7 Steps to Choosing a Reliable Web Host
As business owners, the time we spend choosing a supplier is often in proportion to the money we spend on that service. But is this always the best approach?
When you choose a web host, you are investing in a supplier that is responsible for keeping the online part of your business — usually, your website and your email — operational. Many of us rely on our websites for lead generation, sales and support; we rely on our emails as our primary means of communication. If the platform on which these services rely becomes unavailable, we immediately start losing sales, upsetting our customers, and wasting valuable staff and personal time.
I propose we should instead invest time proportional to the impact that supplier can have on our business.
With that, here is a 7-point checklist that you can use to assist you in choosing a suitable web host for your business.
1. In which geographic location will your website be hosted?
If the web host is based in the US, as many are, then your website will take much longer to load for your Australian visitors. In addition, search engines sometimes use the location of the web host to make presumptions about the location of the business behind the website.
As a general rule, if your business is situated in Australia, always choose an Australian web host whose servers are located in Australia. Be aware that some cheaper Australian web hosts will cut costs by having their servers located in the US — so ask the question.
2. How and when can you contact technical support?
Some web hosts will only offer email support. This is all well and good until you have a problem with your email! Choose a web host that offers telephone support so that you have the assurance of being able to get a real person on the phone if things go wrong.
Find out at what times technical support is available. If you only work 9–5, then business hours support is probably adequate. But if something goes wrong, day or night, you want to be able to contact the web host to know that a problem is being resolved; particularly if your website is a 24-hour sales tool. For this reason, 24x7x365 technical support can be a good selling point.
Tip: Call their technical support number instead of their sales number and see if you get put in a queue. Some companies have a tendency to answer sales calls immediately, but leave support calls in a long queue, and you don't want to get a false impression of wait times when you call their sales number to become a customer.
3. What backup strategies are in place?
Depending on how much you are paying for the service, the web host will have one or more backup strategies to deal with faults. To get an idea of the extent to which the web host has planned for unexpected events, try these questions:
- If the server on which my website is hosted goes down and can't be recovered, is there a backup of my account that you would recover from?
- If the entire datacentre is destroyed, is there a backup of my account somewhere else?
- If a malicious person breaches the server's security and deletes my account, could they also delete the backups?
If you perform your own regular backups of your website — which you should — then you may be comfortable with limited backup strategies employed by your web host. But if you don't trust your own policies to do those backups regularly, knowing that your web host has an effective strategy in place is reassuring.
4. How fast do the websites load?
There is no technical limit to how many websites a web host can squeeze on to a single server. But the more activity, the slower the server becomes, affecting the load speed of all websites hosted on it.
Therefore, this becomes a cost driver for the web host, and they must make an active decision regarding how much they are prepared to fill up each of their servers with respect to performance.
As a rule, the less you pay for your web hosting service, the more crowded that server is going to be, and the slower your website will respond.
Ask the web host for a list of clients so you can visit their websites and get a feel for how quickly they load (but bear in mind that other factors, such as the complexity of the website, will influence this.)
5. What redundancy does the web host have in place for its hardware and network?
Ask the web host to describe the redundancy of its infrastructure.
Modern web hosts will often use some form of cluster that can survive hardware failures, rather than having discrete physical servers. If the web host talks about clusters or virtualisation, they have probably implementing hardware redundancy.
Typically, a web host will be connected to the internet through several providers. A well-designed network can survive one of these connections failing without disrupting the service.
6. Does your web developer endorse them?
Your web developer will have certain technical requirements for your website, so you need to consult with them before making a decision.
Ideally, they should be involved in the selection process, because they will generally have much more experience with different web hosting companies.
The web developer may have a preferred web host, for which they receive some form of kickback — there's nothing wrong with this arrangement, provided you do the due diligence on the company anyway.
The web developer may also offer their own web hosting services, either through a reseller arrangement, or their own server. Once again, perform the same due diligence — but this situation can work well if you have an excellent relationship with your web developer, as you can then have personalised, one-on-one support directly from your web developer.
7. How much does it cost?
Shared web hosting (the type where you share a server with other customers) can cost anything from $2 per month to $100 per month.
What you need to ask yourself is, what can a web host realistically offer for my money? If you are paying $2 per month for a web hosting account, can that company really afford to spend any time at all with you on the phone if you call for help? The answer is typically "no".
A web host charging less than $15 per month is most likely cutting away part of the service that you will one day rely on. It might be that they are overselling, loss-leading, or that technical support is outsourced overseas, or that you'll need to wait in a queue for half an hour when you call, or that the servers have too many websites on them and they will run slow, or the backup strategy is not thorough, or... the list goes on.
Putting it another way, if you need to criticise your web host for any particular activity you feel is less-than-stellar, but you were only paying them $2 or $5 or $10 per month for the service, can you really justify the criticism?
The bottom line is a business should expect to pay at least $20 per month for the type of web hosting where you can expect decent, prompt, professional support and a fast, reliable service.
This checklist is certainly not comprehensive, but it covers the most common issues and questions you are likely to have as a business which relies on its website and email in some form or another.
Invest time and money to get the right service for your business.