Thursday, March 20, 2008
Today's the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, so now is a perfect time to start your spring cleaning. But as a webmaster, your chores don't end after you've cleaned the garage -- you'll probably also want to do some cleaning on your server as well.
Before we get to the interior, step outside, and see how your site looks from the street -- or in Google search results. Just head on over to your nearest Google search box, and do a site search on your site using the query format [site:example.com]. Just like you keep your street number visible on your house, and maybe even your name on the mailbox, check to see that your visitors can easily identify your site and its contents from the title and snippet listed in Google. If you'd like to improve your current appearance, try out the content analysis feature in Webmaster Tools, and read up on how to influence your snippets.
Speaking of making your address visible, how are you listed? My name is Michael, but I'll also answer to Mike or even Wysz. However, I only expect to be listed once in the phone book. Similarly, your site may have pages that can be accessed from multiple URLs: for instance, www.example.com and example.com. To consolidate your site's listings in Google, use 301 redirects to tell Google (and other search engines) how you'd prefer your pages to be listed. You can also easily let Google know about your preferred domain via Webmaster Tools. And just like I'd want my bank to understand that deposits to Mike and Michael should route to the same account, those redirects can help Google appropriately consolidate link properties (like PageRank) to the destination page.
No matter how clean your home is, all that work may go unnoticed if your visitors can't get in the door or find their way around. Review your site's appearance and functionality on multiple browsers to make sure that all of your visitors get the experience you've worked so hard to design. Not everyone uses Internet Explorer, so it's a good idea to test using browsers representing different layout engines. Firefox, Safari, and Opera all see things differently, and these three browsers likely control how at least 20% of your users are experiencing the web. For some sites it can be dramatically higher -- The New York Times recently reported that around 38% of their online readers used either Firefox or Safari.
Taking out the trash
Unfortunately, many of us have hosted unwelcome guests. If they left a mess behind, do your future visitors a favor and get rid of the garbage. Tear out spammed guestbook pages. Pull out those weeds in your forum that were planted by an off-topic advertiser. And while you're throwing stuff away, look out for any blank or abandoned pages. We've all had projects in the basement that never got finished. If your site still shows URLs with one of those circa-1997 "under construction" graphics or templates showing "Products > Shirts > Graphic T's: There are no graphic t's at this time" and they're just gathering dust, it's probably safe to say you'll never get around to finishing it. After you've collected the junk and corrected any broken links on your site, make sure you let everyone know it's really gone by using the 404 HTTP status code. You can check to see which code your server is returning by using the Live HTTP Headers extension for Firefox.
Security and preventive maintenance
To prevent problems with future visitors, especially those who may try to come in your back door at night, go through our checklist to verify you've covered security basics.
If your site's maintenance tasks, such as upgrading software packages, make your content temporarily unavailable, let your visitors know to "pardon the dust" by using the 503 HTTP status code. This will let Google know to check back later, and not index your error page as part of your site's content. If you're using WordPress, you can easily set up your message along with the status code using the Maintenance Mode plug-in.
And speaking of intruders and software updates, you just never know when something will go wrong. Before something does happen, now is a great time to evaluate your backup strategy. Like insurance for your home, the effort and expense put into it is well worth the peace of mind alone, not to mention if you ever actually need it. A good backup system archives your backups in a different location than the working site, and happens automatically to avoid the problems of forgetfulness. It's a great idea to make a backup of your site (including databases) right before running any software updates or making a major change.