Choosing a web host can be deceptively easy. And with so many thousands of different web hosts it’s impossible to compare them all, so sometimes we do make the decision a little too lightly.
So how do you choose the right one for your business?
Well, searching online, asking at relevant forums, asking your business contacts… can all give you useful options. And it is important you choose the right web host, since as your website is effectively your online store every time there’s a problem with your site, your store can be closed to customers.
There’s some particular dangers that you need to be aware of when it comes to choosing a web host, to help you minimize potential issues with your website, and so you can focus on the money making parts of your business, rather than spending all your time simply trying to keep your website up and running.
Let’s start going through them:
Not Enough Backup Redundancy
The more paranoid about data loss your web host is, the better for you. What this potentially means is:
- Multiple hard drives in your server, so your data is mirrored constantly across multiple drives
- Backups onto tape (or other external device) at the very least once a day
- Tape backups also kept off site
Now these points assume that your website is on a regular web server. With more and more web hosts offering ‘Cloud’ hosting services, in theory your data should constantly be across multiple computers, so apart from the offsite backups many of these issues are solved automatically.
Although be aware that it is important to check exactly what your web host may mean by ‘cloud’, since it certainly doesn’t have one fixed definition, and some people simply seem to use it as a synonym for ‘on the internet’.
So if you’re worried at all about data loss, to help insure against this make sure your web host is well set up from that perspective, and also always have copies of your website on your computer. And importantly have it on your computer in such a way that you can easily upload it to a new web host if need be.
You can also have copies of your site on multiple external hard drives at your work, and elsewhere (off site). Plus you can also upload your data to ‘cloud’ back up services like SkyDrive, DropBox, Box.com…etc.
Now if your data is particularly sensitive, you may prefer to save it in a password protected Zip or RAR file before backing it up to the cloud.
Way Too Much Downtime
Every minute your website is offline is potential lost sales. Now even Google or Amazon go offline from time to time (very rarely though) so 100% uptime is almost impossible, but if your site is regularly offline, that’s a huge warning sign about your web host. In fact, any web host that’s worthwhile should have very little downtime.
Now, if your website suddenly goes from 100 to 50,000 visitors in one day (it has been known to happen if a site is linked from a popular blog for example) then it might not be surprising if your site struggles to stay online.
But this should happen rarely. If such an event happens often however, that’s a good problem to have, as that much traffic should mean you’re also making enough to upgrade to a dedicated server.
Even some surprisingly well known web hosts with huge advertising budgets (you may have seen them on TV) have terrible reputations for keeping the websites of their clients online, so do look into this carefully before choosing a web host, and make sure they have a good reputation.
Upgrading Software Without Telling You
Your web host should keep you fully up to date about what’s happening on their servers – upgrades, hardware changes…etc.
Now, these updates may not always be particularly interesting, or relevant to you, but it’s important your host is transparent about what they’re up to. Here’s one example:
Software I had installed on my website was in PHP and was Zend encoded. Now one day, my host decided to turn off Zend on all their servers so obviously this software I’d installed stopped working.
The web host had warned about this (which I’d ignored) and were fantastic in every other way, but due to their concerns about security on their servers had chosen to disable Zend functionality.
This meant in fact I had to move that site onto a different web host, but since the web host was great in every other way I keep all my other sites with them, and still do.
So if your website uses software that isn’t particularly standard, do be aware of this risk, and do keep on top of what’s happening on your servers.
Atrocious Customer Support
Now this certainly isn’t true in every case, but it does seem that the larger the web host, the more inept the customer support is and the less they care.
Easy tasks take ages to fix, or don’t get fixed at all. And this assumes you can actually get through on the phone or that they actually reply to your emails.
That said, I’ve also had terrible experiences with small web hosts – for example, over a week they took several attempts at fixing a server issue (or at least said they were attempting to fix it) and still hadn’t. Well, with around a week of downtime I guess it was time to move on.
So I guess some companies big and small just aren’t built for dealing with customers.
Now that said, if your web host is worth anything you may find you rarely if ever need to contact support. But emergencies will probably come up sooner or later so it’s particularly helpful of course if they can actually help in those circumstances!
So it’s one more thing to be aware of, before you choose the host that’s going to be keeping your website online.
Some web hosts feel it’s a good idea to advertise gigabytes of data storage, ‘unlimited’ data transfer, and then to cut their costs stick your web site on a server with hundreds of other sites.
Some customers are then surprised when their sites slow down to a crawl.
This is commonly known as ‘overselling’, and happens far too frequently in the web hosting world.
So outlandish and ‘too good to be true’ claims in business web hosting offers should be a warning sign. And ‘Fair Use’ disclaimers are generally in place for a reason.
Some restaurants get eaten close to bankruptcy when they offer ‘all your can eat’, and this is the equivalent with web hosting, but in this case it’s the customer that suffers as their website fights for server resources with hundreds of other sites.
So why not visit some sites hosted with that company to see how responsive they are, and make sure the company doesn’t make outlandish claims, and if necessary choose a realistic plan for your website and even a dedicated server, rather than going for the $1 a month plan and being surprised when only one person at a time can actually visit your site.
Not Allowing You To Leave
Some web hosts have even been known to make it incredibly difficult for you to leave. Having to give notice, not making it easy to download your data…etc. And some make it almost impossible if they also control your domain name.
Do check their terms when you sign up, but often with most decent hosts if you want to cancel, that’s it. And most good hosts shouldn’t require much if any notice, and would just give you a refund of any unused portion of your last payment.
At the very least, make sure your domain is registered away from your web host so that your web hosting company can’t keep your domain hostage, and also so it’s very easy to point it to another host simply by changing the name servers, which takes just a couple of minutes.
So it’s recommended you don’t register your domains through your web host, and again do some checks beforehand making sure the web host you’re thinking of doesn’t play any games when it comes to customers leaving them.
Regular Billing Issues (In The Web Host’s Favor)
At the ‘not so bad’ end of the scale when it comes to billing issues, the web host just may not give you a partial refund for any unused portion of your last payment. Not great at all, but it can get much worse…
Some web hosts (even very well known hosts) are known for absolutely scandalous billing tactics – ignoring cancellation requests, regular billing mistakes in their favor, and even getting debt collectors after you if after ignoring your cancellation requests you ask your bank to stop making payment to them.
This not only can be very stressful to deal with but also can very negatively affect your credit. So this really is yet another incredibly important reason to do your research beforehand.
That said, some of the biggest companies also have the budget to bury bad reviews far down the Google results, which is known as ‘online reputation management’, so do click through to even result 50+ (page 5 onwards) when looking for mixed reviews, and also again visit forums where people give impartial reviews (you would hope), plus review sites.
A web hosting company certainly shouldn’t have the power to ruin your credit, so this is something particularly important to look into.
So, Bottom Line…
There’s a lot of fantastic web hosting companies, a lot of bad ones, and a lot in the middle.
Lots of smaller web hosting companies are here one day, and gone the next, so you want to find someone reliable.
And amazingly some of the biggest companies seem to be able to get away with some of the worse behavior, as it seems at a certain point they have so many customers they just don’t care, and they know a lot of their customers won’t even notice what’s happening with their site or even their billing.
Also the biggest companies have the budget to not only keep advertising, even on TV, but also have the budget to hide their numerous negative reviews far down the Google results.
So do search deep into the Google results when looking for good and bad reviews, and also check forums, blogs, and review sites.
Ideally, you want a company that really knows what they’re doing, are reasonably priced, have been around for a while and also treat their customers well. They certainly do exist, and once you find the right one for you, you may be their customer for life.