Avoiding downtime while switching website hosts

SwitchIt can be kind of scary to contemplate switching hosts, even if you hate your old one.

That’s why a lot of bad hosts keep good people year after year, despite their lousy service. However, there are some steps you can follow to ensure that you experience little to no downtime with your website or your email, if that is also via your host.

They do get kind of technical, but between your website developer (if it wasn’t you) and the new host, you should be able to get the support you need.

This checklist helps make sure nothing falls through the cracks:

Step 0: You do NOT have to transfer your domain name registration to the new host to move your site. The domain name can stay right where it is, in most cases, as long as it was registered BY YOU.

Step 1: Sign up for an account with the new host. Do NOT cancel with the old host at this time, and don’t even let them know you’re thinking about leaving. If you do, they could either accidentally or “accidentally on purpose” cancel your account and *poof* your site goes down.

Step 2: Migrate your old website’s files to the new host. This can be a bit technical if you don’t understand your site’s structure and how to use FTP, but some hosts, like LiquidWeb, will actually perform the migration for you gratis as a “thank you” for choosing their service. I’ve done this with LiquidWeb myself, and it’s nearly always seamless.

Step 3: If your website runs on a database, like WordPress, you also need to make sure that database gets cloned on the new host. If you’ve got a good web designer that’s supporting you properly, they should be able to help with this for a small fee, or again, a good host will help with this. If you can’t get help from the new host for this type of work – you may want to back up and reconsider your choice.

Step 4: Make sure your email is set up properly with the new host. Again, your former website developer, your Outlook Exchange manager, or the new host should be able to help with this. You’ll want to make sure the MX records are transferred over (I use MXToolbox to see the records – it’s often faster than digging for them on the old host). If this is done properly, you should experience no email downtime with site transfer. Old emails don’t transfer over, however, so you’ll want to make sure they’re archived somewhere or downloaded into your email program on your computer (like Outlook) before you make the switch.

Step 5: Once the site is transferred over completely, check it over on the new host to make sure it looks OK. Especially look for weird characters in your text, because sometimes when you transfer a database from one host to another, they use different character sets. If that happens, you’ll have to re-import with a different character set. Again, your host or database manager/website developer should know what this means.

Step 6: You’re ready to pull the big switch. Log in to your domain name REGISTRAR – which may or may not be different from where your site is hosted – and change the nameservers to the ones provided by your new host. They will look like this:

ns1.yourhostname.com
ns2.yourhostname.com

Step 7: Sit back and wait. For the next 48 hours, you may see the old site and then the new site and then the old site. I call this the “DNS Dance” as the new nameservers get propagated all over the globe. Rest assured, though – if you’ve followed these steps properly, your site visitors will see one version or the other of your new site.

Step 8: Make sure your domain name registration stays up to date, even if it’s with the old company – you can cancel your old hosting package, but that’s separate from your registration – without that, your site goes down no matter what. If you hate the old company so badly that you don’t even want to give them your registration money, you can transfer your domain at a later date – it’s a ticky process on its own, and you don’t want to confuse it with moving hosts. The procedure also varies from registrar to registrar.

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