October 13, 2015
Why does my website break? This seems like a good question to address for Halloween because it spooks people when their perfectly fine website suddenly ceases to work. Or even appear. It makes people wonder if someone has hacked into their site and done damage but generally that’s not the case.* What’s much more likely is that some software in the chain between your website and your browser has changed and has created an incompatibility with your website’s previously-fine code. This can cause your site to disappear altogether or display with error messages across the top of the pages.
I’ve recently seen this happen as hosting companies upgraded their PHP from an earlier version to PHP 5.6. If you happen to be hosted by a customer-friendly company like Dreamhost, you’d have been emailed a notice about the upgrade and given options to switch back to an earlier version for a while if you encountered problems you couldn’t handle. If you have a good programmer, they can track down the code in your site that needs adjusting to restore compatibility.
You could think about this as being like buying some device that needs to connect to your computer, only to find that none of the connectors you have already will fit both devices. There are little bits of code that have to interface in ways that are like physical connectors connecting — and the technology keeps changing. And sure, you didn’t do anything to your website, but if the hosting company changes their environment, you need to adapt.
WordPress sites sometimes get a double whammy because it is a content management system that not only interfaces with the hosting environment but is often integrated with third-party plugins for the advanced functionality modern websites use. This creates a third connection point that can break when WordPress itself upgrades.
Then, there’s the situation where you completely forget to pay your domain registration or hosting bill. This happens to people who ignore the “you will be invoiced at X date” emails because they put their account on auto-renew. They forget that credit card details need to be updated when you get a new card. And when your expired card doesn’t pay the bill, your site goes black immediately. If you notice the situation soon enough, you’ll be able to get the hosting company to restore your site from backup, so it’s not as dire as you might think. Just don’t expect hosting companies to keep an expired site in backup forever.
There’s one other situation, which does just occasionally happen, when your site goes down and your hosting company kindly brings it back up without explaining why it went down. This, to me, is a sign of a hosting company with very poor customer service. It’s not that hosting companies don’t have their own technical issues from time to time, but it’s not good when they can’t or won’t tell you what happened.
So there you are. If your website went down, it’s normal. Most of the websites you will spend time on every day are for companies so large that they have IT departments who catch their sites going down and fix them so quickly you’re not aware that it’s something that happens to anyone but you. But it does. And it’s fixable.
*A note on hackers: it is true that if you have a weak password on your hosting account, hackers (mostly from Russia) will quite possibly track down the door you’ve basically left open and sneak some executable files into your site. You’ll know this has happened when your site comes up in search results with a warning notice and your site (if you have connected with Google Analytics or Search Console) will carry a little warning to visitors, letting them know that your site has malware files installed. If you are signed up with Google’s Search Console, they’ll kindly send you an email when this happens and it’s pretty easy to find the offending files and remove them. However, if your password is strong it is extremely unlikely that this will happen to you.