What Happens if My Web Host Goes Out of Business?

Or What if My Web Host Shuts Down My Site for Some Reason?

What Happens If My Web Host Goes Out of Business? Or If They Shut Down My Website?

by Christopher Heng, thesitewizard.com

One of my readers was concerned that if he placed his website on a web host, the latter may one day go out of business, or if not, shut down his site for some reason or other. He was worried because he wanted to use that web host's online website builder. "Since you are using their server," he wrote, "when this happens, your website is gone. Have I understood this correctly?"


For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, a web host is a company that has computers, running special software, that are connected to the Internet. When you place your files on those computers (called web servers, probably since they "serve" websites to visitors), they are accessible by anyone on the Internet. For example, this very article on thesitewizard.com is placed on one such host, which is why you can read it in your browser right now.

I will also assume in this article that you have bought your own domain name for your website, and are not using a free address given by the web host. Some hosts provide you a web address that belongs to them, for instance, if their domain is example.com, your site will be located at yourname.example.com. I'm assuming here that you own your website's address. If this is not the case, you have yet another problem, even if you don't know it yet. For details, see Is it Possible to Create a Website Without Buying a Domain Name? The High Price of "Free".

The General Case

Let's deal with the general case where a web host closes down or terminates its business relationship with you for some reason. We'll deal with the special case where your website was designed using their online website builder in the next section.

If you were to open a shop in a shopping centre ("center" if you use a different variant of English), you will typically have to lease a unit from the owners of the building. What happens if the owners go into liquidation, or if they terminate your lease? You will typically have to find new premises, rent it as before, and move your shop there.

In general, that is also the case for a website hosted at a place where the owners either go out of business or decide to terminate their contract with you. Just look for another web host and move your website there.

In fact, it's actually easier and faster to change web hosts than it is to move a physical shop, since you don't actually have to physically relocate your goods to the new premises, or tell customers that you moved. A website's "goods" comprises electronic files. Changing web host merely means pointing your domain name to the new location and uploading your files there, though not in this order. Your customers won't even know you moved if you don't tell them, since your website will still have the same address (assuming, as mentioned earlier, that you have your own domain). For a more systematic step-by-step guide on changing web hosts, please see How to Move Your Website From One Web Host to Another.

In the brick and mortar world, you will also have to contend with situations sometimes referred to as "acts of God" in insurance policies, such as earthquakes and floods, as well as things like fire. Fortunately, there is no real equivalent in a virtual shop. For example, if a physical shop catches fire, you will actually lose your goods, and have to suffer physical losses. But the only thing that exists on a website is data, kept in electronic files. Unlike physical goods, you can actually have multiple copies of the same files, and having a copy of the file is exactly the same as having the original.

To preempt the virtual equivalent of a shop catching fire, for example the web host's hard disk crashes, make sure you have a copy of everything you place on your website. Keep one set on your own computer. If you are especially careful, you can even make multiple backups. For example, copy another set onto a USB thumb/flash drive, or an external hard disk, so that if your computer spoils at the same time the web host closes (or whatever), your business doesn't suffer a catastrophic loss.

But all this presupposes that you create your website or blog using a normal web editor, or a standard blog or content management system (CMS) software. If you use a such an editor, like the free Microsoft Expression Web or the open source (and also free) BlueGriffon, you will already have a backup of your site on your computer. If you use blog or CMS software, you will just need to remember to back up your site regularly.

Things are not so rosy if you use the web host's online site builder.

The Special Case of the Online Website Builder or Template

One of the many problems of using a web host's site builder or editor, or even just one of the "free" templates they supply, is that if that web host closes down (or if they terminate your website or you leave them because of poor service or high prices), your site, in its present form, is really gone. If you want to move it to another host, you will have to redesign it again from scratch, using some other software. That software will work differently from the online site builder, so you will be back to square one, having to relearn and redo everything again.

I have discussed this at length in Is It Better to Use an Online Site Builder or a Standalone Web Editor?. Please read it. From time to time, I receive email from visitors who have used such and such a web host's online site builder, complaining that having left that company (for whatever reason), they now have to redo their website all over again. All their previous effort could no longer be used.

Note that backups are not the issue here. You can still back up a website designed using that online editor, and you should. It's just that backups in this case are of minimal use, and serve only to preserve your content, as a sort of reference. The problem is that your website will have design elements (eg, images, CSS, JavaScript, etc) that are licensed to you for use only when your site is placed on that web host. Even if you upload your old site onto a new web host, those parts of your design that depend on the previous host will not load, leaving your site in a mess.

In a sense, the online website builders, editors and "free" templates provided by a web host are a sort of non-compulsory vendor lock-in. I say it's non-compulsory because you are often not required to use them. Even if a particular web host requires it, nobody forced you to sign up with that company in the first place. But it's nonetheless a lock-in because once you use it, your site is stuck there unless you are prepared to start again from scratch. And the thought of having to go back to square one again, with none of the design or even the skills that you acquired being transferable to your new software, is often a huge psychological barrier to changing web hosts. Hence the lock-in.

For this special case, where you use an online site builder, you can still sign up with a different web host and point your domain there. And you can still use the content (as opposed to the design and appearance) of your old site provided you backed it up. But you will have to redesign your site using different software. So all is not lost. But the situation is not as smooth and seamless, or swiftly resolved, as the general case mentioned above.

But here's the thing. Don't let this discourage you from starting a website. As I said, you are not forced to use the online site builder provided by many web hosts. And if you are, don't sign up with them. I mean, there are so many web hosts around these days that you are spoilt for choice. And don't be deceived because you saw some advertisement showing you how easy it is to design a site using that builder. You now know the strings attached. And, in reality, the design part, which features prominently in most newcomer's minds, is really only a small part of starting and running a website. There are many standalone (ie, you get to install it on your own computer) web editors around that are also easy to use, and which you can use with any web host. You can even find tutorials for those editors to help you get a multi-page website up and running in a few easy steps. In fact, my guide on How to Create a Website mentions a few of the more famous web editors and links to their respective tutorials. Or if prefer to work on your website from a browser instead of an editor, read How to Create a Blog.

Always Be Prepared to Move Your Website

When you start a website for the first time, you probably feel the need to have the security of a web host that will always be there for your site. But web hosts are no different from any other company in the world. The situations that beset normal businesses (eg, good and bad times) also occur with them. And they are run by people, who are mortal and go through various stages in life (eg, growing old and retiring), just like you and me.

In the time since I started my first site in the 1990s, I have seen many web hosts come and go, yes, even the commercial ones. Some get bought out by other companies, while a few close unexpectedly and abruptly. Even when that does not happen, there are web hosts that started off with a stellar reputation but declined in quality over the years, possibly when key personnel retired or moved on to other things.

You should never make your website wholly dependent on the existence of a single web host. Any company can close, deteriorate in quality, or suddenly decide that you need it more than it needs you, and raise its prices beyond what you can afford. Make sure that when such a situation occurs, you can quickly and easily pack up your site and move it somewhere else.

For that to happen, your site must be designed in such a way that it can exist independently of that old web host. And, of course, you must have an up-to-date backup to use. When you have both of these things, you don't need to worry that your business will fold the moment you lose the web host.

Always be prepared to move your website. It's just prudent planning.

Copyright © 2019 Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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