Starting an online venture has several important steps to consider but one of the most important is where to host it. The right web hosting provider can mean the difference between informed, happy customers and irate buyers or even an audience that doesn’t know you exist. For most small businesses and startups, the problem is knowing what to look for before settling on the hoster that’s right for you.
To help, we’ve broken out five of the most important features you should consider when looking for your website’s home.
Get The Right Hosting Service
It sounds like an obvious consideration, but not all hosting services are created equal even depending on your high-level needs. For example, if you anticipate your traffic needs to be low and stay that way for the foreseeable future, then you’ll want to look at shared web hosting or VPS hosting options. On the other hand, if you’re anticipating a large flock of customers on a steady basis, a dedicated hosting solution or one of the larger cloud players mentioned above is your better bet.
Since you’ll probably hire internal IT staff to monitor your website, make sure you’ve chosen a hoster that can work with the monitoring tools those folks want to use. And if your website is your business’s main resource, you might also want to host other parts of your business there, like your company’s email service or your digital marketing tools.
The latter is especially useful if you don’t want to go out of house on important commerce elements, such as search engine optimization (SEO) or customized marketing analytics. That all sounds much too complex if you’re just starting out, but you’ll grow into those needs much faster than you think, so at least plan for them at the outset.
Check Up on Reliability
Uptime is the stat you’re looking for when you want to know how reliable your hosting partner is. Services without good uptime numbers can leave you hanging when you’re hit with large traffic surges. For example, even smaller online merchants can experience a traffic boost during Black Friday or the December holiday rush. If your customers get a 404 error because your hoster can’t handle the sudden load, you’re losing revenue with no recourse.
To get a handle on uptime for potential partners, do some research on websites such as Cloud Spectator and Review Signal, which publish metrics on uptime and reliability for a long list of web hosting providers. Then get in touch with other users. Many web hosters have support forums where you can start. Questions? Hit small business groups, like LinkedIn for Small Business or Reddit’s r/webhosting, r/ecommerce, and r/smallbusiness groups. These days every business needs a website so the members of these groups should have good opinions on which hosters have done the best for them.
Don’t Be Afraid of A Little Complexity
Smaller businesses or startups that maybe don’t have a brainy IT guy on the payroll tend to shy away from complex web hosting services like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. That’s because these are public cloud infrastructure providers, which means they’ll definitely have a whole lot of web server muscle and reliability figures, but you’re on your own for setting it all up. Or are you?
Both these services and others like them, such as Google Cloud and Rackspace, have very long lists of value-add partners. And wouldn’t you know it, many of those partners specialize in getting small businesses up and running with some seriously robust web serving infrastructure.
The advantages here revolve around advanced capabilities like redundant reliability and security. Web hosters that specialize in servicing small businesses directly might have some of these benefits, too, but with a large public cloud player, you get much more flexibility. For example, you can make sure you’ve got a redundant web server running in case your primary suddenly experiences a traffic spike or simply crashes; but with a larger player, you can also decide where that redundant server lives geographically. AWS, Google, and Microsoft all have dozens of data centers around the globe so you can specify where you want your servers and match that to your most popular audience demographics.
Large, dedicated hosting services, like GoDaddy or HostGator, will have some of these options, too, but they’ll be much more limited than what you can do inside the larger clouds. Yes, you’ll need to engage with a value-add partner, like Antian for AWS or Connectria for Microsoft Azure, but depending on your expected traffic loads and what you want your customers to do on your site, the extra flexibility may well be worth it. And engaging with one of these partners also means you’ll have a support contact that’ll be much more responsive than calling the all-up Azure helpline.
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Matching Business Needs to Hosting Features
One area where a dedicated web hosting provider might beat out a vast public cloud is with their small business package. Bluehost, GoDaddy, and similar providers have dedicated service packages for small business customers often breaking them out into e-commerce or general-purpose sites. The advantage to these services is that they roll up all the necessary components at a single price. So an e-commerce package might include an online catalog, a shopping cart, a payment processor, and even a dashboard with metrics specific to what online merchants need.
Where you need to be careful here is in researching exactly what technology or third-party providers such services use. Larger players will have their own tools for website design, e-commerce features, and even payment processing. Others will simply resell third-party services, like Shopify or Square. Don’t take these features for granted. Hit those user groups and find their limitations or best features. Do they integrate well with other third parties you might need, like an e-commerce fulfillment provider? And what if you’d rather use a different payment processor or another service than what the vendor is offering?
If you can work with the technology components these vendors provide inside those small business service packages then these are great options. Not only because they’re easy to set up but also because you’ll have a single point of support with technicians who will be familiar with all of the components, not just one. It’s better to talk to a tech who understands how everything ties together from your website builder to your payment processing, rather than simply handling their single piece and then kicking you to a whole different company for support on another component.
That said, a larger player can tie into any service you need and they generally have much more robust underlying features that can help as your company grows. AWS and Azure particularly have fantastic data analysis and collection services. Tie those into your online site and you’ll have seriously granular information on your customers, your website’s performance, and even your purchase and inventory data. Some, like AWS, can even offer deals with non-technical components, like a fulfillment service.
Yes, you’ll probably need that value-add partner to get all this running but this is one scenario where that’s definitely a good idea. Not only will that partner be able to get you up and running with exactly what you need and how you need it, but they’ll also be that single point of support you need across all your site’s components.
Don’t Take Security for Granted
Every hosting provider will tell you their service is the most secure online fortress on the web. This is where you’ll need to do research on two fronts. First, figure out what you need. Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates and data encryption at rest are obvious measures that most vendors offer. But what about more individual needs?
For example, if you’re operating in California or the European Union (EU), you’ll be subject to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), respectively. Exactly what security and reporting features do you need to make sure you stay in compliance with those regulations? If you’re servicing other, vertical customers, like buyers for financial or healthcare services, there will be other regulations for those industries as well. Your best bet is to sit down with your legal resource along with an IT security staffer or consultant and have them match those needs to web hosting technology. Again, this might mean more money at the outset, but it’ll be far less than recovering from a sudden audit or even a shutdown notice because you took a web hoster’s security claims for granted.
On the reliability side, check your provider’s history. Some, like Azure, try to be absolutely transparent and will post all their downtime and data breaches on their public site (though you may have to hunt to actually find that data). You’ll probably run into some data dearth when checking these incidents for the smaller players, but take the time to hit those e-commerce, small business, and web hosting community groups we listed above and ask the question. Or check other information sources, such as Spiceworks, which will have data on many services as well.
Editors’ note: Spiceworks is owned by J2 Global, the parent company of PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.