Gone are the days when having a website for your business was optional. In fact, many businesses these days can't afford even a few minutes of downtime where their customers can't access their site. That means that choosing a reliable web hosting service has become mission critical for most business owners. But that can be easier said than done given the hundreds of options out there that range from local mom-and-pop providers to national providers like Go Daddy and Rackspace, all of which range in terms of their price and service offerings. But how do you know whether you need to spend $10 a month versus $100? What follows are 10 tips, from business owners and experts alike, about the kinds of questions and issues you want to think about before deciding where to host your website.
Ask yourself what type of support will you need, says Angela Nielsen president and creative director of One Lily, a web design and hosting company in Barstow, California. "The worst thing that can happen is for a website to go down, or having an email issue," Nielsen says. "Nobody can prevent glitches 100 percent, so if and when you find yourself in the middle of one, its best to have someone you can call on to get immediate resolution." That means looking for providers that provide 24/7 free phone support with customer service reps who speak your language and actually pick up the phone when you need them to.
2. Parking Service
Find out if you can easily park your company's other domain names. "This is a big one," says Beatrice Johnston, director of Brand Excitement, a branding agency in New York City. "Most companies buy their .com, .net, .org, hyphenated versions of their domain name, misspellings, service names, and more. It's most efficient and convenient for brand management to have these in one control panel and know that you're not going to lose any traffic."
Make sure your web hosting service provides adequate backup, says Johnston. "I once mistakenly deleted the entire blog directory for my website—ouch," she says. "I contacted my host and because they provide automatic backup every day, I was able to hit a few keystrokes, select two days previous, and voila—my blog and content was back online as if it never happened." Find out what your host's disaster recovery plan is, as well, to ensure that they are backing up their backups.
4. Uptime Guarantee
The last thing you want your customers to experience is a blank screen when they type in your URL, so you'll want to shop for a hosting service with a strong reputation for uptime and redundancy, says Nielsen. "Your site can't be seen if the host constantly has server outages," she says. "Look for an uptime guarantee of 99 percent or more. Also make sure the server has multiple backup locations (mirrored servers) so that if one goes down, they have another already online and ready to go."
You might find that some hosting services make it difficult to make changes to your site. If so, avoid them. "Make sure the host you choose gives you access to the server so that you can easily create new email accounts, make changes to server settings, etc.," says Nielsen. That goes double for ensuring that you can get access to your email online and not just through Outlook. "Most hosts provide this, but some do not," says Nielsen. "Make sure you will have the ability to login online to check your email from when you are away from your computer, and in case of emergency like when Outlook crashes."
Another staple of most company websites these days is a blog, in addition to other social media tools. Even if you don't blog, you might in time, so make sure that the hosting service meets the minimum requirements for WordPress, the leading blogging platform. "So many small businesses are utilizing WordPress for blogging and or for their entire website, and not all hosts yet support this," says Nielsen.
7. To Share or Not to Share
One of the ways that you can save money on hosting your website is by turning to something called "shared hosting," which basically means that your site is being hosted along with dozens (if not hundreds) of other sites which is why you might pay as little as $5 a month for hosting fees. The downside, though, can be that troubles with one of those sites could lead to problems for all the sites hosted on that server, says Roland Reinhart, owner of the Reinhart Marketing Group in Bridgewater, New Jersey. "Having a fast website response time is crucial so that your visitor doesn't grow impatient and click away and that Google uses page load speed as one of its many factors in determining whether your page will be show high in search results," he says. That's why he prefers to pay more for access to a Virtual Private Server (VPS)—also called a Virtual Dedicated Server (VDS). "VPS is a bit more complicated to set up, but at $40 to $50 a month, you have a much higher quality web server and faster performance," he says.
8. Watch for Add-ons
Even if you like the price a web hosting service quotes you, make sure you know what you're paying for. "Hosting services often grab you with a low start-up rate," says Marianne Carlson, president of Emcie Media, a communications and marketing firm in DeLand, Florida. "But then it's, 'Oh, you want an email account too? That's extra. You want to forward the email to your existing email account? That's extra. And you want a blog? That's extra too.' You get the idea."
While you might be shopping for a hosting service for your small business, you should consider partnering with a service that can scale with you as you get bigger. That can mean that the service offers different tiers of service based on the number of expected visitors you receive each month where, as your business takes off, you can easily upgrade your plan. Just as importantly, you may want to evaluate providers based on how they deal with unexpected "spikes" that tear into your available bandwidth. Consider what happened to Scott Gerber, managing partner of New York City-based video production service Sizzle It and founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, whose site crashed after The New York Times ran a cover story on him and again after he wrote a blog post for Inc.com titled, "Why 'Be Passionate' Is Awful Advice." "You must make sure that your service provider—or at least your service plan—are capable of dealing with spikes," say Gerber. "Additionally, you want to make sure that spikes don't cost you an arm and a leg as some providers charge you very large amounts of money for additional usage."
10. Exit Strategy
Even if you're excited about everything your new web hosting service has to offer, make sure you read the fine print about what they have to say if you decide to take your business elsewhere, says Ken Dawes, who helps small businesses build websites through his business, The Web Mechanic, which is located in Aptos, California. "One of my pet peeves is when a host makes it difficult to find what you need to move your domain name away from them," he says. "I think a provider that is confident in their service won't need to make it difficult."