Why your website has the lifespan of a pet goldfish, and what to do about it

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Long before I started making websites, I was a biology nerd (ask me about my favorite echinoderms sometime). So I can’t help thinking of websites as organisms that are born, grow and change over time, and ultimately, pass on to that great Internet Archive in the sky. Sadly, they age fast, often becoming outdated or unusable after just a few years. Why does this happen, and what can you do to slow the ravages of time?

Mommy, why do websites die?

We’ve been in the business for over 15 years. Considering that the average lifespan of a website design is 2–5 years, we’ve seen lots of sites come and go. Below are the most common reasons websites get replaced, along with some tips to prevent your site’s untimely demise.

Web design standards change.

Design standards on the web have always been a mix of what you can do within technical limitations, and what’s in fashion. When I first started making websites in 2000, we were limited to 256 colors (and no, the exact color in your logo was never on the list). Until about 5 years ago, we were stuck with the dozen or so fonts that came standard issue on both Macs and PCs, meaning we had to get really creative with Arial. Any time one of these technical design constraints is lifted (thank you, Google Webfonts), the sites that still use them suddenly look like they have teased-up 80s bangs.

Just like hairdos, web design elements also go in and out of style—gradients, borders, drop-shadows, dark- and light-colored backgrounds, tiling patterns, small type, large type, fat footers, mega-menus, you name it. Your average viewer can’t necessarily tell you what design elements on your site are “in” or “out,” but they know when something looks dated.

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1998: Bevel-rific 3D buttons were all the rage.
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2006: The Web 2.0 era was all about glossy, shiny, and/or reflective.
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Today: gradients and drop-shadows are out, flat design is in.

How to prevent: Rather than waiting until your site looks hopelessly outdated, budget some time and money for a light design refresh every 2 years or so. Sometimes a little tweaking to fonts, colors, and styles can work miracles, and doesn’t need to cost a ton. It’s like wrinkle cream for your website.

Of course, there are some things that never go out of style: clean design, plenty of whitespace, legible type, clear navigation, and good usability. If your think your site is lacking in any of these departments, we can help.

Trendy technologies emerge.

Remember the days of the Flash website, jam-packed with gratuitous animations? They were the hot, trendy thing until everybody realized they were torturous for repeat visitors, impossible for search engines to index, hard for blind or disabled folks to use, and costly to change or update. Within a couple of years, anyone who had jumped on this trend (and likely helped their ActionScript developer retire early) suddenly had a website that looked… well, pretty embarrassing.

How to prevent: If you see something cool on the web, talk to a trusted professional about whether the shiny new toy is actually going to benefit you. Good questions to ask yourself, and them, are:

  • Will this technology help me communicate more effectively to my audiences?
  • Will it inspire them to engage with us?
  • What does it do to strengthen our brand?
  • Will repeat visitors appreciate it, or is it only cool the first time you see it?
  • Does it affect usability and accessibility?
  • Does it affect how search engines access the page?
  • Will it be easy to change and update?
  • If this trend goes away in 2 years, am I willing and able to do another redesign?

Just think of how many “skip intros” could have been prevented if people had asked these questions back in 2003.

The devices people use to view your website change.

The width of a website layout is like a form of carbon-dating you can use to pinpoint its age. A 640-pixel layout is from the Jurassic period, 800-pixel is from the late Cretaceous, and so on up to the modern era, where layouts are responsive and conform to whatever size device you’re using. Since responsive design has been around for a few years, at this point any site not using it not only looks old, it’s harder to use on the range of mobile devices out there.

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Yes, they are all staring at your website.

How to prevent: If your site is not responsive already, there’s not really much else to be done except…make it responsive. However, we always recommend that you combine the responsive upgrade with either a redesign, or an upgrade of your content management system (CMS) if you need it. You’ll get a lot more for your money by combining these projects rather than doing them piecemeal.

Even if your site is responsive, it's possible the layout at its largest sizes is not maximizing the available screen real estate on larger monitors—also a good thing to fix.

Your content management system goes away or stops being supported.

We’ve had a number of clients come to us after the company that owns their CMS announces that they’re about to go out of business or discontinue the product. Sometimes, the company that built the CMS is the only one who can develop for it, so if they go away, your site is stuck. Not dead exactly—it’ll live on, but you’ll never be able to change its design or functionality. Sort of like a woolly mammoth encased in ice.

How to prevent: Using an open-source CMS that has a strong community of developers, such as Wordpress or Drupal, can go a long way toward mitigating this problem. With either, it’s safe to say that if one company goes out of business, you can find plenty of other developers to help you out. That’s a big part of the reason we chose to work in Drupal—we wanted our clients to have the freedom to work with us because they like us, not because they’re forced to.

If your platform is being discontinued, or you just can’t find good developers for it any more, you won’t have much choice but to migrate to a new CMS. Luckily, we can help with that sort of thing—just give us a shout.

Your staff gets sick of the design.

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a site, except that the people who own it are tired of looking at it. This is often the result of rushing through the design process. It takes time to develop good creative choices that accomplish what you need, and time for your stakeholders to mull them over. Sometimes everyone loves a design direction on Monday, but by Thursday they start seeing problems with it. And often the best ideas don’t materialize until the 2nd and 3rd revision.

How to prevent. First off, don’t rush through the design process. A thoughtful user experience and visual design can take anywhere from 6 weeks to a few months depending on the complexity of your site.

If your internal folks still grumble, it’s understandable; after all, they’re the ones staring at it every day. A good solution is to run a quick survey of some people in your target audience. Ask them to rate the site on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how modern it looks, how easy to use it is, how appealing the design is, and so on. If the scores are low, your staff may be right that it’s time for a redesign. If they’re high, share the results with your team, and reassure them that the site is performing well.

Is there a way to completely future-proof my website?

Not really. Things change, and there is no substitute for a full redesign or technology overhaul every so often to keep pace. But you can extend the time between these projects by creating a yearly maintenance plan for small tweaks along the way to keep your site looking fresh and working well. Having a good CMS in place can help ensure that you never have to start over completely. With advance planning and a little luck, your website can lead a long, rich, and productive life.