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General maintenance tips for website owners

This was originally written as a bit of a guide for my clients and collaborators, an aggregation of similar tips I have given to many of them individually in the past in so many shorter emails and conversations. Since it is relevant to most website owners though regardless of their relationship with me, I decided to share it more broadly here.

Websites require maintenance, even those with the smallest of footprints.

This is what I would consider “bare minimum” website-related maintenance tasks including checking your payment methods and contact details, reviewing your login and security practices, performing updates and taking backups, and checking your privacy policy.

If you do fall behind on maintenance (it happens to the best of us!) and something goes wrong, at the very bottom you’ll find some tips on what to do if your site goes down suddenly.

The vast majority of these tasks do not require a web developer or IT person, almost anyone can perform this maintenance so long as you have access to necessary logins, can follow instructions, and are willing to set aside the time.

I say “almost anyone” because some people are understandably uncomfortable with wading in to this stuff, they may get confused or a bit daunted by the user interfaces they have to use. In that case, just be sure that you are working with someone that can hold your hand through it or can simply do it for you. Also, not everyone has access to all of their service providers. If you’re in a different situation, for example if you retain a web developer, design studio, or IT person to continuously maintain your website, then these are worthy topics to discuss with them but ultimately they will probably need to complete these tasks for you.

Of course there are other maintenance tasks that are super worthwhile. For example it might be worth checking search performance or 404 pages with Google Search Console if search engine optimization (SEO) is important to you, or to check analytics if that’s relevant to your site. And it’s worth speaking to your web developer about front-end maintenance. CSS and JavaScript gets better all the time, as do browsers, so old front-end behavior can really date a site.

But that’s all just the cherry on top. If you complete the tasks below I’d say you’re pretty golden, probably a step ahead of 80% of the site owners I’ve come across.

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Maintenance is everything

I don’t expect most of the opinions that I hold now to have the same shape in 10, 20. years. I don’t think any of us is the same person every day, identity shifts with every tiny experience, so it’d be a silly thing to suggest or expect.

But one that I think might stick, the thing that might last if I ever wrote a manifesto: Maintenance is everything.

Bikes, physical health, mental health, roads, relationships, furniture, websites, clothing, parks, plants, sewers.

If it’s worth creating/buying/doing in the first place, it’s usually worth maintaining. And I love maintenance, fixing things, so that’s lucky! (Don’t like cleaning so much, which is another major part of physical maintenance, but I’m working on that.)

The problem is that new/shiny is a lot more lucrative than old/broken (more on this). How do we shift that mindset?

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To read: “Maintenance and Care” by Shannon Mattern for Places

Read the article “Maintenance and Care: A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations” by Shannon Mattern for Places, published in November 2018.

Yet even if we build an army of repair robots (a longtime sci-fi dream) and maintenance AIs, their hardware and software will still require upkeep. They’ll still depend upon well-maintained, interoperable technical infrastructures. They’ll still require cleaning staff — “industrial hygienists” — to maintain pristine conditions for their manufacture. We’ll need curators to clean the data and supervisors for the robot cleaning crew. Labor is essential to maintenance.

As Jay Owens reminds us,

There will be dust. There is always dust. By that I mean there is always time, and materiality, and decay. Decomposition and damage are inescapable. There is always the body, with its smears and secretions and messy flaking bits off. There is always waste and it always has to be dealt with, and shipping it out of sight overseas to the developing world does not change the fact this work has to be done (and it is dirty, dangerous work that demands its pound of flesh).

That’s true whether we’re talking about ditch-digging or dam-building or data-diving. Maintenance at any particular site, or on any particular body or object, requires the maintenance of an entire ecology: attending to supply chains, instruments, protocols, social infrastructures, and environmental conditions.

A lot of this relates to the push and pull between maintenance and innovation, how much more attractive innovation, the shiny and new, is in the public consciousness.

This brings me back, yet again, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. The heroic versus the contemplative, the careful. The spear versus the receptacle. The linear versus the cyclical. Resolution versus the infinite.

What about a Carrier Bag Theory of Everything?