Choosing a hosting company for your website should be an informed decision, because once taken your choice will affect how your website is seen (or even if it can be seen) by the rest of the world. It can also influence whether your website is picked up by search engines, how it ranks in their SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), which obviously directly alters the amount of traffic to your site. It may even result in your site being blacklisted by search engines if you end up hosting your site in a "bad neighbourhood"! Yet, despite all these ramifications, the choice of host is often made by the simple expedient of choosing a "free" host or a "one cent" host, or because someone knocks £5 off the price for the first 3 months.
Is your business worth so little to you that you begrudge paying the price of a pizza to give it the advantages of a secure, fast and search engine-friendly home?
Beware of hosts bearing big numbers!
People are often blinded by by mind-numbingly huge numbers thrown at them, particularly by the very large hosting companies. Favourites are bandwidth and hard disk space - the truth is less than 1% of their customers will get close to using either the quoted bandwidth figures or the hard disk space. So effectively these hosts are able sell that same unused space and bandwidth again and again, cramming more free accounts on the same server. Distracted by this sleight of hand, customers will often forget to check out even more important factors of their new hosting account.
In fact, the key criteria to a fast host are the type of CPU in the server, the CPU speed, the amount of RAM available to your website as well as the overall number of active websites being operated from the server.
On a shared web host account - the commonest kind, these details are often lacking or vague on the sign up pages. The hosting company will hope you're mesmerised by the promise of 15 Terabytes (15,000Gb) of bandwidth, etc. That is because the free host may not want to reveal how old, slow or overcrowded is the server being employed on your behalf. Particularly with free hosts, the more websites a hosting company can put on a single server the lower the cost for them but the smaller your share of the crucial server resources, like CPU time and memory, your website will receive and the slower your website will appear to be to its visitors.
Server uptime and when is a guarantee not a guarantee?
To ensure the availability of your site you should ask your free host, what is the guaranteed uptime (website availability) in the Service Level Agreement? There is a SLA right? Are its provisions guaranteed? We mean a money-back guarantee, of course. Oh, wait a minute - you're not paying them anything so there is no "money-back" guarantee. In fact, without a financial penalty of any kind there is no "guarantee" at all - after all they can promise you the moon but it's worthless - just words. Not the sort of guarantee you'd want to base your business website on right?
Moreover, is there 24/7 tech support? If not, are their working hours compatible with the timezone in which you live? In you live in London do you want to depend on Texas time! What happens if your business website suddenly becomes "unavailable" while their tech support is offline twelve hours a day?
Also is the server itself housed in a data centre with redundant connections to the Internet, so as to avoid down time; has the data centre got backup power supplies? How about proper fire and intruder prevention systems? There are different types of data centre, they are not all as resilient as you may expect. Here in the UK they are officially categorised from Tier One (Basic) to Tier Four (Super Duper - used by Global companies).
Leaving aside the free or one cent hosts for a second, another common mistake that business users make is to let their web designer host their newly-created website. This is an understandable decision on the part of the client. He's probably never setup a hosting account or FTP'd html files to a remote server and here is a designer saying I'll do it all for £50 a year, it'll be up and running today and you don't have to mess around technically with anything. Yet it can be terrible decision. You need to ask the sort of questions you want answering by any hosting company. Is designer's server in a data centre or is the server hosted on an spare computer in your web designer's office at the end of a domestic broadband connection? Don't laugh, one UK company discovered several hundred websites being hosted on a teenager's home computer! Don't panic if you are hosted by your designer, most adopt a professional attitude to hosting clients' websites but do make sure he is hosting your site in a data centre, and he has technical cover for your website if and when he goes on holiday.
As you can see, web hosting companies are simply NOT the same the world over or even in the same country.
More pitfalls of free hosting
If you are going to choose a host on price then you will miss out on the best hosts. Even simple logic must tell you that! Many cheap or free hosts work on a principle of "never mind the quality, feel the width".
They make up for their lack of reliability through utilising cheap or outdated servers and switches or failing to provide off site backups or redundancy but blinding you with low prices or even free hosting in return for letting them show their adverts to your visitors!
They will make unsubstantiated claims of 99% uptime. Take a look at twitter some time and see the parade of people tweeting about their website/server going down. Even if they could make a 99% uptime figure, that still means your website will be down for nearly three and a half days a year and downtime will effect your search engine rankings if their spiderbot comes along and it cannot find your site.
Here in the UK at Intrahost we have a written service level agreement that guarantees our customers an uptime of 99.99%. Over the last two years our performance has exceeded even that guarantee.
Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of a free host is the worry that you have no idea about the nature of the other sites being hosted on your overworked server. If any other domain on your crowded free server is a spammer, a phishing site, a porn site affiliate or a warez source you can be sure that search engines will log the IP address of that server and will probably blacklist its IP number.
Your site will have the same blacklisted IP number as the dodgy sites and you could find you're delisted by all the major search engines. It's what's known as being hosted in a "bad neighbourhood". No SE listing = no traffic, so just how much of a bargain is that free hosting now?
In which country should I be hosted?
You will also need to look at the country in which your server is located. It can have a huge influence on your Google ranking and indeed it can alter the rights you have in relation to your deal with your web hosting company.
In the EC strong protections exist against unfair business practices, and here in the UK, government agencies ensure that advertising is decent, honest, legal and truthful and trading standards departments monitor how UK enterprises carry out their day-to-day business. That sort of government oversight is simply not available in most countries offering cheap deals.
Is your website worth more than a round of drinks or a pizza?
The cost of being hosted by a reliable company is comparatively little especially for even a small business. Despite this the mere existence of free hosts seem to make many people resentful and unwilling to pay even a modest price.
A year's web hosting with Intrahost starts at less than £60, I paid more than that just to see one English Premier League match last season - ninety minutes of over-hyped football against 8760 hours of reliable web hosting with 24/7 technical cover!
With that, I'm off to the pub with a friend for a pint. A round of drinks, two beers, will cost me more than one month's hosting in the UK with Intrahost - £4.95. Puts it all into perspective doesn't it?