Here are the facts: Web hosting is a shady, shady industry at the best of times. While there are plenty of well-meaning companies, money-hungry affiliates and deceptive marketers have turned the web hosting game into a high-stakes affair.
For some businesses, your website is more than just your online hub – it’s a huge source of income and an important part of your branding and communications strategy. Experiencing downtime or getting trapped with a bad host can be a hugely expensive mistake.
So what should you look for when you’re evaluating hosting companies? How can you separate the good from the bad? While it’s not always cut and dry, keeping an eye on all of the following is a tremendous start.
1. “Unlimited” isn’t.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. A lot of hosts will promise you the moon, with sexy-sounding offers like “Unlimited bandwidth!” or “Unlimited disk space!”
But it’s a lie. Bandwidth and disk space both cost hosting companies money, so all that “Unlimited” means is that the host isn’t being upfront with you about what the limits really are.
Hosting companies who sell this way are banking on the hope that your site, like most websites, will use very little bandwidth. Use too much, and they’ll be banging down your door to transfer you to a more expensive plan.
You’ll be threatened and not-so-politely “coerced” into upgrading your account – sometimes even suspended!
That’s not to say that every host who offers an unlimited package is to be avoided – but you have to wonder how much these companies value their customers if they’re willing to lie to them.Most of the best hosts have dropped this from their marketing in favor of less deceptive tactics.
2. Support? What support?
No matter who you are or what site you plan to host, there will almost inevitably come a time where you’ll need to get in touch with customer support. It’s one of the few human points of contact a hosting company actually has – and sadly, many hosting companies have tried to keep their costs as low as possible by outsourcing cheaply overseas or cutting off necessary channels.
A few things you want to look for:
- Is the support US/UK/Canada-based? When you’re frustrated, you need the help of a trained tech, not someone reading from a prompt. While overseas support is slowly improving with education and training, the best hosting companies offer support from people in English-speaking countries.
- What channels are available? There are a surprising number of hosting companies who don’t have phone numbers you can call. Instead, they opt for live chat or support tickets. Generally, the more options you have when seeking help, the better.
- What are their response times? Every web host can get busy, especially when there’s a major outage. But if you’re waiting 45 minutes on every phone call or support tickets go for days without any sort of response, it can not only cause frustration – it can cost your business money.
3. Can They Keep it Up?
Hilarious innuendo aside, one of the most critical factors when evaluating a web host is their uptime. Any site that promises 100% uptime is lying – but you should be able to find someone with 99.96% – 99.99%.
The other thing you want to investigate is how the hosting provider handles downtime – especially when they’ve made an uptime guarantee. Skim through the terms of service to see what’s made available to you – the best hosting companies will usually comp you some free hosting time in the event that your site goes down for an extended period of time or they fail to meet the uptime guarantee they’ve promised.
4. Price it Out.
There’s certainly some truth to “you get what you pay for”, but there are also a lot of less-than-savory pricing techniques out there.
For example, often the company will bait you with an extremely low first-year price to get you in the door, then slam you with huge fees for subsequent years. In fact, obscenely low pricing almost always works this way – they’ll make it back up somewhere later down the line, or give you a bare-bones account and nickel and dime you for basic features like POP3/IMAP, subdomains, add-on domains and so on.
As you price shop, compare pricing across multiple years to get a true sense of what you’ll be paying for. Keep a shortlist of features that are important to you and be sure that they’re included in the package you’re paying for.
5. Check Their Legacy.
History is a powerful predictor of the future – but not always in the ways you’d think! Yes, you want to look for companies who have a track record and established history to prove that they’re not fly-by-night operations keen on taking your money.
But there’s more to it. Some other things to check:
- Who owns/manages the company? It’s regrettable to say, but EIG has a long history of buying up hosting companies and turning them into puppy mills of poor service and bottom-of-the-barrel pricing. If EIG owns the host, be leery and do your homework to find out how real customers are feeling about their service. Don’t write off every company associated with EIG, however – great companies like A Small Orangeare owned by EIG, but manage their own business and do things their way. Ownership vs. management is more important than you might expect.
- Were they recently acquired/did they recently get a big boost in usership? Even great hosting companies can turn sour for awhile after experiencing huge business growth. Success can sometimes be a bad thing when a host grows too quickly and lacks the infrastructure to support all their new customers. Load times get slow, sites go down and support time can be abysmal. Check out the company history to see if they’ve made any major announcements, and factor that in when testing them out.
- Scope their BBB rating. It’s not a foolproof metric, but you can always look to the Better Business Bureau to see how a company is performing ethically. If they’re not registered, you’re out of luck.
6. Reviews Are Tricky.
One of the most common ways of vetting hosting companies is to check out customer reviews. The only problem is, more often than not those reviews are – gasp – FAKE!
Hosting companies offer affiliate programs, where enterprising marketers can sell their services and earn a commission on referrals. Unfortunately, that creates a huge incentive for affiliates to butter up the company and make them sound amazing, even when they’re really not. In fact, many times an affiliate has never even tried out the service they’re selling!
If you want to spot a fake review, look for…
- No bad reviews. No matter how amazing a company may be, there will always be a few times they get it wrong, or someone chooses 4 stars instead of 5. If you’re seeing nothing but glowing, positive reviews without any constructive criticism or feedback, chances are you’re on a fake reviews website.
- Little customer information. So “Bob” from “North Dakota” rated 5 stars– and that’s the only information you have?Likely a fake. Real reviews tend to be specific and verifiable; customers might provide their name, social account, domain name and detailed account of the service they received.
- One-word reviews. If the only feedback is “Great!” or “Wonderful hosting!”, that review is not to be taken seriously. Real people tend to leave specific details about the types of plans they own and the experiences they’ve had with the company.Look for authentic accounts of customer service and pricing – not general happy sentiments.
So – has every affiliate sold their soul? Not quite – some of us still have our ethics. Take me, for example! Over at Reviewpon, I offer up fair, unbiased reviews based on my own experience (you can even check the affiliate payouts – some of the highest paying sites are rated the worst!).
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Shopper Approved and Webhostingtalk.com are both outlets where you can find additional unbiased reviews of web hosts.
7. Who’s Your Neighbor?
It’s not commonly known, but IP addresses and hosts can have reputations with search engines. If your host is also hosting porn, pirated software, bulk-email services or sites about hacking, there’s a good chance your site could wind up associated with the same shady business. Scan the host’s terms of service to see who your neighbors might be and judge them accordingly.
8. Can I Get a Refund?
One of the ways I evaluate hosting providers is their refund policy. If things go wrong or you want to switch hosts, you’ll definitely want to get a refund on your plan so that you’re not paying for hosting you never actually used.
The best refund policies are prorated refunds, where they calculate the remaining unused hosting on your plan and send you the difference.
Anyone not offering this will expect you to pay out the rest of your plan whether you keep your site on their service or not – you’re on the hook for all of it! That’s just not a great policy for customers, so whenever you can, choose a company who offers prorated refunds.
9. Lock it Down
This one doesn’t get thought of too often – but it’s nonetheless important. Security systems like firewalls, anti-virus and encryption are one thing – but server location and data privacy is another. If the company’s servers are hosted in a far-off land, not only will load times experience latency – but your data will come under the sometimes lax privacy laws of another country.
It’s just one more reason to choose a host that stores their servers on-shore.
Do Your Homework!
As I started out with, hosting can be a rather sketchy game – but it’s not impossible to win. Don’t just sign on to the cheapest host or the one offering the lowest prices. When you’ve got revenue riding on the decision, it’s not one to rush through! Take the time to dig into the company’s history, support, policies and performance to find a company you can trust long-term. I’ve hosted enough websites with enough hosts to tell you confidently – you’ll be so glad you did.
Visit us at InstantShift.com