Bulletproof: Configuring Your Site For Zero Downtime

The lights may be out, but that shouldn’t mean no one is home.

Website downtime can be truly frustrating for both your business and customers. It can break a line of communication, leave both parties in the dark and has the potential to impact your brand and your business in a variety of ways.

If you’re unsure of the true cost of website downtime, we published an interesting post last year that discussed some of the various risks associated with a website that goes offline and downtime in general. Included in this list of potential risks are opportunity cost, lost productivity, damage to brand perception and negative impact on your SEO.

So the question remains: How can you configure your website for zero downtime? Is it even possible?

Even with high-availability features of load-balancing and failover, it’s never possible to assure 100% uptime. Miscommunication happens- a problematic plugin sneaks past QA, someone writes a bad query in a custom theme—stuff happens. But even when errors occur there are still things you can do to keep lines of communication open and give your visitors an alternate means for accomplishing what they set out to do in visiting your site. Business must go on to the greatest extent possible.

In this post, we’re going to cover a few simple but often overlooked ideas that can help you configure your website and your business in a way that helps you get as close to zero downtime as possible.

Plan For Downtime

One of the biggest problems that companies run into when it comes to minimizing the negative effects of downtime is failing to plan ahead. If it’s impossible to achieve “true” 100% uptime, the question becomes how can you plan to keep the lines of communication open when your site goes down?

If you maintain multiple hosting accounts — one for a marketing website and one for your web application — then obviously communication via the site that is still functioning is an option. Alternatively, you should have a plan in place to communicate issues via social media. If customers rely on your application being live, you can even look at maintaining a dedicated social channel for support related updates and inquiries. The only thing worse than downtime is downtime that goes unacknowledged or even unnoticed.

Wherever possible, it’s important to make sure that even though your site may be down, your visitors and customers are still able to achieve their objective.

Use Uptime Monitoring

Depending on your current hosting company, uptime monitoring may or may not be necessary. Services like Uptime Robot and StatusCake are capable of monitoring website uptime at false-positive free intervals that range from every second to every 5-minutes.

By using uptime monitoring you’ll be able to resolve two potential issues: First, although your hosting company will probably already be aware of any server issues, by being proactive, you’ll be able to address the issue with them sooner and possibly resolve the situation in less time.

Second, as important as it is to plan for downtime, your plan will do no good in the event that you don’t know when your site goes down. Uptime monitoring gives you the ability to implement a course of action quickly and to take a more proactive, customer-centric approach. Nothing is more embarrassing than being notified by a customer that your site isn’t working properly.

Configure Custom 404 and 503 Pages

While your visitors may be sympathetic to the fact that you are experiencing downtime, that doesn’t negate their need to complete the desired task.

There are many things you can do with the different error pages that a visitor might experience. A few examples might include:

  • If a visitor is unable to place an order online, you could provide a phone directory for relevant sales staff.
  • When services are offline, provide a link to social media account where updates or assistance are available.
  • If customers are temporarily inconvenienced, provide a coupon code or discount as compensation and to encourage them to return when things are back to normal

There are various WordPress plugins you can use with Pagely to serve custom 404 errors that enable the above scenarios. For 500 errors you would need to intercept those at the level of the web server. If you’re on a Pagely VPS we can configure those to redirect to a static HTML page on your instance to accomplish the above. The net result is a scaffolding of error handling pages that don’t leave your visitors high and dry in the event of a traffic spike or server issue that takes your site down.

Turn Downtime into a Positive Experience

By now you probably realize that zero downtime is an unrealistic goal. No matter how hard you try, events beyond your control are going to occur.

The good news is that customers and visitors can be relatively forgiving of occasional downtime. Most people understand that technology can be unpredictable. As long as you make it possible to provide an alternate means of completing an objective (albeit in a more manual fashion), the number of unhappy visitors and customers can be minimized.

The most important part of the whole process of to plan ahead. Trying to manage or compensate for website downtime after the fact is rarely and effective strategy.

How does your company manage website downtime and how have your customers reacted to your strategy?

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