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Why Every Website Needs a Dark Site Functionality for Crisis Management

dark site functionality

Every website may experience problems – technical and functional vulnerabilities or issues, related to content updates and third parties. Also, every organization may be subject to a crisis of various origin and kind – starting from challenges to the business as a whole down to personal problems of top management. In both cases, the reasons may be either internal and external. Also, the problems could be recurring and highly anticipated or sudden and unexpected.

What is common in all of the above cases? First, you have to react in a timely and adequate manner, which nowadays means that your site should adapt and be used. And second, you could prepare in advance for some of the possible scenarios and support your communication with a dark site function.

The Dark Site as a Standard Back-up Functionality

Yes, the prebuilt dark site option is most often a simple functionality to your main website that can be quickly turned on. It is an option that provides you with an easy tool to notify site visitors if something isn’t working as expected.

Dark sites are of utmost importance to businesses that operate online 24/7. If you provide any products or services, especially when they are fundamental to people, you must have a dark site option for service interruptions.

The Dark Site Is Not Related to the “Dark Web”

Before going into details what a dark site is, let’s be clear what it is not. It is not related at all to the so-called dark web. The dark web is that part of the World Wide Web that is only accessible by employing special software that allows users and website operators to remain hidden and anonymous. Dark websites serve as functionality that have nothing to do with all of that. Dark sites are a tool that supports website owners in bad or “dark” times.

Dark site functionality is not related to the dark web.

Dark site functionality is not related to the dark web.

Why Have a Dark Site?

Crises may come in various forms and scales – a failing widget, service interruption or force majeure events. However, in all cases when you’re in the middle of a crisis, you have several urgent needs:

  1. You should speak to your audiences and react openly, transparently, and timely. Also, in most cases, the tone of voice should be different from your usual communication.
  2. You need time to focus your resources on the problem itself and restore balance.
  3. You have to keep control of the situation and demonstrate that publicly.
  4. Due to the crisis, you will attract extra attention that you should handle in the best way possible.

The purpose of the dark site is to cover those basic needs and support you in crisis communication. It is one of the critical instruments in your toolbox that empowers you to manage a crisis successfully.

It allows you to stay in control and take your responsibilities seriously. With the right messages, the site positions the company as the primary source of information about the problem. When regularly updated and objective, it encourages media to make you their first source in covering the story.

When to Activate a Dark Site?

Here are some typical cases when it is recommended to have a dark site functionality as a back-up:

  • There are known vulnerabilities within your content management system that affect site performance.

All content management systems are vulnerable, dynamic and constantly improving. That is why there are periodic updates and new version releases. (The latest WordPress release was called Betty and numbered 5.1.)

  • When you are experiencing difficulties providing your regular service. A typical example is with Christmas and Black Friday sales that cause system overloads and require extra resources. With a dark website, you may announce that there will be delays, or that deliveries may be temporarily interrupted.
Dark site as a banner - how Debenhams prepared for Black Friday

In 2018, Debenhams prepared for the extra demand on Black Friday by rescheduling orders due time. The dark site here is a small notice. Source: http://web.archive.org

  • You may also experience technical problems beyond your control. For example, related to the hosting solution or interruptions in electricity.

Like most major platforms, when LinkedIn is experiencing a technical problem, it activates a pre-designed message.

  • It could be a recurring issue, related to 3rd party services on your site. Or you may be streaming a 3rd party service with a widget. It is common for some widgets to stop working from time to time and your site should not look broken without it.

Recently DevriX created a dark site for one of our e-commerce clients. They needed it in case one of their payment systems, maintained by a 3rd party, did not work or the connection with it is lost.

  • It may also be a communication issue like a complicated company situation, with multiple stakeholders or supply chain partners involved.
  • You may also need to address site visitors differently than normal and even change the design. If your company is experiencing some kind of a loss, it will not be adequate to keep the website in bright colors and with happy headlines.

PayPal has gone one step further by creating a separate service website, https://www.paypal-status.com, for users to check the status of all PayPal production systems operational. All technical issues may be referenced here. This is much more than just a dark website and a very good practice for platforms that operate with money and other sensitive and dynamic personal data.

PayPal status website includes information about the service status

PayPal status website also includes information about scheduled maintenance. Source: https://www.paypal-status.com/

How to Create a Dark Site

There are several ways to create the dark site functionality and the most commonly used are two: a total site redirect and a banner-like announcement.

With a total redirect, all links to your site will be redirected to the dark site. That means your website will be temporarily inaccessible and replaced with the dark site. This strategy is for a very serious crisis and problems that concern every part of your company and business. It is very similar to closing a shop with a single note on the door explaining why and for how long.

With a banner-type announcement, you add a short message on all pages that explains the problem. You may also add a dedicated internal page, linked to the message, with further details. In this way, every site visitor learns about the issue and anyone who is somehow concerned about it, may go and read more. In the most minimalistic version, the announcement could be short and self-sufficient and contain no links. Thus, the dark site is only a notice on your site.

Myspace.com short notice about the lost archives is a bad dark site example.

Myspace.com published a very small notice about the server migration failure. The notice (in grey at the top) was unproportionate to the size of the damage and was visible for less than a week, which makes it a bad example of a dark site. Source: http://web.archive.org

How Is a Dark Site Different from the Main Site?

As described above, the dark site could be a single page, a small website with several pages or just a banner. But the principal differentiator is the type of content it carries, related to its intended usage conditions. As a rule, it is strongly recommended that dark sites are kept simple and plain, with straight to the point texts and minimalistic design.

Think Like an Insurance Broker

It’s best to create a dark site before a crisis occurs. To prepare for the worst case scenarios, related to the everyday functioning of your website and company, you should think about all the risks and potential problems. To envision them, adopt the “what if…” mindset of an insurance broker, imagine what worst could happen and assess what should your reaction be in that case.

Here is a spreadsheet to assess the issues, problems, and crisis you may cover with a pre-designed dark site. Think about the potential crisis that could be closely related to your business, not about all possible worst cases. Then choose between the two types of dark sites and decide which ones to build.

Dark Site Type Assessment sheet

How Much Does a Dark Site Cost? How Long Does It Take to Develop?

Use the above table to describe all cases you want dark sites to cover and decide how you want the main site to change with regard to content, functionality, and purpose. Then you will be able to decide on their domain, design, and structure. That will eventually define the price for their production and the creation time.

As DevriX CTO Stanko Metodiev says,

“We create the dark site and then hope to completely forget about it and never turn it on.”

Similar to insurance, everyone hopes that everything works fine and the dark site will never be activated. But yet it has to be developed and ready to be quickly launched. Just in case.

The Dark Site As a Sequent Support in Crisis Communication

When bad news or an emergency abruptly hits an organization, your website will be the first place the outside world will turn to for information. You will have to react and a dark site is a right tool.

Dark site example - Apple website homepage takeover upon Steve Job’s death.

Dark site example: When Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, Apple honored him with a dark site as a complete homepage takeover. Source: http://web.archive.org

Force majeure events are a typical hypothesis here. But compared to the above issues, they strike unexpectedly and could not be planned. A dark site could not be pre-designed and has to be built post factum.

You will have limited time to act so here are some guidelines on how to prepare and manage the process:

  • Include a description of the crises with facts about what happened and is happening.
  • Outline the company’s statement and official response.
  • Clear out the specific steps that have been taken to get the situation back to normal.
  • Make sure to post regular updates about the following events.
  • Do not forget about instructions for everyone concerned with the crisis and what they must or must not do.
  • Specify contact information for the news media and for members of the public affected by the crisis.

The dark site is the place to include all relevant background information describing your organization and anything that supports the understanding of the situation.

Transforming Crisis into Opportunities

On a different scale, it is also possible for a dark site to be a completely new website, on a designated domain, addressing the crisis issue and providing information and solutions. And that is more of a medium-term PR strategy for problems which need to be openly addressed than a crisis reaction that needs immediate actions.

If your business or the industry as a whole is experiencing some serious problems you may choose to keep it separate from your company main site and create a new, topical one. This practice is also called “a dark site”. As soon as you identify a topic that is really important and potentially threatening to your business, you may create a separate landing page to approach and deal with it. This strategy aims to change the public attitude by providing more knowledge about the critical issue.

Crises are trials for any company but also opportunities to build trust. When your own website becomes a source of credible information, that translates directly into trust. If you say nothing about a problem or adopt the ostrich-like behavior and pretend nothing is happening, you send the wrong message. So use the dark site functionality as much as possible to show that you are on top of crises and deserve your customers’ trust.

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