How to move a website from one host to another

You’ve bought the site. Do you transfer it or do you leave it where it is? And if you do want to transfer it, where do you start?

To Transfer Or Not To Transfer, that’s the question

If the seller recommends his hosting company highly, the history shows they’ve treated him well, the site has had little to no downtime (check using Netcraft), support questions were answered promptly and efficiently, and the charges are reasonable, there is the temptation to stay put.

The status quo implies

- no stress of moving. For some sites you’ll have to move not just files and pages but databases and programs - can be tricky.

- dealing with the devil the site knows. While another hosting company you know may be providing great service for a different site of yours, there’s no guarantee that their setup is ideal for this new site

- no change of IP. When you move to a new host your site is allocated a new IP by the hosting company. Sometimes that IP is shared with undesirable sites - or has a spammy history

- continuity. With moving complex sites the rule is that if something can go wrong … it will. Staying implies guaranteed no downtime caused by the move.

- cost. There may be a period of pre-paid hosting on the old server that you may lose if you move.

The advantages with moving

In my book there is one major advantage to moving that weighs the scales heavily in favour of this option:

- experiencing what it takes to move the site. The importance of experience with the process cannot be over-estimated. No matter how good the host is, a day will come when the site needs to be moved and you need to know how.

- a fresh start. Sometimes a long neglected site that the buyer starts working on and refreshing with new content may benefit in the SERPs from having a new IP as well.

- geo targeting. A site targeting visitors in the UK but hosted in Canada or Australia may be losing some of its geo-location advantages in the search engines because of its physical location

- getting rid of bad neighbours. If due-diligence exposes some unsavoury neighbours on the same server, it may be worth moving the site

- cost. If the buyer already has a dedicated server or VPS (Virtual Private Server), it may be cheaper to put the site on there

- getting better service. Obviously if the host the seller used was under-performing or overcharging it makes sense to consider other options

How to Transfer

To take over an existing site is a multi-part process described below.

Step 1: Transfer of the domain name to the control of the new owner. Contact your registrar and the old registrar for details. Broadly, this is what you do:

[INDENT][INDENT]1. The buyer starts the process with the “gaining” registrar following their instructions

  1. The gaining registrar sends an email to the administrative contact listed in the WHOIS.

  2. If the contact replies within the time limit, the gaining registrar sends a request to the registry (the controlling body that oversees registrars). The registry sends an email to the losing registrar.

  3. The losing registrar now sends an email to the administrative contact.

  4. Provided the contact approves, the losing registrar releases the domain to the gaining registrar.[/INDENT][/INDENT]

Step 2: Getting/downloading all the site’s files and folders in the correct structure. Getting a copy of the applications (if any), database/s (if any), and non-publicly viewable configuration files such as the “.htaccess”. Getting manuals, lists, instructions and passwords from the previous owner. You want to prepare a list of questions for him. I quote a small sample here:

[INDENT][INDENT]1. What’s required of the hosting? For example,

  • What OS (Apache/Windows) is needed?
  • What bandwidth and storage allowance do I need?
  • What size of database is required?
  • Do I need access to set cron jobs or change conf files?
  • Do I need access to set size of the log files and rotation parameters?
  • Do I need to change default SSI extension names from shtml to something else?
  • Do I need Frontpage extensions on the server?
  • Do I need a dedicated IP?
  1. What affiliate or other codes do I need to change? Adsense publisher IDs and other affiliate codes will eventually need to be changed to your own publisher ID/account number.

  2. What about order processing and payment facilities? If these facilities are not transferring with the site, do I have something else in place?

  3. What’s needed to transfer the mailing list?

  4. What software licences do I need?

  5. If the site has affiliates, how are they managed? If it’s a third party application then can control be handed over to you or will you lose all the affiliates?

  6. What about agreements with merchants or drop-shippers? Will they transfer their agreements to me?

  7. How to I backup the site?[/INDENT][/INDENT]

Step 3: Uploading all the files, databases etc., to the new hosting company’s server, in the right location following the instructions provided by the host (and doing all this while the site is still fully operational at the “old” location).

Step 4: Making the changes to take control. These fall into three areas - management, technical and financial.

1. Management

Create email addresses for all the emails that are in use at this domain.
Change the code for any free statistics such as Google Analytics.
Transfer control of the mailing list
Transfer control/ownership of software licences
Sort out the agreements with merchants or drop-shippers
Offsite changes: If the seller referred to his product on his various web 2.0 profiles pages and other pages or sites he controls has he updated the references?

2. Technical

If it’s a dedicated server, you may have to set a service plan, allocate space and resources, create users etc.
You may need to modify file or folder permissions: CHMOD
You may need to edit files that access the database
You may need to double check what’s in the htaccess file to ensure it does what you expect it to do
You need to double check all forms, feedback and comment functions to verify the destination
You may need to setup cron jobs
You may need to install scripts
You may need to edit conf files
Use Google Webmaster Tools and carefully go through all the options. There may be unseen problems on the old site that you can now rectify on the new server.

3. Financial
Adsense or other affiliate codes need to be changed to your own publisher ID/account number.
Advertisers, link-buyers etc., paying members, paying subscribers etc., need to know the new contact address. If they are paying by Paypal subscription or some other regular automated payment that needs to change so you receive the funds.
Payments out need to be similarly altered to avoid a situation where your valued partners (such as affiliates) don’t get paid on time and withdraw their support. [/INDENT][/INDENT]

Step 5: Changing the DNS settings at the domain registrar to point to the new hosting company thus allowing visitors to reach the new location of the site.

I’ve described each step in a lot more detail in a series of new articles about moving websites. Anyone has any suggestions/corrections to add? I’d be very grateful.

Nice article. I have a couple of suggestions:

  1. (This is a minor nitpick, but I think you’d probably like to correct it.) Apache is not an OS as you call it in item 1 of Step 2 under How to Transfer, it is a HTTP Server that is usually associated with Linux. The OS is important, and the HTTP server is important as well, so maybe they should be 2 separate items in that section.

  2. I would add an section about the control panel used to manage the hosting, since they are pretty common, and attempting to transfer a domain from one type of control panel to another is pretty difficult (as I learned the hard way a couple years ago moving a cPanel account to Plesk and vice versa), and if a site doesn’t use a control panel, it will probably more difficult to move.

  3. I would explicitly mention that the buyer should make sure the new server has support for whatever language the website is written in. You hint at it, but I have seen a number of people who have tried to move a site based on ASP to a Linux host because they are more common and generally cheaper but they didn’t realize that ASP isn’t really supported on that OS.

I’ve moved dozens of websites and this list should be a great help to anyone who is purchasing a website for the first time, or hasn’t done it in a while. I wish I had this information when I started, and it gave me some new things to think about with my existing sites.

Thanks for taking the trouble to read it and for your valuable feedback. You are correct. I’ll make all the changes on Monday.

You hint at it, but I have seen a number of people who have tried to move a site based on ASP to a Linux host because they are more common and generally cheaper but they didn’t realize that ASP isn’t really supported on that OS.

Good point. Actually even if you have no asp code your pages won’t render if you have .asp file names. Some hosting companies let you tweak conf files to enable this on Apache servers (AFAIK) but several Windows/IIS accounts won’t work for asp file names!

Here’s one for your DNS page. When moving a site if you set a temporary subdomain at the hosting company’s URL for testing purposes, make sure you delete it when the DNS changes or that temp URL could end up getting indexed (in some circumstances).

Done, thanks.

Anyone with any other tips you’ve picked up in your transferring sites from one hosting company to another?

Great article FruitMedley, you covered almost all points that we need for site flipping. Good tips.