Stephen Covey has 7 habits of highly effective people. The Music Man has 76 trombones in the big parade, and Paul Simon says there are 50 ways to leave your lover. And although no one has written a song about it, there are 21 things you need to know about finding a good Web host.
Think about tomorrow as well as today.
As your site grows in complexity, it may require server-side scripting, database support, e-commerce, or sufficient bandwidth to allow audio and video streaming. You won't find that kind of support at free hosting sites. It's important that you realistically assess not only your site's current needs but its future needs as well.
Remember security issues.
A Web host provides a great deal of insulation from the everyday denial-of-service attacks and other hacks and cracks to which your server will be subjected. Do you really want to spend time every day reviewing server logs, updating software, and undoing whatever damage is caused by the occasional breach of your defenses?
Decide which type of hosting is best for you.
The first level of service from a Web host puts your site among a number of others on a single machine, in a virtual domain that points at your site's location in the machine. This is known as shared hosting and is how we tested the eight Web hosts featured in this story.
As your site grows—or as it moves from static pages to interactive ones—it should probably move to a machine with more resources and fewer sites competing for those resources. The next step up is a dedicated machine at your host's site. The host owns, maintains, and backs up the server and provides all of the physical site security, power backup, and other aspects of running a data center.
The highest service offering in Web hosting is colocation of a server. In this case, you own the hardware box, but it's physically located in the host's facility to take advantage of the physical plant. You choose the bandwidth you'll need, and the host gives you a clear pipe to the Internet. This is a potentially attractive option, but for most hosts it means that you make your own security and firewall provisions; you're not protected by the host's firewall. Unless you're expert in security matters, you'll want to contract with the host or a security consultant for proper protection of your site and server.
Demand prompt service and performance.
Your site's popularity and success are affected by your Web host's level of service. A site that's slow because of overburdened servers will send your audience elsewhere. A site that's hard to maintain will always be a little behind the curve or will make you work harder to do the things you need to do. For example, you may want to set up a special e-mail box for a promotion or a contest. A few quick entries in an HTML page or a table of valid mail accounts should be all you need, but if you have to wait for your host's tech-services staff to do the job, you could lose your window of opportunity.
Match your apps to your hosting level.
Some applications and kinds of sites are very difficult for the hosting service. If a service is built around a huge disk farm and a few reasonably fast machines, it's probably adequate for serving up large numbers of static pages. But a site that makes greater demands on the CPU will run slower in such an environment and, worse, will slow all of the other sites as well. Discussion forums are particularly demanding on host machines, because they need lots of memory and fast access to their discussion databases. If you plan a large, active discussion forum, find a vendor that knows how to host them.
Your dream site may make other special demands on a host. Streaming audio and video require fast connections to the backbone, lots of aggressively priced disk storage, and robust servers with the appropriate software. Experience counts in hosting multimedia as well, so you should seek out a Web host with expertise in offering streaming media that will make the tools conveniently available to you.
Choose your operating system.
Let your applications be your guide; run them on the operating system that runs them best. A Web host that offers both Microsoft Windows and Unix will be objective in its advice. Don't assume that you need Windows NT to run your site with FrontPage extensions. At least one host, EasyStreet Online Services (www.easystreet.com), has had great success rewriting the extensions to run better on Unix than on Windows NT.
Read the fine print.
We spent a lot of time making sure we understood the terms and conditions of each of the service providers we signed up with. You should do the same. Have a business lawyer review the terms. Never assume that a phrase that's in the agreement won't be enforced or somehow doesn't apply to you; it does. Be especially mindful of copyright ownership, response to complaints about your site, the service agreement's duration, notification regarding renewal or discontinuation, additional fees, and prevailing law.
Know how to handle complaints up front.
The complaints issue is important. If someone complains that your site sends spam or contains pornography (regardless of the claim's validity), many providers will simply pull the plug. Find out what your recourse is. If there are unacceptable terms in the agreement and the provider is unwilling to change them, find a different provider. Remember that the agreement is there to protect both of you, and make sure that your interests are adequately represented.
Before you commit your precious site to a host, ask for the names of Webmasters who run sites like yours. Call them or e-mail them, but by all means get feedback. Browse their sites. Note the response times at peak and off-peak hours. Make sure that the performance is acceptable to you.
Snoop a little.
Use Web-based tools to find out whom you're dealing with. Query the Whois database (www.whois.net) to find out who owns the site. Make a note of the business address. Run Traceroute (available through most download sites) to view the path to the machines listed in the Whois search. If Traceroute finds the site through another ISP's server in the same domain, you may be dealing with a reseller rather than the actual hosting service. For example, CIHost, a host with a flair for self-promotion, appears to get its network access from Propagation.net, which in turn is served by megaprovider BBN Planet.
Using the Whois database, look up the machine one hop up from the end. Enter the names you come up with into a Deja.com search. In this instance, we found that Propagation.net has been associated with spam sites, and CIHost has prompted negative comments in the alt.www.webmaster newsgroup. Compare this with, say, a Verio.net trace.
Ignore the "professional" associations.
And most of the ratings sites. The members of the Web Hosting Guild include highly regarded companies and some held in generally low esteem among Webmasters. Ratings sites often aggregate outdated positive ratings from Webmasters who subsequently left a hosting service, usually for negative reasons.
Read what Webmasters are saying.
Look at the alt.www.webmasters newsgroup, www.hostinvestigator.com, www.scriptkeeper.com/cgi-bin/Ultimate.cgi, and www.hostcompare.com. It may take a while to digest all the opinions and offerings, but the investment is well worth your while.
Know your audience.
The more you know about the volume your users are likely to create, the better you'll be able to estimate your costs and pick an appropriate pricing scheme. If you're already hosting a site, study your log files and any traffic analysis tools to understand how much bandwidth and server resources you need, and choose accordingly as you move to your new host. If you're new to running a Web site, use your trial period to do the same, and make any necessary ad justments in your plan before your money-back guarantee expires.
Choose a plan you can afford.
Steeply shelved pricing plans may put unanticipated financial burdens on your site. Some hosts skew their plans toward many small sites, while others are oriented toward fewer, higher-volume sites. Exceeding the monthly cap on bytes served costs money, and the jump may be dramatic. A little success is sometimes the small site's worst enemy, because income for advertising-driven sites doesn't jump accordingly unless your advertisers are paying on a per-view basis. By contrast, a big increase in hits on an e-commerce site probably means more orders or a flurry of interest in a new product. In either case, revenues should go up accordingly.
Start slow before committing.
Charges are often quoted monthly, then billed in larger increments. But discovering this usually requires human contact, not just a visit to the site. We think it makes sense to start with a short service term, perhaps 90 days, to make sure everything is working out as you planned. When you're happy, extend the term to receive the attendant discounts.
Watch the billing.
We signed up for 9NetAve's 30-day trial and were promptly billed for a year's service. When we complained, the company offered to cut the billing period to six months, then three. Instead we invoked the money-back guarantee. It took one more phone call to recover our money, and we decided not to review the host.
Have an exit strategy.
Despite the best intentions, relationships sometimes go wrong. Or you may outgrow your Web host for any number of reasons.