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Choosing a Web Hosting Company

Written by Eileen Parzek, © 2005

With very few exceptions, if you have a business, you probably have, or should have, a web site in your marketing strategy. But in the wide open market of web hosting services, the quality, costs, and features vary wildly. This article will help you research and consider the elements that matter in a small business web host, if you decide to make the decision yourself and without professional assistance.

Size
Most of the early web hosting companies started out in someone’s basement or living room. After all, who could tell – as long as you had the right equipment, connectivity, and knowledge, you too could be in business selling space on your web server. Only you know if you’re comfortable trusting your business site to a small or one person hosting company, or if you prefer a large corporate institution or media company as your host. Size doesn’t matter nearly as much as the considerations still to come.

Customer Service
Look at their web site and determine what your options are for customer service. Do they provide 24/7 availability? Do they have a toll free number? On the other hand, do they charge for service calls? Is email the only way to reach them? Check their site to see if they have a customer forum – you might find some clues about how they respond to questions, and if customers are satisfied. Get on and search for reviews and complaints that others might have registered about them.

Technical Support
In the same vein, what kind of resources and help do they provide on their web site for technical support? Some of the best hosts provide a “knowledge base” of searchable articles, tutorials and “how to” tips on utilizing the features they provide. Whether you or someone else is actually administering the site, the availability of a good knowledge base is invaluable.

Reliability
Try to find out what their server “up time” is. Ask if they have any guarantees – but be aware that some of the best hosting providers won’t even go this far – they know there will be periodic outages and instead make statements about their staffing and ability to respond quickly to technical problems. Depending on the site you want to host, you will need to determine if this is a satisfactory guarantee.

Backups
Do they provide daily tape backups of the server? If not, how often? Will they restore your site in the event of a problem? And, do they charge for this service? A good web host will never need to use those backups but the peace of mind, knowing your site is backed up daily, is invaluable.

Server Environment
The type of server your site requires will hinge on the elements of your site which require programs, such as shopping carts, affiliate programs, and content management. What you use on your site will drive what server you can use (and vice versa). For example, if your site is written in ASP, you’ll need a Windows based server, instead of Unix.

Email Accounts
Web hosting usually includes a mail server, and every package provides number of what are called POP3 accounts. A POP3 account is an email account that both sends and receives email using your domain name. You will also get a number of “alias” accounts – which aren’t really mail boxes at all, simply “forwards” that can be set up. For example, you might have a single POP3 account that has an actual physical mail folder on the server, and then multiple aliases which you can put on your web site for things like [email protected] and [email protected] But in reality, these two aliases simply forward mail to the POP3 account. So you will need to ask yourself in advance, how many email accounts you will need (this is typically equal to how many people will have their own email account in your organization).

Another thing to determine is whether web based email is available. If you travel at all, or ever need to access your email outside of your own office (ie., at home), this is an incredibly useful feature to have because all you need is an internet connection and web browser, anywhere in the world, to get your mail.

Security
Different hosting companies provide different levels of security, just as different site owners have different needs and expectations. Ask what is provided, and how they secure your hosted site, and protect visitors to your site.

If you plan to use the hosting for mail service, look for a host that provides spam controls and anti virus scanning right within their mail server environment.

Another security feature you might also need is password protection. Will your hosting allow you to password protect a section of your web site?

Statistics
One of the most valuable aspects of marketing online is that you can gather all sorts of information about the visitors to your site, and tweak the user experience accordingly. But this benefit is lost if your hosting company doesn’t provide good statistics. There are a dozen different statistical applications available through web hosts, some much more full featured and useful than others. Some sites have screen shots of sample statistics, or if they only tell you what they use, you can always go to the web site of the statistics package and look for info on what kind of data you’ll see. The best packages, like WebTrends and SmarterStats, let you customize the data views and reports, automatically send yourself periodic reports by email, get any date range in the history of the site, and provide graphical charts for at-a-glance understanding.

Ease of Use
The best hosting packages provide a simple to understand control panel that lets you maintain your site, or have someone else maintain it. It provides menu access to things like adding/editing email addresses and aliases, accessing the statistics, billing information, and in some cases, editing your web site or checking your email.

You might also verify the mechanisms for uploading your files to the web server, and be sure that it conforms with whatever web design or file upload software you use. If you are building a site in Front Page, make sure that Front Page extensions are included.

Special Features
Some of the larger hosting companies also offer “extras” in their hosting packages. Planning for your business, you’ll want to figure out if these extras are worth any additional costs or if you should go with a less full featured hosting and use other outside services.

For example, some hosting comes with:

  • Email list management – if you need this, you should determine if they provide HTML and/or text email list management, depending on your needs
  • Shopping cart programs
  • Web Site Builders

Cost
Lastly, what does the hosting cost? Can you get a better deal by paying a year in advance? What are your contractual commitments – can you leave when you want to, without a hassle?

Hosting is relatively cheap nowadays and a great many hosting companies provide extraordinary service and features for very little per month. Likewise, there are others which charge way too much for the same features! And the raft of ‘free’ and advertising based hosts should be approached with tremendous caution, when hosting a business web site. Considering the reasonably priced hosts that provide high quality services, it is better to invest in a well known host than try to go the free hosting route.

If you’re arranging hosting yourself, be sure to do your homework and make comparisons. Ask other business people and online experts for recommendations – there are as many opinions are there are web hosting companies but it is a good place to start. Chances are, if a web hosting company is a disaster to host with, there will be plenty of people online warning you of their experiences. Likewise, many hosting companies have referral programs so you want to make sure that if you do take a recommendation from someone that you trust their opinion and endorsement explicitly.

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Eileen Parzek is an award winning graphic and web designer providing digital and print graphic design and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio (www.businessdesignstudio.com) helps small businesses make a big impression.

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