Why we diagnose websites before fixing them

By Mike Turner | October 21, 2019

It sounds obvious—of course we should diagnose first. But many new clients—fed up with their sites—ask us to skip that part because they can just tell us what’s wrong. Here’s why that’s a bad idea.

Maybe a product image isn’t showing correctly, or a bunch of links lead to 404 pages. We understand the urgency—but we usually recommend our clients give us time to pop the hood and inspect the site’s belts and gears first. Diagnostic time saves money in the long run.

There are two types of website diagnosis. One type is used to assess an existing website as part of the analysis and planning to build a new site. The other is the kind of diagnostics that are needed to fix something that is not working on a site. That’s the kind we’re talking about here.

The problems with an existing site fall into some predictable categories. However, for every problem, there are usually a number of different possible causes.

The pages load too slowly.

The oft repeated figure is that 53% of visitors will abandon your mobile site if it does not load within 3 seconds. Everyone is under pressure to rise above average on Google PageSpeed scores. And yet, there are some real mistakes that we see again and again. The most common is that the images are not properly optimized. The file size is too large. But it can also be unused CSS lazing around like a slow driver in the fast lane. Or too many redirects. Or improper caching. Or…you get where we’re going here.

There’s enough code to sink a garbage barge.

We once discovered more lines of code in a 40-page site than the number driving the mighty Amazon (the store, not the river). This can happen when different coders are tasked with adding functionality to a site and they do it in a way that works but is code-inefficient. When this happens year after year, things can get really tangled back there. Eventually, code gets out of date and different coding by different developers can even conflict with each other. Then things stop working. Some developers will try a band-aid fix by glomming on another few lines of code. Finding the original problem can be like trying to untangle a couple of spider webs, but it’s the only way to fix it correctly.

The site ranks poorly in search results.

This problem has many possible causes, and a thorough diagnosis is the only way to maximize your SEO efforts. Poor search ranking can be due to sloppy keyword deployment, or to ill-crafted page URLS, or missing redirects, to name a few possibilities. Pages that cram too many distinct topics in also affect search results. One of our retail clients came to us after his site had been overhauled and inquiries had drastically dropped. It was due to SEO malpractice by his previous agency. They gave him a lowball price to build the site, and he found out the hard way why the price was well under competing estimates. Losing page rank cost him far more than it would have cost to build the site correctly.

The database is clogged with digital impurities.

When a site includes a large database, it often accumulates improperly entered data which eventually leads to outright malfunction. People enter data inconsistently, or a new batch of data is imported that doesn’t match the existing fields. When we discovered this problem in a new client’s website, one of our genius developers wrote some code to straighten out the existing sludgy data. Meanwhile, we tutored client personnel in proper data entry hygiene, to prevent reoccurrence.

Functional items like contact forms stop working.

Surely that’s easy to fix, right? It worked an hour ago, so just get in there and click a few things and make it work. Cue the chorus again. A broken form or other interactive function can have multiple causes. Maybe someone accidentally turned it off during an update. Or, maybe there’s been no backend update since the Grateful Dead’s last concert and the plugin, being 83 versions behind, wheezed its last dying breath.

Would you trust a surgeon who does not diagnose before he pulls out the scalpel?

The right solution requires the right diagnosis. Doing a quick fix without diagnosis usually means it will break again. When you give your developers the chance to do a thorough diagnosis, you’re almost certainly saving yourself time, money and frustration.