Consumer Watch: Find a Good Home for Your Home Page

Happy with her host: Jennifer Cassidy.
Photograph: Scott Indermaur
Jennifer Sullivan Cassidy learned the hard way that there's more to choosing a Web host than beating the budget.

Cassidy selected the first Web host for her Kansas City, Missouri-area design and consulting company based on its bargain-basement price. "I was just starting my business, and I needed to save pennies," she explains.

Cassidy's Web storefront was gaining steam and making some sales when the host's server went down over a long holiday weekend. She was unable to reach anyone in tech support to fix the problem until the following Tuesday--and her Web woes were only beginning. The company's self-touted 24/7 tech support turned out to be more like 24/5 since the support staff was never available on weekends. Even on weekdays, getting a response often took hours.

Cassidy decided she wanted out when she realized she had more than a dozen unanswered support calls pending. "I had to plead for a month's refund due to their server issues," she says. She has since migrated to a new hosting service that has proved more dependable.

The most cursory online search will turn up countless hosting companies, most of which promise next-to-perfect server reliability, round-the-clock service and support, bulletproof security, and more. But how can you tell which hosts actually live up to their promises?

Paying for Ratings

It isn't easy, admits Ron Dunlap, Editor of Webhost magazine, an online publication that tests and evaluates Web hosting companies based on criteria including support, reliability, features, security, and value. To complicate matters, Dunlap adds, a plethora of Web sites rate these services without testing them.

"Many of the so-called host review sites look like they provide real reviews, but in fact their top reviews are based on ad revenue," says Dunlap. In other words, the more a hosting service has paid a review site, the higher its ranking.

The moral? Don't trust host review sites that are littered with ads, that don't say how they test hosts, or that publish reviews that read like advertising copy--that's probably exactly what they are.

Get What You Need

Before shopping for a hosting service, determine what features your site will require. For example, if you're planning a business site, make sure a potential host provides adequate and affordable disk space and bandwidth--but don't trust a site that promises unlimited quantities of either: If you check the fine print, you'll probably figure out how the service weasels out of it. Also investigate its e-mail and file transfer options, e-commerce and payment tools, security options, and support for the scripts and extensions your site uses.

For example, one popular host offers plans ranging from about $4 to $15 a month (add a $30 setup fee if you opt for less than a year's service contract). At the top end, you get 15GB of storage, 500GB of bandwidth, FrontPage extensions, a shopping cart, an FTP manager, and other e-commerce features.

In contrast, a personal or family site can probably get by with a bare-bones plan costing less than $10 a month (or the free hosting included in some ISP plans). Free hosting from a third-party firm usually involves putting up with ads festooned across your pages.

For tips on bandwidth, disk space, and other requirements, check out sites such as Web Hosters or Findmyhosting.com. Then go to a site that lets you search for Web hosts by criteria such as features, server platform, and price. Ask friends and colleagues for their recommendations.

To evaluate contenders, start by looking for contact information on each site. Along with street and general e-mail addresses, look for names of company principals, working phone numbers, and active e-mail links to tech support, customer service, sales, and the like.

Test the support e-mail addresses and phone numbers at different times of day, especially if the company boasts of 24/7 support--and don't be afraid to ask lots of questions. If a host isn't prompt and courteous in responding to a query from a potential customer, it's unlikely to be more accessible once it has your money.

Find out how long the company has been in business. New services aren't necessarily untrustworthy, but one that has been around for several years is probably doing something right. Avoid companies that don't provide references.

Backup Plans

Ask how the company expects to keep your site up and running in the event of a power failure or a hardware crash. It should have a backup plan, such as an alternative power source. Ask how often the service backs up files--anything less than daily should make you think twice.

Carefully review service and support policies. Is there a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied? Can you try out the service before signing a long-term contract? If you want to leave before the contract expires, can you get a refund? Does the service make transitioning to a competitor difficult?

Aside from verifying round-the-clock service (if promised), look for live online chat, a good FAQ and/or knowledge base, and prompt response to e-mail.

To augment your own research, look for user comments (as well as practical advice) on forums such as Hostsearch Forums, Webhosting Forums, or Webhosting Chat. There are dozens of these sites, so if you look long enough, chances are you'll find someone who has comments about even the most obscure hosting service.

All this investigation takes effort and patience. But with luck, your up-front investment will pay off by helping you find a Web host that will take good care of you for a long time.

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