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  •  Tuesday, September 4, 2012   
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At ServerBear we help web hosts connect better with customers by providing a more transparent insight into their performance & plans. We’re trying to make public data that’s generally hidden under the surface, data that you don’t normally get to see until after you sign up.

This got me thinking about the reasons why people might choose a certain provider, let’s separate these reasons into Public & Private.

Public Reasons

These are reasons that the user can predetermine themselves, through research without having to actually signup.

Lets pretend for the purpose of this post there’s three very different types of hosts:

  1. There’s large companies that have the budgets to spend on flash websites & advertising (think DreamhostEleven2Hostgator, Softlayer or Rackspace). Some of which have been eaten up by larger holding groups like EIG & UK2, you actually might be surprised at how many hosting companies EIG owns (Netfirms, FatCow, Bluehost, iPage, HostMonster & heaps more). Others continue to grow at an astounding rate.
  2. You then have up & coming companies that have previously spent more of their energy on providing a good service & infrastructure but relied on word of mouth to grow (think Linode or Singlehop), you’ll see a lot of these companies climb the ranks in the INC 500.
  3. Finally you have the smaller companies, they could be one man shows (i.e. Hostigation) or have a handful of employees (like 6sync). Some will own their own hardware, others will lease their hardware from suppliers like OVH or Hetzner.

Marketing

How a web host markets themselves plays a huge factor in generating sales. Some hosts like Dreamhost have adopted the unlimited hosting approach (which we’ve warned you to be wary of), others have extremely polished websites.

Marketing is a necessary evil for any host to grow & one of the most poisonous forms of marketing that I’ve seen in this industry is via affiliate programs (which I’ll talk about later).

Our advice is to gloss over the marketing speak, finding the right host shouldn’t be about who’s most in your face or who shouts the loudest – it should be about which company adequately meets your requirements.

Size & Scale

The size of a company will play a factor in your decision depending on what you are planning to host, if it’s an enterprise website or eCommerce website you’ll want a provider with a good track record & uptime (remembering that every little bit of downtime could cost you revenue).

Do remember that smaller companies can be quicker & nimbler when answering questions or giving you support, compared to large companies with lots of layers of management & bureaucracy. I’ll normally do a quick check on Linkedin to see how many people work at the company, or  jump on a quick live chat session to see how quickly they respond.

Scale is particularly important when hosting mission critical stuff, from our benchmarks we know that Amazon isn’t the fastest cloud provider in the marketplace but they have a lot of big customers that trust their infrastructure.

Plans & Pricing Structure

Depending on your needs the price will be one of the primary factoring that motivates your decision to go with a particular company.

On ServerBear we only list the base monthly price for a specific plan, however you’ll see all sorts of promotions out there. Here’s some to keep an eye out for:

Yearly Billing Cycles: This one irks me a lot, you’ll see lots of companies display their lowest possible price on the website. But what you don’t see is that is usually attached to a long commitment period (usually of 1-3 years). Under no circumstances do you want to be attached to a web host for that amount of time, if for whatever reason you need to cancel (or get suspended for violating any terms of service) you risk losing your entire payment.

There’s another reason why these billing cycles catch users off guard, the rate you lock in initially may not be the rate at which your plan renews at. So you might signup at $4.99 / month but come renewal time you’re having to pay $8.99 / month. We have heaps of web hosting coupons that will provide ongoing discount for life (combine that with a yearly payment once you have trust in a provider & you can end up saving 50% or more).

Unlimited Features: We’ve written a blog post in more detail about unlimited hosting, but the bottom line is that if a host offers anything unlimited make sure you read their terms of service in detail. Quite often there are limits on the types of things you can do with your account (which end up limiting you anyway).

Automatic Addons: Addons by nature are what I would call Dark Patterns, quite often they will trick the user into purchasing them by either automatically ticking boxes or making the user think they need them.

Here’s an example from a well known shared host, I’ve only signed up for a web hosting plan but I’ve been hit with 3 dark patterns:

First up I’m getting automatically billed for 2 years, in the dropdown you can choose 1 year, 2 years or 3 years.

Secondly domain privacy is automatically ticked, I know domain registrars that give this free (if you want it).

Next up, on the same page, they automatically tick backups & a SiteLock badge. Whilst backups are extremely important, pre-selecting these fields is downright deceptive & preys on uneducated consumers.

Discounts

Coupons are a great way to save on hosting, they generally come in a few flavours:

  • Free upgrades (i.e. upgrade to a 100 Mbit port, or Double RAM)
  • x% or $ off your first invoice
  • x% off monthly

The ideal coupon is a lifetime monthly discount, however just be aware of the renewal costs for coupons that are once off. Doing a quick search on Google should always reveal some coupons.

Public Reviews

Reviews are extremely prevalent in the web hosting industry, generally for the reason that I started this post for – there’s so many unknowns that people need validation from existing customers or those that have had a positive/negative experience with a web host.

When you combine the need for reviews with affiliate programs (that pay $100 per sale) you end up getting a nasty combination. This industry has been plagued by fake reviews & affiliate review sites that are only out there to do one thing – get you to sign up to a particular host so they can make a commission. There’s also many web hosting review websites that will only list hosts that they get paid a commission on (whereas we list everything), this only benefits themselves & not the consumer.

Disclaimer: ServerBear does get paid a commission from a percentage of web hosts on our site, this enables us to continue to develop new features. This does not skew our results or filtering, we let the performance speak.

Our advice is to use forums when looking for reviews, Google’s site: operator is extremely useful here:

site:webhostingtalk.com prometeus review
site:webhostingtalk.com prometeus eleven2 review
site:webhostingtalk.com prometeus singlehop review
site:webhostingtalk.com prometeus dediserve review

Do not buy based on reviews only, would you buy a car without test driving it just because I told you it was awesome? Probably not.

Contact Details & Social Proof

This is an important one for me, hosts that care about their customers will actively engage the community & have a way to contact them. This could be through specific forums, Twitter, Facebook or even good old telephone.

Look at the ways your host allows you to contact them, ring their support number. If you get put through to an Asian call center does that give you confidence you can get a problem fixed? Do you see great feedback from the community about a particular host on social media?


BuyVM for example have their own IRC Channel, which they use to release new stock first & also the community helps answer support queries in real time. There is lots of homework that you can do to validate that a host meets your requirements in this particular area.

Own Datacenter, Colocating or Onselling

This particular point isn’t vitally important but worth mentioning, does the host own their own Datacenter & hardware? Do they have onsite engineers to fix hardware issues? Normally you can see this information somewhere on the website.

There’s probably one other thing that we should make you aware of & that’s what we call Summer Hosts. Web Hosting has an extremely low barrier to entry as a business, in fact the Intel Xeon E5506 that we host ServerBear on could probably handle hundreds of shared accounts (200 x $4 = $600 profit based on the cost of this server). For that reason the industry has a lot of fly by night companies that lease hardware, onsell it & then vanish without a trace (generally when they can’t pay their bills anymore).

This isn’t to say that every host that leases hardware is to be avoided, but just don’t be lured in by an extremely cheap (too good to be true) offer from a brand new web host. If you do, don’t host anything mission critical on it.

Using Who Is Hosting This is a great way to see who hosts a particular website.

WHOIS Information

One good way to do some investigation is to lookup the WHOIS information of a host. You’re looking for two things in particular here:

  • Age – Has the website for the host only been around for a few months? Or have they been in business for years.
  • Domain Privacy – Does the host have privacy enabled on the domain? If so, why would they possibly want to hide private details?

Validity of WHMCS License

WHMCS is the billing system of choice for a lot of web hosts, fortunately they also have a handy tool to check if a particular host is using a licensed copy or not.

Downtime Handling

How a host handles downtime is a question of transparency, some will hope that you don’t notice. Others will have snazzy downtime dashboards like Heroku to keep you fully informed of what’s going on, many hosts are now also using Twitter as a medium to do short concise updates on downtime:


SLA’s

SLA’s exist to provide a reasonable level of service availability to customers & to compensate them in the event of unavoidable downtime or issues. See if your host provides an SLA, what are the terms?

A great example to look at is SingleHop, they have two levels on their SLA (which you can upgrade to), but they are quite clear on what sort of time frames you can expect for certain issues.

Policies/TOS

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service are another two huge factors you should be looking at when choosing a web host. You should understand how a host plans to protect your personal information, for example I learned last week that BuyVM doesn’t allow you to pay via a PayPal subscription because they have to relinquish some of your personal details to PayPal.

The Terms of Service will layout how you can & cannot use your server. There’s a number of things to look at:

  • Acceptable Uses: Can you use your server for things like TOR, Torrents, IRC, Proxies, VPN’s.
  • Resource Abuse: You may be terminated for abusing resources due to a 3rd party scripts, or if you’re hacked & someone is using your account to send spam emails.
  • DMCA Requests: Most hosts will have a zero tolerance approach to too many DMCA requests.
  • DDOS: How does your host handle DDOS? Some will have protection, others will nullroute your IP address for a fixed period of time.

Private Reasons

Okay, so now we’ve looked at a heap of publicly available ways for you to do more research into potential web hosting companies. But lets say you’ve made your mind up, how do you know how well the server will perform? How fast will your connection be to various place around the world? How quickly will they respond to your issues?

Now we’re going to delve into some of the private reasons, these are the things that you generally won’t be exposed to until after you sign up.

Server Performance

For us, server performance is one of the most critical factors when choosing a provider. It should be high up on your list too. Luckily for you this is what we specialise in, we have benchmarked over 500+ hosting providers to allow you to compare server performance like never before.

Some of the areas we look at are:

  • UnixBench: A benchmark that provides an overall system score (higher is better)
  • IOPS: A benchmark that looks at the input & output operations per second that the storage device on the server is capable of (higher is better)
  • Disk IO: A benchmark that looks at the speed at which we can read/write a 1GB file to the hard drive (higher is better)
  • FIO: Testing random read & write speeds to disk using different configurations that can better simulate real work usage (higher is better)
  • Network Speeds: How fast can a 100MB file be downloaded at various locations around the world, this should give you an idea on how the server performance where you need it to perform most (remember a high latency to your server will make it feel less responsive when loading pages) (higher is better)

We highly recommend that you benchmark the performance of your current server & compare it to other plans in the marketplace around the same cost.

Uptime

The uptime of web hosts is measured in 9’s, naturally 100% uptime is what everyone aims for but lets just say that your host has an SLA for 99% uptime there’s a formula we can use to calculate potential downtime:

Minutes in Year x (100%-99%)/100
525600 x 1 / 100 = 87.6 Hours Downtime (or 3.65 days)

If your online business generates $100 per day in revenue you potentially have the ability to lose $365 just due to downtime in one year. And that’s what the host is committing to!

Ticket Response Time

How fast will your host respond to tickets? Firstly, there’s a difference here between “acknowledgement” and an actual resolution. Unfortunately there’s no way to know until you sign up & test this for yourself.

A few key things to remember:

  • If you need to contact a sales department, these typically only work 9-5 Monday to Friday.
  • If your tickets are always being escalated then it’s a sign that the support is not able to adequately deal with your problems.
  • If you are a novice then the number of tickets you submit might be much greater than someone with a working knowledge of servers. You must also remember that this is a strain on the provider, if they provide an unmanaged hosting service then you are required to do all the setup yourself (and the provider will look after the hardware).

Some hosts like Secure Dragon actually put their ticket response times on their website.

Support Staff Competence

A host may be able to answer my ticket fast, but if it takes them hours to sort out my problem then I will get frustrated. Support staff knowledge is an extremely important factor, it’s also something that is outside your control.

We’ve mentioned earlier in the post a few ways of getting a feel for this, submit some tickets asking Pre-Sales questions, pick up the phone & speak with someone. Ask questions via Twitter or on forums.

So that about wraps it up, as you can see there’s a lot of things that can help you make a more informed decision when choosing a web hosting company. Make sure you think about us if you need to compare performance!

We’d love to know what factors influence your decision?