Unless you were under a rock in the Outback on November 20, you probably heard about ClickFrenzy. “The sale that stops a nation” turned into “the sale stopped by a nation” when their web servers went into meltdown in the opening minutes, despite earlier assurances that they were ready for the demand. Your startup business may never attract that amount of traffic, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give careful consideration to your web hosting needs.
As mentioned in my post about choosing a domain name you don’t have to sign up for hosting at the same time as you register a domain name. In fact, you shouldn’t, until you’ve done some more homework. Preferably after you’ve engaged a Web Designer, who can help you make the right choice.
The main things to consider are performance, features and cost. Not just for now, but for the future.
1. Web Hosting Performance
You might only have a small number of visitors each day compared to the ClickFrenzy volume, but you want them to have a good experience. Slow-loading sites mean fast-exiting visitors. What makes a site perform slowly? It could be:
- Slow infrastructure from your web hosting supplier, if they aren’t using a modern high-speed backbone network;
- Overloaded servers – unless you’re on a dedicated server (which costs big bucks) you’ll be sharing a server with a number of other websites. This is common practice, but can have drawbacks such as poor performance if the server lacks ‘grunt’ or another site consumes too much bandwidth;
- Your own site may be overloaded with very large images or a slow, bulky database.
- Read the small print before signing up to any service.
- Check Whirlpool forums to learn from others’ experience.
- Consider your projected growth and anticipate peak periods (eg. Christmas trading) and future expansion (eg. videos).
- Find out what it will cost to upgrade your chosen service level.
Uptime (and downtime):
Another factor to consider is reliability. There’s no point having a fast service if it stops working every second week. You won’t find a web hosting service offering guaranteed 100% uptime. But they should offer 99% as an absolute minimum. It could be 99.1% or up to 99.999% – the more 9’s the better! Even 99.999% means 8 hours of downtime in a year, but that’s hopefully spread across a couple of scheduled overnight maintenance windows.
If your website’s transations need to travel across the globe and back, their performance can be slower than local transactions. My recommendation would always be to host .com.au websites in Australia. If you trade globally, and especially if you run a .com domain, hosting in the US makes sense.
Where your web hosting server is located can affect not only the website’s speed, but possibly your SEO performance. If someone in Australia searches Google, it’s said that the search engines take note of where the server’s IP address originates and may not rank overseas sites as highly.
2. Features of Web Hosting Service
What features does the web hosting service offer? Will they meet your needs? Are there a bunch of extras they offer that you won’t really use and therefore don’t need to pay for? These can include:
Disk space and Bandwidth limits:
- How much disk space will you need? Even a large site probably won’t consume more than 50-100MB of disk space, so don’t get caught in the trap of thinking the more space offered the better. Some web hosts offer “unlimited space” (although you’ll usually find an actual figure mentioned somewhere in the fine print, because they know that 100GB is near enough to unlimited). If they’re offering “unlimited” something, you can bet there’ll be tradeoffs in other areas that they do limit.
- Bandwidth limits (or “data transfer” amounts) again don’t need to be “unlimited” or very high, unless you’re hosting a lot of videos or music or sending/receiving very large email attachments. 1-3GB per month is probably sufficient. Be aware of what happens if you exceed the limit – will it slow your site, or will you be hit by an extra bill?
- Be aware that the disk space and bandwidth usage includes email if you’re using their email service (which you probably will if you want a nice matching email address like firstname.lastname@example.org…) You can keep your email disk usage down by deleting emails or archiving them via your email client (eg. to an Outlook PST).
Database types and limits:
- Will you need a database? Maybe not right now, but in the future? Databases are used for all types of things, including blogs, photo galleries, some FAQ pages, daily tips, etc.
- Dont get caught out – some cheap hosting services limit you to a single database and hence restrict what you can add to your website.
- Will you be using a Content Management System (eg. WordPress, Joomla, ModX)? This could determine what software and database support is needed.
- Some systems, and web developers, work with one database type or another. The common languages include ASP, which uses Microsoft Access and must run on a Windows server, and PHP, which uses MySQL and generally runs on Linux servers. Speak to your web designer about their recommendation.
Security and Backups:
- What security does your web hosting service provide for your website and its data? Do they backup daily? And where are those backups kept? Is it an offsite location? In another city? Just last year, an Australian web hosting provider (the now defunct Distribute.IT) was hacked and not only were the websites destroyed but their onsite backups were also corrupted. 4800 websites were lost. Completely. It’s worth paying more for peace of mind that your website is protected.
- Do you need Secure Server facilities (SSL)? If you’re collecting credit card information on your website, the answer has to be yes. (If you use PayPal or a banking service, you can rely on their security instead.) The hosting service may offer a shared SSL certificate for free or a small fee, and this may suffice. If you want your own certificate, you’ll need to pay for it separately (shop around) and renew it regularly.
- What contact methods are offered by your web hosting service? The best will have 24/7 phone support, but some will be 24/7 email or online chat support, others could be business hours only. If your website is selling for you 24/7, you’ll want support to match.
- Be aware of which country provides the support. If they are overseas it may be harder to contact them during your normal business hours. And if they’re going to conduct maintenance that may affect your website, they’re likely to do it “overnight” – which might be your critical daytime business hours!
- Do they offer online documentation? Or an online community forum where you can get questions answered?
3. Cost of Web Hosting
Price isn’t everything, and paying a high price for your web hosting does not necessarily mean you get the best service. Nor should you pay for advanced features that you don’t need. On the other end of the scale, a free or very cheap service will almost certainly mean some compromise.
- Sure, there is free hosting available, but with caveats. Usually they make their money by running advertising (even annoying banners) on your site. These might be ok for personal sites, but it’s not a good look for a business website. Their support response times could also leave you wanting.
- Cheap hosting (less than $10 a month) may seem like a good way to keep your costs down, but could let you down as soon as something goes wrong and you need support, or want to recover from non-existent backups. And if you need to upgrade the service (for more disk space or bandwidth, or extra databases) you might find it’s no longer cheap at all. Most cheap services are hosted outside Australia.
- For hosting on a local (Australian) shared server, expect to pay from $15-30 per month.
- A dedicated server could go upwards of $100 monthly.
- Check all the options that a hosting service offers, so that you’ll know what the extra costs might be if you need to increase your disk space, bandwidth, databases or subdomains.
Having said all that, don’t stress too much about making the right decision. You can always change your hosting – whether by upgrading the service from your chosen provider, or by moving your website to another hosting service.
Right Hand Design makes use of a reliable hosting service, based in a secure Sydney data centre. Find out more at http://righthanddesign.com.au/web-hosting.html