So, you’re looking to build a web site or so fed up with your current web host that you are desperate to transfer your site elsewhere? You may not even be aware of your current host’s vulnerabilities in an industry where each week there is news about a host going down for one reason or another. Your first problem is narrowing the thousands of choices down to a few that you can research further. Seek friends or associates that have a web site and ask for their advice. Visit one of the many forums about web hosting, ask the members for advice or search threads from those that have asked before you. Once you’ve located a few hosts to research, the ten questions below will take you a long way towards making an informed decision. You may be able to find many of the answers to these questions on the hosts’ web sites, but always feel free to call the host and quiz them about their operations. The quality of the answers and degree of professionalism you get from a potential host often transfers to the type of support you’ll receive once you become a customer. Without further ado, the ten question to ask your web host:

1. How long has the web host been in business?
2. Does the web host own its data center?
3. How many upstream Internet providers does the web host have?
4. Does the web host monitor its customers’ sites twenty-four hours per day? How?
5. Does the web host provide 24/7/365 phone and email support?
6. What levels of redundancy does the web host’s architecture provide?
7. Does the web host automatically backup customer web sites in case of data loss? How often?
8. What is the web host’s billing policy?
9. Does the web host provide the features that you need for your web site?
10. Does the web host have the products and services to handle your growth?

1. How long has the web host been in business?
The length of time that a host has been in business can be related to their ability to provide a quality, reliable product. If your host can satisfy its customers, then those customers are likely to stick with the host’s service. Therefore, stay in business. There are, of course, situations where this is not applicable or becomes a bit hazy. Be sure to also inquire about whether a host has recently been involved in a merger, acquired what was once a well-known brand name, or launched a new brand. If any of these apply, then delve deeper into the story behind what has happened and determine whether quality resources are still with the company.
• Complete a domain name “whois” lookup on the web host. Type in the web host’s domain name and determine what year the domain was registered. If only registered in the recent past, ask the host about it. If the domain name was recently registered this is not necessarily a red flag. Simply inquire with the host about it. They may have recently launched an affinity-based brand to cater to your market.
• Type the host’s name into a search engine and check out the results that you get, other than those from the host itself. You may run across reviews, interviews, or industry articles about the host.

2. Does the web host own its data center?
A data center is the foundation from which all products and services are built upon. If your host owns its own data center, then they are likely quite entrenched in the hosting business. They also have an experienced staff and knowledge base from which to draw from when supporting your web site and building new products. In other words, if a host owns its own facility, then it controls more of the variables that can make or break your web presence.

3. How many upstream Internet providers does the web host have?
Your web site performance is not just a measure of your web server’s speed. The ability of your web host to route traffic through the cleanest Internet connections is also of great importance. It is crucial that your provider have multiple connections to the Internet. Accidental fiber cuts in construction or telecom work and data center equipment failure can cause your site to go offline for an extended amount of time. This can be avoided if your web host has other connections to the Internet that will reroute traffic that would have normally been carried on the failed circuit. Yes, this means your host must also have extra capacity on hand to handle normal traffic levels when one connection is lost; which is another area where a host can attempt to cut cost. This is much like when driving your car, there are several streets that you can take to get to your desired destination. Sometimes you will encounter construction or an accident that will require you to take an alternative street. Well, the Internet works the same way. There are several routes that traffic can take to a destination. Your host should be able to choose the cleanest, or most efficient, route to your web site visitor. In fact, your host should be able to continually tune these routes to find the best path to your visitors. Another way to achieve this is by minimizing the number of different networks traffic will pass through before reaching its destination. It is extremely important for your host to have direct connections to networks that have lots of eyeballs. In other words, your web site will be served better if your web host is using connections with networks that facilitate Internet access to large volumes of subscribers.

4. Does the web host monitor its customers’ sites twenty-four hours per day? How?
There are a couple of factors that can influence the answer to this question. Does the host own its own data center? If not, then they are physically removed from their servers and likely paying a co-location company to provide monitoring for them. When another company controls the environmental systems that provide the home for the host, one can argue that you’ve created another potential point of failure; that being the communication of an issue from the data center to the web host. That point of failure can increase the latency between an issue and its resolution, resulting in increased downtime for your web site. Second, if your web host has an issue with its own infrastructure, then there may be travel time associated with their engineers getting to the data center to resolve it or, once again, increased latency by trying to remotely resolve an issue.

5. Does the web host provide 24/7/365 toll free phone and email support?
You might be surprised at how many web hosts don’t provide 24/7/365 support. The industry’s hosts run the gamut from only email support to providing phone and email support 24 hours per day and 365 days per year. The best way to eliminate not having support when you need it, is to choose a host that can assist you whenever you need it. When an idea wakes you from a slumber at 3 A.M., it’s nice to have your host on the other end of the phone to discuss it. When your site malfunctions due to a programming glitch the night before your store is to open, it’s wonderful to have your web host on the phone to decipher the issue with you. When your cat accidentally deletes some important files, know that your host is there to help recover them. Also make sure that your host is providing support over the major holidays. Many web hosts will close their support center, decrease their support to only email, or send their support team home with a pager to be called in case of emergency. All of these decreases can create latency if your web site goes offline. And, holidays are often days which persons will spend time on the Internet after they’ve completed all of their social plans. Matter of fact, word-of-mouth business is one of the most effective means to customer acquisition. When people get together, they exchange ideas.

6. What levels of redundancy does the web host provide?
Failures that cause your site to lose connection can happen. Therefore, it’s crucial to find a provider whose hosting architecture provides the least-risk of failure. Redundancy is necessary. Single points of failure are very bad, but many hosts attempt to cut costs by risking single points of failure. Ask your web host about their redundancy in server architecture (web, email, and DNS servers), load-balancing, and file storage.
A web server is the hardware and software combination that serves requested web pages, files, or other information. Servers answer requests from web browsers to provide information from web sites, email, and databases. They then send that information to the requesting browser. Load balancing divides the amount of work that a server has to do between multiple servers, which also adds redundancy, so that more work gets done in the same amount of time and, in general, all web sites requests within the network get served faster. The load balancers stay in constant contact with the servers to determine how busy they are and/or if one of them has failed. It may sound like a no-brainer, but having your site connected to the Internet is the whole reason for having a web site and a load-balanced, redundant network is vital to that endeavor.

Has your email server ever been down? Redundancy is also vital for email and DNS servers. A Domain Name System (DNS) server translates requests to locate a web site. As you can imagine, keeping email and DNS servers online is a mission-critical task for a web host. For file storage, seek a host that uses a reliable storage solution with multiple auto-fail over and hot-swappable drives to ensure continuous delivery of your web site.

7. Does the web host automatically backup customer web sites in case of data loss? How often?
Backing up web sites should be a routine part of your web host’s operation. Backup is the activity of copying files or databases so that they will be preserved in case of equipment failure or any other catastrophe.

8. What is the web host’s billing policy?
Look for a web host that provides a money-back guarantee. This will allow you to try out the host’s service. Should you find that the service is sub-par in site performance, reliability, or lacking the features that you seek, the ability to request your money back, within the parameters of the guarantee, is priceless and liable to save you from later trouble. It is always a good to idea to inquire about the web host’s cancellation procedures. There are many out there who require you to send them an email or make a phone call to cancel, which can extend the time frame to cancellation. A host who is confident in their service will have a cancellation form or online avenue within their control panel. Now, they will likely also have a retention program, so don’t be surprised when they call or email you to ask why you are leaving. After all, your feedback helps them to evaluate their service.

9. Does the web host provide the features that you need for your web site?
Sometimes people choose a host because it has the exact feature set that they need, but later find that feature set means nothing when access to those features is unreliable. Make sure that a host has your desired features and is also reliable. To make sure that the host you are evaluating has everything you need, use the following list:
• A domain name, but be sure to look for hidden registration fees or renewal fees
• An ample amount of versatile email accounts including web-based, POP3, and IMAP
• Email spam filtering and virus protection are a must these days, unless you are providing this on your own
• Enough disk space to meet your site’s needs
• Monthly bandwidth allotments that will cover your traffic and the ability to increase that allotment based on your site’s success
• Site building tools such as extensions for FrontPage or other online/downloadable site building programs
• Ease of upload to your site via FTP or other means
• Access to a robust traffic analysis program or the raw logs for you to process yourself
• Programming languages, including CGI, PHP, MIVA (if needed)
• Ecommerce shopping cart alternatives
• Database capability, dependant upon your application preference

10. Does the web host have the products and services to handle your growth?
You might be surprised how many sites that once started for fun or as a hobby have grown into some of the most popular sites on the Internet. Hence, you never know when you’ll outgrow your current product or service and need to move up the ladder to the next rung. Make sure that your web host can meet your anticipated growth, not only within the product range of shared hosting, but should you ever need a dedicated server or co-location solution, your host is there to discuss and provide the best solution.

Do your homework by using the above questions as a template and you will likely save yourself some major headaches down the road. If you’ve gathered information about multiple hosts, you can now compare apples to apples and decide on the best host for your needs. Hopefully, the work that you’ve done will avoid forcing you to use your gut, but rather make an informed decision based on the facts. Perhaps, the best piece advice that you will find in any article or forum about choosing a host is, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

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