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Does it always make sense to display a maintenance page?

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Maintenance pages are certainly not as popular as they were a long time ago, but they still exist. Modern sites can take advantage of many alternatives to minimize downtime. This means that if you encounter an error or if another task is causing downtime, you are no longer forced to use the maintenance pages.

In this tutorial, we are going to walk you through some alternatives to the maintenance pages that you can use. Before that, let's talk about when it makes sense to use them in the first place.

An introduction to the maintenance pages of the website

You've probably come across a lot of maintenance pages during your time online. Usually it looks like this:

coming soon page wordpress.png

Maintenance pages are simply placeholders that tell you that there is currently an issue with the website you are trying to visit. In some cases, resolving this issue may take a long time or be as short as a few minutes.

The goal of a maintenance page is basically to prevent your visitors from encountering the errors that you are trying to correct. Some people also use them when making changes to the functionality or design of their website, although this type of use is not as common anymore.

In practice, you can enable maintenance pages for your entire website or just for specific pages. Your approach will depend on the issues you are having. Now let's see when it makes sense to use maintenance pages.

How to decide to use maintenance pages on your WordPress blog

The website maintenance pages can be very useful, but they have become a little less popular for several reasons. For example:

  • When you activate the maintenance pages, it basically equates to a website downtime.
  • There are alternatives to maintenance pages that allow you to avoid downtime.
  • Using maintenance pages can scare users.

Overall, there is no need to use the maintenance pages when changing the design or functionality of your website. In those cases, you have better alternatives that involve no website downtime, which we'll explore in a minute.

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It can be argued that there is only one type of situation where the use of maintenance pages is always useful (when it comes to an error that affects a main functionality of the site). In these cases, it is better to risk scaring visitors away with a maintenance page rather than showing a damaged website. For those times, there are plenty of tools you can use to create stylish maintenance pages, and many themes include maintenance templates as standard.

2 alternatives to maintenance pages

There is a time and place to use the website maintenance pages. However, you also have some great alternatives that will do the trick in most cases without causing downtime. Let's talk about what it is.

1. Use an intermediate website (test) to make your desired changes

Frankly, test websites will change the way you approach development and design work once you start using them. In short, a staging site is a live copy of your website that is inaccessible to the public.

In most cases, only you or others working on your website can make changes to the forwarding website. Once you're happy, you can “publish” them live, replacing the existing version of your site with the new version you were working on.

If you want to make some design changes or add functionality to your website, using an intermediate copy is much better than activating a maintenance page. Since you are not working on the live version of your site, you can just keep running it until you replace it with your new version.

When it comes to setting up a WordPress website, you have three options depending on which approach you want to take:

  1. Set up a local development environment using tools such as MAMP ou WAMP and set up a copy of your website on your computer.
  2. Use a tool such as Local by Flywheel to quickly set up transit websites and manage multiple ones easily.
  3. Take advantage of the features of the transfer site of your host (if they offer it).

In most cases, the easiest way to set up a staging copy of your site is to use your web host's built-in functionality to do so. The problem is that not all providers offer this feature, especially not for basic shared hosting plans.

This author has had good experiences using the staging function of Flywheel(English) for development work. However, your mileage may vary. If you prefer to set up an offline staging website, you can use the first two approaches mentioned.

For these cases, you can set up a local copy of your live website using backup tools such as UpdraftPlus. You can then make any necessary changes and replace your live copy by the same method once you're ready. Of course, these approaches involve work. However, your site will at least remain accessible while you make improvements.

2. Return to an earlier version of your website if necessary

A common theme in many of our articles is to always create backups of your website. It's not that we are “addicts” to big backups. However, because this simple action can save "your butt" in so many ways, it is almost irresponsible to ne not do it.

For example, imagine that your website breaks in a major way because users cannot access it. You've updated WordPress, and it's creating a significant conflict with one of your plugins, or something like that. In this situation, you have three options:

  1. Solve the problem manually without activating maintenance mode and expect slow traffic numbers.
  2. Turn on your maintenance page while you fix the problem, so that visitors know that you are working on the problem.
  3. Return your website to a recent backup and continue working as usual.

Option number three is by far the easiest, as long as the backup is very recent. Ideally, you'll have daily backups of your website, but that's impractical for small projects (although possible with a plugin such as VaultPress). We recommend weekly backups at a minimum.

Some plugins allow you to automate your website backups and store these files offsite, which is just as important. You can also take note of manually backing up your site from time to time. However, let's be honest: automating is much easier.

If you want an even more convenient experience, some web hosts offer automated backups for their customers. Just like with transfer sites, many providers do not include this type of functionality in basic shared plans.

This author has tried several web host backup restore features including those of  A2 Hosting and Flywheel , and had good experiences with both. Naturally, there are many more web hosts that offer automatic backups and site restore features. Do not hesitate to do other research before choosing one of them!

Conclusion

There are still situations where using the maintenance pages makes sense. For example, you might run into an error affecting key features of your site or breaking things. In these cases, you can enable your site's maintenance page while you perform fixes.

However, you also have other tools to help you use maintenance pages, such as:

  1. Use an intermediary website to make the necessary changes.
  2. Move your website to a recent backup if there is an error.

Are maintenance pages still a good practice? Share your opinions with us in the comments section below!

This article features 1 comment

  1. I just did an interview on a very large and busy website between 0,30 and 2:45 am this morning. After the maintenance started, I first performed backups and then started the tasks, installations, for example. Change the ranking of the database and install plugins. Unfortunately, no plugin could be installed, that's why I left the maintenance mode and will try again shortly. Since I foresee problems, I'll probably make a 1: 1 copy of the web and work on it. I find a way, I repeat the procedure on the live web - with the maintenance page.

    Why a maintenance page or a web copy? This has practical considerations. The web works with Contao (not WP) and is a multi-domain installation. The compressed database is approximately 330MB in size. The web contains tens of thousands of files with a total of 99 GB. Configure a 1: 1 copy (on the server) with SSH access and subdomains for multi-domain capacity, then reconfigure Contao and copy the database of data takes several hours. Something you can't do locally under XAMPP, as Contao 4 is hard to get to get up and running thanks to Composer, Symfony and Symlinks. In addition, just downloading the uU files take several days.

    Given this long preparation, the maintenance issue is straightforward, if you only need to make small changes. Of course, I try to move maintenance with maintenance page into the night hours. Sometimes, however, it is also believed that the small change sometimes goes without maintenance. And you've already taken down the web. Like the crash a few weeks ago, which took me offline from Sunday 2-11.

    My opinion: A maintenance page to a maintenance must be. There is no alternative if the web is too big. However, critical system changes should be made on a 1: 1 copy. If all passes, write down the steps and repeat them on the live web - along with the maintenance page! Backups of the database and important web files are always mandatory. I always do this after activating the maintenance mode, so I can be sure that the visitor will not be able to modify the web (visitor counter, form transmission, etc.).

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