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What Changed?

Published by Chris Coyier

If something was working, but now it's broken, then something changed.

Many things are the same, some are different.

This is true with anything: your watch, a remote control, even your relationships. It's certainly true with websites. If your website used to work fine, but now it won't load, then something changed. To fix it, you need to figure out what that thing was.

Pretty obvious? Sure, if everything is working great for you right now. But the minute something breaks, it's really easy to get into the WELL EVERYTHING WAS WORKING FINE YESTERDAY mode.

What could it have been?

  • Has any new software been installed?
  • Has any code changed?
  • Have you asked everyone with access to it?
  • Is your allowed disk space full? Maybe something you don't often think about was filling it, like server logs.
  • Did any file permissions change?
  • Are all the external resources your site depends on functioning properly and up to speed? Think: external JavaScript links, external RSS feeds, advertising services, APIs, etc.
  • How is incoming traffic? Major spike? Are you watching analytics? More traffic means more server resources, so you'll need to watch things like your memory usage.
  • Is your database server responding properly? Is your database itself in good condition?
  • Did anything change with your web host?
  • Is your domain registration up to date?
  • Is the DNS server you use responding properly?
  • Is there a chance you were hacked?

I once had a conversation with a Joyent employee who said that in the overwhelming majority of cases, a website was down because of something the user did, not the hosting. But still, I think a good host will help you figure out what the problem is if it is their fault or not.


  1. Yesterday a client contacted me saying that he can’t see the changes i made on his website. I went there and the changes really aren’t there. I looked at the coding and the changes i made the previous day aren’t there.

    Asked him did he upload some older files, he said he didn’t and i know i uploaded the new ones, so what happened?!? So without busting my brain thinking about what went wrong i simply redone the changes (didn’t have a backup – stupid).

    The internet is a mysterious place, there are often things that don’t have a logical explanation.

    • Daniele
      Permalink to comment#

      ask to the hoster.
      Some low-cost hosts (dont know if it is your situation), use to restore a backup of the web folder when somethings go wrong, hoping noone advice it.

      It is happen to me; without say nothing, my hoster (well, ex-hoster now) restored a backup of the web folder of about 2 months earlier, becose they had an some kind of hacker attack.

    • It is low cost (it’s iranian hosting company) and the client owns it.

    • Daniele
      Permalink to comment#

      Seem like this is not your case ;)

  2. FTP logs from the host would give you a clue as to what happened.

  3. sliver37
    Permalink to comment#

    This happened to me recently, spent a couple hours working on my desktop PC , decided to finish up on campus with my laptop. I still had the outdated version of the code already opened on the laptop and hit save. All the changes I had made on the desktop were gone and couldn’t work out why. “IT WAS JUST WORKING!” mode definitely kicked in heh.

    Took me ages to work it out, was barking and twitching my way through all the code before it finally hit.

  4. I don’t usually ever come across this problem, if I upload something and it works it tends to carry on working and i will always test certain bits before uploading to a live site to make sure any changes I’m going to make will work OK.

    Although I remember once, I was designing a site for somebody and they gave me FTP details for me to upload their new site. Everynow now and then I would notice that the site was really badly screwing up and things were not working how they were supposed too. I was getting so annoyed with this, I tried contacting the client to ask if he was doing anything to the site etc but nothing.

    I later checked the logs and noticed someone was logging in at times that I wasn’t anywhere near it. Sometime later I realised it was his old web designer messing it up because he was annoyed that his client had gone elsewhere!!

    So I simply changed the FTP details. But I had a bad few days when that happened!!

    • Rick
      Permalink to comment#

      Oh my god tottaly blows. It is quite funny though. Wondering if it’ll ever happen to me…

      Nice story man!

    • traq
      Permalink to comment#

      hmm… I’m taking a site over from another developer now… I think I’ll create new ftp details.

  5. I had this happen with a client, he tried updating his blog and crash the whole thing. I fixed it and he still has not paid the bill.

  6. senshikaze
    Permalink to comment#

    its what i keep telling my users:
    past performance never indicated present or future performance.
    If it worked yesterday, that frankly doesn’t matter.

  7. Permalink to comment#

    I had to chuckle, because the last thing on your list (where it belongs) is usually the first thing a client asks when something changes on his site: “Have we been hacked?”

    As if someone’s going to hack into a web server just to change the font size a point or remove a box border.

  8. Permalink to comment#

    I frequently get calls from customers whom are puzzled that their website has not been updated, even after I called the project over and my part was done. More times than not, they’re furious, calling me a liar.

    Most of the times however, I ask them to clear their cache and refresh the page, which usually does it.

    Call the customer dumb = not good. But expect them to be.

    • Rather than expecting the customer to be dumb, it’s better not to expect them to be an advanced user.

      I know a shift+refresh will reload a page without the cache, but I never expect my clients to.

      Finishing an email with the line ‘you may need to hold down the shift key and click the refresh button in your browser to see the changes’ is all it takes.

  9. Paul
    Permalink to comment#

    Part of my job is front-end support for CMS users, and the number of calls we get that start with “my web page is broken, but it was fine yesterday – i think somebody’s changed something” is unbelievable.

    Every time, without fail, the ‘somebody’ was them, although most people are dumbfounded for this to even be suggested. Always makes me laugh :-)

  10. Davis
    Permalink to comment#

    I remember when my client phoned me up and said “The website you made does not work!”
    I decided to check out the website when I saw something strange, somebody [The Client] inserted loads of Javascript. I asked my client and he replied “I found it on a website, it will make the menu look nicer, but now the website’s design has gone wrong”.
    Ah’ clients…

  11. Permalink to comment#

    I was at that stage today. Took me forever to figure out what was happening with some javascript menu.

  12. Permalink to comment#

    the other day, I disabled javascript in my browser, then forgot about it. I must have wondered for half an hour why the wordpress media upload wasn’t working anymore :)

  13. I got an e-mail about 2 years ago from a church-related website’s webmaster who accused me of changing their site without their permission. Their website domain name was the same as my client’s website domain name, with the exception of 2 characters added on to the end of their domain. As it happens, my client’s site is so a church-related website. The accusatory “webmasters” were freaking out. As best as I can piece together, the accusatory webmaster had screwed up his site in some fashion (presumably local to his PC), decided to bulk download the existing remote site to replace his local files to set things right, and re-uploaded the files to his existing site. There were 3 problems with this- 1) they bulk downloaded the contents of my *client’s* website (not their own site) with an HTTP based downloader, 2) re-uploaded the files without realizing what they were doing, and then 3) didn’t ask the obvious question of just what the heck *they just did* before sending off strange, somewhat threatening e-mails to every e-mail address they could find within my client’s website, all folks they’d never had anything to do with before (including the head pastor). After doing some research to find a telephone number, etc, and talking on the phone with them, they realized their error, but would not provide a statement in writing to that effect to my client. Thankfully, my relationship with my client was strong enough that they believed what I said was the truth, and even paid me for my time to investigate the matter.

    When things go wrong, do most people immediately assume “Someone else did this to me” or “Perhaps I messed something up”, first?

  14. Really interesting. I get to that “well everything was working yesterday” mood so quickly. But i usually give the guys in the hosting company the headache :P

  15. I like this article except for: “If something was working, but now it’s broken, then something changed.”

    This is a moot point with web applications because many of them, in their very nature are temporal. They change every day even when working correctly.

    • It means just what it says. The argument that “my site is broken but nothing changed” is the argument this sentence is trying to refute.

  16. Gavin
    Permalink to comment#

    I agree. And just as the host will likely ask… did you turn it on and off?… did you change your password?… is your… etc, I think they should check their end regardless.

  17. Dave
    Permalink to comment#

    I mostly use version control (either GIT or SVN) to maintain sites. If I don’t, I use ssh to transfer files. Haven’t used FTP for about 5 years. I thought it got banished with telnet :)

  18. Cameron
    Permalink to comment#

    I have the fortune of being forced to upload changes to my company’s website via ftp to a centralized server that runs a script every 30 minutes to check for changes and updates made to my ftp folder set (which is a mirror of the actual website), and if it finds changes/updates, it copies those over to our production servers (all 24 of them).

    Some major problems with this:
    I have to wait 30 mins to see my changes, then another 30 to see if edits made to fix problems have been fixed;
    The servers all have different cache settings so that when I update a page, every time you refresh you get different versions of the page
    Back to point 1, any attempt at time-sensitive marketing messages becomes an exercise in futility.
    The light at the end of the tunnel is that after 12 full months of complaining, I am finally getting my own server and will use a CMS for content/maintenance.

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