overloaded car on the road

We all dread moving a web site from one host to another. Even those of us who do this for a living find the task stressful. If you’ve discovered that it’s time to break up with your hosting company, the number of things you need to do to get from one virtual home to another is daunting. Having served as a sherpa through this process many times, I can tell you that the to-do list involves two categories of inconvenience: boxes and baggage.

Boxes are the files, software, and email accounts you have to move. It’s pretty easy to tell when these have been moved successfully by comparing lists of items in the control panel and content management systems of each account.

Baggage is subtler — it’s procedures, passwords, and sets of expectations you have that sometimes don’t fit into your new host company’s setup. We can stubbornly try to make them work anyway, but our baggage often keeps us from making the most out of the new host company.

Today we’ll be exploring the very basic steps involved in managing your boxes and your baggage as you haul yourself across the internet from one hosting company to another.

 Moving Boxes

There are several steps you have to take to pack up the assets of your web site before you move. You should always set up your new hosting before you cancel the contract with your old hosting company. We always plan several weeks of overlapping hosting. You can wait to point your domain name to your new host until you have totally reproduced your site on the new host, and this minimizes the downtime considerably.

  1. Back up your old site. There are several great backup methods you can use, depending on the way your new site works.
    1. If you have a flat, file-based site, you can simply copy your entire site to your computer via FTP (file transfer protocol). We like the free program Filezilla for FTP backup.
    2. If you use Joomla, you can use a backup extension. The most common — and easiest — Joomla backup extension is Akeeba Backup.
    3. If you use WordPress, you can install a backup plugin. We’ve had good luck with Ready!Backup, but many WordPress hosts will backup your WordPress database automatically — check your host company to see if they have one they can send you.
  2. Make a list of all your “extras.”
    1. Do you have third-party plugins (WordPress) or extensions (Joomla) on your site? If you’re not sure, check through your plugins or extensions directory the next time you log in to your site. You should be able to see a list of all the things that have been installed. This can include things like image slideshows, templates or themes, social media sharing buttons, or media players. You’ll need to download new versions of these extras to install on your site at the new location.
    2. Do you have any content on your site that lives outside your content management system? This is less common for most people, but sometimes a web developer will store large amounts of media content like audio files outside the directory where Joomla or WordPress resides. Again, you can use FTP to save copies of this content and move it to your new server.
  3. Decide how you’ll be handling email. If you will be leaving your email hosting where it currently resides, but moving just the web site hosting elsewhere, that’s entirely different from moving everything to a new host. Pointing all the traffic to a new host is much easier than pointing just web traffic, but it requires you to think through the real location of all the email messages you want to save.
    box with EMAIL written on it
    1. If you’ll be moving your email and web site to a new host, make sure you find out whether you have all the email messages you want to save permanently downloaded to some hardware you own, as opposed to having your email saved on your host company’s server. If you rely on your current host to store your email archive, it will all be gone once you terminate that contract and move to a new host.
    2. If you’ll be moving just your web site to a new host and leaving email hosting at your old host, find out how to point the web site traffic to the new host without also pointing the email there. Most hosting companies have a facility for creating separate pointers, but everyone does it a little differently. For the basics of managing these services, there’s a super-informative article about domain moves at MacWorld.

Transferring Baggage

Baggage is far more amorphous, consisting of settings on your computers and devices, expectations you have about how things should work, and online processes on which your business depends. Moving baggage from one hosting company to another is difficult in different ways — and there’s less of an established roadmap.

  1. Settings. Especially if you moved your email hosting when you moved your web site, there are going to be a few places you’ll need to manually go in and change some settings.
    1. For email, you’ll need to change the email account settings in your smart phone and in any software you use to check your email on your computer (Outlook, Thunderbird, etc.).
    2. If you use a password manager, you’ll need to remember to go into it and change all the passwords for things like your hosting account, your control panel, and possibly your content management system. Do not use the same passwords for these items with the new hosting company as you used with the old hosting companyame passwords for these items with the new hosting company as you used with the old hosting company. Really.
  2. Expectations. You may think you’re starting fresh with a new host company, but they all do things a little bit differently.
    person inside empty moving truck
    1. All hosting companies favor a different way for you to get support. I’ve worked with several host companies who claim to offer live chat support, for example, but only one which has had actual live humans on the end of that chat every single time I’ve tried to use it (big shout-out to GreenGeeks.com!) Don’t assume that the best way to reach support for your last hosting company is going to work for your new hosting company.
    2. You may have had a great SPAM filter with your last host, but it may take time to re-train your new email host. Be patient until all your least favorite words make their way onto your blacklist.
    3. Emails from your new hosting company may not contain the same information that your old hosting company provided. Maybe they’re longer; maybe they’re shorter. Maybe information you think is critical doesn’t come to you via email at all, but via their online blog, to which you need to subscribe if you expect it to come via email. If you have come to depend on getting regular information from your host, spend a little time finding out how they communicate the kinds of things you want to know.
  3. Processes. How you’ll integrate your business processes with your hosting company, especially if you’ve been with your old company for years, may come as a surprise to you once you move.
    1. Find out how your new host handles billing. Whether you’re getting charged once a month or once a year, what happens if your credit card is denied? How long will they leave your site up before they suspend your account, and how will they communicate with you if that happens?
    2. Find out how your new host handles emergency downtime. Some host companies communicate with their customers about downtime via email; some post updates to their web sites (if their own sites aren’t part of that downtime); still others use Twitter to keep people informed. Don’t assume they’ll come to you with that information; you don’t want to wait until an emergency to scramble for the best way to get updated.

This all sounds complex because, in actuality, it is pretty darned complex. If it sounds overwhelming, you can get professional help. A good web consultant should be able to get you moved without scratching your stuff, so to speak. Having thought through all of these pieces in advance will help you navigate the process more smoothly.