Choosing the best home base on the Web starts with asking the right questions.
For many small to midsized businesses, the first one is, obviously: Can I just do it myself?
If your website is critical to your company, probably not. "Hosting is not just a matter of getting a connection to the Web," says Doug Kaye, CEO of RDS Strategies LLC, an IT strategy consulting firm in Kentfield, Calif. Practically speaking, he says, the only businesses who can reliably host their own sites are those with dedicated, round-the-clock IT departments who can handle maintenance and problems anytime. That's an expense most SMBs simply can't afford, making outsourcing the most common option.
Why the emphasis on 24/7 availability? "There's no longer any question about whether a Web site has to be running all the time," says Kaye, author of Strategies for Web Hosting and Managed Services (John Wiley & Sons, 2001). "It does."
Well, then, what about all those companies offering to host your site for free, or for just pennies a day? Again, if your Web site is important to your business, steer clear. "You get what you pay for," says Ted Chamberlin, an analyst with the Gartner Group, the Stamford, Conn.-based research and consulting firm.
Free or extremely inexpensive sites typically won't offer service guarantees and may be vulnerable to hackers and e-mail spammers, says Chamberlin, a Web-hosting specialist. "Their site could go down for a month and you'd have no recourse," he says.
Chamberlin understands the SMB's temptation to choose the cheapest option. "When you're a small business, you tend to think small," he says. "But with hosting you want to think three to five years ahead of the curve, about how you're going to grow." For that reason, he recommends questioning hosts about whether they're capable of scaling with your company -- and pursuing only those who are.
The next question is whether to opt for shared or dedicated hosting. Shared hosting, in which your site shares server space with the providers' other customers, is inexpensive: Expect to pay anywhere from about $8 to $35 per month, depending on the amount of disk space and other variables. However, your site may run sluggishly if other sites on the server get bombarded with traffic. Dedicated hosting, in which you lease a private server, eliminates the performance problems. But it costs much more -- typically $150 to $500 per month for a professionally managed hosting company, Chamberlin says.
With so many hosting operations out there -- at least 10,000, Kaye says -- how can you find one that's reputable, reliable, and right for your company? "Finding qualitative information is difficult," he acknowledges. "There's no Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, no Consumer Reports."
First, spend some time online, looking at websites of similarly sized companies in your industry. Contact the webmasters (typically by simply sending e-mail to "firstname.lastname@example.org) asking who handles their hosting and how they like the service.
Next, tap into the online resources that list and review Web-hosting companies. Pick a few that, based on cost, capacity offered, and available services, seem like they might make a good match for your company's needs.
Then do some due diligence. Contact your top choices and ask tough questions about what's offered, what's guaranteed, and what they'll do if there's a disaster -- whether it's an earthquake, a network failure, or their own bankruptcy. Be sure to pin them down on their standard security measures (but prepared to implement your own as well, such as keeping your own backup copies of all sensitive data).
In addition, request that hosts provide references from a variety of customers -- and ask those customers your tough questions as well. "That's the only way to evaluate the hosts," Kaye says.
If you're switching from one host to another, ask potential new providers how they'll assist you in the transition, which can be traumatic. "The only thing worse than having a fire is moving your website," Kaye says. "It's a very difficult thing and nobody is ever prepared for it." An eager-to-please new host might, for instance, offer you one month's free service so that you've got a bit of breathing room as you transfer everything between the two providers.
Meanwhile, always keep an eye on the horizon. "The best advice overall is to recognize that your hosting relationship is not a permanent one," Kaye says. "There's a likelihood that at some point you'll need to change providers." As you develop your site, lean toward whichever options would transfer most easily to a new location.
Among the first questions you'll need to address as you seek the perfect host is whether your business needs shared or dedicated hosting.
What's the difference? Chris Kivelan, marketing manager for InetU Managed Hosting in Allentown, Pa., sums it up this way:
Shared hosting means your website shares a host's server with a number of other customers. The host manages the service, though you maintain your site and your account. This option costs the least, but can come with a major drawback: If one of your server neighbors gets heavy traffic, your site's performance could suffer.
Dedicated hosting means leasing a server from a host. You'll pay more, but because you're not sharing, traffic to other sites shouldn't affect yours. This option is sometimes divided into unmanaged hosting, which provides limited support for lower fees, and managed hosting, which costs more but provides higher-level support, maintenance, security, and services.
Deciding which to choose involves weighing several factors, including your budget, your business's size, and the Web's role in your company now and down the road. If you've got a small, fairly static site, shared hosting may be just fine. If you've got a bigger, more complex site -- especially one you're using for e-commerce or customer service -- or if you expect to grow quickly, dedicated hosting might be a better choice.
Following are some questions to help you narrow your list of prospective Web hosts:
Strategies for Web Hosting and Managed Services, by Doug Kaye (John Wiley & Sons, 2001). Written by a consultant and industry analyst who founded one of the first Web-hosting sites. Describes various options for Web hosting and provides types for finding and evaluating them. Includes checklists and companion website.
Web Hosting: A Complete Strategy, by Carl Burnham (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media, 2001). Describes different Web hosts and explains how businesses can decide among available hosting plans.
The Web is rich with information about finding and comparing Web hosting companies. Comprehensive sites include:
Directory of Web hosts; includes search engine, comparison tool, glossary
Information site offering a comparison tool, industry news, and many free articles, including one providing a basic introduction to Web hosting
Directory of Web hosts; includes large searchable database articles, other resources
Information about the Statement on Auditing Services No. 70 (SAS 70), an auditing standard developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accounts for examining service-provider quality
Directory of Web hosts; includes articles, industry news, instant price-quote function
Web Host Directory
Directory of Web hosts; includes searchable database, industry news, function for requesting price quotes
Web Hosting Talk
Information site with discussion forums and searchable database
Web Host Magazine & Buyer's Guide
Reviews, articles, host-finding resources
Web Host Industry Review (also know simply as "WHIR")
Reviews, directory, news, glossary, tips on finding or switching hosts