I spent the previous three weeks fighting a losing battle and wasting hours with my ‘former’ hosting provider. It’s typically quite rare to have advanced-level technical problems on a hosted website. But when advance problems happen you learn really fast whether a hosting provider is worthy of your business or not.
I’ve used quite a few shared and dedicated hosting providers over the years for a variety of reasons both personal and business-related. So I decided to go above and beyond the information you get by simply perusing hosting reviews. Based on my experience, I’ve come with a short list of how to determine if a provider is bad, okay or excellent.
Technical support knowledge and speed. I placed this category first because it is almost always overlooked and it is perhaps the most important factor in getting your site going and maintaing a site once it is up and running. You can test this out by calling them on their toll-free support line or some providers offer chat window services. Here are some things to look for when shopping for a provider:
- Measure the time it takes for them to answer the phone or get a chat window response during peak business hours. Getting an initial response in less than one minute is excellent. Being on hold for longer than 5 minutes can mean a shortage of trained people in the tech support call center and potentially very long wait times when you need them most.
- Repeat bullet #1 several times during the day and I’d recommend asking questions during the late night hours as well. For many of us that’s when you are most likely to be tackling personal projects.
- Ask them several highly technical questions and critically judge the answers you get. You might be surprised at the answers you get. Ask the same questions on a different call with a different support technician and look for consistency. Example questions can include the following. Note you don’t have to ask all of these questions you can pick-n-choose depending on your needs, and this is just a partial list to give you ideas:
- Does the shared server have PHP (or .NET) already installed? If the support person doesn’t know then move on to the next provider in your list.
- How do I access my database via myPHPAdmin (or SQL management tools)? If you ever need to fix or compress a database you’ll need access to the database management tools.
- How can I modify my .htaccess file (Linux)? Or how do I configure my IIS (Windows)? For certain advanced requirements you may have to make tweaks to how your website runs.
- What is the maximum size allowed for MySQL (or SQL) database? Most blogging software only allows you to use one database at a time. If a provider offers “unlimited databases” that could be a worthless feature for you. In that case the maximum size is important. Your blog may stop working properly if you hit the maximum, and then you may need advanced assistance to fix the problem. Furthermore, if you’re site has a runaway plug-in or it gets spammed you could easily fill up a database and cause it to lock up.
- How much bandwidth do I get per month and what happens if I go over the limit? For a typical small business or personal blog hosting site, excellent numbers reach or exceed FiOS speeds around 30 – 50Mbits/seconds for both upload and download.
- What is your procedure for handling Denial of Service (D.O.S.) attacks? One nice thing about shared hosting is it’s in their best interest to assist with most brute force attacks that can happen to almost any website.
- What are the upload/download speeds on a typical shared host and what is the guaranteed minimum/maximum?
- Do you auto-update the PHP, WordPress, etc? Many updates these days are for security reasons, not having to worry about it can be a good thing.
- Do you offer website and database backups for free? You should always, always back up everything.
- How long do you keep the website and database backups? Some providers only keep backups for three days. This may be okay if always diligently watch your website. Make sure you are comfortable with this. I’ve seen databases get hacked and blown away and by the time the site owner realized it the backups where worthless. It doesn’t happen very often, but it can happen. Some bloggers make it a point to download a copy of their website and database once a month for peace of mind.
- Do you offer ftp as well as web-based file management? Non-tech savvy bloggers may want to consider web-based file management over the more technical ftp approach.
- If you can’t get an answer to a specific question and the support tech directs you to email your question then run away as fast as you can. If you have a problem with your site you don’t want to potentially wait 24 hours for an email response via the ‘free’ support option from a provider. If your site goes down or is slow it can affect your SEO ratings.
- Ask if they charge for advanced or escalated support and if they do charge for advanced support ask for examples of what falls into that category. If you have to give them an example of escalated support, ask about support fixing a corrupted database.
- Most providers claim 24/7 support. Verify if that the support is free for the entire 24-hour period.
3rd party reviews. Read as many third party hosting reviews as you can and read them carefully. Make sure to check the dates of the reviews. You will find contradictory information, especially in reviews that list providers in a “top 10” style. That’s okay because this information is simply one piece of the puzzle. You still have homework to do.
Hosting provider outages. Do your own uptime research. Most shared hosting providers offer decent uptime numbers such as 99.9%. That still means that your system could be down and offline 43.8 minutes per month. If you are looking at a review site, see if you can find out where they got their uptime numbers.
There are a number of sites that provide basic outage information, such as uptime.netcraft.com, which had current information as of the writing of this post that can give you some insight. Make sure you check to see if there is a date/time stamp on any analysis. Some sites that I reviewed for this blog post hadn’t been updated since 2011!
Money back guarantee. An excellent hosting provider will offer a trail period with a full money back guarantee. You need to read the fine print to see exactly what that means and also make sure the 3rd party reviews agree that there is a guarantee.
Pre-installed software. Investigate if the provider’s pre-installed software meets your needs. If not then also look for “one-click” installs such as WordPress. One-click installs can save you a ton of time. Otherwise, you’ll need to be handy with ftp’ing large files, verifying/settings server permissions and making sure your server has all the required software for a proper install.
Redundancy. You should understand if your server exists at one facility or multiple facilities. Most, but not all, hosting providers copy your entire website across multiple facilities. Obviously, a hosting provider with a single location is more risky and providers with multiple locations should be spread out geographically. If you want international coverage for your website, then you will need to verify if a solution provider offers cloud-based or physical hosting coverage in particular countries.
Test your own download speeds. Once you’ve installed your blog or have your website up and running, make sure you test your website on a variety of internet connections, browsers and devices. And make sure to run your tests at various times of the day and night. Sometimes your site can get CPU or bandwidth squeezed. Keep an eye on these speeds over time. If you have a brand new site, your home page should ideally load in less than three seconds, and if possible less than one second. Get to know your average page load times and keep an eye out for this changing over time. It can be as simple as verifying your blog post every time you post a new one, just load the page and watch the performance numbers in the browser’s developer tools.
Costs. If hosting costs were your primary decision factor then you probably wouldn’t have read down to the bottom of this blog post. You can get excellent hosting these days for under $4 a month and there is a lot of competition and providers trying to one-up each other. To me, cost is the icing on the cake if all the other important factors meet my requirements. It’s a great time to host a website or blog these days because of the competition and you should be bold about asking a provider if there are any discounts and add-ons they can apply.
These ideas should help steer you towards not just a good hosting solution but an excellent one. I also want to mention that hosting providers will change their policies and practices over time, especially if someone else acquires them. Continue to pay attention to your website. Even small hints can be important indicators that a once excellent provider is slipping up and don’t hesitate to switch if getting help starts to become more difficult or the performance of your website starts to decline. It’s possible, although exceedingly rare, that your existing provider will offer better performance and higher-levels of support for free as time goes on. If you start seeing information that services that were once free are going to cost that might be a warning sign if it’s outside what was initially agreed upon in our contract terms. Lastly, if you get a notice that the hosting “terms of service” has been updated, it’s well worth your time to read (or just glance thru) that document because the changes aren’t often in your favor.