Finding the Host with the Most
When you think of a host you may think of a smiling man or woman greeting you at the door and handing you a cool beverage. Or, you may think of a body that supports another parasitic one. Your relationship with your web site host is kind of a symbiotic combination of the two. You depend on them and they depend on you -- and it can be good, or it can be bad. The thing to remember as you plan and build your online business, is that your web host is a very important part of it. Bad customer service and support when problems arise (which they probably will at some point) can cost you a lot of money in lost sales and bad first impressions for the visitors arriving at your site while the problem persists. So make sure you get all of the facts about the host you choose for your business.

What Does a Host Do?
A Web host leases space for your web files on their server, which has a direct connection to the internet. You can either choose a Virtual Web Host who will allow you to use your own domain name, or a Non-Virtual Web Host who will give you a subdomain name that uses their primary domain name. For example, with a non-virtual web host, your web address might be http://www.earthlink.com/~yourname/yourwebfiles.html. There are some non-virtual web hosts, however, that will let you use your own primary domain name, so be sure to ask.

The good thing about non-virtual web hosting is that it is usually free. Many times the ISP who provides you with your internet connection and e-mail address will also give you 5-10 MB of free space for a web site along with a handful of simple tools for creating a web site and uploading your files. While this might be great for your family or personal web site, you probably don't want to use it for a business.

Some of the downside issues with non-virtual web hosts are that the tools and capabilities are usually limited. Many of these hosts limit the types of CGI scripts you can use to their own pre-installed scripts for things like guest books, processing e-mail forms, etc. In other words, you may not be able to have an e-commerce site on a non-virtual site. You may also have to have advertisements on your site that you may not want. And finally, your web address will not be easy for your customers to remember, and won't make your business appear to be very stable or legitimate.

Virtual web hosting will typically provide a faster and more reliable connection, better management tools, support for higher level functions, and will range in price from about $10-$50 and on up for more complicated sites.

It is also possible to host your own site although, unless you know how to do it and have a good dedicated connection to the Internet, I don't recommend it for a new online business venture.

What to Look for in a Host
Remember all of the site planning I mentioned in Planning the Party? Well, pull it back out when you start trying to decide on a host. Make a list of all the things your site will do and then list new functions you want to add in the future. (Plan as far out as five years even!) When you start talking to hosts you'll need to tell them the features your site will need.

Start by going to some of the web host review sites listed on our Links page and see which ones look like likely candidates. Many of these sites will allow you to enter your requirements and compare host packages or even automatically request quotes from several vendors.

Compare the various features included in their packages. Most should provide account holders with:

  • site statistics about how many visitors came to their site and which pages they visited, as well as how long they stayed on the site
  • FTP software for uploading your web files to their server
  • e-mail accounts and possibly auto-responders that can simplify response needs like a "thank you -- your order is being processed" e-mail when someone orders a product from your site
  • e-commerce tools like easily customized product order forms
  • regular site backups
  • secure socket layer (SSL) capabilities and other security measures for e-commerce
  • an account control panel that lets you do administration functions for your site from your browser (this is relatively new)

There are other features hosts offer so it is important to investigate your options. You might also talk to other online business owners and see what their host experiences have been like. See what tools they use and what tools their hosts have provided. Ask them how many problems they've had with their host and anything else you can think of to help you put a list of prospective host candidates together. Get as many recommendations as you can.

Screening Potential Hosts

  • Once you have list of potential candidates for hosting your new business venture, ask for a quote for hosting your site. Provide them with the list of your site's needs that you prepared above, give them a reasonable amount of time to respond, and then see what you get back.

  • If they don't respond to your request by the deadline you've given them then take them off the list. Use that as an indicator of what future dealings with them might be like and move on to the other candidates.

  • Ask the host these specific questions regarding their service:
    1. Are there any setup fees?
    2. Do they offer design or programming services if you should need them and what are the costs?
    3. How much free support can you get?
    4. When is there a fee for support?
    5. How do you go about canceling your account, and is there a fee involved?
    6. What tools and software do they offer?
    7. What is their uptime guarantee and how do they compensate you for lost time? (You can have your site uptime monitored by Alertsite, or NetMechanic.)
    8. How much data transfer (or bandwidth) do they offer?
    9. What is their backup method and schedule?
    10. How much space can your site use?
    11. What are their upgrade policies if your site grows?

    Beware of hosts offering unlimited data transfers and unlimited site storage. Those things cost them money and they're gambling that your site (and others) won't use as much as you think, but when your usage increases you may be stuck with additional charges.

  • Ask them for a list of clients for you to contact as references. Then CONTACT them. The host's simple good-will act of providing you with a reference list doesn't always mean the clients will have all favorable comments about them. (Although many probably will or they would have been screened out by the host in the first place!)

  • When you call the references ask them:

    1. about the downtime they've experienced and how closely it matches what the host has said is average
    2. about how well they've been reimbursed for this downtime.
    3. about how well the host has been about customer support and service
    4. and anything else you can think of!

  • Test out their customer support by dropping them an e-mail and seeing how long it takes them to respond. Or, call them at random times and see how helpful and accessible they are.
So, the main thing here is to do your homework. Do a test drive if you can. Then just make the best decision you can based on what you know about your hosting candidates. If you do get into a bad host relationship all it can cost you is time, money, and a little bit of aggravation.