Tips for Choosing The Right Web Host

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Having created over 100 websites for my current employer, I've "worked" with probably close to 50 different hosting companies. I use the term "worked" with loosely because a majority of the hosting companies have been incompetent, showing no regard for their customers and accepting no responsibility for sub par hosting and uptime. Before launching a website, we generally move our customers to a host we prefer and know we can work well with.

I've created a checklist for choosing the right web host for a project and wanted to share it with fellow web developers. Ordered by importance, the checklist is as follows.

1. Does the business offer 24/7 PHONE support?

"Phone" is capitalized for a reason. Lack of phone support is becoming more and more common. Many hosting companies prefer to stick with email for a few reasons:

  • They don't have to hire as many persons for their tech support center
  • Speaking with someone via email takes the human element out of support, so it's much easier to tell someone "your problem, not ours"
  • They can outsource their support without appearing to do so
  • They can take longer to provide support -- a phone call would require an immediate resolution to the problem

DO NOT choose a web host that does not offer complete phone technical support.

2. Is hosting the business' primary service?

Many small business get suckered by their ISP into also using their hosting services -- terrible idea. ISPs generally have enough customers (especially cable companies like Charter and Comcast) that losing one means absolutely nothing to them, especially if hosting is cheap. Stay away from companies that claim to perform too many services -- that usually means that their techs aren't solely focused on hosting support.

3. Is the host flexible in its server types, supported languages, and features?

If I had a dollar for every time a host told me that they couldn't add a PHP/PEAR library or wouldn't allow mod_rewrite, I'd be a rich man. Projects don't always go as planned and flexibility within your web host is a key component in picking where the site will live. Flexibility generally means a slightly higher price; pay it, because you may pay a steeper price if you don't.

4. Does the host keep customers informed about server maintenance, new services, etc.?

True story. On Tuesday, November 7, 2007, a customer called and told me that their website was down. Sure enough, I typed in their URL and saw nothing but a MySQL error on the screen. I called the host (which I will keep un-named...here) and the verbal tango went as follows:

Me: Hello, my customer's website appears to be down and showing only a MySQL error.

Tech: Ah, yes, we disabled MySQL throughout all of our servers.

Me: Excuse me?

Tech: We had a security audit and so many peoples' databases were getting injected due to insecure code that we decided to disable MySQL.

Me: Neither myself or my customer received any sort of warning that this was going to happen.

Tech: Right, we didn't have time to do so. We did, however, schedule enough tech persons today to deal with the fallout. Let me enable MySQL for your account again.

I started a hosting transfer the next day.

5. Does the host provide an easy, functional control panel?

A hosting control panel is an absolute must when choosing a host. Some hosts use third party control panels like Plesk or cPanel, some have their own custom control panel (GoDaddy and Dream host, for example). Without an adequate control panel, you could find yourself at the mercy of a slow tech support staff just to make a basic change.

The above questions are the most important to ask yourself before choosing a host. Others include:

  • Where, physically, is the host located? Down the block or across the country?
  • Do they provide adequate space and bailboxes/forwarders for email?
  • Is tech support outsourced to foreign countries?
  • Can you get a direct phone number to a tech support person you trust?
  • Can you connect to the database using a desktop application?

Don't Be Fooled By Numbers

Hosts do a number of a things to fool a prospective client, such as:

  • Provide boat loads of bandwidth and disk space -- if you don't need TB's of bandwidth, don't be impressed by the number.
  • Twenty 9's of uptime. All hosts promise 99.9999999% uptime. Why? Because nothing binds them to that number. You can't sue them if your site isn't up that percentage, so they can promise anything.
  • Cite "rate-a-host" websites that say that have high approval ratings. Most "rate-a-host" websites are loaded with affiliate links which tells you they only recommend hosts to get a percentage of YOUR money.
  • Dirt cheap pricing. When it comes to web hosting, you usually get what you pay for.

So Who's Good?

In my experience, the following web hosts make the cut:

  • DreamHost - I host my blog with DreamHost. Very flexible, easy to use control panel, and a "Call Back" feature for speaking with technical support. I've created a $50 off DreamHost Hosting coupon for my readers.
  • GoDaddy - Best phone support system I've ever experienced. Expect 24/7 technical support from domestic employees -- not outsourcing. Also a great price. Note: mod_rewrite can cause problems on GoDaddy due to Fast-CGI. If SEF links are a must, call GoDaddy first to see if they can help with mod_rewrite.
  • CrystalTech - CrystalTech has been nothing but helpful and reliable in my experience with the company. (mostly Windows-based hosting)
  • Supranet - A Madison, WI host that specializes in hosting for medium to large businesses.
  • RackSpace - Pricey but solid hosting and support.

So Who's Bad?

I wont be using these hosts again:

  • Charter / Comcast / TDS - Cable companies shouldn't legally be allowed to offer web hosting.
  • CoreComm - Another ISP that provides sub par, unreliable web hosting
  • Cedant - Consistently sliding down-hill in the support department
  • Infinology - Once took 45 minutes on the phone with a person to cancel my account.

There you have it -- my hosting guidelines in a nutshell. Please note that we only put our customers on GoDaddy hosting. All of my poor experiences with hosting providers is due solely to inheriting old websites and trying to either maintain the hosting or move them away from the old host.

Lastly, note that I ripped "rate-a-host" websites for trying to collect referral money and then I referred to my DreamHost coupon. In the interest of full disclosure, I do get a small sum from that referral. You will, however, note that this website is hosted on DreamHost, so I'm not simply trying to collect a referral. I wouldn't host on DreamHost if I didn't like their service.

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Discussion

  1. jack frame

    Take a look at It’s Hosted! (www.itshosted.com)

    They offer cPanel hosting for $5.95 month to month with NO SETUP FEE or COMMITMENT. They allow you to host 2 domains per account & even provided SSH (Shell Access is a necessity for me). Many Webhosts claim to have hosting for $3-$7 per month, but then when you checkout, they want you to pay for 12-24 months! Or they require a whopping setup fee!

    itshosted.com does not do this. Their $5.95 account actually costs $5.95/mo at checkout (go figure). That way if I am ever unhappy, I can move on without losing $50-$100 dollars.

  2. Rob Randall

    Cedant is horrible. They used to have really good customer service but since 2006, they’ve gone way down hill. Apparently they now out source their tech support over seas and the people are alien idiots. I know a lot of people who are moving away from them because of their support issues. There are much better hosting companies out there. DON”T USE CEDANT, you will regret it.

  3. We have our business website hosted with CoreComm and have for several years. Last Wednesday they changed mail servers and did not notify their clients, they stated that is would be too huge of a job to do that. My e-mail has not been working for 1 week now and I have lost several thousands of dollars. Their customer service is terrible, when and if you can get past a busy signal, you are then placed on hold for up to an hour until you can speak to someone. I have been promised that the problem would be fixed several times and I am still waiting. I would not do business with them at all!!

  4. @Julie: Ouch. That sounds absolutely ridiculous.

  5. Hugo

    I’ve been using Dreamhost for myself (production/development) and for a few clients. The price is right, the custom control panel rocks, and the extra features rule! However, I’ve had terrible experiences with customer support to the point that they were going to lose my business over $19.95. Makes no sense to receive canned responses/explanations to issues and lately the machine I’m on has crashed several times. Clients don’t like that at all. They do have a site called Dreamhost Status (http://www.dreamhoststatus.com/)…if you have trouble check there first to see if your machine is on the fritz. For the price and what they offer (recently, unlimited bandwidth & diskspace) it’s kinda scary and you have to stop and wonder if the service is any good. Well, aside from the problems I’ve had I would still recommend them to people. They also claim to be carbon-neutral which is the main reason I began using them in the first place.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m ok with using Dreamhost but I would switch to ServerBeach in a heartbeat…but they’re too pricey for me at the moment. I also use GoDaddy for all domain name related stuff and I’m very pleased with their control panel(s).
    I do have to disagree with David on the PHONE issue. One needs to pay to get phone support with Dreamhost unless of course you have a dedicated server plan. I used to seek hosts that provide phone support but after a recent confrontation I witnessed between a client and the host I realized that it might be important to have a (digital) paper trail in case trouble arises and to help eliminate the he-said, she-said syndrome. Have I ranted enough? Just my two pence.

  6. Noodlewitt

    Don’t forget to look into where your host is.. Not just for speed but for the search engines. It can be an absolute nightmare to force Google to think you are a UK based site when you are hosted elsewhere.

  7. David, thanks for recommending DREAMHOST, I’d like to move my site to a new provider and maybe DH looks right (my website is photography related and I’d like to have good response times when loading galleries and so on) which hosting plan/solution do you recommend?

    Thanks

    Stefano

  8. Daniel Platt

    Hey David,
    Many thanks for the article, just quoted you in the literature review area of my dissertation so you’re going to be published! kind of.

    Kind Regards,
    Danny

  9. Good post, however it should cover some of the other points of interest regarding the daunting task of choosing a good web-host. Points of interest such as the marketing gimmicks used by hosts such as “Unlimited Storage” and jokes like “SEO Hosting”, as well as all the fake/bogus review sites out there just spammed full of referral/affiliate links!

    To see what I mean read this and maybe incorporate some of the points into this post: How to Choose a Web-Host without Being Fooled by Referral Websites with Fake Reviews!

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