If you operate a website that’s generating a good stream of revenue, making the slightest changes to it can be an anxiety-inducing event. However, as your website grows, it’s likely that you’ll get to a point where you start thinking about switching web host provider. Depending upon what software stack you’re using to run your site, this can prove to be a very complicated process. It’s important to consider a few key details before you make such a big leap.
Google Won’t Penalize You
The greatest fear that most website owners have about making a switch is that Google and the other search engine giants will somehow lose the site during the process or penalize it for the move. Set this fear aside. If anything, Google rewards websites with better search engine results page positioning after they’ve move onto faster and more responsive web hosts. Google wants the Internet to be as responsive as possible, and their system for rewarding or penalizing sites puts a lot of weight on the speed of a server’s response to a request. If two sites are considered to have equally valuable content for a searcher to check out, the fastest site wins every time.
Set Up A Testbed
No matter what promises are made before you pay for a new web host, the reality is that you just don’t know what you’re getting into until you put up a live, operating version of your site. The best way to approach this problem is to avoid making a live jump right away from your current host to the new one. Instead, you want to configure a testbed version of the site on the new host. To do it right, this requires watching out for several small details that can produce big problems down the road if they’re initially mismanaged.
First, you want to set up a URL for the testbed version of the site on the new host. There are two common ways to do this sort of thing. The first is to host the testbed on an entirely new domain name. This tends to be the easiest approach, as it requires the least configuration of hostnames, name servers and other elements that are used to direct visitors to the site. The second is to use a subdomain. This approach should generally be avoided unless you or the people configuring the new host have the necessary access to the hostname and name server sources and the technical expertise required to pull it off.
Second, you want to make sure that any search engines that might stumble upon the testbed version of the site aren’t confused and start indexing it. Before you upload any of your files to the new host, you’ll want to make modifications to key files that the search bots use to index the site. This includes making modifications to the robots.txt file to instruct them to ignore the entire site. You should also add “noindex” and “nofollow” meta tags to every page and in any underlying template files for the site.
Remember that there’s no such thing as being too thorough or too cautious at this stage. If you’re not already using a good version control program for your site, this is an excellent time to find religion on that count. Make sure that you copy all of the files for your testbed to a separate folder before making modifications. You absolutely want to have clean copies of the unmodified files sitting somewhere just in case something gets messed up along the way. If your goal is to avoid losing revenue, you don’t want to spend time trying to clean up mistakes down the road. Always make sure you have a point you can retreat to if the testing process fails.
The biggest problem with switching web host provider is that you don’t really know what you have until you test it. There’s no substitute for the load that real customers place on a website, but you can use load testing software to at least simulate what a day of heavy traffic does to your site.
This is also an excellent time to think about what your long-term goals for the site are. If the site is currently handling 100,000 visitors on a peak day and you wish to grow it to 250,000 per day, then it’s important that you load test for something larger than the number you intend to get to, not the one you’re currently at. If you’ve given up on your current web hosting company because they can’t handle 100,000 visitors, you’re going to hate yourself if you don’t have at least some guess how it will handle 250,000. Not knowing how your site will handle additional load is a great way to lose revenue. Thankfully, most website load testing software is easily configured to deal with a task like this.
Making The Switch
Once you’re happy with the results you’ve obtained using the testbed, you have to make the switch. This means configuring the site’s main domain name to point to the new server the same way you did the testbed domain. It’s wise at this stage to keep the old hosting option available, in case the switch leads to problems. You always want to have a point you can retreat to during this process. Once it’s clear that your newly configured hosting option is working fine for a few days, you can then decide to start canceling the old account.
It’s also a good idea to re-check the site and make sure that none of the “noindex” or “nofollow” tags from the test are hanging out anywhere. You’ll also want to verify that the robots.txt file is the one that permits indexing by search bots. You can never be too thorough in this process.
The biggest factors in switching web host provider are planning and attention to detail. You always want to have a spot you can go back to if something in the testing phase fails, and you don’t want the test version of the site to accidentally becoming the version that the search bots actually index. The important thing to remember is that your new host will provide you greater speed and responsiveness than your old one, and in the long run that will be rewarded by the algorithms that the search companies utilize. With a bit of forethought, you can make sure that your move goes off flawlessly and without endangering your site’s revenue stream.