Planning a website upgrade

In our work with nonprofits, we're often asked for guidance on whether and how to upgrade to a new website. When is it time to upgrade? What factors should we consider? If you're wondering if you should upgrade, here are some notes based on our experience.

What is an upgrade?

Let's say there are two basic types of changes you can make to your website: an update and an upgrade. For purposes of this post, at least, an update is a change or enhancement to an existing website that can be done without fundamentally changing the site. In contrast, an upgrade means substantially rebuilding the site, using either the platform the site was originally built on (though, usually, a newer version) or starting fresh with a whole new platform. The "platform" could be a commercial product like Squarespace, a content management system (CMS) like WordPress or Drupal, or a more general software like PHP that's been used to build your site out on a custom basis.

A key distinction between an update and an upgrade is one of scale. Update, small. Upgrade, big. Two main factors can make upgrades a lot more work than updates:

  1. For an upgrade, because you're rebuilding your site, you may need to do a lot of work just to get what you already have. Your main interest may be new functionality, but before you get to that you have to reproduce what your existing site already does.
  2. For an upgrade, you may need to migrate your content from the old site to the new site. Depending on what content you have and what switch you're making, migration can be anything from relatively easy to a lot of extra work and expense.

When is it time to upgrade?

Because an upgrade is a big deal, it's important to consider your options carefully. For obvious reasons, there's good incentive to stick with updates for as long as feasible. Besides cost, other factors can weigh in favour of sticking with what you have:

  • Familiarity. Your existing staff, members, or other website users may be skilled in the existing site.
  • Support. You may have a tech team in place that knows your existing site inside out.

But, web technology being what it is, you may not be able to stick with your existing site forever. Factors weighing towards an upgrade can include:

  • Aging software. Your existing site may be based on software that is aging or even no longer supported. This can mean various risks, not the least being potential security vulnerabilities.
  • Design issues. Each new web trend raises issues for existing sites. A current challenge is support for mobile devices. If your site was built for desktop browsers and now most people are trying to use it on a phone, you may be losing people.
  • Major new functionality. Adding significant new functionality is a common trigger for an upgrade. It's partly a question of scale. If you're getting a lot of work done anyway, it might be time to upgrade the whole thing rather than sinking resources into an aging base.

How to decide on a website platform?

It's not easy to decide what platform is the best bet.

There's no point in making a change just for the sake of trying something different. But what was a great choice six or seven years ago might not be so great now.

Most experts will have their own favourites, which doesn't always help. Individual web developers, and even companies, tend to specialize in a small number of technologies--often even a single one. And if a service provider specializes in WordPress, or Drupal, that's the platform they're likely to recommend. After all, they've chosen it themselves. So by choosing who to ask, you may in practice already have chosen their likely recommendation.

That said, there are approaches that can help guide your choice:

  • Consider your whole online presence. Do you have multiple websites? If so, and they're currently on different platforms, planning an upgrade is a good time to consider choosing a single platform to standardize on, either right away or going forward. Standardizing can have a lot of advantages. A big one is expertise. Committing to a particular platform allows you to focus on building in house skills that can be used across your organization. Plus, it helps in identifying external service providers with the specific skills you need.
  • Have a look at what others are doing. What choices are groups similar to yours making for newly developed sites? You can ask around. Or using tools like the Wappalyzer Firefox plugion, you may be able to see what CMS or other technology their site is built with.
  • Don't discount the advantages of sticking with what you have. Even if you've decided it's time to upgrade, there may be advantages to sticking with the same platform. If you're currently on WordPress, even if you want to fundamentally rebuild your site, there may be advantages to sticking with WordPress in your upgrade. For one thing, even if you're switching to a much newer version, a new site is likely to be more familiar than something build on an entirely different platform. For another, migrating your content is likely to be more straightforward. And if you have a web team you're happy with, it's less likely you'll have to switch to a new team that specializes in something else.
  • Understand the tradeoffs between built-in functionality and customization and know where you want to be. To risk a rash generalization, the more a platform works "out of the box", the less you're likely to get it highly tuned to your own specific requirements or custom design.
  • Let your decision be informed by the factors driving your upgrade. For example, if you're upgrading because the software you were using is no longer supported, the support cycle is something you might want to consider when evaluating potential replacements.

Further reading

Still have questions? Great. Here are some additional resources for evaluating and planning an upgrade.