Running an online business presents a unique opportunity difficult for most brick-and-mortar companies: Rather than maintaining set business hours at a set location, online customers can access your products and service information at any time, anywhere.

This opportunity also presents the challenge of monitoring your Web site 24/7 to ensure that customers don't face the frustration of slow-loading pages, a downed server or access denial to certain parts of the site.

Your online business depends on your customers having complete, reliable and uninterrupted access to your Web site and to any online accounts they may have with you.

Depending on whether you run numerous Web sites from an in-house server or one site through an outside ISP, site monitoring is essential for any online business.

Site monitoring is not a one-step, one-time process. Monitoring the content, the links and the HTML code that constitute your Web site is one only aspect. Monitoring download and response times is another important part of Web site maintenance as is monitoring your server's performance.

In short, you want to make sure your site is up and has current information that can be downloaded quickly.

Ideally, your best bet is to find a site monitoring service that integrates all of these elements into a package that doesn't cut too deeply into your bottom line. Business owners with tighter budgets and smaller companies will find that many of the less-expensive site monitors can provide effective basic services.

Prices are as varied as the kinds of monitoring services available. There are monitoring service providers that charge hundreds of dollars to provide in-depth details about how your Web site is running, and there are service providers such as InternetSeer that charge little or nothing to notify you whether your site is up or down.

A brief look at the features to look for when choosing a site monitoring service or software will help you decide just how much time and money you'll want to invest. Check on:

Regularly timed testing intervals. Some services run maintenance tests every minute, but most run tests every 15 minutes or every hour. AlertSite offers service packages priced as low as $9.95 (U.S.) per month. Some of the tests run every hour, some every five minutes. Remember, the more frequent the tests, the quicker you can respond to errors.

Multiple monitoring stations. If you choose an outside monitoring service, it is best if it monitors your server from at least two distant locations. This reduces the number of false alarms and helps pinpoint the location of any errors that are found during testing. Remember, the purpose of hiring an outside company to monitor your Web site is to test how your site functions from the customer's point of view. A number of monitors testing from a number of locations will provide the best results.

Supports your type of server. Not every monitoring service will work with all servers. Whether you run your business from an http server and run a POP3 e-mail server or an FTP server, you'll want to double-check that your monitoring service works for your URL and target type. Netwhistle is one company that monitors almost any type of server.

Checks response and download times. Nothing is more frustrating for online visitors than waiting ? and waiting ? and waiting. Many monitoring programs and services will notify you if pages exceed designated download times.

Searches for dead links and HTML errors. A large part of maintaining a Web site means taking care of those little details. Customers are willing to navigate through your site only if they know they are going somewhere. Dead ends and error messages are easy to diagnose and easy to fix, so take advantage of the many free or inexpensive tools such as NetMechanic's HTML Toolbox that allow you hunt these pests down.

In addition to making sure your Web site is being monitored 24/7, you can check out the free tools offers. These tools, provided by NetMechanic, include a GIFbot that resizes gif files for faster download times, HTML, link and load check robots, and several other tools can help keep your site up to date.

Monitoring your site doesn't have to be expensive, but it should be helpful in pointing out areas that can be improved for your customers' benefit. Your online business doesn't stop operating for even one minute. With the right monitoring tools and services, you can ensure your Web site doesn't, either.

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