"A lot of times with these free or very inexpensive hosting services, you will get what you pay for," cautioned Keith Johnson, president of Minnesota-based consulting firm Biz-Sites. Free services may include pop-up ads, spotty service, slow connections, or all of the above. "After all, a state-of-the-art webhosting center is its own building, with its own security. It has a battery backup plus diesel generators, plus all the equipment, plus the staff. There are huge expenses, and they have to make that back somehow."
There are better ways to choose a hosting provider than by simply taking the lowest bidder. In considering vendors, there are a number of issues to take into account.
First and foremost, find a reliable player so you won't have to do this again a year from now. "Find a company that has been around for a while, one that has stable financial backing," said Alex Kahl of Kahl Consultants in San Rafael, Calif. Bigger is not always better, but in this case it may be the safer bet.
Support also is a concern, and while nearly all hosting vendors will offer some level of technical support, it makes sense to ask questions about the exact nature of these offerings. Is support available around the clock? If so, will you have access to a live person at any hour, or merely an answering machine that promises to relay your concerns to the support staff? Will you be given a detailed accounting of your support requests and how they were handled?
"Equipment does break down," said Johnson, "and you want to know that somebody will be there to fix it."
Size matters too, but not as much as one might suppose. Webhosting vendors will tout capacity as a major plus, and to some extent this is true. The last thing small business owners need is to have orders rejected because their Web sites have reached their allotted capacity. In addition, it is important to work with a host that can accommodate future growth, as your business evolves and web traffic increases.
That being said, few if any small-business sites will ever need the 400 or 500 meg capacity that is commonly offered by some vendors. While some small businesses could launch their sites with as little as 5 meg, typical recommendations range from 60 to 100 meg, with 200 meg being considered ample for most small-business needs.
Access also is a consideration, Johnson said, since you will need to be able to get to certain directories in order to carry out certain actions as you develop your site. Can you get to the CGI Bin, for instance, to upload forms? Can you get Telnet access to your root directories? Can you get a graphical display of raw log files to see how many hits or how many visitors you had? Not all hosting vendors' offerings will be equal in this regard.
Some would argue that the hosting company's operating system is also a matter of concern, but Kahl is among those who say that for the small-business user, the host's choice of OS should make no discernable difference.
"Different operating systems do offer different features," he said, "but if a small business does their homework and they find that everything looks good [about a hosting vendor], then the chances are it does not really matter what platform they are using, since whatever they are using appears to be successful. After all, you are paying them good money to make these decisions for you."
For those daunted by the range of factors that go into choosing a hosting service, a number of internet directories and research services are available to simplify the process, including sites such as The List of Web Hosts,Host Analyst, HostReview.com and Hostindex.com.
By and large, experts say, service and support will be the most significant issues for a small business looking for webhosting. Assuming you have narrowed down the candidate pool to just the big, reputable players, it is likely that their prices will be comparable and the offerings more than ample to meet a small business' needs. At that point, it becomes a question of finding the vendor who will be there with help when it's needed.
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