Decommissioning a doomed website

Dismantling your website one brick at a time

A single website will typically experience several new incarnations during its lifespan. Some organisations will choose to surprise their audience with a completely new version upon their next visit while others will opt to stagger smaller incremental updates over a longer period of time.

Several factors can instigate such changes. Our own personal tastes, advertised services, and collective skills will likely fluctuate over time, and with it dictate future direction. Technological advances can also help realise our long-standing visions and ambitions. On the other hand, we may find it’s our audience telling us we need to improve in some areas or we’re simply waiting for the right economic conditions which will allow us to safely budget for change.

But what about a website that, largely due to external factors, has abruptly reached the end of its lifespan? What now for the website of a publicly funded body that’s just been told it’s contract won’t be extended beyond this year? Or for a company that’s about to be assimilated into a industry rival following a recent merger? Sure, you could leave it in an idle state for an extended period of time before tearing it down in one fell swoop – I dare say such an execution would be both quick and cheap – but having considered, consulted, and designed for your audience throughout the website’s lifespan up until this point doesn’t it make sense to continue this approach even at this seemingly desperate stage?

Nuclear decommissioning – what can it teach us?

At the end of its own operational life, usually spanning several decades, a nuclear power plant will begin an equally lengthy process of decontamination, dismantling, and waste management.

Such are the dangers of handling and removing radioactive waste this procedure, called decommissioning, aims to minimise the risks by following a set of strict regulations that ensures public health and safety as well as the protection of the environment. Only when all traces of radioactive material have been removed will the public restrictions placed upon the facility and its surrounding area be lifted.

Though not a physical structure – and with a slightly less chance of damaging your long-term health – I believe that by following a rough set of stages a website can also be shut down effectively and with the user in mind throughout.

Website decommissioning stages

Stage 1: Announcement

As soon as your audience need to know about the immediate future of the website and organisation I would place a short notice in a prominent position, together with an estimated date when operations are likely to cease.

I also believe that at this early stage it’s best not to deviate too far from the current content governance strategy. If possible I’d continue to schedule planned reviews of each piece of content for accuracy, consistency, and relevance to the audience – paying particular attention to and flagging key content that could form part of a reduced site later down the line.

Stage 2: Downsize

Diminishing budgets and a general lack of motivation amongst the remaining personnel could cause you to start losing the battle against maintaining the content’s validity or accuracy. It would be at this point that I’d consider scaling the website down to a more manageable size where small updates and edits can still be made – concentrating your efforts on content that will answer your audience’s immediate questions. A combination of prior experience, audience research, and site analytics will point you in the right direction.

Wherever possible I’d also look to offer your audience an alternative path or solution – even if that means linking to, and in effect recommending the services of, a respected industry competitor.

Stage 3: Single page

Further time and budgetary restrictions will indicate when the website should be reduced to a single frozen page – with the user pointed to appropriate alternative sources. No more significant updates to the content will be made after this point so the page should be clearly dated. Offer a contact channel, but only if you can guarantee that someone will be there to receive and respond to enquiries.

Stage 4: Close or redirect

Finally, once site analytics and requests for information indicate a significant drop-off in visitors, the final remnants of the website can be removed. Depending on the nature of the website or the fate of the company the domain could be used to forward onto a new website or be left to its own expiry date.