How to choose a web host

Posted on 20 Apr 2011 by Alan Burns

It can be tough to choose from the thousands of hosting companies. Which ones will be reliable, which ones are to be avoided? I hope I can give you some tips to help you to find a web hosting company worthy of your business, a safe platform for your site.

Assess your own needs, to decide what sort of host you need. If you’re just hosting a hobby site or sharing photos and vacation stores with friends, then a low cost or even free host may suffice. If you need a host for your business or organization’s site, then you need a truly professional host. I’m going to focus my comments on those of us who need a professional host. While there’s no single characteristic of a good host, here are some of the things that I look for:

Active forum
I prefer a host that runs a discussion forum with participation from both staff and clients. Such forums can be a valuable source of ideas, tips and support from fellow clients. I’ve often found great ideas from other clients, and I’ve given help to clients. It’s also important to me that the hosting company’s staff participate in the forums.

Good help/support department
Almost all of us will need help at some point. I want 24 hours/day, seven days/week support availability. A decent ticketing system is important, that tracks each help request with a unique number so that replies and follow-ups are all tied to that ticket. If you think you might use telephone support, choose a host that offers it. Some have toll-free numbers, though this will not be possible from all points in the world. If applicable, test the phone support response by calling the number.

Good control panel
Wikipedia calls a web hosting control panel: “a web-based interface provided by the hosting company that allows customers to manage their various hosted services in a single place.”
While it’s possible to manage a web hosting plan without a GUI control panel, it’s easier with one than without one. It allows many functions to be done easily and quickly via a web page, rather than using specialized commands or contacting support.

A widely used control panel is advantageous, as it means that you can find help and tips from many sources, not just at your own host’s help desk or forum. WebHostingBuzz uses cPanel/WebHostManager, one of the most popular control panels.

Range of hosting plans
A host with various plans and types of hosting enables you to easily upgrade as your needs grow. It’s much easier to upgrade to a new plan with your existing host than to move to a new hosting company.

Reliability
This can be tough to assess, but you’ll know if you’re with an unreliable host. One measure, and only one, is server uptime. This is the percentage of time during the month that a server was up and available for traffic. WebHostingBuzz regularly publishes the monthly uptime figures for its servers.

Good backbone connections
Good connections to multiple Internet backbones assure that visitors’ traffic will be routed quickly, no matter what part of the world they’re in, and they’ll see fast page loads. This is something that you can easily test on any web host. Using the web host’s domain name, or the domain name of any client of that host, do a ping. In Windows, Start > Run: type “command” and hit enter. In the command window that opens, type “ping domainname.com” and enter. The tool will test how long it takes the hosting server to respond, in milliseconds. The lower the number the better. I’ve read that an average ping of 80 ms. is good, that over 100 ms. is bad. My own site at WebHostingBuzz averages 43 ms.

Overall professionalism
Some web hosts are little more than a couple of guys running servers in their parents’ basement. For your web site you want good data centres, good network connections, and a well run business. While anyone can potentially put together a fancy web site, assess the tone and quality of written communications, the level of information given about the host, replies from hosting staff in the forums, etc. Decide whether these are people who seem serious about their business and supporting clients.

Price?
Notice that I did not list price as an important criterion. While price must be considered, the fact is that no matter which host you choose, there is always one that is cheaper. Cheaper is not better. Hosts that compete primarily on price tend to attract price-sensitive clients. Many of those are the clients who abuse the servers with insecure scripts or spamming. I would rather pay more money to have a host concerned with quality and able to employ good support staff.

As you review various hosts on the criteria I listed, look for third-party comments. Google for reviews of the host, being careful to mentally filter out the inevitable noisy negative review. Any web host will have downtime, and any large business will have some unhappy customers. Don’t let a couple of overly harsh reviews sour you on an otherwise good host.

Once you are hosted, be aware of what’s happening with your host, as situations can change. i was with an excellent host that became an acceptable host after an ownership change, and a lousy host after a further change of ownership. I’ve been with a good host for a while now, and it makes a big difference. With a good host, you can rest more easily that your site is in good hands.

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