By Peter Kent

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20 Questions to Ask a Web Hosting Company

Important: This is a very old article, posted as a bonus for an earlier edition of the book.

While you may still find the article useful, it’s written from a different perspective than I would write it today, due to changes in the hosting industry over the years.

There are three main ways to set up a Web site:

  • Install your own Web server and connect it to the Internet (expensive and complicated!)
  • Set up Web pages on your service provider’s Web space (cheap, but you won’t get the services a Web site really needs)
  • Set up your Web site on a Web-hosting company’s computer

Most small businesses should pick the last of these options; they should work with a Web-hosting company. Accounts are available at such companies for as little as $10 a month, though you may want to start looking at around $30 – $40 a month (too cheap means, in many cases, unreliable).

There’s a problem, though; you have to know about all the services and options these companies provide. The following are a number of important questions you should ask before signing up with a company.

Does the company have Microsoft FrontPage server extensions?

This is only important if you plan to use FrontPage (a very popular Web-authoring program). If the hosting company doesn’t have the server extensions installed, some of the FrontPage features won’t work.

How Much Does It Cost?

Most services charge a setup fee, and then a monthly charge. Some don’t havetup fee, and some will waive ttup fee if you are transferring an existing Web site and domain from another location. Even if they don’t advertise that

they do, if you are transferring a site it might be worth asking if they will waive the fee.

Minimum Contract and Guarantee?

Some Web-hosting companies want you to pay a year’s fee at once, but you should ask if you can pay for, say, three months. Some simply go month by month, others charge by the month and give the first month free — the ideal situation. Also ask what sort of guarantees they offer; some companies offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. And get the guarantee in writing if you can.

How Much Disk Space?

Your Web site will be limited to a certain amount of disk space, though you can buy more. Small, low-cost accounts may have just a couple of megabytes of disk space, larger sites will get tens, even hundreds of megs. You can actually get quite a lot into a megabyte or two, and a really huge site will need only a few hundred megs.

How Much are Hit and Data-Transfer Charges?

Some companies charge you for the number of hits — the number of times someone transfers one of your pages to his browser. Others charge according to the amount of data transferred out of your Web site. Either way, the busier your site, the more you’ll be charged under these pricing schedules. Others have no limit.

Unlimited use may not be so good if it means that all the sites handled by the server are very busy, of course. And in any case, most companies provide a certain minimum data transfer for free, which is usually plenty for most sites.

How Much are Upgrades?

If your Web site grows, so will your hosting needs. Check to see how much it’ll cost you to add more disk space, transfer more data, create more e-mail accounts, and so on.

How Much to Host Multiple Domain Names?

If you have more than one domain name, you can have them all point to the same Web site. For instance, you might have one domain name for your company and other domain names that you are using to promote specific products. There are different ways to handle this. All the domains can point to the same directory, or you can have separate directories for each domain. Of course, there are different ways to charge, too. You may be allowed two domains for free, perhaps, with an additional fee for extra domains. Or maybe you’ll pay an additional fee for all extra domains.

Is there a Charge for E-Mail Accounts?

You’ll generally get an e-mail account with your Web site. Sometimes you’ll get several accounts even though you may need no more than one. Some companies, however, may charge extra for the account.

With a single e-mail account, you can retrieve e-mail that has been sent to various addresses: info@acmesewercover.com, sales@acmesewercover.com, joe@acmesewercover.com, susie@acmesewercover.com and so on.

How Many Mail Forwarding Accounts?

You may also want to make sure the Web-hosting company allows you to set up mail forwarding — automatically defining certain types of incoming e-mail messages to be forwarded somewhere else. For instance, messages to susie@acmesewercover.com could be forwarded to susiesewer@aol.com. Ask how many accounts can be forwarded.

Do You Have Mail Responders?

A mail responder, or autoresponder, is a program that automatically responds to incoming mail. For instance, if someone sends e-mail to info@acmesewercover.com, an informational message can be sent back. These can be very useful, so I recommend that you use a company that provides these. There are several things a good autoresponder should be able to do:

  • Quote the incoming message in the autoresponse
  • Save the incoming message
  • Grab the e-mail address from the incoming message and put it in a text file

The last of these is particularly important, as it allows you to collect e-mail addresses from messages sent to your autoresponders.

Do You Have Mailing Lists?

A mailing list is a discussion group based on the e-mail system. You may want to set one up – they’re very useful promotional tools. Even if you don’t want to host a discussion group, you can use a mailing-list program to distribute a newsletter. Many companies have mailing-list software available for their clients to use — if so, ask whether there’s an additional cost, how many mailing lists you are allowed to have, and how many members per list.

Do I Get a Shell Account? (Telnet Access)

A shell account allows you to log onto the Web site using Telnet, and modify files and directories. This can be useful, and you’ll find that most companies provide a shell account. Some don’t, though, and this can present problems. For instance, if you want to install your own CGI scripts (see #17, below), you may need Telnet access so you can get to the scripts and modify their permissions, rename files, and so on.

Do I Get FTP Access?

You’ll need FTP (File Transfer Protocol) access. This allows you to transfer files to and from your Web site, so virtually all companies provide this service. Some may provide a different way to transfer files, such as using FrontPage. But even if you use FrontPage, it’s nice to have FTP access too.

Can I Set Up an Anonymous FTP Site?

This is not the same as FTP access to your Web site. Rather, it allows you to set up an FTP site that people can access to download files. You might want to do this if you are distributing software, for instance. While it’s possible to transfer files directly from your Web site, it’s sometimes handy to have an FTP site, too. People without good Web access can still use the FTP site, and some FTP sites can resume interrupted downloads; that is, if someone tries to transfer a file, gets halfway through, and his ISP or phone company drops the line, he can come back and continue the transfer where he left off — a very handy feature for large downloads.

Do You Have a Secure Server?

If you plan to take orders on-line or transfer sensitive information, you’ll need a secure server (you’ll often see it referred to as an SSL server, meaning a Secure Sockets Layer server). For instance, credit-card information typed into a form will be encrypted before being sent from the user’s Web browser to the server. There may be an additional fee to use the secure server. You don’t have to have a secure server to take orders on-line, but many people won’t place orders unless you do.

Do You Have Shopping-Cart Software?

If you plan to sell products and want to offer users some kind of catalog combined with an order form, you might want to find out if the Web-hosting company has any shopping-cart software already available and, if so, it’s capabilities and cost. If not, ask if you can add your own.

Can I Use CGI Scripts?

CGI means Common Gateway Interface. It’s a way to provide interactivity to Web pages, in particular to handle the input from forms. For instance, you can use CGI to take information from a form and send it to your e-mail account, and many shopping-cart programs use CGIs. Many Web-hosting companies have libraries of CGI scripts you can use. Some allow you to install your own CGI scripts, but don’t provide a library. Others don’t allow you to add any CGIs. I recommend that you find a company that at least allows you to add your own.

Do I Get Access Reports?

Access reports show you information about visitors to your site. You need this information, as it can show you where visitors are coming from, when they arrive, which pages they view, and so on. Some companies send reports to you automatically via e-mail each day or week. Some create charts to show access information.

Can I Have Password-Protected Pages?

If you need to set up a private area at your Web site, some companies will help you create password-protected areas. This is quite easy to do for yourself using Microsoft FrontPage, by the way.

Do You Have Telephone Technical Support?

Ask about the type of technical support available. Can you call and talk with someone? And if so, is it a toll-free or local call? This is a significant issue, as you’ll almost certainly have to get help at some point. Some Web-hosting services try to handle all their support through e-mail, but the problem with this is that it’s too easy to ignore e-mail or delay responses. You must have some way to talk to someone. Toll-free calls are relatively rare for low-cost Web-hosting companies; you may end up having to use a long-distance number, but that’s better than nothing. By the way, some companies will charge you for phone support.

These are some of the most important issues involved in choosing a hosting company. Other things to consider are …

  • Is Commercial Use Allowed?
  • Do They have a Discount for Non-Profit Organizations?
  • Do They Provide On-Line Credit-Card and Check Processing?
  • Do They Allow Imagemaps?
  • Do They allow Server-Side Includes?
  • Do They Provide Database Access?
  • Do They Allow Java Applets?
  • Do They have a RealAudio Server?
  • Can You Resell Web Space?
  • Do They Have Promotional and Design Services?
  • Who Owns the Server?
  • How Many Computers Do They Have?
  • What’s the Size of the Company?
  • What’s Connection Speed and Distance to the Backbone?
  • Ask for References
  • Consider the "Look and Feel" of the Hosting Company’s Own Web Site
  • Do a Real-World Check on Their Other Clients

Contact Peter Kent