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Moving to another web host or server?

(first published 2003)

Taming the Beast.net recently needed to move to another server with our current host due to an increase in traffic. While moving to another web host or server can be a straightforward task for smaller sites, it's more of a challenge for larger ones. Even if you only have to move a small site, there's still a few things to bear in mind.

While we knew a few months in advance we would need to make the move, when it actually occurred it all happened pretty quickly - of course, a number of things I was "gunnadoo" never did happen before the move - something that I regretted during the transition.

The following is a series of tips that may make your move a little smoother and will minimize any downtime you may experience.

Geographical issues

If you are moving your hosting from one country to another; before you do so you may need to consider the impact it will have on your traffic - search engines are becoming a little more geographic savvy; but the technology definitely has flaws. I'll use an Australian site based on an Australian server as an example.

Let's say you have 2 totally different sites:

ljkdfjaljl.com.au
lfjdfjioa.com

.. and at present they are hosted on Australian servers and your target market are Australians. You have decided you wish to take advantage of cheaper and more reliable hosting in the USA; so your sites will be hosted on American servers.

The site with the domain ljkdfjaljl.com.au could experience some changes in terms of search engine traffic, and the lfjdfjioa.com site most likely will too - especially if someone is using a country specific search option.

The reason for this is the way some search engines, including Google, are currently working. When you live in a particular country and go to Google.com, you are automatically redirected to the Google of your country; e.g. Google.com.au. 

In the first couple of months of 2004, It was pointed out to me that Google would then return "pages from Australia" by default when any query was entered.

Although searchers are given a choice of whether they wish to search "pages from.." or "the web" via radio buttons directly under the search box - people don't tend to see these things unless they've performed a couple of searches and they aren't finding what they want.

When a country specific search is performed, Google tends to give more weight to sites that either have a domain name ending in .au or are physically hosted on an Australian server (more the latter). Google can determine hosting location via the IP address, which is a unique identifier.

Currently (April 04), Region specific Google has changed the default setting back to search "the web"; perhaps as the result of user feedback, but it's an issue to bear in mind in case it resurfaces in the future.

This doesn't mean that simply by selecting another Australian host that you can avoid this issue. Many Australian hosts still have their servers physically located in the USA or the UK. The best bet if local traffic is absolutely crucial to your online business is to purchase a country specific domain name, ensure that it's hosted on a server within that country and then use mod_rewrite for redirecting the old domain name to the new name.

Need to learn about  search engine ranking and optimization strategies or want to monitor the SEO health of your web sites (and those of your competitors)? One of the most comprehensive set of online search engine optimization tools around -  SEOMOZ.

Check with your hosting service.

Whether you are moving to a new server under your current host or moving to a new web host altogether; it's worthwhile to enquire with your hosting service provider as to whether they will move your files for you. Remember to ask nicely and they may do it for free :). 

If you are moving to a new hosting company, this is a service that can be used as a bargaining chip for you to open an account with them. If your new/current host agrees to do this for you, remember that script paths may be different (see below).

Draw up a plan - in writing

One of the mistakes I made was not to draw up a solid plan - there's so many side-streets and alleyways on Taming the Beast.net now that I had totally forgotten about some of our sections - the plan was all in my mind - not the best strategy ;0).

Your written plan should contain milestones - solid dates for tasks to be completed. If you are a Microsoft Outlook user, put these dates and tasks into your calendar - it's so easy to forget things when running an online business.

Clean up your web site

As with moving house, moving your web site to another server or service is an excellent opportunity to clean things up a bit. Why take a stack of garbage with you? 

Carefully go through your site folder by folder to check for what you don't need any more and liberally apply the use of the delete button. Moving servers is a fresh start, so you may as well start it out right.

Check and fix current problems

Broken links, scripts not functioning properly? Here's the perfect opportunity to set things straight. One of the problems of running a largish site is that little glitches slowly build up over time; the "I'll attend to that tomorrow" kind of stuff. After a couple of years, the list of little glitches can be a mile long! Now's the time to fix those things before you occupy your new home.

If you're looking for a good link verification service, the W3C provides one free of charge:

http://validator.w3.org/checklink 

Notify your members/subscribers.

If your site offers membership services or you have a list of subscribers for an ezine etc. it's worthwhile to start notifying these people *weeks* in advance - not the day before. 

People tend to skim over ezines and email updates - so the message needs to be repeated over and over as you get closer to the big day. This way you can spend the time during transition on transition and not bogged down responding to email from angry visitors.

Script/database paths

Very important - different hosts may have different paths for CGI scripts and MySQL databases. Well before you make the move, draw up a list of every script on your site so you'll know what you'll need to change.

Make a copy

After you've cleaned up your site, make a copy of it on your hard drive. Call the original web something like - mysite-old. That way you'll always have a proper backup should you have to back out of the move. Use your "new" copy to make changes to script paths etc to suit the new service.

Changing file names/folders?

If you need to rename folders or file-names, bear in mind that this could have a negative effect on your traffic as many search engines take a long time to update their listings (see below). Also, your link partners may be linking to specific pages on your site. By changing file and folder names/locations - visitors from these sources may be greeted with the dreaded "404-File not Found" error.

If you do need to make changes, it's wise to use a search engine friendly 301 redirect. That way, your old listings will redirect automatically to the new pages. Read our guide to implementing a 301 redirect.

Email addresses

Make a list of all your current email addresses used in conjunction with your site and ensure that you mirror these addresses on your new server. In your email software, add the new accounts to your lists, but *don't* delete the old accounts just yet. During the DNS update, you'll may still receive email via the old domain - for a couple of days, you'll be getting mail from both.

Expect things to go wrong

"The Best-Laid Plans Of Mice And Webmasters" - while Robert Burns would probably have a mild fit for such a misquotation, it fits a web site move very well. No matter how much you plan, or how careful you are - things are bound to go wrong. If you've put aside a day for your move, double it - just to be sure. This is especially important if you utilize a substantial number of scripts on your site.

Other search engine issues

You've worked long and hard to gain decent search engine rankings - to lose them could mean a serious dent in your traffic and profits. If you're not changing file names or folders, moving shouldn't be a problem then should it? Not necessarily the case. 

Some search engines don't cache web site information by domain name, but by IP address. When you change your server or service, no doubt your IP will change and some search engine robots may "lose" you - for months.

For this reason, if you can afford it, it's wise to leave your old web site files up for a month on your old server space after you have made the move to the new server. During that time, check your server logs for spider activity to ensure that your most important search engine sources have found you. Learn more about search engine spider identification.

Changing domain names?

What if you aren't changing file and folder names, but you are going to change domain names as well - your search engine rankings and reciprocal links are again at risk. That's where the Apache mod_rewrite module can help. Read more on using mod_rewrite for redirecting domain names safely.

Files on server before DNS update

Ensure that you have moved *everything* onto the new server before updating your DNS records for your domain name - don't wait until afterwards. 

DNS records can take up to 72 hours to update around the world and during that time, your name may "bounce" between the old and new server. 

If you wait until DNS has updated properly, you may lose traffic through links appearing to be dead and worse, your search engine rankings may disappear altogether. Also, if you are publishing your new site (with updated script paths etc.) via your domain name, you may end up with the new files on the old server - this could be disastrous if you have perform a rollback and continue utilizing the old server for some reason - *especially* if you haven't kept a clean copy of the old site.

Microsoft FrontPage Issues

This can be a challenge for FrontPage users, as FrontPage publishes via the domain name. Before making the move, ask your new hosting service if you can publish to an IP number, rather than name. If this isn't possible, you'll need to publish your site using FrontPage's FTP function. 

This will mean that components of your site that require FrontPage extensions being installed won't work initially. Hopefully, this will only be for a few hours until your nameserver changes are live in DNS and you can just publish to your site via the domain name, overwriting all the files. In this scenario, the important thing is to make sure all your files are at least on the new server. 

Don't forget to enable FrontPage extensions on your new server, or to check with your new hosting service whether they have been installed.

Monitor DNS changes.

During the time of transition, especially in the FrontPage scenario outlined above, it's important to monitor the progress of the DNS update. This can be done very easily using a free tool such as HyperTrace. HyperTrace can be downloaded here:

http://www.analogx.com/ contents/download/network/htrace.htm 

HyperTrace shows you the route that information travels from your machine to another machine on the internet. It will show you the Name Server of your current hosting service and once the update starts occurring, the new hosting service. Bear in mind that this may "bounce" from old to new during 72 hour transition window and it may be a day or two before you see the new nameserver details at all.

Check, recheck and then check again.

Once your new site is live in DNS and stable, start checking things out - again, and again and again. You could also send out a note to your subscriber list explaining that the site is now live on the new server and you would appreciate any bug reports. This can save you a lot of work and gets your visitors more involved with your site - it's a good PR exercise.

Good luck - I hope your move is smooth!

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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