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5 Guidelines for selecting a Hosting Provider

What is a hosting provider? A hosting provider“hosts” your website on their servers. They sell you file storage, database access, server processing power and email management. There are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of hosting services. Choosing the right host is one of the most important first steps in setting up your own business website. Since your website is essential to your marketing effort your hosting service shouldn’t be a weak link.

Given this, there are a number of guidelines that every small business person should bear in mind when selecting their host. If you’ve read the article entitled “5 Guidelines for a small business website” you’ll recognize the similarities between them.

  1. Your host should allow you to be in complete control of your site.
  2. You should be able to manage your site without a lot of new technical skills.
  3. You should be able to easily add or modify the content.
  4. Your account should be able to grow as your business grows.
  5. You should be able to easily get effective help.

You have probably noticed that I didn’t mention cost. The cost of obtaining high quality hosting continues to decline. However, your need for quality services increases as your website becomes more important for your business. For this reason I would not use price as a determining factor in choosing a host. The difference between $4 per month and $20 per month is essentially nill when considered against the importance of the site to your business. Be suspicious of cheap business hosting.

You should be in complete control of your site

Every host is different and each host can configure their servers differently. Some hosts require you to ask them to modify settings rather than giving you access to those settings. Troubleshooting and tweaking is much easier if the settings are available to you. It’s not important that you understand all of this now, however it is important to know that you may need to access this stuff in the future.

  • DNS records – you should be able to change domain name “pointers” without intervention of your host
  • .htaccess file – you should be able to create, upload and modify an .htaccess file
  • File permissions – you should be able to set and reset your own file permissions
  • File manager – Every host has some version of a file manager however having a file manager that is easy to use is very useful
  • Drag & Drop interface for moving and copying files from one directory (folder) to another
  • Unzip – the ability to upload a file and then unzip it to a specific location
  • Zip – the ability to zip a group of files together before downloading. This is especially useful for backups.
  • Rename – it is very useful to be able to easily rename a file on the server
  • Edit – it can also be very useful to be able to open and edit a file on the server
  • PHP configuration – you should be able to custom configure your php.config file.

You should be able to manage your site without a lot of new technical skills

This really comes down to ease of control panel use, productivity enhancements and availability of accurate online help.

Ease of control panel use. Are all of your options obviously available? Is the control panel crowded with advertising of the host’s other services? Is it easy to navigate from one section of the control panel to another? cPanel is an example of an easy to use control panel interface that many hosts use.

Productivity enhancements make routine tasks quick and easy. One good example of this is the file manager mentioned above. If your host can’t unzip a file then it takes quite a bit more time to upload packaged files. The drag and drop interface means you don’t have to type out the exact folder structure when you want to move or copy a file. This is typical in a windows environment but is often not the case in a unix environment. It should also be very easy to backup your files and your database. An image manager can also be very nice for on-the-fly image adjustments for images already on the server.

Availability of accurate online help can be difficult to asses. Generally I would look at their help files to see if they are related to current versions of the software available. For example, if your host has WordPress help files from version 2.2 then they won’t be germain to you when installing WordPress 2.8. Look for help files in a variety of formats. I find video help files to be the most useful. Type a search query in the help system and see what comes up. If the answers are typically a paragraph long then they probably aren’t much help.

You should be able to easily modify the content of your site.

In the first place, a file manager that has the characteristics described above is a good starting point. If your new website is WordPress based then it’s pretty easy to keep track of which files have changed. However, if you are building a standard html website using a website manager like Expression Web and having Front Page Extensions available from your host can make keeping your site current much easier.

The second element of this is to be able to easily configure an FTP client. Some hosts confine ftp access to ftp only directories. This means you have to upload your files to the ftp directory and then move them into your website directory. This adds an unnecessary step to the process which will become frustrating in a hurry. The host should have a good tutorial on configuring an ftp client like FileZilla that uses the same terminology as their ftp system uses. Most of my help requests have come from following directions posted by the host that use different terminology than I actually encounter when performing the task. This is a big pain in the butt.

Your account should be able to grow as your business grows.

Things you are likely to add as your website grows include additional databases, additional domains and subdomains, additional storage and additional bandwidth. If you start selling items from your site you probably want an dedicated SSL certificate along with a dedicated IP address. Keep the prices of those things in mind when comparison shopping. These can be expensive add-ons.

In addition, if your website becomes very busy, you may want to change to dedicated hosting. It’s good to know that your host offers dedicated hosting so you can get their help changing from the shared server to your new dedicated server. If they don’t offer dedicated hosting that can be an indication that they are a “reseller”. I strongly discourage you from purchasing hosting from a reseller.

You should be able to easily get effective help.

The best possible scenario is when you can call a toll free number, wait on hold for a short period of time and then get a competent engineer on the phone that knows how to fix your problem. It’s hard to get that from a hosting account that costs $4 per month. Some hosts only provide “live chat” support. I find that very unsatisfying when trying to solve a real problem. It’s ok if you’re just looking for some information but it’s frustrating when trying to solve something immediately. I would spend what ever it takes to get 24 hour phone support.

Of course there is phone support and then there is good phone support. Often phone support is answered by a screener who only knows how to solve simple problems or who has a wrote script to follow. If your problem is outside of their skill level then they have to “escalate” it to someone else. Generally to someone else who isn’t actually available at the moment. That can be just as bad as live chat. Look at how they describe their phone support, you might get a clue to the kind of support they offer. Look at online reviews to see what other users say about their support.

From my perspective this is the singly most important feature to look for in a host.

Conclusion

I have hosting accounts with IPower, LFC Hosting and BlueHost with WordPress installed on all three. While I like all 3 hosting companies there is no question that BlueHost is the best for hosting a WordPress based site. It is the only one of the three that meets all of the criteria I describe above. I haven’t had a better support experience than I had with BlueHost. Mid day on a weekend I was trying to install an encryption script (don’t worry, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to do this). I followed the instructions on the website and it didn’t work. After trying this a couple of times and searching for answers on Google I called tech support. Withing a couple of minutes I got an actual engineer who was able to understand and solve the problem in a few moments and who was able to explain to me what I had done wrong. This is the primary reason that we have chosen to teach the class and develop the tutorials based on BlueHost rather than some other hosting provider.