A Basic Guide to Website Backups & Recovery

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A website is often the most important asset of an organization’s online presence. We like to think of it as an organization’s home on the internet. But with anything technical, things can go wrong. So what do you do if your website goes down? And what steps can you take to prevent this – or at least to minimize the downtime? We’ll share a few things we have learned over the years.

If your Website is Currently Down?

The obvious goal is to get the website restored as soon as possible. There are many reasons that the website could be down, so let’s look at the first steps to take.

  1. Confirm the Issue
    Try accessing the website from a different internet connection and a different device. A website may not load because of an issue with the internet provider or a compatibility issue. We want to rule this out before getting others involved.
  2. Check the Website Hosting
    If you are still unable to access the website, then it may be a hosting issue. Often this will cause an error to display when you attempt to load the page. In this case, you will want to contact your website hosting company. This often points to an issue with the hosting service and they should be able to assist you with identifying it.
  3. Bring in Additional Support
    If the first two steps do not give you answers, then it is time to get in touch with someone who specializes in website design and development. Websites are complex and there are many possible reasons for the issue. It almost always makes sense to bring in an expert to identify the issue and provide a fix.

If you find out there is an extended period of time that the website will be down then there are more steps to take. You should immediately pause any marketing campaigns that are driving traffic to the website. You may also want to publish a temporary page that acknowledges the issue to keep visitors informed.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one this has happened to. In just the last few months we have seen Google, Facebook, and many other major websites suffer downtime. So we do not expect to be perfect, but we do want to be able to recover the website and minimize the downtime occurs.

How to Prepare?

We know, this is not the most interesting of topics. But take our word for it… it’s better to think about it now then when it is too late! And since it’s the new year… it’s a perfect time to cross one New Year’s resolution (that you didn’t know you had) off the list.

There are many approaches to handling website backups. From doing nothing (please read on!) to having real-time redundant backups. Most organizations fall somewhere in the middle. Let’s look at some of the basics to help prepare you for when the unexpected circumstances arrive.

Website Backup Basics

The first thing that every organization should have, is a proper backups of their website. What sort of things would cause you to need a backup?

  1. An update to your website breaks it.
  2. Your website gets hacked.
  3. Someone accidentally (or purposefully) deletes part of the website.
  4. The company hosting your website shuts its doors.

We’ve seen all these (and more). Having a readily accessible and tested backup is critical.

Doesn’t my Website Hosting Company Provide Backups?

You may think that the company hosting your website will have backups. You are correct that they will almost always have some type of a backup. Yet, this may not be everything that you need to recover the website if an issue occurs.

Hosted Website Solutions (Such as Squarespace or Shopify)

Websites on these hosted solutions do have a basic backup in place. For example, if Squarespace's hosting has an issue, your website will be down. When they fix the issue, your website will be restored.

One major issue with both Squarespace and Shopify is that they do not provide backups of content. So if you change or delete text or other critical information on the website, they will not be able to recover the content for you. Because of this, you should keep your own backup of the text, images, and other content.

There may be ways to recover your data if it is deleted, but it is not guaranteed unless you have your own backup.

Custom CMS Software (Such as Wordpress or CraftCMS)

Websites built on custom CMS (Content Management Systems) could be hosted by thousands of different hosting companies. Because of this, it is important to understand exactly what backups your hosting company provides.

You should always verify that the backups contain everything you need to recover the website. You should also store copies of the backups outside of the hosting service.

What Part of a Website Needs to be Backed Up?

Yeah, we can’t really make this part interesting, sorry. In most cases there are two areas that should be backed up.

Database – The database typically includes the content for your website as well as important settings.

Files – Files, such as themes, customized features, and images need to be backed up. There are often specific files that may be excluded from the backups such as plugins and core files. If you are in doubt, include it.

How to Automate Website Backups?

The backup process should always be automated. Plugins and third-party software can help with this. They also provide warning notifications if there are issues with the backup.

But don’t just blindly trust the plugin. You will want to manually check the backups as well. This will ensure that everything you need for a full recovery of the website is actually being backed up.

How often should backups run?

How often website backups should run varies with each situation. If your website content seldom changes, then a weekly backup may be sufficient. If your website has new content each day then you will want more frequent backups.

Where should the backups be stored?

Backups should be stored in a completely separate location than your website hosting account. This will initially take longer to set up and test. But it is a small price to pay to ensure that if the website is hacked or if the host closes its doors, the backups are not lost. Cloud storage options such as Dropbox and Amazon S3 provide an easy and inexpensive off-site backup location.

Website Monitoring

Another key to managing a website is to have website monitoring in place. Your recovery plan is of no use if you do not quickly find out when there is an issue.

We recommend using a third-party service to monitor your website's uptime and performance.

Manual Testing

Much of the monitoring and backups can and should be automated. But this does not replace manual testing completely.

You should browse the website and try to complete the same tasks as visitors would. For example, if customers purchase products on your website, then you should test the checkout process. Things such as your business changing the available shipping options cannot be checked automatically, but are easily identifiable if you go through the checkout process yourself.

Summary

You have invested significant resources in creating and managing the website. You run marketing campaigns and advertising to bring people to your website. So lets make sure that we take the time to prepare you for events that may cause the website to go down. And also to quickly recover if those events occur.

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