A Website Host is like an apartment – basically, you’re renting a place for your website files to “live”. You’ll purchase a specific amount of space on a computer, called a server. This computer is connected to the Internet 24 hours a day, and when someone wants to view your website they type in your address – your domain name – and then that address connects to your web host. Then the web host sends your website files over to the person who wants to see it.

What you need to consider when looking for a website host:

Available Backend Functionality: Running contact forms, forums, galleries, and other “whistles and bells” on a website require that the website host either have various scripts and programs available, or, at the least, have the capability to run those scripts and programs. It can be convenient to host your site with a company that has the scripts and programs that you need already installed on their servers, because then they’ll maintain the programs, upgrade them and take care of things for you.
Ask your designer or programmer if you need to host your site on a Windows or UNIX platform. As the business owner, you don’t really have to know what the answer means, just that your site is hosted on the correct type of machine for your needs.

Access to Customer Service: Imagine: it’s Friday afternoon, and you go to check up on your lovely website. And, when you type in your URL, you discover that the site’s down! Oh, no! So, now you dig around to contact support, and you discover that your only way to contact your support staff is by a website form on their site, and that they only answer questions from 8am to 6pm Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday! Aaah! Wouldn’t you be happier if you could actually talk to a person and get your site back up right now, instead of waiting, worrying and steaming about it all weekend long?

So, when you sign up for a host, check out what their customer service availability is, and what methods they let you use to get in touch with people. I strongly recommend not going with a host that only offers a support email or web form – calling a phone number is often the best way to get things resolved. If possible, try calling their support line – see if you get a person or a machine, if there are long hold times, if the people you get in touch with are courteous, and helpful. Also, make sure that you can understand the support staff – that they’re not too technical, and that they don’t have unintelligible accents.

Maintenance: Does the company update the software on the servers frequently enough to keep up with the latest advances? Do they perform maintenance at convenient times, or do they take down the servers during your prime business hours? Do the scripts and programs that they offer actually work? Make sure that the answer to all of these is “yes” before committing to a host.

Email Needs: Having a branded email address is really important for your online brand. So, that means that your website host will actually wind up managing your email for you as well. Ask your computer guru whether you need an IMAP or Pop3 email account, and then make sure that your website host offers that type of account for you. And, have them set up your email so that it also looks like it’s coming from your branded email address. It’s often easiest – and tempting – to just set up an email forward to your existing account, but then any mail that you send out won’t have your domain name on it. Taking the time to set things up correctly will make your small business look bigger.

Also, consider how many email addresses you’ll want to set up – many hosts will allow a set number of email addresses to be set up with an account. You’ll want one for each person in your company, of course, but then also having separate emails for different autoresponders, separate emails for your forms, and for different “departments” in your business, like administration, sales, and contacts, can really make your business look more like it’s not just you (even if it is).

Storage Space: For the average website, any host will give you plenty of hosting space – my host offers up to 20 gigabites of file storage with every account they host. The average graphical site won’t go over 5 or 10 megabytes, so you’d never even approach the full capacity. But, if you’re planning to have PDF files available for downloads, integrate a lot of scripts, tools and software, or make audio downloads available on your site, those can really add to your site’s size quickly. Make sure you have the space you need available.

Credibility: Make sure that the host you choose is established, and will be around for a while. You want your site to be up and available, and if your host shuts down, your site will too. You’ll also probably do some customization of your site to work with the host that you choose. If your host then shuts down, or makes major changes to its’ software systems, you’ll have to re-invest and re-code your site! Pick a host that will stay in business.

And, host credibility becoming more and more important for email purposes – if your host gets blacklisted on spam sites, then you won’t be able to send out your emails! Make sure your host works with credible companies and has anti-spam practices in place.

And, of course, price: Working with the cheapest web host, or a free hosting company, is usually not the best choice for a small business. But, for a simple website, you don’t need to be paying all that much for a good-quality web host. For example, I pay $8 per month for my host, which is a pretty reasonable price. And, many hosts will offer a discount if you pay for a year all at once – which is more convenient anyways!