What to look for -- and what to avoid -- when evaluating companies to host your small business website or small business ecommerce site.
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.
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.
"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).
"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.
What about Availability and Reliability?
A good Web hosting company "should guarantee a certain level of uptime or site availability," said Walter Wimberly, a Web developer and the owner of Walt Design. "And a small business owner needs to know how this is measured. Some hosts only start counting if they are down for longer than a given period of time, which is no good."
Wimberly (as well as many other Web developers) suggests you look for a Web hosting company that guarantees a minimum of 99.7 percent availability (meaning that being down .03 percent of the time is acceptable). He also advises small business owners to check how often the Web hosting company performs backups.
"They should provide nightly backups, keeping the most recent week's worth at a minimum," he said. "This way if your site gets hacked, or a development issue goes wrong, you can get to a last known good point."
Similarly, don't be shy about asking Web hosting companies if they have a disaster recovery plan -- and what it is. "Every hosting company should have a backup emergency plan, in the case of fire, flood, earthquake, etc.," stated Matt Sadler of StartUpMe, a blog for entrepreneurs. Stuff happens. Servers get damaged or fail. It's up to you to make sure your Web site is protected if the worst happens.
Can Your Web Host Grow with Your Business?
While your business may be small now, that may not always be the case. So be sure to go with a Web hosting company that can grow with you -- i.e., allows you to easily upgrade to a different plan.
"Maybe right now you need shared hosting, but in the future you may want to upgrade to VPS hosting," explained Jordan Saniuk, who founded his own Web hosting company, Saniuk.net. "Will you have to look for a new host or can you be accommodated?"
On a related note, beware of Web hosting companies that sell you more space or services than you need (for more money). Knowing what features and resources your business actually needs -- and finding a Web hosting company that allows you to start with a basic plan and then move up as you grow -- can save you a lot of money and hassle.
Beware of Hidden Fees
No one likes hidden fees. So before choosing a Web host, "don't just ask 'what do I get,' but ask what is not included," advised Lahle Wolfe, the president of LA Wolfe Web Marketing Services. For example, is a shopping cart and other ecommerce applications included in the Web hosting plan you are considering or does it cost extra?
Marc Mackenzie of Just Eyewear also suggests finding out if there is a fee to restore a backup; a limit on the number of files that can be stored (even though the plan claims "unlimited"); and a limit to the number of FTP accounts and/or MySQL databases.
Other Important Features
Other features to look for in a Web hosting company:
Email: How many email accounts are allowed with each plan, and what is the amount of email storage? Also, check that spam filtering is included.
Add-on and Sub-Domains: How many add-on and sub-domains does the Web hosting company provide -- and are they free? If not, how much does it cost to add a domain or sub-domain?
Site Building Tools: Do you need help building a website? Check or ask if the Web hosting company provides free site building tools -- or what they charge to help you build and design a website. Note: Many small business owners are increasingly choosing Web hosting companies based on their site building tools.
However, "many of these site builders use proprietary tools and content management systems that build sites that only work with that particular company," said Wolfe. "In other words, if you try to move your site somewhere else, it will not work properly, or it will be converted, say, from a .asp or .php site to a .html site, meaning you lose all your old page URLs and end up with a big mess. So ask 'If I use your tools to build my website, is it 100 percent portable?'"
Ecommerce Support: Does the Web hosting company offer shopping carts and other ecommerce features, like SSL certification, merchant accounts and PCI compliance (for credit card processing) – either as part of the Web hosting package or for an additional fee?
Full Access to Your Web Hosting Account
Many small business owners hire Web developers or agencies to create and manage their Web site, which is fine. But if you go that route, make sure you have full access to your hosted account, in the event you want to switch agencies or decide to manage your website in house.
"Small business owners should own the hosting account and, if necessary, simply grant access to external developers," argued Eric Salerno, who runs Red Ember Marketing -- and has worked with several hosting companies. Too many small business owners, he said, "don't know a thing about their Web site hosting -- or their Web site -- because it's controlled completely by their marketing agency, or worse, not controlled at all," and wind up paying for it.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about IT and small business issues and runs a blog for and about small businesses.
Web Hosting Providers Comparison Chart
||$5.59 (for Windows Deluxe Plan, if you
purchase 12 mos.)
|$7.95 (for Power package)
||$7.46 for first 3 mos.,
$9.95/mo. after, if you
purchase 12 mos.
||Disk Space/ Bandwidth
||150 GB/2 GB
||Add-on and Sub-Domains
||Up to 100 included
||Up to 1,000 included
||2,500 POP3/IMAP accounts
||Unlimited POP mailboxes
||24/7 phone, email, live chat
||24/7 phone, email, live chat
||24/7 phone, email, Web
||24/7 phone, email, live chat
||24/7 phone, email
||Free/Included (though SSL Certificate is an extra $29.99/yr)
||$99.95/mo. For Yahoo
Standard Plan, which
includes Web hosting
|Site Builder Tools
||$8.09/mo. For Deluxe 10-page website if you purchase 12 mos.