I purchased my first domain in the year 1998, almost ten years to the day. I set up my site with a small but now-defunct hosting service called 9NetAve. Though I had been creating Web sites for three years up to that point, it was a major step forward and new territory for me.
Since then, I have worked with over 2 dozen hosts (not counting copyright issues) and have set up a variety of sites and blogs for me, my friends and my clients. Most of my experiences have been good though I have, on a few occasions, been severely burned.
But for anyone looking to host their own blog, perhaps to move up from a free hosting solution, finding a good host can be a daunting decision. Many simply go with the first name that comes to mind and hope for the best while others make their decision purely on price and take a serious gamble with their site.
For those seeking hosting for the first time or looking to move to a new service, I am offering my ten rules of finding a good host.
1. Know your Terminology
To someone unfamiliar with Web hosting, the terminology can be scary. If you aren’t familiar with the definitions of common hosting terms, find a glossary of such terms and refer back to it regularly. Though most of the terms are straightforward, you need to know what you’re buying to make a sound judgment on which is the best.
2. Get the Right Kind of Hosting
Broadly speaking there, are four kinds of hosting you’re likely to encounter, shared, grid, VPS and dedicated. They each are designed for different situations and buying the wrong kind of hosting for your site is a sure-fire way to either throw away money or experience a site failure.
In brief, the four kinds can be looked at like this:
- Shared: An environment where many different accounts, often well into the 100s, share a single server and its resources. It is the cheapest and easiest hosting, but also has the steepest caps and, depending on how the server is set up, can suffer from poor reliability if other sites on the server are causing problems. Ideal for new sites and those that require very little resources.
- Grid: An alternative to shared, it is slightly more expensive but offers greater flexibility. Specifically, grid hosts are able to expand and contract the resources each site has available based upon need, helping sites stay up during periods of peak traffic, such as after a Digg. Best for sites that need few resources but may experience severe traffic spikes.
- VPS: VPS stands for Virtual Private Server and is an arrangement where several sites share a server but each have a dedicated portion of the server’s resources and every account holder has administrator access, allowing greater flexibility and the ability to install custom applications. Ideal for experienced Webmasters who either need to run a lot of smaller Web sites or a few that might require more than Grid hosting. Also a popular choice for anyone running custom applications due to admin access.
- Dedicated: This is simply where you rent your own server and have access to all of its resources. Similar to a VPS but with much more power and higher cost.
Simply put, knowing what kind of hosting you need enables you to narrow down your search and make fair comparisons between services.
3. Price Services Smartly
One of the challenges of buying hosting is that the cheaper host is not always a better deal. Research many different hosts and compare their prices. You should discover that there is a range of prices that are fairly close together. Be wary of hosts that offer accounts significantly below that range as they often times had to cut corners to get their price so low.
4. Unlimited Hosting is a Scam
Many hosts will offer you unlimited bandwidth and/or storage space as an enticement. However, this is almost never the case. These hosts always work into the contract clauses that let them disable sites that are interfering with their service, meaning that you go from having clear, firm rules on usage to being completely at the whim of your host.
Your best bet is to get a host with high caps on paper and a fair overage plan.
5. Read Negative Reviews
Once you think a host might become a good fit, you need to research it. One of the best places to start is looking up reviews of the company and, when doing so, you should focus heavily on the negative reviews.
Specifically, you are looking to both ensure that the host has negative reviews and see if there is any common theme with them.
Since every host has a bad day, even the best will have some bad reviews. If a host has none, it might be a sign that the company hasn’t been around long or has been AstroTurfing the review sites. Also, reading the experiences of unhappy customers can highlight any patterns, such as bad support or poor reliability.
Obviously, don’t go with a host that has a very high number of bad reviews.
6. Really Look at the Company’s Site
At this point, you’ve probably spent at least some time on the hosting company’s site, take a moment to really look at it. Does it look professional? Does it appear they are a large company? Do they run their own datacenters? What do they feel are their selling points?
Though the site is purely a work of marketing, it does say a lot about the company. You can get a good feel for the size of the company, what they value and what you can expect from them. This is especially useful when compared against the negative reviews.
7. Test the Service
Using a site such as Host Tracker, analyze a domain on the host (or the host’s home page itself if you can’t find a site using the service) to understand how fast the network is and get a rough idea of speed and reliability. These tools are not perfect, but if you notice that one host is significantly slower than the others, you might want to drop it from your list.
8. Talk to the Company
By this point, you should be down to a short list of companies you are considering. At this point you need to try and see what they are like closer up.
If you can, find someone from the company and talk to them, introduce yourself and ask them any questions you have. It is best to do this in person or over the phone, but via chat or even email can work.
Always remember though that the sales staff and the support staff are completely separate and the response time/helpfulness is not always indicative of what happens when you have a problem after signing on.
9. Start With a Short Contract
Some hosts will try to entice you to sign up for a long contract, often more than a year in length, by offering steep discounts. However, it is important to test a host with a shorter contract before making such a commitment. Sign up for a month or two before deciding if that is where you want to be for the next twelve.
10. Have an Escape Plan
Sometimes, no matter how much research or planning you do, things go wrong. Always have an escape plan for you and your site should things sour. Don’t cancel your current hosting, if any, until you are certain that things are stable. You may also want to keep a very inexpensive hosting account available as an emergency place to go should something catastrophic happen.
As always, keep backups of your content be sure that your information is stored at more than one location. Make sure you have a plan for what happens if your server completely disappears tomorrow.
One step many will note that I didn’t list as a rule is getting recommendations from friends. The reason is that, while those can help, especially from those running similar sites, they are rarely as useful as learning what happened when things went wrong.
The goal is not to learn how great a host is on their best day, but how they were and what happened on their worst. The reason is that, when things are great, most of us ignore our hosts. However, when they are bad, that is when we need them.
Just because someone has not had a problem with a host yet does not mean they never will. Every host has something go wrong, it is just a matter of how often and how they react to it.
Buying hosting is hard. Even the best inevitably get burned from time to time as there is always a certain gamble to making your final selection.
The best anyone can do is perform due diligence, make the best purchase possible and prepare for the worst.
Sadly, buying hosting is a lot like buying a car, you never really know what you’ve purchased until you’ve driven a few thousand miles.
What hosts have you used? Which have you loved? Which have you hated? Have there been any experiences that really stand out? Share your thoughts in the comments.