Lessons from Census 2016: Are you prepared for a spike in website traffic?

Australia’s 2016 Census had a bad night last night with the website being closed down due to “hackers” even though initial reports suggested it had crashed due to a spike in website traffic.

On both counts, what happened last night can be put to good use for all of us with websites because as we start achieving increased popularity we increase our exposure to extra website visitors and hackers motivated by mischief.

But I thought lots of website traffic was a good thing

Initial reports last night suggested that having 10 to 15 million people all trying to log onto the Census website at once is what made the website stop responding.

This is always a plausible explanation when popular websites “go down” because the more people trying to click on your website at once means the more your website has to respond to those “requests” and “serve” up your web pages and content.

For most small to medium businesses attracting less than 10,000 unique visitors a month, reputable, shared web hosting can usually handle these amounts of traffic and you never need to give your website “bandwidth” a second thought (bandwidth is a measure of how much data your web host will allow your site to send or receive).

Seeking website traffic for its own sake is a little pointless, in my opinion, because it risks forcing you to pay for extra bandwidth to serve web content to a load of people for whom your content is irrelevant.

However, there are situations when you know you are about to get a large increase or spike in website traffic, so it pays to be aware of your options.

Using a CDN to manage a spike in website traffic

A CDN or Content Delivery Network is a very useful tool for website owners, especially if you are about to embark on some direct response advertising or you’re about to be featured on a major news, current affairs or lifestyle program.

The last thing you want in these situations is for your website to be ultra slow or “down” because your web host cannot cope with the frenzy of visitors.

A free service like Cloudflare is a CDN that stands between your website and the public and holds copies of your content in thousands of web servers around the world.

This means when people go looking for your website, they can get your content “served up” by a web host closer to them.

Your web host is then protected from the spike in website traffic because it acts more like a wholesaler, simply serving copies of your content to a management number of “outposts” and they each handle a share of the influx of clicks.

In light of the Census 2016 traffic load, it might be wise to ask your web host or one of the Baker Marketing team about enabling a service like Cloudflare for your website.

As a bonus, Cloudflare also deals with nasty attacks on your website too. It can detect malicious threats and pestilence (comment spam, etc) and simply block them from your website.

This graph produced by one of the Australia web hosts we work with, Crucial, shows how much traffic was diverted from the web server by Cloudflare, and how many threats were averted.

An example of how Cloudflare can help a website deal with a spike in website traffic via Crucial

Denial of Service attacks

The other curse of popularity, and the official reason for Census 2016 grinding to a halt with the website taken offline last night, is what are known as Denial of Service attacks (DoS).

This is where networks of slave or zombie computers are all told by a master to visit a particular site. Your computer might be one of these zombies if you’ve ever clicked on bad links and/or downloaded compromised software that works in the background to use your machine without your knowledge.

As I have explained above, such a sudden spike in internet traffic can clog and close a website because the web host doesn’t have enough bandwidth to respond to all the visitors.

This is a handy video to explain DoS attacks

Once again, a great start in shielding yourself from DoS or Distributed Denial of Service attacks, DDoS, is to enable a CDN service such as Cloudflare.

When is the best time to take this action?


Because you never know what today might bring.