How to avoid making the wrong choice like so many others.

Where I learned about web hosting

I built my first website in 1994 as a first-year Computer Science student at McGill University in Montreal, and while accessible by the public, it was hosted on servers for us students, that were maintained by other students and staff.

This was years before Google. The only people who knew about my site were the ones I had shared it with, and even then, most of my friends didn’t even have Internet access at the time.

Fast forward 5 years later to 2000. As was typical during the Internet boom when people were thrust into all sorts of funny places in the IT industry, I was barely 3 years out of university while working for Amazon.com as the Website Production Manager for Amazon.fr, among things responsible for making sure that website stayed ‘up’ i.e. that the millions of daily visitors could continue shopping non-stop around the clock. Still, with such large, lucrative sites, Amazon had many people supporting the teams like the one I lead, so if there was a problem, it rarely lasted long.

3 years later I moved to a similar but more important role with a smaller French competitor of Amazon’s. Unlike Amazon which ‘self-hosts’ (hosts its websites on its own servers, managed by its own employees), my employer had a large (>1M euro/year) contract with a large hosting company who specialized in large, busy websites. Under this arrangement, my team needed to be in contact with the hosting company on a daily basis, and that was just part of the regular workflow.

3 years after that, in 2006, my entire team and I were laid off and shortly after, I came up with the idea of JobMob while on my post-layoff job search. Although I knew a lot about the Internet, I didn’t know much about blogs and social media and the best way to learn was to jump right in.

Initially, the idea behind JobMob was to blog about my job search, share my successes, failures, lessons learned and resources discovered.

In the summer of 2006, I started planning the website.

Before you choose a web hoster

Planning the website meant:

  1. Imagining how I would update and maintain the website
  2. Understanding my traffic goals, short-term to long-term
  3. Deciding on what I would need to measure and track

All of these things had an impact on my eventual choice of software requirements, which narrowed the list of hosting companies that were relevant.

Once I had my plan & estimations in hand, I started looking for a hosting company. This was in November 2006.

This was my list of requirements for choosing a company.

Criteria for judging a web hosting company

These requirements were all equally important, so in no specific order…

1) A hosting plan that met the technical requirements for my project, with room to spare

WordPress was the blog software and its system requirements are well-documented. Lots of companies serve WordPress, and even install it for you.

2) Fast servers

Nobody likes to wait for a page to load, least of all if I need to work like that every day.

3) Scalable/Burstable servers

I knew that at some point – hopefully sooner than later – my traffic would spike beyond whatever the hosting plan allowed, and I didn’t want my site to stay down during that rush of popularity. So it was critical that the company allow me to occasionally exceed my traffic limits without the site going down, giving me enough time to decide how to react.

4) Reasonably-priced (not the cheapest)

When the hosting is too cheap, you know they’re skimping on some part of the service such as poor technical support, too many clients sharing each server, etc. It’s about the value you get for the money you pay, so I was willing to pay up to $20 per month, avoiding all those $5-$7 packages that are only useful for people who don’t expect or want their traffic to grow.

5) Round-the-clock, non-email tech support

When you’re site is down and you’re panicking, the last thing you want is to use a contact form or send an email support request and then sit there staring at your screen in hope of getting reply. No, you want to talk to someone asap. And if you’re based in a different country and timezone, you need support at every hour of the day.

6) Easy to join, but not too easy

Not surprisingly, most companies make it super easy to sign up because they want your business asap. Sometimes there are situations where it’s not so easy because you’re in another country and/or setting up a business account, etc. And some signup obstacles make sense and actually give more credibility to the hosting company as one that only wants a certain type of responsible client that won’t abuse them.

7) Easy to leave

On the other hand, when you want out, you want out asap and you want to easily be able to transfer all your files, databases, email accounts, domain names, etc., and if possible get a refund for the unused contract term. Before joining a hosting company, always find out how to leave and do not hesitate to test their support services with questions on this topic.

8) Good reputation with users

You can quickly google any hoster’s name but you’ll often find too many positive reviews due to bloggers pushing that company’s affiliate programs. Instead, google people’s reactions over Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn where they’re more likely to be honest, especially when complaining. That said, weigh things carefully. People usually complain much more loudly than they compliment.

9) Good reputation with search engines

If Google (for example) regularly punishes sites with a specific hosting company, it can drag down everyone else there.

10) Large community of users

When many people use a hosting company, they’ll often find solutions to problems you don’t know about until they explode in your face. It’s great to find some client’s problem solved when you’re waiting for tech support’s replies.

How to make the final decision among relevant candidates

  • Get recommendations from people in similar situations e.g. people using the same software
  • If you can trial for 30 days with a moneyback guarantee, do so, and test tech support i.e. not marketing, who in their eagerness to bring you on, will probably show you a level of support beyond what their technical team can do.

In a followup article, I’ll explain which companies I tested and used, and tell the ups and downs.

This article is part of Designer Daily‘s How To Choose The Perfect Web Host Group Writing Project, which is sponsored by WebHostingBuzz.

--Jacob Share, Professional Blogging Consultant and THE Group Writing Projects Expert