Weaving through Web Hosting Service Features
A number of businesses and organizations offer web hosting service — that is, space on their web server for your website. Most of these organizations charge for this service, and fees vary. You should look at a number of concerns when choosing a web hosting provider for your web pages.
Focusing only on price when you compare web hosting service providers is understandable. But you should look at many other factors that may actually be more important than the immediate cost:
- Pricing structure: Instead of focusing only on the charges for your initial, bare-bones site, consider also what providers charge you when your site grows larger and attracts a moderate number of visitors — say a few hundred or a few thousand a month. Some hosting providers charge a very low rate for your initial site but sock it to you when your needs grow.
- Support: We all need support of one kind or another, but excellent technical support for your web publishing effort is one of the hardest — and most important — kinds of support to get. You need support for putting your pages onto the server, for answering questions about your site, and for solving problems about speedy access, uptime (how long the service is on the air trouble-free), and so on. Find out about the support providers offer for each type of web hosting option that interests you. Ask other users of each service if they're able to get support fast when a problem comes up.
- Web-related consulting services: Some web hosting providers, even those that offer some services for free, also offer other web-related services that they charge for, such as hosting business sites or managing your site for you. Most web-related services are billed by the hour, but some service providers get things done better and faster than others. So a less expensive hourly rate may not mean a lower total bill at the end.
- Site services: Some web hosting providers offer helpful services, such as counting the number of users who visit your site. Other providers allow you to create and run Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts that perform sophisticated functions, such as processing the data from an online form. Other web hosting providers neither provide site services nor allow you to run CGIs. Look for a provider that does the simple stuff for you and supports you in doing the more complex functions yourself.
- Domain name: The domain name is the name of the server where your site resides, but clever providers can put multiple domain names on a single computer. This means that you can have your own domain name, even if you have a small site, as long as your web hosting provider registers the name. Registering a domain name costs service providers anywhere from about $10 to about $30 per year.
Some web hosting providers offer to register a domain name for you, but then retain ownership of the domain name themselves. This situation is like those Peanuts cartoons in which Lucy sets up the football and then pulls it away when Charlie Brown runs up to kick it. Not owning your domain name free and clear can severely hamper your ability to move your site later.
Find out whether the web hosting provider allows you to get your own domain name, either immediately or later. And if the provider does, ask for a clear, written statement that you own the domain name and can take your website to another host if you want to.
When you consider a web hosting provider, consider in your evaluation the following factors:
- Speed: How fast can users access your website? How fast can users download files hosted on the site? You can ask, but you should also test. Try accessing some websites hosted by any service that you're considering and see how fast they are, especially at busy times of the day. Compare what you find to other websites.
- Downtime: Is the web hosting service that you're considering ever "off the air"? You may think that downtime is rare, but even entire online services such as America Online have downtimes. Find out the track record for downtime of the web hosting service that you're considering and compare that service's record with competitors.
- Switchability: Having the ability to switch web hosting providers is crucial. With the right to switch, you can resolve any other problems. Without the right to switch, you may be unhappy with some key element of your website for a long time. Two things can keep you locked into an arrangement with a provider: contractual provisions and control of your domain name. Don't sign a contract that locks you in for more than a year, and don't let the web hosting provider register your domain name for you unless the provider states, in writing, that you control your domain name and can take it elsewhere.
- Viability: Many Internet-related businesses have gone out of business. (Even giant firms collapse sometimes, like the energy giant Enron, but it seems that the Internet has had more than its share.) Make sure that your chosen provider has a track record and is of sufficient size to offer some assurance that it will be around for the long haul.
- Reporting: You really, really want your provider to offer basic reporting features, such as the number of visitors your site has each day, for free. Such features are rare but very valuable. This may be the critical factor in choosing between one provider and another.
- Data transfer fees: Another potential gotcha involves data transfer fees. When users look at a page on your site, all the data on that page is transferred to their machines. If users download files, more data is transferred. Many web hosting services offer some free data transfer, but your costs can rise sharply if traffic at your site increases and data transfer rises above a minimal amount. Compare data-transfer pricing carefully.
- Price: If all other things are equal, price is the determining factor. But all other things are rarely equal. Consider other factors first, but don't let yourself get ripped off on the price you pay.
The key factors in choosing a web hosting provider are the freedom to switch when you need to and having control of your domain name.