Plan B: What to Do When Your Website Goes Down

It's tempting to think it won't happen to you, but that's exactly how you get burned. Prepare for a site outage--before you wish you had.

Your website might not get targeted by the Syrian Electronic Army, but even the best sites aren't immune to crashes and other Web attacks. In just the past month, The New York Times has gone down twice, Microsoft Outlook experienced an outage, Apple lost power for a time, and a glitch at Amazon took down a number of hosted sites. Meanwhile, Google was offline for less than five minutes, and worldwide Internet traffic dropped a stunning 40 percent. While your company's site hitting a virtual iceberg might not have a global impact, it certainly can have a major effect on your business.

The best thing you can do to cope with a site outage is to be prepared. So if your site is running glitch-free, that makes today the perfect time to draw up a contingency plan.

Know Your Hosts

According to Jeff King, vice president of hosting at GoDaddy, "most important is to have a plan so you know who to call. Are you calling the Web professional? Are you calling the hosting company? You need to know who to get on the line." Make sure you have the correct support phone number on hand. If you're experiencing site drama, you won't want to waste time hunting for a phone number and, if the issue is a major one, their site may be offline as well.

You should also check that you have all relevant IDs and passwords, and that your account has an up-to-date list of approved decision-makers. "The last thing you want to do is have to track down the person that originally setup the account in order to give security approval for some change to your site," says Jason Abate, founder of Web monitoring service Panopta.

According to Abate, you can also save yourself future headaches by using different companies for your domain name registration, DNS, and hosting. Abate explained via email that, while it's less convenient, "if you keep these separate, if you have a significant outage you can redirect requests to an alternate or placeholder site rather than being completely offline."

Remember Your Ads

Along with your host's contact information, keep an easily-accessible and up-to-date list of digital ads that send visitors to your site. "If your site is down and you have a massive campaign or you're sending marketing emails out automatically, you should figure out a way to turn that off," says King. "If you're buying Google AdWords and sending them to a dead website, you're just throwing money away." So be prepared to pause campaigns quickly to save money.

Decide How You'll Communicate

An established social media presence can make communicating about technical difficulties a lot easier. You can use Twitter and Facebook accounts to provide customers and clients with up-to-date information and a contact method.

If you're not on social media, Internet service monitor Alertra recommends being prepared to contact people via your mailing list. However, Abate advises that, with the exception of major accounts who may need to be immediately contacted, "reaching out to all of your customers via email or phone is best held off until you have a better idea of what is going on and when things are expected to return to normal."

Have a Back-Up Site

If something goes drastically wrong, says King, "you want to make sure you understand whether you have backups of your site. Not everyone offers this." If your host site doesn't offer this option, you should create a backup system independently so that your data is protected.

Abate recommends creating "a second, stripped-down version of your website that is hosted elsewhere that you can use as an emergency back-up site." It need not have full functionality, "but can be a purely static site that you can direct traffic to if your main site is down." Your hosting company should be able to set up a temporary domain name redirect to transfer visitors while you're restoring service.

This is also an area where social media can function as a website alternative. The New York Times used this strategy several weeks ago: the paper turned to Facebook and Twitter to publish breaking news while their site was down. As an alternative, it's simple and very quick to set up a Tumblr, which will give you basic blogging capabilities.

Consider an Uptime Monitoring Service

While an uptime monitoring service won't stop your site from going down, it will let you know immediately if it happens. That can be the difference between a few aggravated customers and a lot. There are a variety of options and price points, depending on what level you need.

However, Abate warns that you should "make sure your alerts aren't set up to just to go to email at the same provider as your website, or you likely won't see the alerts either." As an alternative, you can have them sent to an address hosted elsewhere or to your phone via SMS.

Don't Jump the Gun

Follow these steps, and you'll be prepared for the worst case scenario. But before you leap into action, make sure your website is really down. If it's just your computer or your local network acting up, you don't want to start alerting customers. King recommends trying to access the site on your phone or asking a friend across the country to test it out. Abate also suggests testing the URL at the site "Down for Everyone or Just Me?" And if your website has really, truly crashed, you'll be glad you have a contigency plan ready to go.

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