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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Friday, 5th September, 2008

Choosing a hosting company

Hosting companies are a dime a dozen. They all offer very similar packages and all seem competitive on price. How then do you choose between them.

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The estimated time to read this article is 7 minutes

Presuming that your site does not require anything particularly unusual in terms of hosting, you will be faced with a plethora of providers to choose between. Some will be temptingly cheap in what is a competitive marketplace. However, be wary of buying on price alone. There are a number of other criteria you should consider:

  • Uptime
  • Support
  • The control panel
  • Limitations on growth
  • Hidden charges

Let’s take a look at each, starting with uptime.

Uptime

The last thing any website owner wants is for their website to be unavailable. Many hosting companies therefore provide uptime guarantees. Figures range from 95% uptime right through to 100%. But what exactly are they guaranteeing and is it something you should worry about?

In most cases uptime guarantees are worthless. They do not actually guarantee that your website will be available 100% of the time. This is merely a figure they are striving for. If they fail, they will compensate you. However, the nature of this compensation varies. In most cases it involves refunding a portion of the money you pay for the hosting. However, this could be insignificant compared to the losses in sales. You should always clarify what compensation is being offered.

Remember that even the largest organisations have downtime. It is a problem that can never be entirely avoided. Websites can be unavailable due to connectivity issues, poor code or any number of reasons beyond the control of your hosting company. As a result they often specify exclusions from compensation in their terms of service.

In short uptime guarantees are meaningless. They are simply a marketing tool. Instead, search for reviews of the hosting company or look at their support forum. If their are lots of complaints about downtime think twice. However, in most cases the service offered in regards to uptime is fairly universal.

Instead of asking how often your site is likely to go down, ask what happens when it does? What kind of support can you expect?

Support

Support is arguably the single most important factor in choosing a hosting company. Whether it is your website going offline or a piece of functionality not running, it is inevitable you will have problems with your hosting. You will need to quickly reach somebody who can help.

But how can you tell if a hosting company offers good support? Look for the following things:

  • 24/7/365 support – When your website is offline you need to be able to get help instantly. Check that your hosting company offers support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 365 days a year.
  • Telephone support – There is an increasing trend towards email only support. However, technical problems can be hard to diagnose and prolonged conversation via email are time consuming. When your site is offline you need the immediacy of a phone call. Ensure that option is available to you.
  • Speedy response – Whether contacting your hosting company by email or phone you should expect a speedy response. It is unacceptable to be sitting on hold while your site is down or waiting days for a response to an email query. I recommend calling the technical support telephone number before you sign up for their service. How long do you have to wait before you get to speak to a real human being? Also, send a question via email and see how long it takes to get a reply.
  • In country support – Personally I prefer speaking to local support staff. Being put through to call centers in far flung locations can be frustrating when discussing complex technical problems. If you do not share the first language of support staff misunderstandings are easier. By calling the support number before signing up you can establish whether there will be communication problems.
  • Knowledgeable staff – Another drawback of call centers is that they are often manned by individuals with limited technical knowledge. This can be frustrating when endeavoring to resolve technical issues. Ideally you should be able to speak directly to the individuals manage the web servers. If you are not technical ask your web developers to speak to the support staff at the hosting company before signing up. They should be able to judge their technical competency.
  • Technobabble free support – Talking to technical staff can be equally frustrating if support staff are overly technical. Being confronted by technobabble when you want to find out is why your site is down can be extremely annoying. By calling the support line before purchasing you should be able to get a sense of their communication skills.
  • Self service support – Contacting technical support is the last resort. In most cases you should be able to find the answer to questions yourself through your hosting companies support site. Look at their site and see if they have frequently asked questions, a knowledge base, forums and most importantly a list of current known issues. Facilities like this can save time so make sure they are available.

Self service should also extend beyond support. Most hosting companies also provide a control panel for managing your site.

The control panel

Calling technical support every time you want to change the password will become frustrating. That is why most hosting companies provide a control panel for basic maintenance. This includes, managing email, changing passwords, uploading files, backup and accessing site statistics.

Evaluate the control panel and discuss it with your developers. If the hosting company does not have a demo available on their site, call and ask for access to an example. If nothing else this will demonstrate how responsive their customer service is.

Once you have access, ask yourself whether it provides all the functionality you require? Is it easy to understand and use? For example, how does it handle the management of multiple sites? This is particular important as your online presence grows.

Limitations on growth

As your site becomes more successful you will become more ambitious in your plans, and visitors will flock to it in ever larger numbers The question is, will your hosting company keep up with this growth?

In order to answer this question you need to understand three things:

  • Can you manage multiple websites centrally? - You may start with a single site but if it is a success you could want to launch more. It could be a sub-site that supports a marketing campaign or a site dedicated to a subset of your audience. In either cases the site will need managing. You will want to avoid multiple logins to administer multiple sites. They will need to be managed centrally. Check with your hosting company that they provide a single interface to manage multiple sites.
  • What is the upgrade path? – As your site grows in terms of visitors and complexity you may find the need to migrate from shared hosting to dedicated. You may even need to upgrade your dedicated box to something more powerful. It is important to understand how this process works. You want to avoid the need to backup your entire site and install it all over again. A good hosting company should make this a seamless transition.
  • What happens if you exceed your bandwidth limits? – The more successful your website the more expensive it will be in term of bandwidth. Most hosting plans come with a bandwidth limit. This is because the hosting company has to pay for each piece of data a user downloads from your site. They therefore have to cap how much data they allow to be downloaded. Normally this is more than adequate for most site. However, what happens if you exceed your bandwidth limit? How much extra is it going to cost you and what happens if you exceed your limit unexpectedly without a higher rate package in place? Will it costs you even more? Does the control panel provide a way to monitor current bandwidth use?

It is not just bandwidth that can become expensive. You may discover there are other hidden charges too.

Hidden charges

Some hosting companies can appear to be inexpensive on the surface but have a hidden cost. Establish what is included in the monthly charge and what is not. I have encountered hosting companies who have made additional charges for:

  • More than a predefined number of email accounts
  • Advanced email functionality such as exchange server or spam filters
  • A technician to physically restart your web server
  • Add-on technologies
  • The ability to run databases
  • Access to website statistics

The list could go on. There is nothing wrong with hosting companies using this form of modular pricing. In fact it can keep the price down if you only require basic functionality. The problem comes when they do not clearly communicate these additional costs and they therefore come as a surprise.

The above is a draft extract from Paul’s upcoming book ‘The website owners Manual‘. To get instant access to the rest of Paul’s book signup to the early access program.

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