Think all web hosting is the same? Part II: 8 Tips for Finding a Good Provider

By Kieran

Having been developing web sites and web-based applications for over 15 years now (wow, I feel old!), I’ve had the pleasure of working with many different hosting providers.  There are a plethora of options available, leaving one to ponder the pros and cons of each.  To those just starting a site and new to the hosting world, either personally or professionally, the task of picking out a hosting provider can be daunting.  Outside of the topic of programming, the number one question I’m asked by clients is, “can you recommend a good hosting provider?”

Now, I’m not here to advertise for one provider or tear down another, so I won’t make any recommendations to readers of this article.  What I will do is try and arm you with the information necessary to make an informed intelligent decision for yourself.  Here are eight tips to assist you in finding a hosting provider with which you will be happy:

  1. The best way to find a good hosting provider is to ask friends who host sites.  This might seem obvious, but it is surprising how many people don’t do this simple action.  It can provide insight into how the provider works, what kind of uptime they have, and how quickly they resolve any issues that may arise.
  2. Search for providers you are considering on Google and Twitter.  Twitter has an advanced search that can be used to help narrow down location and attitude which could be useful, especially if you are looking for a local provider.  You’ll want to find that people are talking about the provider – and in a good light.
  3. If the provider lists featured sites they host on their home page, check them out.  How quickly do they load?  Is it a high traffic site that requires excellent hosting?
  4. One of the best places to find out more about a provider is in their forums, if they have them (they should!).  See if there are complaints.  If there are a lot of support questions, this might imply problems with the service or a poor user experience in their control panel, if they have one.  If everyone on the forums is too happy or there is nary a complaint to be found, it might not be out of the realm of possibility that the forums are carefully moderated by the company.  Keep this in mind.
  5. My favorite way of finding out more about a hosting provider is to talk to the provider.  I believe everyone should do this, regardless of how much one may think they know about the company.  Shoot them an e-mail or give them a call and ask for some references or for some URLs of sites they host.  Speak with the references or check out the sites you are given.  My favorite response when doing this is when they encourage tip 4 above, “Go check out our forums and find out for yourself what our customers think.”
  6. Did you follow the advice given in tip 5?  You should have, if for no other reason that it will demonstrate how quickly the company will be to react to any problems you may encounter with them.  If you sat on hold for ten minutes or didn’t receive a reply to your e-mail for a few hours, beware!
  7. Don’t think size matters.  Some of the best hosting I have experienced has been from smaller local companies.  Likewise, some of the worst hosting experiences I have had have come from global companies who continually suffer from epic fails.
  8. Make sure that the provider provides you with what you need.  Yes, this might require you to “get your geek on” for a bit, but picking a hosting provider you will be happy with is an important decision.  An incompetent provider or outdated services can drive your visitors away, and without visitors, what good is your site really doing you?  Either through your own experience or with the help of your site’s developer, if you didn’t do it yourself, you should be able to generate a list of minimum requirements.
  • Do you need a Linux or Windows hosting environment?
  • What programming languages does the server need to support?  PHP?  ASP.NET?
  • What databases do you need supported?  MySQL?  PostgreSQL?
  • What version of various software components are they running?  If the provider you are considering is running an old version of PHP, for example, ask yourself (or better yet, the provider) why they haven’t yet upgraded.  How long can your site survive on older software?  Just because your site might able to be run on PHP 4 doesn’t mean it should be run on PHP 4.
  • If you need to upgrade hosting packages in the future, how easily and quickly can that be accomplished?
  • Do you need anything beyond generic FTP access?  Maybe you need SSH access to a command-line.  Perhaps you need to be able to create cron scripts.  If you can happily get everything you need done in the provider’s control panel, that’s great, but if you want or need some of these extra features, it would be a real shame, and possibly even a detriment, to find out they are missing after your site goes live.

Nothing is permanent.  If you end up with a hosting provider that is rubbing you the wrong way, it isn’t the end of the world.  Nearly all providers offer month-to-month hosting, so it is unlikely you would be out anything more than a month’s cost of hosting and some frayed nerves.  If you’re unhappy with your hosting provider, ask yourself why you don’t change providers.  It isn’t terribly tricky to change providers and downtime can be minimal.  In fact, if done properly, no one will even know you switched hosting companies.

With so many excellent hosting options available, the days of constant battles, slow sites, and downtime are largely a thing of the past.  Those things should be the exception, not the rule.  How will you know when you have found the right hosting company?  The answer to that question is easy:  when you no longer need to think about hosting.  Apart from paying your bill, you should never need to give thought to this service.  It should always be there for you, working as expected.

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11 Responses to “Think all web hosting is the same? Part II: 8 Tips for Finding a Good Provider”

  1. J. Spencer says:

    Did you take that PHP4 bit from my experience? I’m happy to say that I left Yahoo! SMB Hosting. While it was a great *value* in terms of money-per-MB Xfer, the technology just couldn’t keep up. They were still running PHP4, with no known upgrade path. Additionally, and in part of the PHP issue, WordPress installs were painfully slow, and in some cases didn’t even work with certain features or plug-ins.

    I’m happy I took your advice to pack up and move on. While GoogleApps is not my ideal choice for email, I am surviving. As for the website and blog, they are thriving at my new host.

  2. Kieran says:

    Glad to hear things are working out! PHP 4 hasn’t been supported by the PHP developers for quite some time, so any host that isn’t actively upgrading past it at this point is going nowhere fast! As for the you not being thrilled with your e-mail situation, the nice thing about keeping e-mail and web hosting services separate is that you can move one without moving the other. If you ever give up on GoogleApps entirely for some reason, you can move along to another provider without worrying about your site.

  3. Josh says:

    You touched on this very briefly, but I think it’s worth noting that even though a company may “offer” a monthly hosting package… Most likely scenario is that the monthly cost is far greater than say an “annual” package… Meaning the majority of people might just go blindly into it to save a buck or two…

    I think people should take a minute and think of it like a “test drive” with a car. Pay the monthly fee for the first month… Then use that month to make your decision as to whether you want to settle down with that company, or move on and test drive that Ferrari sitting at the other dealership.

  4. Kieran says:

    Very good point! That’s a great idea, and well worth the small extra amount of money for one month.

  5. Kristopher says:

    Great article, Kieran! One thing I think is worth mentioning is checking into a provider’s downtime history. Almost all advertise 99.9% uptime, but is that true? Some hosting providers have 3rd party uptime monitoring tools setup so you can see an unbiased view of how often their servers go down. It’s definitely worth asking any prospective hosts if they have this information.

  6. Josh says:

    I’ve actually wondered about that… I mean, without just bold face lying about it… Where do companies get their statistics on server uptime?

    I mean, the vast majority of them advertise 99% uptime! There’s no way that every hosting company out there has that kind of uptime… Otherwise, there’d be no reason to advertise it like it’s a special feature!

  7. Jamie says:

    great post..! very informative, I’ve always had problems with finding a good hosting company. There are so many and they all claim big things.

    Thanks for the insight I can hopefully now go conquer the hosting world!

  8. Kieran says:

    Thanks Jamie. You and Josh are correct that most hosting companies make huge claims. I personally believe it is easier to find a good hosting provider than a bad one anymore, so if you’re getting guff, get out. The only reason this article even crossed my mind was in seeing a client have problems with a provider and realizing that “hey, if you don’t know there are better options out there, you don’t know switch.” So many people are content to settle, even when there are better options, and often for less money!

  9. Kristopher says:

    Think about this: There are roughly 8,760 hours in a year. Most hosts advertise at least 99.9% uptime, which means 0.1% downtime, which is 8.76 hours per year (unless I fail at math). That’s a lot of downtime! If a host isn’t offering at least that much uptime, you should probably stay away.

  10. Josh says:

    Well, that’s my point actually… I may have worded it a bit weird, but I’m wondering why they all boast about such a strong uptime when it’s in fact just a common occurrence?

    I mean, why do they flaunt 99.9% uptime if EVERYONE has that? That’s just plain stupid.

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