Given the large number of Web hosts and the fierce competition among them, Web hosting can be a tricky business.

Countless small Web hosts have gone out of business and even large communications companies like Exodus have cut staff to reduce costs.

If your Web host goes under, you have problems. Your site might be down for an extended period -- at least as long as ittakes to sort out the mess, research and select a new host, and transfer all your files to the new host's server.

In addition to a major hassle, you could lose sales.

To avoid losing profits, be on the lookout for warning signs your Web host is in trouble. That way, you can put a back-upplan in place that will help smooth the switch to a new Web host without a lot of downtime or lost profits.

What to Watch For

Here are some of the most common indications a Web host is in danger of folding:

  • Lack of Support. One of the surest and most easily observed signs of difficulty is a lack of customer support. If your Webhost fails to respond to your calls, if you e-mail your host for support and get no response for several days, or if you'redeluged with autoresponses, you have reason to be suspicious.
    The company might have laid off crucial support staff, which could indicate financial difficulties. This does not bode wellfor the Web host's future -- or for the future of your Web site, for that matter.
    Try e-mailing your Web host's customer support department at routine intervals.
    Try telephoning technical or billing support to see how hard it is to reach a human operator, which is often your best meansof problem resolution. One school of thought says the better the support, the more stable the Web host.
  • Profitability. Sam Martin of OfficeOnWeb says Web hosting companies in trouble are ones that provide free services orcharge so little they cannot make a profit. "The pay-money-till-you-get-all-the-market-share model was bad business from thestart and has been proven bad business by the sheer number of bankruptcies going on in the dot-com market," Martin said. Ifyour Web host is a public company, find out if it's turning a profit. If not, be prepared to change Web hosts.
    In the case of private hosting companies, it can be harder to determine whether the company is profitable. Generally, if yourWeb host offers hosting for what seems to be an exceedingly low price -- lower than around $20 (U.S.) per month -- youmight want to ask yourself how the company can turn a profit with such low rates. Decide if you feel comfortable with theprospective performance of such a company in the long term.
  • Media attention. "Hosts are relatively low-profile," said Kevin Martin, CEO of pair Networks Inc. "If yours is beingcovered by MSNBC or "60 Minutes," it had better be positive press, or I would be nervous."
    Reading business publications that might mention your Web host is always a good idea. If your Web host is mentioned in apositive way, great. If an article reports layoffs, changes in management, or a company buyout, be aware such changes often-- though certainly not always -- result in decreased support for the client.
    If your Web host changes hands, this does not necessarily mean you will want to find a new Web host, but be sure toinvestigate what policy changes might accompany the change in ownership.
  • Decreased services. Withdrawal of certain services your host formerly provided might indicate its attempt to reduce recentfinancial losses. Also research any price increases the company institutes.
    Naturally, businesses must increase prices from time to time, and this is not always cause for alarm. However, if priceincreases or service decreases are implemented in a way that is less than upfront, the company might be trying to avoidopenly disclosing changes that are attempts to salvage an ailing business.

Checking Up

One of the best ways to check up on your Web host is to take advantage of various discussion groups or forums. Two resources are WebHostingTalk and Web Host Directory.

You can use these sites to ask about your Web host and to see what experiences other people have had with the company. Orcheck the archives. Previous posts might give you all the information you're looking for.

"In all aspects, consider sharing your experiences with other customers in any discussion forum the host might offer or on apublic site," Kevin Martin said. "Broader trends are more likely to be found by sharing information."

If you find a lot of negative comments about your Web host, devise a backup plan. Particularly, if many posts complaining ofpoor support or other problems are clustered within a recent period of time, this could indicate the Web host is reallystruggling to stay afloat.

Do Diligence

Other users of Web host forums can often direct you to more sources of information.

Finally, perhaps your best resource is the Web host itself. Visit the company's Web site frequently to make sure it still offersservice to new clients.

If for any reason you are concerned about the company's performance or stability, contact someone in the company. This canbe an eye-opening experience in itself.

If you try to contact management and are unable to reach anyone, or if the company is not responsive to your questions andconcerns, it's time to consider a new Web host.

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