I often get asked how long a website should last. There is, of course, no definite answer to this question, but it can depend on several different factors. I usually tell people to think of it as a computer. How often do you need to replace your laptop? If you’re someone who counts on the computer for your everyday business needs, you would consider replacing it more often than a casual user whose needs for reliability and performance are less mission-critical.
If we say that the arbitrary lifespan of a website is five years, we can then look to see what has changed in the last five years to know if our site is getting dated or whether it still has some life left in it. Let’s look at what changes in web design writ large have happened since 2016.
Web design can be a lot like fashion in that the styles change over the seasons. While some of those changes are purely esthetic, many of them come from emerging research into user experience and user interface. That is to say that with every passing year, we get a better understanding of how to optimize websites to better drive conversions, and ultimately business.
An excellent example of esthetic changes would be website navigation. The number of top-level items in website navigation menus has trended downward to create a streamlined browsing experience. At the same time, the use of richer sub-navigation is more widely employed to compensate for the reduction in the top-level navigation. The overall result is a simple and intuitive yet powerful navigation system, allowing users to quickly find the information they are looking for, even when there are dozens (or hundreds) of pages on a site.
Web Technology Changes
The essential technologies of the web are constantly evolving. This evolution makes new features available, patches bugs and security flaws in old versions, and speeds up your overall web browsing experience. Years ago, we used flash for all kinds of web animation. Flash was later replaced by HTML 5 animations, which were faster, less resource-hungry, and didn’t keep search engines from indexing your pages.
While flash was already well on its way out by 2016, other technologies have continued to evolve. PHP is the underlying technology in most websites. In 2016 the latest and greatest version was v7.0, but widespread adoption of PHP7 was still far from universal. Most websites ran version 5.6, which came out in 2015. At the time of this writing, most applications require a minimum of version 7, with version 8 phasing in at present.
WordPress is the most popular web publishing platform on the market today. The WordPress core has had several major updates in the past five years, including a major overhaul for the release of WordPress v5.0 in 2018. Version 5 introduced a brand-new editor, which caused many compatibility issues with older themes and plugins. If themes or plugins that you are using are not being actively developed, you may find yourself with features that break or potential security vulnerabilities which remain unpatched.
The way that we consume websites has changed substantially since 2016 as well. In 2018, mobile traffic surpassed desktop browser traffic for the first time. As of this writing, more than 60% of North American web traffic is from mobile devices. In 2020, Google announced that it would be indexing websites using a mobile-first approach. Certainly, five years ago, most websites were being designed with mobile in mind, but ensuring that they run fast on mobile and that the user has a great mobile user experience has become even more critical.
While the proliferation of small screens has changed web design, so has the adoption of larger screens. In the past several years, we’ve seen the resolution of desktop computer screens increase significantly. Also, with high pixel density (retina) displays becoming more popular, the trend will continue. In 2016 most websites displayed desktop content with a width of around 1,000 pixels, with many moving to widths of about 1400 in 2021.
There are specific legal standards that have been put forward in recent years. Enforcement of compliance with these standards is far from universal, but it is a good idea to be ahead of the curve on meeting your regulatory obligations.
Privacy has become a big concern in recent years. There are now requirements for privacy policies, cookie notifications, etc., on your website to make your use of your visitors’ data more transparent. 2018 saw the introduction of the GDPR (General Data Privacy Regulation) out of the European Union, which made it a requirement of any website doing business with a European citizen to allow for a complete record of their user data or to request the complete erasure of their personally identifiable information. While the regulation is from Europe, their requirements make it nearly impossible for any website not to implement the changes.
Accessibility is quickly becoming a primary consideration, with legislation requiring websites to comply with WCAG 2.0 standards at the beginning of 2021. Compliance aside, it is just good practice to make sure that your website is accessible to individuals with disabilities. As more companies make this a priority, you will be placed at a competitive disadvantage if you fail to adapt.
Changes in Your Business
Have you ever seen a build years ago that has had several additions put onto it after the fact? Sometimes a website needs to adapt to market conditions not originally anticipated. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, forced many businesses to shift to online-only business models very suddenly. While the beauty of digital publishing is that we can make changes as needed, if your overall business objectives have changed, you might be better served by a website designed with those objectives in mind. Things like site structure might need to change dramatically.
If you’re undertaking a rebranding process, it also may make sense to rebuild your site. If your branding is more than just a logo to you but includes fonts, colors, etc., and maybe even design philosophy, the website may need rebuilding as part of the rebranding process.
All too often, crisis dictates a website redesign for you. It could be that your website was hacked and irreparably damaged because of outdated software. It could be that your site looks so dated that you feel embarrassed to send customers to it. It could be that you’ve fallen into search engine oblivion because your site is not mobile responsive, or your site structure is unclear to web crawlers. The common thread is that a crisis all too often brings it about, leading to a hasty process to replace it and potentially lose revenue during the transition.
A smart business owner needs to be looking ahead and (as best as any of us can) anticipate the problem before it becomes a crisis. It’s better to ask yourself if your website will serve your business six months or a year from now, rather than asking if an old website is currently hamstringing your business.