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How to buy your website, part IX – the big finish

Another long-overdue post, thanks to loads of lovely work coming in and keeping me very busy. This time – and for the final time – we’ll be discussing how to launch your website now it’s complete, and what the difference between a hard and soft launch is. As ever, you can see all previous parts of the series here.

There are a couple of ways to know you’re getting to the end of a project: firstly, you’ll be approaching the date you agreed with your supplier (or may have gone past it slightly if things have changed dramatically); secondly, your site will be pretty much complete.

A quick note on this, however. Sometimes – quite often, in fact – getting your site “good enough” is good enough. By which I mean perfection is an impossible goal and not worth the extra time and cost. You’ll always have things you think could be slightly better, elements you wish worked a little smoother, things you needed to compromise to keep within time and budget. This is normal. You’ll never have things exactly how you want them – and you’ll be so close to the project at this stage that you’ll find it very hard to look at it fresh and say “yes, this is the right site for our clients”. Someone looking at it new may well see it and think it’s the most perfect website ever.

At this stage you’re also entering into a law of diminishing returns. The more changes you make, the more they’ll cost and the less overall impact it’ll have. The exact shade of a button might take hours of back-and-forth to get right but what you get out of it is minimal. Learn to let go a little and, if you can, get a completely fresh set of eyes on the site.

Now go!

OK – you’re happy. The time has come to launch. What’s the process involved?

  1. You agree with the developer that it’s time to launch. At this point, you should stop any changes you might be making to content. Any changes you make between telling the developer you’re ready and the developer telling you it’s live will probably be lost forever.
  2. The developer takes a full backup of your staging server. This includes database and all the files. It’s not a difficult process, but it can be quite drawn out: moving files around can just take time (and might kill your developer’s internet connection for a while, so sometimes they’ll insist this happens overnight).
  3. The developer moves the full site to your live server. There are a couple of ways this might happen:
    1. If you’ve already got a site and it’s on the same server, everything is moved over except the main index.asp, index.php or index.html file, which is first renamed and then moved. It’s this file which determines the home page and – for server-side scripting (ASP and PHP) usually makes the whole site work.
    2. If it’s a brand new site, everything is a bit easier – things are just moved over and tested as appropriate. It only really goes “live” when you start telling people it’s there.
    3. If it’s a replacement site and on a new server, everything is moved over and tested, often using something called a “hosts” file. This file tricks your computer into thinking the old site has moved to a new server.
  4. The database is moved. This is a bit like moving normal files, but often needs the developer to run some scripts to update settings. If you were to look at the site while this process is happening, you might see some things working but others completely broken: this is normal.
  5. The new site is tested. Once it exactly mirrors your test server, it’s ready to go. Your developer may send you new login details for the content management system.
  6. Now it’s time to make it live. Again, there are a couple of ways this can be done:
    1. If it’s a new site on an old server, it’s just a case of renaming the main index file.
    2. If it’s a brand new site, by this stage it’s live.
    3. If it’s a replacement site on a new server, the domain name needs to be pointed to the right IP address. Although this is a simple procedure – it’s clicking a couple of boxes on a website – the actual process can take anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days as the change trickles through the internet.

And there we have it. Your site is live! But that’s not really a launch…

Insert NASA-type punning headline here

Actually having your site running on a server isn’t a launch, exactly. Google will start indexing it now but it can take months before it’s properly listed in search results. People aren’t going to know about your site until you actually tell them – whether that’s by email, by sending them a letter, by putting up posters or however else you communicate with them.

If you’re replacing an existing site, you don’t have to think about this as much. Your search engine rankings might fluctuate a little but – if the site’s been well built – they won’t drop off completely.

If it’s a brand new site, though, you’ll need to do a proper launch. There are two stages: soft launch and hard launch.

A soft launch is, in effect, what you’ve just done: making the site live. For a soft launch, you should tell a few – and only a few – people that the site is live and canvass opinions. At this stage you’re testing the site with real people, checking that the live server is working as expected, and slowly increasing the number of visitors you get to make sure it’s all holding up. You can tweak the content and make any last changes you might want to.

A hard launch is the proper scary day you let the entire world know your site is live. Generally, you should wait until you’ve let the site bed in for a while after soft launch before you do this. Iron out any issues you might find, take feedback from your initial testers, and then make it properly live.

If you’ve got a big site or something where you’re expecting lots of people to do something (like filling in a form), then hard launch can still be a test of your site’s ability to stand up to punishment. Most small business sites will be fine, but you’ll know all too well of sites which launch with a big fanfare only to stop working after 20 minutes because the server can’t hold up to it. If you’re managing a big project and you know that a launch email will go out to 100,000 people at 11am on Monday morning, talk to your host in plenty of time about how to keep things running smoothly. A sudden spike in users on a site is, in effect, what’s known as a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack – a way to take down a website by bombarding it. If your hosts aren’t expecting a spike, they might take the site down to protect you. Also, a launch announcement can use all your server’s bandwidth for a month in one go… and there’s no point paying every month for enough to deal with the launch spike. Talk to your hosts and make arrangements.

The best thing about doing a soft and hard launch is that it adds a bit of a buffer to your site build. The hard launch – which probably needs a lot of planning, print preparation, PR activity and so on – can be booked well in advance. If issues arise and mean launch is pushed back, you just move the soft launch closer to the hard launch (within reason) without needing to do undo all the preparation you’ve done for hard launch. Having this buffer makes project management far simpler and cheaper.

So there we have it – buying your website from start to finish. Hopefully you’ve found the series handy and will be applying some of the lessons to your own web projects in future. If you’ve got any questions, please get in touch – and remember that if you need someone to deliver this kind of project, just ask! I will be compiling all these articles into one e-book at some point soon, so check back or check my twitter stream for details.

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