What the best web hosts have

The key to successfully choosing a suitable web host for your website needs is to be very clear about what you want your website to be and how you see it developing. Considerations of bandwidth, disk space and uptime/downtime, along with tools and features to ease your website creation and maintenance process, are all elements of what to look for in choosing the web host service best suited to your Internet needs. For example, online retailers need to assure their customers that all transactions are secure, while owners of personal websites need to be able to frequently update content with ease and need the space to host photos and videos. Your budget and technical expertise will also influence your decision.

There's a great deal of advice on the Internet about how to choose a web hosting service and the relative merits of each company. However, much of the advice is from companies that want you to purchase their web services. We found the most useful and objective advice at sites that professionally evaluate or write about computer products and services. See the Our Sources section.

Business setup

Look for a web host that has a long track record.

  • Check with the Better Business Bureau. See if the web host service is registered there, and if there are any complaints against them. Also search the Internet for forums that discuss people's experiences with the business.
  • Ask whether the business owns its own data center. If not, the company may rely on another organization to provide the computing power.
  • Find out what customers think. Contact the web host and ask for references from long-term customers.

Reliability and redundancy

When the web host's servers are down, your website is effectively closed for business.

  • Confirm that the host is directly connected to the backbone of the Internet. Some hosts are resellers that may have their computers in between yours and their service provider. Experts say a web hosting service should have at least one T3 line directly connected to the Internet. Check the host's website or ask customer service. It's a good opportunity to test customer support responsiveness.
  • Make sure the host provides backup and redundancy. Redundancy means that your site is located on more than one hard drive. A reliable host will have your site on two different computers with redundant backbone connections.
  • Get statistics on the uptime/downtime percentage of the web service provider. Uptime is often measured in percentages of 9s: 99.999 percent uptime means that the web servers were down for just over 5 minutes in a year, while 99.9 percent uptime reflects a downtime of almost 9 hours a year.
  • Review uptime guarantees. Find out what the qualifications are for receiving credit for downtime. For example, planned downtime for maintenance may not be considered an outage of service. Some reviews say that web hosting services' guarantees lack teeth and that the financial credit provided for lost time is insufficient.
  • Find out about backup power for web servers. The host should have a backup power generator to use during short-term power outages. Location information can be found on the web host's site.

Customer service and support

Even experienced web masters run into problems when maintaining their websites, so knowledgeable and readily available customer support is a must.

  • How do you contact customer support? Phone contact -- preferably through a toll-free number and email support -- is often available, while live chat puts you in direct contact with a service rep who can guide you to the solution to your problems.
  • When is help available? Find out the hours of customer support for each method of contact. How quickly are emails responded to? Is there a phone number for emergencies?
  • Look at the online help documentation. Check if it's easy to access, well organized and understandable. Video tutorials are especially useful to follow along with if you're using the service provider's web creation tools.
  • Test customer service and tech support with email messages and phone calls. Keep track of how easy (or hard) it is to get in touch and how long it takes them to respond.

Tools

Successful websites need a variety of tools for their creation, maintenance and improvement.

  • Investigate the web host's tools for web site creation. These range from an all-inclusive service that creates and maintains the website for you, to one that provides site builder tools and templates for you to build your own site. Also check out ConsumerSearch's web design software report.
  • Marketing tools are valuable for all websites. Mailing lists, search engine optimization and search engine submission tools are all essential to help others find your website.
  • E-commerce sites need specialized tools. If you're selling merchandise, your web service host should allow you to create your own shopping cart and Paypal (or other online payment) access, or make it easy for you to link to a third-party shopping cart provider. If you're selling digital goods such as e-books or videos, verify that the service provides secure downloads.
  • What's your language? Professional and experienced web masters should check that the web service supports the particular programming languages they use, such as PERL.
  • Keep in mind how you want your website to grow, and choose a service provider with the necessary tools. Site tools should be easy to use, with clear documentation.

Resources and limitations

The basic resources that the web host service provides may have limitations.

  • Check the file types and sizes that the web host allows. There may be a monthly limit on the size of your files, as well as a restriction on the size of individual files. This is especially important if you plan on using video or audio files on your website.
  • Find out how much bandwidth you have to work with. Your allowed bandwidth will affect not only types and sizes of files you can use on your website, but how quickly they can be accessed by website visitors. Investigate any penalties and additional costs that apply if you exceed your bandwidth allowance. Some providers allow for variable bandwidth allowances, which is especially useful for e-commerce sites with seasonal fluctuations in traffic.
  • As your website grows and expands, you may need more than one domain name. Ensure that the web service provider allows multiple domain names within one service package.
  • Email addresses that contain your web address make your website more professional and credible. Check that the web host will allow you to have an adequate number of email accounts, both for now and for your site's future growth.
  • Always read the fine print. Look for terms such as "excessive resources" and "normal usage" to see if these introduce any limitations and additional costs on services that are advertised as "unlimited."

Prices and contracts

Be clear about what's included for the price and for the length of your commitment.

  • Review the price of the service closely and check for any additional costs, such as setup fees. If the service includes the registration of the domain name, investigate whether it's less expensive to do this through a domain registration service (see our related report).
  • Confirm the length of your commitment to the web service provider. Investigate how easy it is to leave the provider and any penalties you may incur in doing so. Is there a money-back guarantee if their services don't meet your needs?
  • Be sure you can make changes to your service as needed. Choosing a provider that allows you to upgrade or even downgrade your service agreement means that you can remain with them as your website changes. If you decide to leave the web host, how easy is it to transfer your domain name to your new provider?
  • Free isn't always free. Free web host services usually make their money by placing advertisements on your website. Investigate what kinds of advertisements will be placed on your pages, as this will affect visitors' perceptions of your site.

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