Making sure a web site is solid

There are a lot of things that go into making an Internet business successful. Layout, design, content wording, the effectiveness of graphics and how they are placed, the call to action, SEO, marketing and ads, product placement, pricing, visitor experience, check out processing… not to mention having the right product at the right time. None of that matters at all if your web site isn’t up.

Once you do all the work to get it all working together, you want to make sure it stays that way. Monitoring is a required part of running a solid business. It is a basic part of the infrastructure necessary to make sure your investment is going to continue to work for you. It isn’t something that is really optional when it comes to protecting the work and financial investment you put into building your site.

A server monitoring service checks to make sure things are working properly at all times. It isn’t just about making sure the server is up (although that is important). Monitoring should be comprehensive, and touch each part of your critical business infrastructure. Yes, you need to know if your server is sown. You also need to know if people are seeing database errors, or if their email to your customer service aren’t going through, and if your DNS is working properly. Each piece of your site should be checked to make sure everything is as it should be.

That means that one check on your front page isn’t really enough. Typically, a web site is running some kind of software that provides the framework of the site. Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress are all popular tools for this piece, but there are many others. Some businesses write their own platforms for this piece, but just about everybody uses something (even if it is custom built) that provides the framework for their content. If this piece breaks, it most often won’t show as down to simplistic site checks. The web server will still respond to requests, people will just see an ugly error message instead of your beautiful design. Your monitoring should check to make sure that your page is not just up, but working properly.

In fact, if your site uses several components that all need to be working together to pull off the overall effect, you should monitor each piece. That might consist of a shopping cart component (like osCommerce), a database and module for your inventory and product placements. Your blog needs to be working smoothly. If you serve images or media from a separate service or server you need to keep an eye on that too.

What does this look like in practice? Typically, you’ll want a basic HTTP check to monitor the entry page to your site. Then, you’ll want a content check on an image and other key elements that might break independently. For dynamic content served through modules or integration, you often don’t know in advance what that content will be. For those, a negative content check is in order, watching for an error or for messages like “0 items found.” For each of these checks, you’ll want to tune the timeouts to levels appropriate for your hosting and configuration.

All of this should be easy, and it shouldn’t cost you too much. You should be able to set it up, and then it should just work. This isn’t where you want to spend your time and energy. It should be boring stuff. It should be simple and dependable. If you are a small to medium sized business with a typical web site or three, and you don’t have a team of people dedicated to doing all the stuff we’ve discussed here, you should not have to spend more than twenty dollars a month on monitoring for your entire business infrastructure, and the whole monitoring setup should not take more than a few minutes a month of your time. If your monitoring provider is costing more than that or is more trouble than that, switch to someone else.

Many people think they can get monitoring for free. You can’t. The businesses that offer “free” services are paying ad costs around $10 per visitor to their site to get your “free” business. Don’t believe them when they say you can get a good value for that “free” plan. The “free” plans typically are for very few (usually one) check with a 15 minute or even one hour interval. That doesn’t do anything useful in making sure your site is working for your customers. Monitoring should be inexpensive, but it isn’t really free.

The biggest player on the block is Pingdom. Pingdom’s service is fairly similar to NodePing’s, but the five sites Pingdom provides for $9.95 (as of the date of this post) aren’t enough for your business. As we’ve discussed here, a small business with a web site already needs their 30 site plan for $39.95. As compared to many providers, Pingdom is a good deal. Compare that plan to NodePing’s $10 flat rate plan, and we think the value choice is clear.

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