A Make or Break Decision
There are literally thousands of hosting companies in the world, with services ranging from basic to all-inclusive, offered at a dizzying array of price points. How do you know where your site belongs in this virtual whirlwind? Is it possible to get a good deal and still receive all the performance you need? This post will help you shop around, weigh your options and make the right choice.
Many websites make the mistake of choosing the first or cheapest hosting company they can find. Then, they’re surprised to experience slow functionality and costly downtime. The truth is, your hosting company ensures site performance, security and, most importantly, it keeps you open for business 24/7. In order to succeed, it’s imperative that you carefully research your options and choose the one hosting company that will best work for you.
Terms to Know
One of the reasons most website owners don’t put a lot of thought into choosing a hosting company is because a lack of high-tech knowledge can make the decision seem difficult or overwhelming. Try not to get caught up in the technicalities. You should have a general technological foundation to discuss the maintenance of your site and make smart decisions, but you don’t need to be fluent in all the complex back-end technologies available.
Terms to know:
Server: A computer that “serves” your website by providing files or data in response to request from individual desktop computers.
Uptime: The percentage of time when a website is functional. A hosting company should guarantee this number – typically at 99% or above — and provide some sort of refund if it falls short of its promise.
Redundancy: Using one or more components to serve as back up if a glitch occurs on the primary system.
Service Level Agreement (SLA): This contract may cover such key topics as: an uptime guarantee, maximum downtime, redundancy, time requirements, etc.
Data Transfer: The amount of bytes transferred from your site to users as they browse. Also referred to as bandwidth or traffic.
Payment Card Industry (PCI) Compliance: An industry standard list of twelve requirements that helps ensure the security of credit card and other important data.
The bottom line is that, if there is a problem at your hosting company, your site could be down for hours, even days, costing you hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost sales. Ask yourself: How much will 24 hours of downtime cost my business? If you’re selling just two products a day at $100/each, it may not be that much. But if smaller priced items that are flying off your virtual shelves, this cost could be quite detrimental. When potential buyers cannot access your website, not only do you lose revenue, but the downtime could also result in lost credibility and loyalty.
How these failures are handled depends on your hosting arrangement and service level agreement (SLA). The following questions are helpful in determining a host’s reliability:
- Do you offer a documented uptime guarantee? This motivates the hosting company to stay on top of potential issues and ensures that you are at least partially covered if problems arise.
- Are your systems redundant? This may increase the cost of the hosting service, but it will give you peace of mind in knowing that your site will have back up if failure occurs.
- How do you handle server emergencies? There should be someone on call 24-hours a day to provide support and address problems right away. Otherwise, you may not know you’ve lost income until you receive an e-mail report after it’s too late.
Disk Space & Speed of Access
At the start, you’ll probably host your site on the hosting company’s shared server. You may also choose to purchase your own server to handle this job, but this can prove to be a potentially expensive and time-consuming affair for the website owner who is not skilled in technology troubleshooting. If your company needs a whole dedicated server, Rackspace.com and Verio.com offer dedicated servers which they manage for you.
Watch out for those hosts touting “unlimited disk space.” Most websites need less than 5MB of web space, so if the hosting company tempts you with 400MB, 800MB, or even unlimited space, keep in mind that this is too much to factor into consideration as you comparative shop.
Instead, it’s important to know how many other sites are sharing space on the same server. Many “free” or “discount” hosting companies pack their servers with as many websites as possible to save money. This self-serving practice may put you at risk for slow performance during peak hours. Like rush hour, the more traffic on the shared server, the more likely your customers are to experience slow navigation. As a result, they may leave in search of another store that can sell them the same product, but faster. If you’ll be sharing server space at your hosting company, here are some things you’ll want to know:
- How much disk space will be allotted to my site? You might start with 20 – 50MB of hard disk space, but consider your growth and find out the cost and procedure for buying more space in the future.
- What server technologies do you support? You must make sure that the technology used to build your site will be compatible with the hosting company. Most hosting companies will not install new technologies just because you happen to use them.
- How do peak traffic times impact your servers? Inquire about how many sites are hosted on a single server and ask how the company handles increases in traffic.
Since you’re in the business of e-commerce, you’ll likely be handling secure data such as customer addresses and credit card numbers. Protecting the security of this information is crucial to your success. Unless you can assure customers that their private data is confidential and safe, they will go somewhere else to buy.
Not only will you lose credibility with your customers, you may also be at risk for large government fines associated with loose security. Get specific details from your hosting company to learn all you can about their approach to this subject. Before you agree to any terms, you must have a complete understanding of responsibilities and liabilities on behalf of each party. Use these questions to start your discussion:
- What security measures are in place? At the very least, the host should have encryption capabilities, firewalls and other methods for making the building itself secure. Find out if the security only covers their network or protects your server’s security as well.
- Are the systems in place PCI compliant? This will confirm that your hosting company is going above and beyond to protect your customers’ data, but this extra security may come at a higher price tag.
As noted above, three days of downtime can seem like an eternity on the web, especially when profits are at stake. Just because a company says they offer technical support 24/7 does not always mean this is true. Test them by emailing questions at odd times of the day or night. If you don’t receive an immediate response to your Sunday morning emails, you may want to reconsider their claims.
Email should not be the only means of support. Getting someone on the phone to help you troubleshoot potential problems can take a lot of mystery out of the process. Larger web hosting companies like Godaddy.com, BlueHost.com and NetworkSolutions.com will offer toll-free phone support and weekend hours, which can be a great benefit to you. Other questions to ask include:
- Who can l I talk to when problems arise? It would be nice to have a single point of contact, but hosting companies often have several teams working different shifts, so you’re likely to speak with any number of people. Be sure that they are qualified technical experts, not just customer service or sales associates who are unable to help.
- Will you automatically notify me when problems arise? You wouldn’t want to discover that the site is down just when you’re presenting your store to a business partner or vendor.
DATA TRANSFER LIMITATIONS
You may come across hosting companies that offer “unlimited bandwidth.” Don’t believe it. Bandwidth costs the host money and, if it were limitless, the company would be out of business in no time. This is a promotional ploy to sign you up with their services and the exact amount is often specified in the small print of policy documentation. You might start within the “unlimited” amount and, as your site grows, you’ll receive an unexpected and exorbitant bill for somehow exceeding that amount.
Think of your data transfer requirements like your cell phone plan minutes. There are likely to be overage charges associated with going over the contracted amount, so before entering an agreement, you need to have a general idea of what you’ll use. Generally, start up websites should look for an arrangement that offers around 1000 Megabytes of bandwidth a month. You may need more once your site gains in visitors and links, so it’s a good idea to continually evaluate your needs and upgrade as necessary. Additional questions to ask include:
- What are my data transfer options? Just like a cell phone plan, a host company should give you choices on the level of data transfer. You should comparison shop to find the best deals.
- Is there a published charge for overages? Hosts should be upfront about their overage charges – beware of those who try to hide these costs in the small print.
- Will I be expected to prepay for potential overages? It is best not to choose a host who insists on a prepay arrangement since it is difficult to forecast if and when your website will exceed its bandwidth.
Research Your Options
You’ve shopped around and have picked some solid candidates for consideration. But before you make your final decision, it’s always worthwhile to search behind the scenes and find out if your top choices have any negative feedback. Just type in the company name at www.Google.com and see what comes up. If you do unearth a bad review, look closely to be sure that it’s not a competitor trying to undermine their credibility. You can also go to www.webhostingtalk.com to do a search on different hosting companies. Thousands of users post the good and the bad on the most popular options out there.
Imagine if you drove to the store during business hours to buy a much-needed item, only to find that it was closed. You might think twice about going there again and drive to a competitor store to purchase your item instead. This is the same way your potential buyers would feel if they went to your site to make a purchase, only to find that it was down.
Just like anything else in life, preventative measures should be taken to lessen the risk. Downtime, slow performance and security issues can cost you your business. Your best bet is to choose a reliable hosting company with a reputation for consistent and secure performance. It will help prevent expensive downtime and costly security issues in the future.
IMPress Action Checklist:
Below is a list of the steps necessary to choose a hosting company that works for you. Be sure to check off each task as you complete it to make a smart and educated decision about this vital business vendor.
- Familiarize yourself with basic technical terms
- Evaluate a list of hosting companies using these considerations:
- Disk space & speed of access
- Data Transfer
- Research your top choices online
- Review your SLA closely, including small print