Since the dawn of the internet era, businesses have come to rely on their websites as a primary sales and marketing tool.
But as with most business technologies, there often comes a time when upgrades and changes become necessary. Beyond simple visual alterations and feature upgrades, however, making the needed changes sometimes requires migrating your business website to a new web host.
That process can be fraught with challenges that most businesses aren't aware of or prepared to handle. To help businesses in need of migrating their sites to a new web host, here's an overview of how the process works from start to finish.
We'll cover some of the major reasons you might need to switch web hosts, when it's best to seek professional help, and how to create a step-by-step plan to move your site without causing breakage or major downtime. Let's dive in.
Why migrate to a new web host?
There are a variety of reasons that it may become necessary for your business to switch web hosts.
They can range from the simple:
Being unhappy with your current host's customer service
Looking to save money on monthly hosting fees
Your current host isn't as reliable as it should be
To the complex:
You're upgrading your site and it requires server-side support your current host doesn't offer
Your website's traffic level has outgrown your current host's capabilities
Your site requires a dedicated server instead of shared hosting space
Your business requires enhanced security features that your current host doesn't provide
Any one of the above reasons can prompt a change of web hosts. But this is by no means an exclusive list. What's most important to recognize, however, is that moving a business website to a new host is never a trivial matter. It's something that you must approach with great care, and the fallout from getting things wrong can have far-reaching consequences – not least of which is the reputation damage and loss of revenue that would come with a botched website migration.
How to determine if professional help is needed when migrating a website
Because your business website is so vital to its ongoing success, it's not always advisable to go it alone when you need to migrate to a new web host. In certain circumstances, it may be possible to handle the job yourself. But there are no hard and fast rules to let you know when it's time to seek some professional help for the job.
Speaking generally, if you have at least a moderate amount of technical skill, you might be able to handle a migration alone if:
Your website only consists of a few static pages
Your website uses a CMS that offers a migration utility
You haven't yet put any work into your site's SEO
Your website doesn't handle any eCommerce transactions or mission-critical customer service functions
If any of the above are true, the consequences of making mistakes when migrating your business website aren't likely to be that great. But, at the same time, if any of the above are true, the cost associated with hiring professional help for the job won't be high, to begin with.
The bottom line here is if you have any doubt in your mind as to your ability to handle the migration, it's better to err on the side of caution and reach out for whatever professional help you need. You'll probably be happy to have saved yourself some substantial headaches.
Where to start with your web host migration plans
If you've decided to tackle your website migration yourself, or if you're looking to save some money by completing some of the easier steps yourself, it's important to know in advance exactly what's involved. That way, you can plan for and execute your website migration in an orderly way. That will help to minimize the possibility that something will go wrong, as well as help make sure your business website won't suffer any extended downtime.
And even if you've decided to leave the migration to an expert, it's still worthwhile to understand the process so you can follow the progress of the project. To help you in either case, here's a step-by-step guide to the steps involved in the website migration process.
Create an inventory
Before you consider doing anything else, you're going to need to document all of the contents of your website so you won't inadvertently leave something behind. At this stage, exercising some patience is critical. You need to remember that the more thorough your initial preparations are, the easier every subsequent step will be.
To get started, you should create a master file in your preferred word processor to centralize some of the important information you're going to collect. The first thing you'll need to know is the IP address of your existing website (it will be needed later in the migration process). If you have direct access to your existing web server, there are IP address utilities that you can use to find the necessary information.
If you don't, simply type your website's full address into Google's Dig utility and record the information it returns. Be aware, however, that if your business website makes use of a content delivery network to speed up page delivery, the response won't give you the information you need. If you're not sure you've gotten the right IP address, contact your existing web host and ask them directly for the correct information.
Next, you're going to need to catalog all of the files, multimedia elements, databases, and other materials that make up your website. The goal is to map out the structure of your site so you can make sure to leave nothing out. You'll want to arrange the information in a site hierarchy chart like the one below:
With your chart filled in, the next thing you will need is to list any redirects that exist within your website. Redirects might be in place because you've decommissioned out-of-date pages, or if you've chosen to route incoming traffic from disused landing pages to newer, more relevant ones. Failing to get this step right will guarantee that web users arriving at your migrated site will encounter dead ends and broken pages. Needless to say, that's not ideal.
Make a backup
After you've cataloged your existing website, the next step in the migration process is to make a complete backup of everything on your current web host's servers. This will serve as a failsafe just in case you've overlooked anything.
In most cases, you will need some additional software or utilities to complete the backup process. If you're lucky, and your existing web host uses cPanel (which is quite common) to run its servers, the backup process is easy. Simply use the backup wizard that's available through your site's management page to create a full site backup and transfer it to a secure location (like a backup drive, cloud file storage, etc.).
If there's no backup wizard available, or your existing server isn't running cPanel, you'll have to make your backups by hand. Begin by using the FTP client of your choice to download the entire file structure of your existing website. Then, you'll need to take a snapshot of any databases that your site relies on.
Since MySQL is the most common website database type, you can choose from several methods to get the backup you need. If, however, your website uses a different database backend, your best bet is to leave the task to a professional or reach out to your current web host for help.
Copy your files
The good news is, having a full site backup makes the rest of your migration process easier. You can, for example, use that backup to upload a copy of your site's assets to your new hosting service. Using the same FTP client you used to make the backup, you just need to connect to your new host and upload the same files. If internet bandwidth is an issue, you can also opt to initiate a file transfer directly between your old web host and your new one.
Once the file transfer completes, it's a good idea to manually verify that all of the needed files made it to the new host. You can use the documentation you created in the planning step to do so. If anything is out of place, be sure to rectify the problem before proceeding to the next step.
Copy your databases
Just as you did with your existing website's files, you will also need to transfer all of the site's databases to your new host. And again, if you're dealing with MySQL databases, this is a fairly straightforward process.
The three steps involved are below:
On your old web host, execute a database dump by running the command:
Copy the resulting database file to your new web host using the file transfer method of your choice
Then, import the database into MySQL on your new web host's server using the command:
mysql -u root -p newdatabase < /path/to/newdatabase.sql
Once you've successfully copied the required databases to your new web host, you'll need to take a look at your website itself to determine what to do next. In most cases, the code of your site's pages will contain references to the databases you've copied. You'll have to update those references to reflect their new location on the new web host's servers. You should contact your new web host for the connection information you'll need.
Once you've completed the needed updates, you should take some time to try out the website on your new hosting service. If necessary, you can create a temporary domain name entry such as "staging.mybusinesswebsite.com" to access your new site from a standard web browser. But if you do so, make sure to take the necessary steps to prevent Google from indexing your staging site.
If you don't make your staging site private, there's a chance that customers searching for your business website will be redirected to the wrong place. When that happens, you'll not only have to deal with irate customers who can't reach your business but also with the flood of negative customer reviews that will likely follow. Then you'll have a whole new problem on your hands: repairing your business' reputation.
Prepare the new host
The last preparatory step you'll need to complete is to get your new web host ready for your business website. In most cases, this isn't difficult. You'll need to gather some basic information about your new hosting service, such as:
The IP address assigned to your hosting account (so you can redirect your visitors to the right location at the end of the process)
Whatever credentials the web host requires for you to connect to your new site's control panel, file transfer functions, and database infrastructure
Information about the web host's domain name service (DNS) functions if you're going to have them handle that for your business web domain
Once you have the required information, you should verify that everything on the new host works as you expect it to before proceeding. If anything's not working as it should, address it with your new hosting company before going any further. This includes making sure that required services (like compatible database hosting) are available.
If they aren't, your migration can't proceed and you don't want to find that out any further into the process than this. In the worst case, you can still choose a different new web host. And if nothing else, you've gained an up-to-date site map and backup – which is valuable in itself.
Switch over domains
When you're certain that every part of your business website works as it should on the new host, you should be ready to make it live and available to the public. First, you should undo whatever changes you've made to prevent public access to your staging website (as specified in the previous step). Then, you're going to need to edit your domain's name file to point site visitors to the new hosting location.
Here again, the process for doing this will vary depending on your company's domain registrar. But what you're going to need to do is to edit the DNS entries for your business website contained in its domain zone file.
You should be careful not to change or remove anything in the zone file that isn't connected to your business website itself. In most cases, you're looking for an A record referring to "www.mybusinesswebsite.com" (or whatever your main website address is). You'll need to change the IP address listed in that entry to the one provided to you by your new web hosting service.
Once you've made the required change, be aware that it can take up to 24 hours for users to stop arriving at your old site and start showing up at the new one. For that reason, it's best to leave this step for a weekend or any other non-peak time. That way, there's less of a chance that anyone will even notice that something's changed, leading to a smoother customer transition.
Remember, though, that any changes to your old website that happened after you've copied its files won't carry over to your new host automatically. So, if your site has any functions that accept user input (like mailing list signups, address entry forms, or e-commerce functions), you'll need to update your new site accordingly. Or, you can simply disable your old website as soon as you update your DNS entries and just accept that some people won't be able to reach it for a short while.
As you can see, the physical process of migrating a business website to a new hosting service is straightforward in most cases. But you should avoid making any assumptions about how it will translate to your specific business website. That's why it's a good idea to seek out any help you need along the way, and take nothing for granted. Better still, if you're not certain that you can handle the job, just hire someone who's got the right skills and experience to get it right the first time.
If you do choose to tackle the job yourself, make sure to take as much time as you need on the planning and testing phases of the process. Migrating your business website isn't a race. If you do it the right way, your customers won't know that anything is going on, no matter how long you take. If you don't, they're going to know right away and they're going to let you know about it.
However you choose to proceed, you should now at least understand what's involved in migrating a business website from one web host to another. And as they say – knowledge is power – and you now have the power to manage this all-important process with as much or as little direct involvement as you'd like.
Andrej is a digital marketing expert, editor at TechLoot, and a contributing writer for a variety of other technology-focused online publications. He has covered the intersection of marketing and technology for several years and is pursuing an ongoing mission to share his expertise with business leaders and marketing professionals everywhere.