A Small Business Guide to Picking a Web Host Provider

by Pam Baker

Despite similar marketing claims, Web hosting companies vary greatly, and sales gimmicks rule the day. Here's how to sort fact from fluff and find the perfect hosting company for your business.

Just from the ads and marketing copy, you might think all Web-hosting providers are created equal and that price is the only differentiator. But that is not the case, because despite nearly identical marketing claims, hosting companies vary greatly on many fronts and sales gimmicks are the order of the day.

"One gimmick to watch for is 'unlimited' Web hosting. A lot of companies offer it, but it doesn't really exist," warned Kevin Ohashi, founder of Review Signal, a consumer review website that specializes in Web-hosting reviews and uses what people say on social media about companies as the source of its reviews.

"It's a marketing gimmick. It sounds nice, but unless you are planning to upload an enormous amount of content, such as large videos and high quality photo galleries, you are unlikely to use more than a few megabytes," said Ohashi.

For a frame of reference, Ohashi refers to Wordpress. It's the most popular website software, and yet it's just about 5MB. "That doesn't mean companies offering these plans are bad; they are likely to span the quality spectrum like any other type of company," he said.

What They Didn't Say About Their Great Hosting Plan

Another common gimmick is to present hosting plans in ways that sound good, but they don't measure up in practice.

"I've seen hosting companies that provide unlimited bandwidth and disk space for their shared hosting plans at super cheap prices, and from my experience people are easily hooked on these seemingly cool deals," said Lam Woon Cherk, owner of a small Web design firm called PanoRazzi.  

"But once you deploy the site, you find that it's slow and sometimes goes down; because most hosting companies provide 'unlimited bandwidth and storage' by sacrificing speed and reliability," Cherk said. "They host as many websites as they can on their server to offset the cost."

Unfortunately small businesses usually don't find this out until after the launch. Case in point: Smitsy, an online site showcasing and selling artwork directly from emerging artists.

"When we built our prototype, we were concerned about controlling costs and did researched different providers," explained Alex Joa, founder of Smitsy. "It was difficult to compare as reviews for all providers seem to be 4 to 5 out of a possible 5 with little differentiation. We chose a provider based mainly on cost."

While the site ran smoothly at first, they ran into problems after opening the site for beta testing. "We quickly saw issues with speed -- pages took 5-7 seconds to load," Joa continued. "We did all we could to optimize the site but still had slow page loads.

Based on a recommendation from developers he knew, Joa tried another provider. "The same page that took 5-7 seconds to load on our original site took less than 1 second, about 800 ms -- not the best but a vast improvement," he said. "Since we changed providers, our bounce rates have decreased by more than 10 percent."

Look beyond the hosting companies' oft-touted service claims, such as good up times and ample storage, and find out what your expected page load speeds will be. Speed does matter in everything from page loads to analytics and email. Ask developers and other users for their experiences with page upload and other speeds before you sign with the hosting company.

"The moral of the story is to choose a company that offers good speed and reliability, because you normally won't need unlimited bandwidth and storage," said Cherk. "And when you do, you need a more powerful, dedicated server – maybe even your own server room."

You Want to Talk to a Real Person for Tech Support?

Yet another gimmick among Web hosting companies is to claim 24/7 support, which all-too-often means you can't reach a living person -- ever.

"For the most part, Web hosts offer automated support. Even their help desks try to provide automated responses before you can access a human," said Rob Skelton, founder of Affordable Web, a web design firm, and a former Google employee.  

The problem is that maintaining a support staff cuts deeply into profits. "It's easy to understand that if their profit margin on a $7 per month account is $1 or $2, they don't want to spend any man hours keeping that customer happy," said Skelton.

One unhappy customer or one server with ongoing issues doesn't really affect the rest of the host's business; those monthly subscription dollars keep rolling in.

"Without integrity," said Skelton, "Hosting companies are tempted to provide poor service knowing that they will get away with it in the short term. Of course in the long term they get a bad name, but that doesn't seem to cross their mind."

Skelton has cancelled about half of the hosts he has used in the last 15 years because of poor performance or service. "It is always a big call to make, because it takes a lot of effort to find a new host and transfer your sites," he said.

It is extremely important to research how well a hosting company actually provides support before you sign. The whole point of using a hosting service is to relieve you of the need to hire a bunch of in-house IT staff. But if no one's home at the hosting service, you still don't have the IT support you need.

"Tech-support response should be a small business owner's number one priority," said Chris Waldron, founder of his eponymous Web services company. "Up-time and costs are so competitive these days, there is no sense in saving a penny now only to waste employee hours later dealing with support to get something fixed."

So how do you research how well a hosting company delivers support?

"I recommend testing out the support system with a few basic questions before committing to a company," says Review Signal's Kevin Ohashi. "If you aren't very satisfied with their customer support as a potential customer, you will be furious when something goes wrong and you're an actual customer."

Choose a Hosting Service Based on Your Own Tech Skill Level

Choosing a hosting company has as much to do with your skill level as it does with the capabilities of the hosting company.

"If you are completely non-technical, you'll want a service that provides backups and patches for you regularly," said Phil Anderson, founder of Budget Simple, an online budgeting service. "If you are a control freak, you'll want a service, like Amazon or Linode, that lets you do everything yourself," he said.

For the most part, the technology that hosting companies use will be the least of your concerns.

"From a technology perspective, everything for small businesses has become commoditized at the entry level," explains Ohashi. "Most Web hosting companies will offer some kind of LAMP (LinuxApache MySql PHP) setup that allows customers to run most of the popular platforms, such as Wordpress, Drupal, Joomla, Magento, etc. For the more advanced users, Web hosting is growing more specialized and technical, but for most small businesses, that isn't relevant yet."

Add to Your Web Host Checklist

In addition to the major points covered above, here are a few other items that belong on your criteria list.


First and foremost: how well does the hosting company provide security and compliance services, especially if you accept credit card payments online. PCI compliance, for example, has an exacting set of rules that must extend to your website. Don't let a hosting service give you lip-service on security and compliance issues; find out exactly what they do and how well they do it.

Backup, recovery and upgrades

You also need to know how often the hosting company upgrades its hardware and software, and what it offers in terms of backup and recovery should the worst happen.

Be aware that some companies use antiquated equipment -- mainly because their margins are so low that they either can't easily afford upgrades or they hesitate to do so. Further, servers in a hosting company are just as likely to suffer a natural disaster as your company; you need to check and make sure the hosting company provides offsite data backups and doesn't keep them on a server in the same location as your website.

Website Wipe Out

Next, rethink hosting all your online assets with the same hosting service; sometimes that leads to a different kind of disaster.

"We come across cases where someone hosts both their website and their podcast on the same service, only to have the podcast become so popular that the website host shuts down their account and website," said Rob Walch, vice president of Podcaster Relations at libsyn, a podcast hosting service.

Granted, Walch works for a podcasting hosting service; you would certainly expect him to say such a thing. However, he is also right. There are cases of a video going viral or a podcast becoming popular and the hosting service shutting down the whole kit and caboodle so that their systems are not overwhelmed. Be sure to consider such a possibility when selecting a hosting service, and then think again before you launch any additional products that might take out your website.

More Tips on Choosing a Web Host

Further, Tom Churm, owner and creator of start-up online clock website offers these additional tips in selecting and using a hosting service:

  • Never buy your domain name from your Web host
  • Read the small print in hosting contracts. Many small hosts can simply kick you off their servers if your site suddenly becomes popular and gets too much traffic. There may be other troublesome language there, too.
  • Consider the advantages of easy scalability offered by using a Cloud Hosting Service
  • Stick to LAMP hosting as Microsoft servers are more prone to hacking attacks and vulnerabilities.

Last, but certainly not least, be sure to check for compatibility issues before you make any changes in hosting your site.

"Six months ago I started a blog on WordPress.com," said Leslye Schumacher, talent analyst and management consultant at TalentQ Consulting.  "I didn't know about the whole WordPress.com versus WordPress.org morass."

In case you don't know already, WordPress.com is the free version; WordPress.org is the self-hosted version.

"I design the blog, I'm using all kinds of widgets, it looks great," she said. "Three weeks ago I decide that I want to move the blog to a self-hosted WordPress.org account so that I can use Plug-ins, which WordPress.com does not allow. You can't run any Java Script on WordPress.com, either. When I originally set up the blog, I didn't know any of that, or I would have started it on a self-hosted site to begin with and saved myself hours of hassle."

After trying four different hosting companies and reading everything she could find on moving a blog from WordPress.com to WordPress.org, she still couldn't get it to work even though she knows html and can do basic java script coding. Plus, she does some Android development as well. In other words, she's no Luddite.

"It was a disaster," she said. "Finally last week I tried another hosting company who migrated the site over for me, or at least most of it."

"What doesn't migrate over are your followers or email subscribers or any premium theme you might be using," she warned. "I'm still waiting to hear from WordPress on how to get my subscribers and followers onto my new account."

Now you know what to look for, and what to avoid, in hosting services. Dig deep and find the answers you need before you find yourself in a quagmire. Better to have a little pain in the beginning than a profit-draining emergency mid-launch.

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday May 1st 2013
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