This is the long-delayed fourth (and final) installment in our series on Interactive testing. Read previous installments here: Part 1, Forms & Data Collection, Part 2, SEO, and Part 3, Security.

Long Term Maintenance

Investing in a website is like buying a car: you can get a Civic for $20,000 or a Cavalier for $15,000. In 5 years your Civic will be worth $10,000 or you may have just lost $200 having your Cavalier towed off the driveway for scrap. Websites degrade over time. They become difficult to update and maintain, broken links build up, and as your company grows and evolves, the workflows of your website need to evolve with it.  A lot of companies consider this maintenance reality and consider the difficult choice of “should we build this website in-house, launch it in one year, and have the development staff maintain it?” or “should we hire an interactive company to build it? They can release it in a month. But how do we maintain it?”  Every interactive company should offer a solution for this; if you’re considering an interactive company that doesn’t have a plan, run away – fast. Sometimes the solution is a custom CMS, sometimes it is an open source CMS adapted to the business’s needs, or they may use third-party content such as news updated by a third party blogging service.

When looking at interactive companies, it is always a good idea to check how well they maintain their website, and the websites of their clients. Here are some things to check for:

  • How fresh is the content?
  • Who maintains it, and what does the content management process look like?

How Fresh is the Content?

This can be hard to evaluate, but you might start by calling some of the firm’s past clients. A good interactive firm should present you with their portfolio and explain what type of CMS they will be providing and how it works.  Still, you should do a little bit of research yourself and check to see if their website contains any broken links. There are many good link checkers:

  • Xenu Link Sleuth is a free project and a personal favourite of mine. Xenu can be aggressive; it will scan every page on website and check for broken links, but will scan hundreds of pages at a time which can easily crash a webserver under load. I run Xenu on our websites because our webcluster can handle the load, but it is unethical to use a tool like this on a website you don’t manage without permission.
  • For a safer tool, try the W3C link checker. This tool will only follow a new link every few seconds and may take all night to run, but it’s also free and it works.

If the sites that you scan are covered with broken links or clearly outdated content, then this is a point of concern.

What Does the Content Management Process Look Like?

Custom software development can often increase long-term maintenance costs.  Proposals that include a custom e-commerce solution and/or a custom CMS should be approached with caution. The key here is the maturity of the company and their products. A custom e-commerce solution to fit your workflow may sound like a wonderful idea. Your company can have their own customized checkout process! But, it is a huge mistake to think that any company building a CMS or e-commerce solution for you is doing you a favour. Unless they have a mature, established product be prepared for unforeseen costs and time delays.

Some key questions to ask about long-term site management include:

  • What content management system would you recommend for our needs, and why?
  • Is the system:
    • completely custom (built from the ground up to suit your specific needs)
    • proprietary (built and managed by the interactive firm)
    • open source (publicly available for download and installation, like WordPress or Drupal)
    • third-party (a licensed software product, such as Stellent)
  • Among the firm’s clients, who else uses the CMS they are recommending? If possible, speak to these people about their experience with the system.
  • If they have built the CMS internally, find out how long it has been around. It takes time to build a safe, stable and reliable CMS or e-commerce solution.
  • Also ask how new features are identified for development. As a client, will you have any voice in what new features are developed?
  • Find out how often updates are made to the system, and how those updates are tested and deployed. This applies to open source solutions as well — if they are recommending WordPress for example, will they be upgrading to the latest versions as needed? And will they be testing to ensure upgrades don’t break any plug-ins or custom functionality?
  • No matter what solution they are recommending, find out what would happen to your site if you parted ways with this firm, or they went out of business.

It’s one thing to deliver a website that looks pretty; it’s another to deliver a site that works and continues to function well for years. To the extent possible, your CMS needs to adapt as your business changes.

This does not mean you need to buy an enterprise solution to run a small business. Free open source products adapted to your websites needs, or custom small business solutions are perfect. Some great references can be found with these articles on Buy or Build a CMS and Evaluating pros vs cons of building e-commerce.

Other related articles form the Clockwork blog: