Although I am not aware of any official survey, I would venture to guess that the average length of time that a company lives with a website, between redesigns is 3-4 years. I may be a bit high or low, but I think I am in the ballpark. That being said, I don't believe that there is a right or wrong timeframe, based solely on the age of the site.
Anyone who has gone through the effort of completely redeveloping a site understands the amount of work involved. I am not just referring to the time spent actually building the site, as few of us build our own sites. Rather, I am referring to the time associated with all of the activities, beginning with vendor selection through design (look and feel), architecture, copywriting, testing, launch, etc. Also understood is the fact that redesign projects typically take longer and are more costly than anticipated.
So, there ought to be compelling reasons to start from scratch with a site. Here are some issues to consider which will make this an easier decision.
Monday Morning Quarterbacking
Whether designing a website or a house, it's not uncommon to learn a lot of important lessons along the way (the school of hard knocks). Some may relate to aesthetics, while others may be more structural. Keeping a list of lessons learned is very valuable. At some point, it will become evident it's time to apply that knowledge.
Site Looks "Dated"
Most businesses want to present a compelling image; one that establishes credibility and encourages a call to action. While any website can be viewed individually, it's also helpful to look at the site relative to those of important competitors. If the site stands up favorably on a competitive basis, then an immediate redesign may not be as necessary.
There is a better understanding today of the do's and don'ts of site design from a search engine optimization perspective. Certain technologies like Flash and now AJAX present hurdles to the crawlers. Workarounds that exist today were not available a few years ago. So there are now greater opportunities to "have your cake and eat it too", regarding the balance between algorithmic success and user experience. Where do you stand with that ratio?
Quality of Design Relationship
Some companies maintain favorable relationships with their web designers. Others don't, for a variety of reasons. In smaller businesses the person / design company may not be around any longer. In larger organizations, maintaining the appropriate level of internal (design and IT) support may be challenging.
If the relationship is healthy, then chances are that the site has evolved over the years, at least in breadth. For site owners who are largely swimming by themselves, the site is not apt to be as fresh. View the process of attaining a new site as pragmatically as possible and weigh the current one against the projected one. Like so much else, effective communication and organizational skills are as critical as the technical challenges surrounding a redesign.
Not surprisingly, there are no clear-cut set of circumstances that dictate when it's the right time to redesign. The issues presented herein are important considerations. One more thought: the exercise of a redesign should be insightful and the outcome should be a clearer understanding of your business objectives and how they are communicated to your target audience.
Andrew Wetzler is President of MoreVisibility. He can be reached at awetzler@MoreVisibility.com