Choosing the right Web host can mean the difference between a sluggish site that is difficult to update and one that is fast enough to retain your customers' interest — and serve their needs far into the future. If you have chosen to design your site in-house, or are working with a development agency that doesn't provide hosting, here's what you need to know to select the best Web hosting service.
When considering hosts, business owners should first understand their customers' expectations about site performance. According to analytics blog KISSmetrics, 40 percent of visitors will leave a site that requires more than three seconds to load, and even a one second delay in load time can reduce customer conversion by 7 percent.
While programming style and image size affect load time, the service provided by your Web host is also a contributing factor.
"The three most important features of a host are speed, reliability and support," said Brad Litwin, marketing manager at A2hosting.com.
So how do you determine a host's quality without paying for a hosting package? John Robison, customer experience manager and technical product adviser at Web host Dreamhost, said social media is a good place to start.
"You can get a lot of information by looking at what people say on Facebook and Twitter and also looking up the host on Google," Robison said. "Also, most hosts will have some sort of status page so you can see what sort of outages or issues they're announcing to their customer."
In addition to complaint reports, below-market prices, upselling, sluggish support, and lack of communication may signal a low-quality host. Attempting to communicate with companies first-hand may help you find the outstanding performers.
"Once you've narrowed down your choice of hosts, I would recommend calling them, emailing them, or jumping into a live chat session with their support to ask them some basic questions," Litwin told Business News Daily. "The speed and professionalism of their response is likely a strong indicator of their service."
When your search has narrowed to a few reputable companies, it's time to compare their technical abilities. In particular, if your site will be running a content management system or other software, ensure that the Web host can comfortably handle the software's demands.
Barrett Lombardo, co-founder and Web director at Orbit Media, a Chicago-based development company, said businesses are likely to have a wealth of options for their host.
"If the website is built with WordPress, consider starting with hosting platforms like wordpress.com or wpengine.com," Lombardo said. "If the website is built with Drupal, consider hosting platforms that specialize in Drupal like acquia.com and getpantheon.com."
Litwin added that businesses seeking WordPress hosting may want to look for special options.
"I would recommend looking for a host that offers a one-click installer, WordPress pre-installed, or even one-click updates," Litwin said. "Also focus on what sort of tools are offered like malware protection and content delivery network. Consider the ease of use of the host's control." [For a side-by-side comparison of the best web hosting software, visit our sister site Top Ten Reviews.]
The size of your website and its expected traffic volume can also affect your options. Shared hosting, in which many sites operate on the same server, is a less expensive option for small companies. However, as your business grows, you may need to consider a dedicated server.
"If you are running a site that's going to get huge levels of traffic and will need to have very high uptime — meaning there are lots of dollars at stake if the site's down — shared hosting isn't going to cut it," Robison said.
Web hosting companies frequently have tiered price schedules that display options for both shared and dedicated server hosting.
Regardless of the site's size, your Web developer will need access to a method for updating hosted files such as FTP or secure shell (ssh), and a tool to access your database such as phpMyAdmin. Depending on the size of your company, a file-versioning tool such as Git, which will help rollback buggy updates, may be recommended. The hosting company and your technical project lead can help advise you about best practices for your site.
If your company will be selling merchandise online, or if you want to offer your customers extra security as they browse your site, look for a hosting package that includes https, a secured method of transmitting information through the browser.
The big picture
In addition to technical requirements, companies should also consider less tangible issues such as sustainability and growth
"Probably the most important thing for business would be the ability to upgrade the site seamlessly as they grow," Robinson said. "Shared hosting isn't going to be a good choice for a thriving business site for very long, so [look for a host that] sets up migration scripts that can move a customer between hosting platforms."
Despite conscientious research, a company may eventually find that the chosen Web host does not quite fit its needs. If this happens to your business, remember that the Web is full of new options. Moreover, finding that your host is not the right fit may be an important part of your company's evolution.
"You may not even know what you need until you've gone through a few hosts," Robinson said. "You might think you want a Ferrari to drive every day until you consider that you never see one for sale with many miles on it. So are they really that fun to own?"
Originally published on Business News Daily.