Top 10 Tips Before Choosing a Web Host

Top 10 Tips Before Choosing a Web Host by Jeff Petry
Listing the Top 10 Tips for Choosing a Web Host is sort of like being asked to list the Top 10 Tips for Choosing a spouse or life partner. Some would even say it is more important, since without a good Web Host, one’s business will surely suffer; and if one’s business suffers, one’s income decreases; and if one’s income decreases, well, you get the picture. I just hope the 11th Tip does not turn out to be the “deal-breaker” for you. (Just kidding.)

As usual, care, caution and curiosity are advised. Do not be too quick to jump – at a web host or a potential partner! – and shop around for the one that has as many of the best qualities that you are looking for as possible, at a price you can afford, of course.

One phrase above should be emphasized: that you are looking for. Everyone has different needs and requirements, so you must select one from among the thousands out there that meets your needs on a number of levels, be it speed, bandwidth, support and service; or, in the human realm, intelligence, humor, support, and service – to mention but a few important vital statistics.

Please note that this article concerns Tips for Choosing a Web Host and is a non-technical introduction for those about to look for a Web Host for the first time. Our article on Choosing the Right Web Host for Your Site addresses the more specific technical needs of those looking for the best host for their site.

Alas, we must start our list somewhere, so it might as well be with that all-important category in many peoples’ lives, like it or not: Shopping. First of all, we must know where to look before we can decide what to buy, right? We must also know what is out there. And so, without further ado…

Tip #1: Look Around.

Surf the Net. Search the Web. Ask around. Get a feel for the playing field, what’s out there, what’s available, what are the general specs and parameters? Well, that can be quite confusing for the first-timer – like looking for a needle in the Golden Triangle. Hence, the presence of, and need for, Web Hosting Directories. (Just because HostSearch happens to be a Web Hosting Directory does not mean that is why this happens to be Tip #1, by the way! I am an objective writer, totally unbiased in all things!)

However, that said, you have found your way here, so you’re obviously on the right track already! Hosting Directories will save you loads of time and frustration, because the good ones have already done most of the work for you. Hundreds, if not thousands, of web hosts will be listed, described, and compared on a good Hosting Directory. Articles and reviews will be available, and you will be able to search for the specific web hosts that meet your personal criteria. This leads us to…

Tip #2: Determine Your Needs.

Everyone has different needs. You should decide what yours are before contacting any Web Hosts. Are you looking for a host for your business or simply a place to put up a personal homepage? Will a free service suffice or do you need a dedicated server? (Please see our articles on Choosing the Right Web Host for Your Site.) How much traffic do you expect and how much storage space will you need? What other options will you need? Once you start looking around, you will quickly learn what options are available and which ones you will need. There are a number of excellent Forums around you may wish to visit. Make a list of your requirements so that you are prepared when it comes time to question potential Web Hosts.

Tip #3: Make a Short List.

Use the Web Hosting Directories, Search Engines, and any referrals you can get from friends and colleagues to make a short list of possible Web Hosts that you are considering. You can add to this list as you go along, but at least you will have a something to work with as you continue your quest for your ideal web hosting partner; and believe me, they will be more of a partner in your business than you can possibly anticipate. Which is why you should take your time, do your homework, and be prepared before engaging a salesperson.

Tip #4: Search for Integrity.

Now that you have a working short list of Web Hosts, go to their sites and, again, look around – closely this time. See how you feel in the interface they are presenting to the world. Are you comfortable there? It is easy to find your way around and access the information you are looking for? Or is the interface clumsy and poorly designed?

While you are visiting these sites, read their fine print. Use a magnifying glass if necessary and see what they have to say about the all-important issues of reliability and refunds. A Web Host is worth nothing if it is not up virtually all the time serving your pages to prospective visitors to your site; by “virtually” we’re talking 99% – 99.5% uptime, the actual time the host is functional.

The web host should provide some sort of refund – either a pro-rated refund or a discount – if it falls below their stated figure. Find out what you must do to get that refund; specifically, what sort of documentation or proof must you provide, or will they freely admit to the downtimes and give you the appropriate credit? Some hosts are actually very good with this. Others are not. And there are ways to monitor their performance as well, which you can learn about through a little additional research. [Note to HostSearch: Future article perhaps.]

Find out what kind of trial periods, if any, they offer, and exactly what refunds they will give you in the event you are not satisfied. That is, do they refund all payments you have given them? Or only monthly fees, but not setup fees, etc. Take some time to read these details – you may be glad you did when things do not work out as rosy as promised.

Tip #5: Check the Specs.

Now, your short list should be getting even shorter. It is time to check out what packages are available and what it costs for the specs you are looking for. Examine and evaluate their different packages, and you will soon see that many are grouped according to similar criteria.

Ask yourself not only what you really need right now, but what you might need later as your business and website grows. For example, you may not need e-commerce today, but what about tomorrow? How “scalable” are their services? That is, how easy will it be for you to upgrade your package as your needs and requirements change?

How much disk space do you need? Most average websites actually use less than 5MB of web space, so there is no point in choosing a package that offers 200MB or 500MB, or especially “unlimited disk space.” In fact, when you see the phrase “unlimited disk space,” cross the host off your short list – they are insulting your intelligence and preying on those who are impressed by big numbers. They would go out of business tomorrow if this offer were true.

Other specs and options you need to look at and compare are the number of POP3 mail accounts and aliases they offer and what kind of access they will allow you, and how. Most servers have some form of Domain or Admin Control Panel for you to use to administer your account. Check theirs out and see if you understand it and feel comfortable with it. Other more technical features you need to be aware of include FTP, CGI-BIN access, SSI, .htaccess, telnet, crontabs, and PHP. (We discuss these in more detail in our article on Choosing the Right Web Host for Your Site.)

Tip #6: Check Them Out.

Now that you have narrowed down your list to a number of contenders, it is time to see what others have to say about them; and who better to ask first than current users of their services. Most reputable hosting services will have a partial client list of companies that use them. If they don’t ask the Web Host for them in your Test Email (described below). Contact them and ask if they are satisfied with the services provided. Be sure to ask about any problems these clients may have had with them, if the host has been down much in the past, how their customer service and technical support is, and if they would recommend them to you.

While you’re at it, consider the type of clients this host has. One important question to note to ask Web Hosts is if they are hosting any Adult Sites. These sites often use up substantial server resources, and you do not want to be sharing a server with any bandwidth hogs. In fact, if your company size and budget warrants it, you should look into getting your own dedicated server.

Most Web Hosts are not stupid enough to list their unhappy (former) customers in their client lists. So it is important that you take the initiative to explore whatever dark sides these hosts may be trying to hide. This is not all that difficult given the resources available on the Web today.

A good starting to browse, pick up tips, and ask questions is the newsgroup http://allmyfaqs.com/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?AWW_FAQ/Edited. Like many newsgroups, you will need to separate the wheat from the chaff, but it is a good place to look around, get the lay of the land, and ask a few questions.

Also be sure to check the Web Hosting Directories and guides, which often have forums, reviews of hosting companies, and even blacklists. You could save yourself a world of grief by checking these out before forking anything out.

Tip #7: Assess Service & Support.

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is what can make or break a Web Host. This is the contact point between Us and Them. Funny thing, then, that so many Web Hosts apparently pay so little attention to Customer Service and Technical Support.

However, it is not really as “funny” as it would appear on the surface. For it takes a truly professional, committed company to invest the funds necessary to establish and maintain high quality support departments. Which is why it is one of the best avenues you can take to assess a prospective web host.

Unfortunately, there will be times, hopefully less rather than more, that you will need accessible, efficient, and personal technical and customer support. So add this to your list of questions for your email, look around their sites for contact points, and see what their Online Help Files look like. You should be able to judge whether a company cares about their relationship with you, or are they simply trying to dodge and avoid you by making any contact with them all but impossible. We will be testing them further in the next tip, to wit…

Tip #8: Send Them a Test Email.

Use the list you have made to write an email to your prospective web hosts. This will be useful in several ways. First, it will help you define and articulate your needs, so that by the time you have finished the email, you will have a better idea of what you are actually looking for. Second, your email will be very useful in assessing the different Web Hosts’ level of Customer Service. (See our articles on Choosing the Right Web Host for Your Site.) Although their Sales Departments may respond more quickly than their Technical Support people, at least you can eliminate those hosts that do not even bother to respond to your inquiry. (For more details, see our article, A Must-Send Email for Serious Web Host Shoppers”.)

It seems all too many Web Hosts have more customers than they know what to do with, at least judging by the slowness or complete absence of responses to inquiries and requests for assistance. Be that as it may, there are those out there who do want your business, and are willing to take the time necessary to build working relationships with their clients. Obviously, these are the ones that deserve your business, and they are well worth seeking out. Send your test email to them and see which among them actually wants and deserves your business and hard-earned money.

Finally, just because a host says that it has 24/7 customer support does not mean that it really offers that level of support. Test them out by sending your email after hours or on a Saturday afternoon to see how long it actually does take them to respond. In addition to the speed of their responses, judge the quality, competence and care taken in their responses to you. Test them even further by demanding that they assign a real person with an actual name and email to administer your account, so that his person will be familiar with your site and any problems it may have. This will do wonders for the Web Hosts’ accountability and sense of responsibility.

Tip #9: Look to the Bottom Line.

After looking over your list of criteria, you may decide that you need all or most of the features you have written down. The price, however, might convince you to shoot somewhat lower. If the web host has scalable packages, you can always upgrade to those other features later. Choose a host that offers you most of what you need at the most reasonable price, and with options to upgrade later for reasonable rates.

When looking at prices, bear in mind those old clichĂ©s “You get what you pay for,” and “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” ClichĂ©s exist for a reason – they are usually based in hard reality and experience. This doesn’t mean you should choose the most expensive plan, however. You should be able to find a perfectly acceptable virtual domain provider for between $10 and $25 per month, including as much server space as you will ever need.

Consider paying somewhat more for extra server space and better customer service. That way, even if your website expands, you won’t have to go through the trouble of change web hosting companies (See our article on 10 Smart Steps to Ease the Pain of Changing Web Hosts). And, you will never regret going with the host with the most in the area of customer service, believe me. There is nothing more frustrating than having to wait for a response from your Web Host for days and days while your site is down or important features are not functioning properly.

There are free sites around, but most require you to display banner advertising and offer few features, not to mention abysmal or non-existent customer service. A site with a banner and / or annoying pop-ups hardly highlights your commitment to having a professional site, although for a small, personal homepage it may be fine. (See our articles on Free Hosting.)

Finally, most web hosting companies offer monthly, quarterly and yearly payment options, so be sure to ask about their minimum commitment period as well as their refund and cancellation policies. You should also receive a discount for longer time periods paid for. Exercising due diligence in these matters pays off many times over in the long run.

This done, it is finally time to make the leap…

Tip #10: Make a Decision.

After having completed all the steps outlined above, you should be in a good position to make your decision. Start by eliminating all those hosts who have not responded to your email or have responded inadequately. You should have a very short list indeed by this time, and chances are you already know who you would like to work with, who you want to be your web hosting partner.

All that is left to do then is place your order and upload your site to the Web Host using the information they provide. Of course you will need to inform your registrar of your new DNS information so that people will be able to find you on the Web Web (see our article on 10 Smart Steps to Ease the Pain of Changing Web Hosts).

Now that you have a happy home for your website, you are well situated to begin the exciting work of promoting your site, letting others know about it, and establishing yourself as a real presence on the amazing World Wide Web Our Beyond Hosting section is a good place to go from here.