What to Do if Your Client’s Site Goes Down

Whether from an unexpected surge in traffic, malicious hackers, or hardware issues, it’s an unavoidable fact that sometimes websites go offline. When your site goes down, it can be a nightmare – especially if you’re spending money on digital ads that are driving traffic to a dead site.

If you’ve made it through a busy season without your site going down, congrats. Either way, there isn’t a better time than now to prepare a contingency plan for the next time disaster strikes.

Step 1: Catching Issues

There are several ways to flag when your site goes offline. Your IT team is probably already leveraging them – but they may not think to let you know when an issue arises. Reach out to them and ask to add relevant emails to any site alert distribution lists. This could include an e-commerce director, agency contacts, and anyone else who controls advertising spend. Make sure they’re also checking mobile and tablet versions of the site if you have unique versions.

Another way to catch outages is by listening via social. If a customer comes to your site and it doesn’t load, her next destination will likely be your Facebook or Twitter page. Reach out to whoever manages those and have them alert you when someone reports a problem with the site.

If you want even more reassurance, there are a number of free or low-cost programs and websites that can help monitor your site. Some ping your site every few minutes and send a text alert to your cell phone in case of a problem; others help you identify whether an issue is widespread.

Step 2: Communication

Communication with the IT team is imperative when trying to find out why the site is down and how long it will be down.

It’s important not to jump into action too quickly in case the issue is only a momentary hiccup. If the outage is a minor annoyance that will be quickly fixed, there’s no need to rush around pausing campaigns.

In the event of a larger issue (or if the cause of the outage is unknown), the next step is to communicate with everyone managing your advertising spend. Start off with a phone call, since it will likely be seen before an email (especially if the outage happens on a weekend).

Follow up the call with a quick email to all relevant contacts to keep the whole team informed and to maintain a “paper trail” of action taken.

Step 3: Take Action

The following criteria is used to determine when it’s time to start making calls and pausing ads:

  • The outage is projected to be extended (more than 30 minutes).
  • You don’t know how long the site will be down.
  • You’re unable to reach the IT team to get answers and the site has been down for more than 10 minutes.

If any of the above is true, it’s time to take action.

Your first step should be to call and email display media vendors and let them know about the issue. Many are able to pause remarketing, behavioral targeting, or other network buys in the event of an emergency. While this type of service often isn’t specified in contracts, most companies are happy to help out – it never hurts to ask.

Next up is paid search. Start by noting which paid search campaigns in both AdWords and Bing Ads are currently paused. This step is crucial – you don’t want to follow up one crisis (website outage) with another (wrong campaigns accidentally turned back on once the site is back up!).

The easiest solution is to download a bulksheet of all active campaigns, for future reference. You could also leverage AdWords Labels to mark current campaign status. Once you’ve completed that important step, pause all currently live campaigns.

Another option is to use paid search to address your customers about the outage. Leave core trademark keywords running and load a new ad speaking to the issue and providing a customer service phone number. Make sure all other ads are paused. Note that this is a temporary solution, as your ads may eventually get disapproved for having a landing page that doesn’t load.

If you have the IT resources, don’t forget to address natural search, especially if the outage will be extended. The best way to avoid a loss in organic search rankings when a site is taken down temporarily is to set up a 503 HTTP status code. Unlike a 404 status code, which tells the search engines that the page has been removed permanently, a 503 status code tells both the search engines and users that the site/page is only down temporarily. The 503 status code is also able to tell both search engines and users when the site will be republished.

Make sure you’ve posted about the issue through your social media channels, and respond to any messages they leave.

Step 4: Up and Running Again

When the site comes back online, test loading repeatedly for several minutes to ensure it’s back for good. Then reach back out to your IT contact to confirm that the issue is resolved – often the site will work temporarily while IT tests solutions.

Once you’ve confirmed the issue is resolved:

  1. Contact your display media vendors and let them know it’s safe to reactivate your campaigns.
  2. Reactivate all paid search campaigns paused in the above step. Make sure you don’t activate any campaigns intentionally paused before the outage!
  3. If you executed the optional paid search step above, delete the temporary ads, unpause any ads you paused, and unpause any paused Sitelinks.
  4. If the issue was due to a malicious attack, make sure to add any relevant paid search negative keywords (“hacked,” etc.).
  5. Remove any 503 status codes (SEO).
  6. Post updates on social channels.
  7. Monitor the site closely for the next 24 hours to ensure the issue doesn’t return.

If the outage was extended, adjust media plans to reflect any necessary changes to budget plan or performance projections.

The most important piece of advice is to put together a plan ahead of time, and communicate it to all parties that will be affected by a site outage. Then when crisis strikes you’ll be ready to respond in an organized manner.

404 Error image on home page via Shutterstock.

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