What to Look for in a Web Host

Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network

When you set up your small business Web site, chances are you won’t be creating and maintaining your pages on your own Web server. Instead, you probably will be using a Web hosting service — a third party that sells you space on its Web servers where your site will reside. It’s important to choose a host wisely. The service that your Web host provides will have a direct impact on how customers view your site. Select an unreliable host, and potential customers might get turned off by slow access times, pages that don’t load, or orders that don’t go through. The tips below are intended to help you select the best host for your site and get the most out of your Internet budget:

Choose a business host

When you’re evaluating potential Web site hosts, make certain that they allow commercial sites on their servers. Some sites only offer room for personal Web sites and are strict in their no-business-allowed policy. If you try to sneak a business site past them, they can quickly close your site down. Others will allow you to post your business site, but will fix limits on the amount of traffic you can generate or the size of your site. If your site becomes too popular, they may ask you to move to another host. As a rule, look for hosts that actively encourage business use, since they are in the best position to serve you as your site grows. These hosts will often offer a variety of different plans based on typical business use, and may even have discount programs or special deals to lure companies such as yours.

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ISP or host?

When you’re choosing someone to host your Web site, you basically have two options: an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or a dedicated Web host. An ISP can provide your company with a range of services in addition to Web hosting. It can give you access to the Web and provide you with e-mail service, for example, and may package these services with its Web hosting products. Other companies work strictly as Web hosts, meaning they only provide you with room on their server for your site — no e-mail or Internet access. The advantage of a dedicated Web host is that visitors to your site won’t be sharing bandwidth with casual Web surfers, so load times may be improved.

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Find out how much space you’re getting

When you’re using a Web host, you are essentially buying space on their server’s hard drives. You don’t want to hamstring your site by having too little room, nor do you want to pay for disk space that you’re not going to use. In general, 10 MB of disk space equals about 100 Web pages, which should be more than enough for the average small business site. If you use lots of images, sounds, animation, or applets you’ll need more room.

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Know your traffic limits

Find out how many page hits are included in the basic price of a Web host’s service. Your potential hosts probably put this figure in terms of megabytes of file transfer; if they do, ask them to translate that into an average hit rate, which is often easier to understand. Some hosts apply a surcharge if you go beyond the pre-determined limits, and this can be costly if traffic is much higher then you anticipated. If your site becomes very active, it’s possible that the host will ask you to move elsewhere. This tends to happen more often with ISPs, who may be concerned that traffic to a particularly popular Web site they’re hosting will hurt the performance of their servers for other users.

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Find out what you’ll pay for other services

Ask any potential host what is included in its per-month charge, and what costs extra. Depending on the package you purchase, you could end up paying additional fees for things like image maps, Java applets, streaming audio/video (RealAudio), or server-side multimedia (Shockwave). Make sure you’re clear on what this means to your site design or your budget.

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Security and reliability

With any host, you need to make sure that your Web site data is secure from outside threats and hackers, and that your site will be up and running 99-100% of the time. Some key security and reliability issues you’ll want to cover include:

How are hackers kept out? Just about every host will have some kind of Internet firewall in place to keep uninvited visitors out of its servers. Make sure it also conducts regular security audits and takes other proactive steps to address potential security holes.

How often are sites backed up? Back-ups should occur daily to ensure data is never lost.

What happens in case of a power outage? Make certain all servers are on uninterruptible power supplies so data is always available.

Are they able to host secure transactions? If you plan to sell from your site, look for hosts that support transaction encryption standards like SSL and SET.

Is 24-hour tech support available? You want a host that can handle technical issues at any time. Find out if there is a separate tech support line for hosting customers, so you don’t have to stay on hold for hours to get your questions answered.

Does the host use redundant connections? Multiple high-speed connections ensure that users can access your site if a line goes down.

Is the site physically secured? It’s one thing to keep out hackers who try to enter through the Web. It’s also important to physically secure all servers so that only the host’s authorized personnel have physical access to servers.

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Get help registering your domain name

Many Web hosts will help you register your domain name. With your own domain, your site can be accessed at www.yoursitename.com instead of as a subdirectory of a larger site.

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Look for extras

Some Web hosts will provide a range of other services for a small charge or even for free. Some to look for include:

Design services: Does the host have talented Web designers or programmers on staff who can assist you in creating your site? If not, does it have any contacts with site designers who are experienced with small businesses?

Software: Does the host offer any free software? Many provide free or low-cost design packages, HTML editors, or shopping cart software.

Online promotion: Will your host help you register your site with the leading search engines and directories? Does the host have a place where it will promote your site? Can it assist with online advertising?

Usage accounting: How often is your site being accessed? How are people getting to your site? Which parts of your site are most popular? See if your host has software that can track daily and hourly traffic to and from your site to help you keep in touch with user input.

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