Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t change their web hosts—even when they should. It seems unnecessary, especially if they already have free or low cost hosting. It seems like a hassle, particularly when the vast majority of website owners don’t really understand what web hosts do. However, the odds of finding the perfect web host for you by luck are slim to none. Many people don’t research their web host and go with the easy solution, which is often hosting that comes along with registering a domain. There are thousands of web hosts out there, which means there’s a good chance there’s a “better” (for you) host that will require a little homework on your part to find.
Once you’ve found the perfect host, it’s time to actually change web hosts and move your website. Is it just copying your files over to a new server? Yes and no. Whether you’re changing the URL or not, moving is a task with a few steps. You can certainly move your website without doing so “correctly,” and it can take a long time to figure out what went wrong.
The Basics: File Copying
Copying your files is actually the fastest and easiest step. A lot of people keep just one copy of the website, on the web server, even though it’s best to have more than one copy. Experts recommend keeping a copy on your computer as well. This should be done well before you tell your web host that you’re ending your contract. You don’t really know what type of web host you have until termination arrives. If they kill your account early, your bandwidth gets minimized or something else unethical happens, you’ll be in trouble. Obviously this is far from professional, but there’s an abundance of horror stories that showcase how common this is.
It’s pretty simple to copy files, and many ways to do it. However you upload your files, do the same thing—but downloading them instead. This is often via an FTP or a browser that leads you to the hosts’ “File Manager.” Free servers that come with ads can be troublesome, since saving this as normal will also be saving the server’s ads and pop-up commands. Take the time to dig deeper and save a file free of pop-ups (it’s easier than “cleaning it up” later).
Make sure all internal links are checked so there are no URL’s hard coded that lead to the old address. This is a moot point if you have your own unique domain. However, if you don’t, make your internal links into relative links for simplification. Get rid of old banner codes/text links your previous web host required, then upload the pages to the new host. Test, test, test to ensure everything is working as it should.
If you have your own domain, you need to also update DNS records. Only do this via the registrar when you’re sure the new site works well. New domain name holders can just point the domain towards their new host. Never point it toward the old host for an extra test, since this can lead to issues and delays. During this interim, don’t delete your old site in case you’re getting visitors (simply keep two copies) and still don’t tell your old host. Two sites can run in tandem for a week for safety, even if this means you’re paying for two weeks’ worth of hosting.
Out With the Old…
Once the week is up, your next move is dictated by whether you moved your URL or just moved your domain name. Domain name moves are easier, and you’re almost finished. Tell your old web host you’re terminating, and you’re “free.” If it’s within your budget, you might want to wait one more week to ensure DNS records as well as search engines are up to date on the move. If done well, your visitors won’t even know you moved.
If you’re moving URLs, you might lose visitors. Your visitors will be following your site’s old links and find nothing. There are ways to minimize this, like changing your .htaccess from your old site. If this is sounding like Greek to you, don’t worry—there’s a “hack.” Choose a new web host who walks you through steps or, better yet, takes care of the heavy lifting for you.