Selina Yoon, president of master Communications, discovered with horror that the company Web site disappeared one day. It's a feeling many who have ventured onto the Web have had: First surprise, then panic, then complete frustration.
Master Communications, an eight-employee company based in Cincinnati, publishes and distributes language and cultural-focused books and videos. The lesson Yoon learned? Even savvy entrepreneurs can get taken for a ride by Web consultants and hosting services.
When using an application service provider (ASP) or Internet service provider to host your Web site, you rely on them to make sure the site is accessible to clients, colleagues, and customers. Business depends on it and the hosting service is being paid good money, so you have the right to expect a lot.
"We paid a company to register our domain name and that company also arranged for us to use a local ISP to host our site," says Yoon. "One day, we found out our Web site was shut down. We were down for two weeks. We lost at least a couple hundred customers." When a Web site doesn't work, customers may not give you a second chance.
In Yoon's case, the consulting company hadn't paid the hosting company. However, instead of notifying her of the problem, the hosting company simply cut off service. The dispute took time to resolve.
We talked to hosts and to users and offer this Bill of Rights for businesses that use Web hosting services. Before signing on the dotted line, make sure your vendor can provide all these services. If they can't, take your businesses somewhere else.
NOTIFY ME OF SIGNIFICANT CHANGES
Yoon ditched her first hosting service but her problems weren't over. The second hosting service changed its server and software configuration without notice. The result: Yoon's company's database and shopping cart software, which holds buyer purchases until a final "check out," failed to work.
"It happened on a Friday and we didn't know about it until Monday when we read the nastygrams from our customers," she recalls. "We do a lot of business on the weekends, so I'd estimate the loss was more than $10,000."
If your hosting company changes its infrastructure you have the right to be notified in advance . That way, tests can be staged to make sure the site still works before the host goes live with its changes. "You need specific feedback about the tested integration of your software and their system," says Trevor Scout, CEO for Breakthrough Software, Inc., a San Jose company that specializes in providing ISPs with e-commerce solutions for small businesses. "Otherwise, the investment you made is wasted. It's difficult for small businesses to absorb the costs that result from investing in the wrong e-commerce solution. Make sure your backend software will work with the ISP's platform."
PROVIDE THE UTMOST SECURITY
This goes almost without saying, but you have the right to know that everything about your site is secure.
Security has several parts. First, the host must take stringent steps to make sure that hackers don't break in. That means more than just a firewall. The host must also run intrusion-monitoring software.
Second, if the site includes information that is personal to your users or to your business -- such as a database that stores customer's names or credit card information -- it must be encrypted so that hackers can't read it, even if they do break into the host's systems. Third, if sensitive information is being sent over the Internet, such as credit card information, that must be encrypted en route. A typical way of doing that is to use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology.
Stay away from hosting services that don't explicitly tell you what security measures they employ in all three areas.
GIVE ME CONTROL OVER MY DOMAIN
"Number one on my list is to control your domain name," says Mary Westheimer, CEO of BookZone, Inc., a 10-employee Scottsdale, Arizona Internet service provider for the publishing industry. Sometimes when you hire somebody to host or develop a Web site, they obtain ownership of the domain name, such as www.yourbusiness.com. Unless you stipulate otherwise, that person retains control over domain name. If they go out of business or simply forget to renew ownership of that name, you can lose the domain. And if the domain name is no longer valid, users can't get to your site.
The solution: Even if a consultant or hosting service is used to obtain the domain name, make sure you are listed as the administrative and technical contact for that name. That means that you, not the consultant hosting service, control the domain name. It may be a bit more work on your part, but it will protect the site and all the content from suddenly disappearing.
SHOW ME WHAT YOU'RE MADE OF
Ask the host about their own connectivity. Backbones refer to the main conduit of the information highway and you have the right to know which one they use and how they access it. That bit of knowledge relates directly to how efficiently, and reliably, your customers or clients access your site.
"It should be like a pre-nuptial question," says BookZone's Westheimer. "You have the right to know how long the hosting service has been around and what will happen if they go away." Specifically, if they do stop hosting, will you be able to gain access to the site so you can transfer it to another host?
It's also important to know what support services they will provide. "You deserve 24/7 tech support," says Lucinda Belden, CEO of Diverse Web Options, a small Dallas-based Web development business. "You should get live support, e-mail, and Web-based support. They should also give out a cell phone number."
BE PREPARED FOR A DISASTER
Your site is hosted on a large server and that server is located in a building. If that building is destroyed by fire, flood, tornado, or other disaster, what then?
Make sure your hosting service has a disaster recovery plan and redundant systems that minimize the downtime such a disaster would cause. In addition, they should provide a downtime guarantee, which says that that the hosting service guarantees a certain level of reliability.
Ask for that plan in writing. Our experts say that if the disaster contingency plans aren't in writing, chances are the host hasn't really thought the issue through.
DON'T PLAY PRICING GAMES
Some hosting services brag about being free. Of course, little in our world is truly free, so make sure you know what every single item will cost you. A hosting service, for instance, may provide a specific amount of storage capacity for free, then charge for more. Many businesses can start off using just the free services but the time will eventually come to expand the site. Learn precisely what services are covered by the free offer and how much any additional services will cost.
For example, HyperMart, a free hosting service, provides 20MB of disk space free and charges between $20 and $115 a month for an online store, depending on the number of products sold. If you ask, they will become very specific about how their sliding scale works.
Some hosts still charge on the basis of how much traffic your site receives, says Westheimer of BookZone. That approach to billing is counterproductive. "You want a robust site with lots of traffic," she says. "You don't want to be penalized for doing your site right and getting lots of traffic."
If you do your homework and protect your rights, contracting a Web site host should be relatively trouble-free. However, with rights come responsibilities. Take it upon yourself to understand the Internet and Web hosting processes.
"We see that sometimes people do their homework and come to us with a good list of questions," says Westheimer. "But after we give them the answers, some have no idea what we told them. Some of them go into a form of paralysis. They have the information but don't know what to do with it."
Looking for a company to host your Web site? Here are a few to get you started. Many of these hosts offer a mix of free and pay services for both e-commerce and informational sites.