Updated 5/01/2013 --Things have changed a bit since we last took a look at Web hosting for small businesses. For the most up-to-date information you need to consider and questions you need to ask, be sure to read our most recent guide to Web hosting providers.
There are few service providers (except perhaps for lawyers) who are the subject of more derision than Web hosting providers. Indeed, ask any three business owners who have used the same Web hosting company (or read any online reviews) and you're likely to get very different opinions.
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Some of the most common complaints among small business owners about Web hosting companies: the customer service sucked; their Web site went down or was unavailable for an unacceptable amount of time; and all the hidden fees.
To help you find the right small business or ecommerce web hosting provider for your online business we've listed some of the most important features to look for. And we've included a comparison chart of five of the leading Web hosting companies at the end of this article.
Shared vs. Virtual Private Server vs. Dedicated Web Hosting
Most Web hosting providers that cater to small businesses provide shared Web hosting, where many Web sites are housed on the same server. The advantage of shared Web hosting is that it's typically inexpensive (less than $10/month), because the provider can spread out the cost of maintaining the server among many customers. While websites are kept separate, there can, however, be problems with availability/uptime with this option.
For small businesses with relatively light traffic and/or sales (i.e., not an ecommerce business), shared Web hosting is fine. However, if you run an ecommerce business, you may want to consider using a provider that offers a VPS (Virtual Private Server, also referred to as a Virtual Dedicated Server) solution, where your site sits on its own virtual server and will not be affected by other customers.
Another option is dedicated Web hosting, where you lease a whole server for your website(s). While this option is more expensive than shared and VPS Web hosting, if you have a high-traffic small business ecommerce site that is doing thousands of dollars of business each month, and need fast, ecommerce Web hosting, this may be your best bet.
The Importance of Good Customer Service
Probably the number one criteria for choosing a Web hosting company is whether it provides good, fast, reliable customer service, 24/7, via email, telephone and live chat.
"All hosting companies are pretty much the same -- until something goes wrong. And you'll want to know who has your back when that happens," stated Erik Wolf, the president of Zero-G Creative, an Atlanta-based small business marketing and Web design company.
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"In our experience building Web sites for small businesses, the most important quality you can find in any hosting company is timely, responsive and competent customer service," he said.
While hosting companies might say they offer fast, reliable, 24/7 phone and email support, Wolf advised business owners to "test drive" the help desk during the free trial. For Wolf that means seeing how long he is kept on hold or waiting for help over the phone, how good the online chat is (if the company offers it), and assessing the knowledge level of the support staff.
At the minimum, review each hosting company's support policy carefully and look for unbiased customer reviews online before signing up.
Look for a Good, Easy-to-Use Interface
Almost all Web hosting companies offer free trials, anywhere from 30 to 90 days. This is your opportunity to try before you buy -- and to see if you are comfortable actually using the company's online management system (aka their user interface, control panel or dashboard).
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"Optimally, your Web hosting company should have a user-friendly interface where you can easily manage email accounts, databases and domains/hosting all in one place," noted Ryan Oakes, a professional conjuror who runs a corporate entertainment company and manages four different Web sites, including www.ryanoakes.com. "At the end of the day, you don't want to have to call your host every time you want to add or change something on your site. The goal is to have all facets of your site (email, hosting, SEO) aggregated in one easy-to-use place."
Remember, while $5 a month may sound like a good deal, it isn't if you can't make changes or update your Web site.
How Much Bandwidth and Disk Space?
Most, if not all, of the larger Web hosting companies claim to offer "unlimited" disk space and bandwidth. However, more than a dozen different people we spoke or corresponded with in the course of writing this story cautioned about disk space/bandwidth being "unlimited" -- until it isn't. While most of the people had no problems with disk space/bandwidth, everyone knew someone who somehow exceeded the disk space and bandwidth, even though it was supposedly unlimited. In short, read the fine print and ask the company for specifics before signing up.