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Web Site Hosting Guide 1 - Asking the right questions & host reviews strategies

The web hosting industry has become increasingly competitive. A recent search on a popular engine with relevant criteria returned millions of results from thousands of organizations offering site storage solutions. There are thousands of companies out there battling for your business - but some won't definitely have you or your business interests in mind. Cheap web site hosting definitely doesn't mean the best hosting and neither does signing up with the most expensive companies guarantee you the best service - it's a confusing world of solutions, smoke and mirrors.

Watch out for the host sharks!

Competition's a great thing, but the frenzied levels of promotion has also forced a number of hosts to use questionable marketing tactics and a heavy load of activity-restricting fine print in their contracts. Many web hosting companies don't make profits by establishing a solid customer base, but rather by having a high turnover. The more customers they can have signing up and then dropping off, the more dollars they make.

Of course, not all Internet hosting services take this attitude and there are some brilliant solutions companies out there who respect and encourage their clients. These are the companies with a long range plan and tend to diversify into other areas as they grow, offering their clients wider and more specialized services such as domain name registration and site monitoring facilities.

Hosting reviews strategies

Finding these gems amongst the rot is the challenge. I know of a number of webmasters who have to change hosting services 3 or 4 times a year! The downtime involved prevents them doing what they do best, to maintain and develop their sites.

Many personal and commercial web site hosting companies offer the world in their solutions, but actually deliver little. Sifting through the fine print of their various "terms and conditions" is a huge task. Many site owners and webmasters, may not have weeks to pore through all the information offered them. 

Regardless of how good any domain hosting service may claim to be or how they represent themselves, the only way you'll get to understand what they are offering is to ask questions - and then to file the answers for comparison later on. Look for user forums on their sites to get a vibe of how other clients are finding the service. 

Creating a template email to send out to domain hosting companies is the most time efficient way to cut through the crap and get to the gold solutions.

Asking hosts the right questions

But what questions should you ask a hosting service? A great deal depends on the type of web site you have. For the purposes of this exercise, we'll use an example of a typical Internet start-up who won't be looking for streaming-media or hosting large files in the short term. Even if your site is only a hobby web site, or community based - you never know when things may change. Taming the Beast.net began as a hobby site in 1996 and only served to assist my clients with driver links etc. - but all that changed in 2000. Traffic grew from a few visitors a day to currently, a few thousand....

Distance is no barrier on the Internet.

The advent of the Internet has compressed distance greatly. There is now no need to have your web site hosted in the same country as you are - and actually it could be very damaging to host domestically. An example I wrote about recently was for a quote provided for the hosting of Taming the Beast.net and associated interests. To have our sites hosted in Australia with a very well known and respected local company would have cost me nearly US$500 a month! We were paying around 10% of that price at the time by hosting in the U.S.A - needless to say, the thought of switching never crossed my mind!! We were getting all the benefits of an A grade company for a fraction of the price!

Not all Aussie web hosts are involved in highway robbery, but the overall picture a few months down the track in Australia is generally unchanged. Many other countries fall into the same category. The best web hosting deals in my opinion are still to be found in the United States.

When in doubt - email!

The first step in tracking down the best and most affordable web hosting company for your needs is to hit your favorite search engine and visit web site hosting firms. Start collecting email addresses of the various companies. Briefly look around the site to see if their offer seems interesting. If their site doesn't function correctly, best to move on. Take a look at the company profile, if there isn't one that details the company (rather than how good they claim to be), run like hell! The rest of your initial enquiries can be handled via email.

Be straightforward when you send out your note to the hosting services, let them know that you are shopping around. You can make this clear by putting all the company addresses in the CC field of your email. This solutions review strategy will quickly weed out the companies who genuinely want your business and also allow you to easily run through an initial cull. It will also save you valuable hours in research.

Not all hosting solutions are created equal

The criteria for the first cull is simple - if they don't respond to your enquiry within 24 hours, delete them from your contenders list. The same goes if they just send you links to promo material without any personalized message text. To make it more interesting, send your email late on a Saturday night - wherever the hosting company is in the world, it will be the weekend. 

The rationale behind the 24 hour deadline is this - if a web hosting company can't respond with pre-sales questions quickly, it may be an indication of what their customer support is like. Also, many web site hosts don't see the "big picture" - which is a fatal mistake. You may be starting out small, but who knows how big you'll become and how many other people you will refer to their service? A forward thinking company recognizes this and reacts appropriately.

Don't make it too hard on the hosting companies in your email to start off with, you can ask more detailed questions as you reduce the list of possibilities. The following is a template that you might like to use.

The template email:

This example would be suitable for most personal and business startups for initial enquiries. More complex and technical points for consideration will be covered in the next article in this series. Annotations are in brackets & accompany each question.

==================

"Dear Sales,

I am currently in the market for a good web hosting service with excellent customer support and you are among a number of hosting services I am reviewing. I have taken a quick look at what you have to offer on your web site, but with so many services offering so many different options - it can be pretty confusing. I would greatly appreciate you answering a few questions and your recommendations for a plan that would suit my purposes.

Here is a list of my basic current needs:

  • At least 50 meg of Hard Drive space (Note: change this to suit)

  • At least 1 gig of Bandwidth per month (Note: change this to suit. 1 gig is plenty for most to start out with - BEWARE SERVICES OFFERING UNLIMITED BANDWIDTH - discussed later in this article)

  •  At least 20 email addresses (Note: change this to suit)
    - FrontPage 2002 Extensions (even if you don't use FrontPage, handy to have)

  • PHP 4 (even if you don't need this initially)

  • Perl 5 (for running scripts)

  • MySQL (database capabilities)

  • FTP access

  • Server logs access (for in-depth web site traffic studies later on)

  • Web site traffic monitoring reports

  • Easy to use admin interface (believe me, some web hosting control panels look like a dogs breakfast!)

  • (Any other specific needs)

What would you recommend, bearing in mind that I'll need plenty of room to grow. Please also send the URLs of the suggested package and upgrade options pages. (Many of your questions will be answered on these pages, links will save you from having to hunt around on their sites)

Questions:

  1. Is there a setup fee?
    (A setup fee is not necessarily a terrible thing, it just needs to be factored into your budget)

  2. What is your uptime guarantee and downtime compensation policy?
    (Look for at least 99.5% uptime over a month with compensation should it fall below that. If they aren't prepared to give you an uptime guarantee or compensation statement - forget it. It means that they don't have confidence in their equipment)

  3. Can I upgrade my plan at any time?
    (A good hosting service will allow you to change your plan at any time without penalties)

  4. What are your excess bandwidth charges?
    (Although unlikely you will get excess traffic during start-up phase, it's important to know how much you will be charged if you use over and above your quota for data transfer. Data transfer or "bandwidth" refers to the amount of data going in and out of your site e.g. publishing up information or requests from visitors for information including page views.)

  5. Is there a minimum contract?
    (Some web hosts offer excellent prices, but when examining the fine print you may discover that in order to get good prices you must take out a contract for X months).

  6. How often will my site be backed up?
    (In a number of cases, you'll find that the cheaper the price, the less likely your site will be backed up on a regular basis)

  7. Do you offer secure server and ecommerce capabilities (shopping carts etc.) as an upgrade?
    (You may not want this in the beginning, but it's handy to have)

  8. Do you offer an affiliate program or referrer bonuses?
    (If you settle with a host and you are happy with the service, no doubt you'll tell others. Why not profit from that - it can subsidize the running of your site or even turn into a good earner for you!)

  9. Is your free tech support available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? What is your average response time?
    (A VERY important point - many offer this but sometimes all you'll get is a recorded or autoresponder message during weekends and in the early hours of the morning. Telephone support is not a necessity - a good email support system is actually better than the phone as it provides a record for both parties. I've noticed that many helpdesk telephone support people have very little technical knowledge - they tend to rely on "wizards".)

  10. Just how large will my web site be permitted to grow while being hosted by your company in terms of hard drive space and data transfer.
    (Some web site hosting services only want very small accounts - start getting any serious traffic and they may ask you to leave)

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions

Me.

================

These questions and points are just to get you started in the reviews process and will allow you to weed out many crooks and poorly resourced solution. It may seem like a lot to ask, but an experienced domain hosting services sales person should be able to complete the questions within a couple of minutes. Always be polite when posing questions as the answers will be provided by a human being with feelings as well. By asking questions in a courteous manner, you will get the relationship off to a good start. 

When composing the email, skip a couple of lines between each question to encourage the person responding to put their remarks under the relevant question. This will give you a good record to refer back to in the future. Always respond to each response with a brief thank you note.

The Unlimited Bandwidth Banshee.

A number of web site hosting companies offer huge (or unlimited) bandwidth allowances at rock-bottom prices. Be wary of such offers. All bandwidth has to be paid for by someone. The fact is that most hosting services make the most profit from small, bandwidth friendly (low traffic) sites. Some companies offering huge data transfer quotas incorporate interesting "load balancing" techniques once your site does start experiencing heavy traffic flows. The end result is that if other web sites hosted on the same server need resources, your web site loses them and your site visitors may start experiencing massive slowdowns or other mysterious happenings. This topic will be further explored in the next article in this series.

Web site hosting is a strategic partnership

If you receive incomplete responses, curt remarks etc - no matter how good the offer may look on the web, give it careful consideration. There would be nothing worse than to open an account with a domain hosting service who really doesn't give a damn about you. The sales process is where the company should be on their best behavior!

In the next article we will delve a bit deeper into reviewing web hosts and solutions before signing on the dotted line with some further questions to ask and more technical/economic points to consider. 

Choosing the right web host is crucial to the success of your online presence - it should be viewed as an important partnership/alliance between both parties. The benefits to the hosting service are long term, in the form of referrals from you and the purchasing of other services offered by the company.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast.net
http://www.tamingthebeast.net
Tutorials, web content, tools and software
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