A few years ago, entrepreneur Blake Snow found a cheap Web-hosting platform for his new consulting business, based in Orem, Utah. The real cost didn't come until later. 'I [prepaid] 12 months service for a cheap host that I could only use for two months before having to make the switch to a better provider,' says Snow, who runs Web consultant Griffio Consulting. 'I had to eat the cost.'

There are more Internet service providers (ISPs) than ever, and while not all are out to fleece their customers, finding the right provider for to host your business website and provide Internet access for your staff requires asking the right questions. Finding the right provider can help make or break your business if e-commerce is part of your sales channel or e-mail is a means of communicating with customers.

Here are some questions to ask when searching:

What do I need in the package?

Small business packages vary, but many ISPs usually offer the following:

  • Disk space for your webpages and relevant multimedia content
  • Multiple e-mail addresses
  • Domain/Web address registration, such as www.[yourbusiness].com
  • Basic 'shopping cart' software for online purchases

Continuing to use a previously established e-mail address is fine, since ISPs can forward mail from your new ISP e-mail to your old one. That said, experts say that if you do get a Web address through the ISP, make sure you are listed as the owner/registrant of the domain, not the ISP company. Whoever owns the domain can do whatever they want with the website.

What's my budget?

'Fifty to 100 dollars per month should get the job done for almost any small business looking for reliable service,' Snow says. However, if highly sensitive information is being passed, you may want to get a server: a computer dedicated only to your website. As a small business, you mayl want to rent a server -- not buy one -- and this can bump costs up to at least $400 a month. You'll likely need someone to handle upgrades and maintenance on the server, so be prepared to spend extra for that..

How fancy is my website going to be?

A handful of pages with text and a picture or two are like peanut butter and jelly: not too complex. However, integrated movies, animation, and picture-based websites may need additional consideration. 'If you're creating a ‘dynamic' site, one that involves a database or a coding language like PHP, ASP or ColdFusion, you'll need to make sure the host has the proper software installed,' says Web developer Andrew Kamm, who works for the Demi & Cooper advertising agency in Elgin, Illinois. 'In any event, check with the developer you're working with and they should be able to provide you with a list of what they need or refer you to a host that can accommodate.'

Will they be there when I have a problem?

Unfortunately, the size of an ISP company isn't necessarily reflective of its response time. In fact, larger service companies may be just unavailable. Professionals recommend calling the potential ISP provider, talking about your business needs and feeling them out. ISPs that serve your area can be located at C/Net or by typing '[your city] hosting' into your favorite search engine.

If you do decide to go forward, make sure any promises are spelled out in writing. 'If there were verbal negotiations between you and the Web-hosting company, be sure they are included in the contract,' advises the Better Business Bureau. 'For instance, if the Web hosting company says it will respond to complaints or glitches with your account within 12 hours, rather than their usual 24 hours, be sure that promise is included in your contract.'

And unless some extraordinary need occurs, you shouldn't be charged for customer service on top of your business' monthly service fee.