Looks Like

Don’t give your visitors a reason to tear their hair out.

Website failures can come in many forms. A complete site crash might be the most typical example, but any situation where your website can’t deliver your content promptly and efficiently to visitors qualifies as downtime.

Similarly, there’s a variety of possible culprits whenever a site experiences downtime. A full-on crash, for example, could be due to hardware, software, or network problems with your web host; malware or malicious attacks; an overwhelming surge in traffic; and more.

Here are a few more common examples and their usual causes:

  • HTTP and security errors

There are a number of errors that can result in your website not displaying correctly for visitors. Typical causes include failures of components ranging from plugins and installed security certificates to the software and hardware used by your web host’s servers. Exceeding limits for resources like memory and processing power are also likely.

If you’ve been working on site updates or tweaking your site’s elements, accidental file deletions or incompatibilities might also be worth checking.

  • Unavailable pages

Dead pages can stem from something as simple as a changed page publication status to more complex problems like bugs in your current CMS version. You should also check your web host’s service status and maintenance schedule — your site, or parts of it, might only be unavailable due to scheduled upgrades and so on.

  • Spotty availability

For intermittent or unreliable connections consistent across a wide swath of users, the likeliest culprits are your web host’s server and network connections. Most web hosts have a service status feed to keep users informed of any network issues, so check there first.

  • False or malicious content

Hacks and security breaches are at fault here. Malicious users can gain access to your account and hijack your site, deleting site content or replacing it with inappropriate or unrelated information.

  • Drastic site slowdown

A sudden spike in traffic, DDoS attacks, systemwide network problems, resource-hogging shared-server neighbors, and so on, are just some of the many possible causes if your site has slowed to a crawl. Your best bet is to go over your site’s error logs, check your web host’s system status, and figure out a troubleshooting plan from your findings.

In all cases, it’s important not just to be aware of downtime, but also to identify its cause/s as quickly as possible. As tempting as it might be to simply slap your computer and hope for the best, knowing the exact nature of the problem is the first step to implementing an efficient and effective solution.

The Downsides of Downtime

Why does downtime even matter, anyway? If you’re not quite convinced that fixing a case of downtime should take top priority, consider what it can affect:

Profit

Every minute of downtime is a loss of business opportunities. This is most evident in e-commerce sites and online stores, where site unavailability directly translates to lost sales. However, even business sites that don’t engage in direct selling can take a financial hit: downtime can turn off potential clients, too.

Trustworthiness and User Confidence

If downtime becomes a recurring problem, you won’t just suffer immediate financial losses — your overall credibility and trustworthiness will decrease, too. After all, it’s difficult to rely on a website that apparently can’t even keep itself running consistently. Plus, there’s no worse first impression than a glaring error page.

Search Rankings

Unreliability will already eat into your audience size, and that, in turn, will be a blow to your search rankings. Slow page loading times will also dent your performance and user experience ratings. As search engines move from rote keyword matching to more nuanced algorithms that emphasize user experience and content relevance, faulty site performance can really put a damper on your search visibility.

There are many more disadvantages — both small and large — to frequent downtime, but those three alone can be more than enough to sink a website permanently.

Luckily, you’re not without remedies. Here are some crucial steps for minimizing downtime — or solving it when it does occur.

How Do You Avoid Downtime?

1. Monitor your site’s performance

It’s hard to troubleshoot website problems when you don’t even know they’re happening. Website monitoring services will ping your site at regular intervals (usually every few minutes) and alert you if the site is down. Sometimes your web host will include this feature with your hosting plan, but if not, you can always avail of the many free or paid services available on the web.

2. Use a CDN service

Content delivery networks (CDNs) basically host duplicates or cached versions of your site across a cluster of servers. These help you in two ways. First, CDN services can ease the load on your web host server: during traffic spikes, your CDN service can take a share of the requests, lightening the load on your primary server. This raises your site’s threshold for unmanageable traffic volume. Second, if your site does go down, CDN services can give visitors a cached version from their servers in the meantime. Users can still get access to your content while you work to get the fully functional site back up.

3. Keep your website up-to-date

This is especially important if you’re using third-party themes, plugins, and apps. The more moving parts involved in your website, the more compatibility and security become urgent issues. An outdated plugin can easily cause errors, and falling behind on a few versions of your various tools can leave your website saddled with old vulnerabilities that might have been patched in newer releases.

4. Invest in website security

Related to the previous point, a poorly protected site is fair game–and a tempting target–for all the malicious attackers prowling the web. Get a reliable antivirus and malware prevention service to guard your system and ward off any attempted attacks. Use encrypted connections to access your administrator account and update or modify website files. Plus, make sure to save regular backups of all your crucial website data so that you have a fallback in case the worst does come to pass.

5. Use a reliable web host

Finally, one of the most crucial steps you can take is also one of the earliest steps in the whole website creation process. Before signing up for a web host, check reliable sources that can tell you about their uptime record, browse customer feedback, and make sure that the web host offers you enough resources and high-quality technical support in case of any incidents. After all, your own efforts will only go so far if your web host provider is the main source of your downtime woes.

What to Do When Your Site Goes Down

So you’ve taken precautions, but Murphy’s Law has still managed to catch up with you and take down your website. What do you do to stop the problem in its tracks?

1. Double-check your site status.

Your site might be in perfect condition, and the problem might just be with your router or internet connection. Aside from your monitoring service, you can also consult services like Is It Down for Everyone or Just Me? (isup.me) to make sure there’s really a problem that needs fixing.

2. Pinpoint the cause.

Once you’re sure that there’s an issue and your site is down, figure out what’s causing it. Your best bet is to start small and local–i.e., just with your site’s core components–before checking broader areas of possible failure like your web host’s system. So start by consulting those error logs, website components and installed plugins, your latest website modifications, and so on. If everything seems to be working, that’s when you venture out into wider spheres like your network or external services like your CDN.

3. Coordinate with your web host.

If the problem doesn’t appear to be isolated to your website and its components, contact your web hosts. Most providers also have a system status notification system to let you know of scheduled maintenance outages or systemwide issues, so check there first. File a support ticket or consult technical support via channels like live chat. If the problem is on your web host’s end, there’s not much to be done other than inform them and stay on top of updates.

That said, don’t flood your web host with support requests! Occasional follow-ups are fine, and if there are signs that they’re working on your issue, there’s no need to badger them; asking for updates every five minutes will only give them more to worry about while they’re troubleshooting.

4. Don’t panic!

Downtime can be detrimental to your website, but solutions won’t come if you start freaking out. Stay calm, give the issue a thorough and objective assessment, and lay out a troubleshooting strategy. Urgent, critical issues will try your patience and your temper, but you’ll need to keep your cool if you want to come up with an effective solution without wasting time.

The Bottom Line

Downtime is an occupational hazard for any website owner, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to minimize its impact. After all, whether you’re looking at performance slowdowns, minutes-long failures, or apocalyptic website crashes, downtime can kill your profits, reputation, and reach if you’re not careful.

We hope this guide has shown you that it’s entirely possible to avoid or weather downtime with a little preparation and presence of mind. Your website, after all, is your home on the internet—and with a few simple steps, you can make sure the lights are on and the doors are open for anyone who’d like to visit.