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How to Choose a Reliable Web Hosting Company

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How to Research a Web Host 101

Web hosting is an important part of our online businesses. A hosting company is an integral part of many company's business and most of us rely on our host to keep our websites live and making money. Little has been written about the process of how to find a reliable web hosting company. After years of trial and error, I have refined a method that works very well for me. A lot of what I do as part of my research is only common sense but it took me and my associates over 10 years to figure this procedure out. Maybe some of you can save some time, money and grief learning from our mistakes.

My research method requires time and patience - it is not a quick process but it will be your best way to ensure that your new host is rock solid.

All web hosting companies are not created equally. Some hosting companies look great on paper, have excellent reviews, plenty of accounts but are nightmares to deal with in person. Good hosts come and go and sometimes good hosts go bad, you can never know when or why. I have been through this up and down cycle many times over the years and I have developed an approach to researching and selecting Web hosts that has been reliable and I thought that I'd share it with the world.

These steps are suitable for any type of hosting whether you are looking for shared hosting, co-location, virtual private server or cloud hosting.


Establish Your Criteria

Before you start looking at what hosts are out there, it is important to define exactly what your hosting requirements are. Not all hosts will tick all of your boxes so this is the perfect way to start narrowing down the field of potential hosting companies. Some features to consider (in no particular order):

  • Expense
  • Billing period (monthly, yearly, multiple years)
  • Country where the hosting is located (keep it close to you customers)
  • Server operating system (Windows or Linux)
  • Cloud/VPS/Shared/Managed/Unmanaged/Reseller
  • Database type (MySQL, SQL, other)
  • Account limitations (number of sites, number of databases, disk space, bandwidth, FTP accounts...)
  • Control panel (Cpanel, Plex or custom)
  • Uptime SLA (service level agreement)
  • Help ticket response time/effectiveness
  • Accounts per server ratio

Where to go for Research

This is the toughest and one of the sketchiest part of looking for a new host. There is a lot of misinformation on the web - much of it sewn by the hosting companies trying to trick you into signing a hosting contract with them. Then there are the review sites that get paid to send who-be clients to the hosts. So, where to go for information and who do you trust?

Friends and Colleagues
If you have friends or colleagues who are in the industry, you can tap them for information about their good and bad experiences. Usually they are the best source of honest information about a particular hosting company. This is only part of a larger picture that you should paint for yourself.

Webhostingtalk Forum
The first place that I go now is the forum at webhostingtalk.com. This forum provides an unvarnished, curated discussion on all types of hosting with the focus on the interests of the buyer - not the seller. Hosting companies are allowed to post in a select number of sub forums but they are closely monitored and if they step out of line, they are banned.

Like I said, the focus is on you the buyer. You can ask questions and get honest replies from other industry professionals. Once you start reading you'll start to see which hosting companies are respected and which ones to stay away from. The forums search feature is also very useful for researching posts focused on the particular hosting companies that are considering. This forum is moderated and shilling and spamming is not permitted.

I once ignored the fact that one company was banned from the webhostingtalk.com forum and signed a one year contract. I ended the contract early and walked away from the money because the uptime was so bad. Lesson: Do not ignore big red flags like the host being banned on WHT forums.

Web hosting review sites
I quickly discovered that most web hosting review sites are not entirely neutral. Not neutral? How can that be? It's called affiliate marketing. Many of these so called review sites are elaborate ways to draw potential clients in and direct you to the host site by way of a coded affiliate link so that the review site gets paid a lucrative, recurring commission if you sign up. Therefore, it's not in their interest to really try to tell you the truth. Luckily, the comments in the reviews are another thing.

There are hundreds of review sites out there and most of them are only useful for discovering what's wrong with a particular host - because, in the comment area, all you'll read are nightmarish reviews by real former clients. Yes, there are also many false or naive positive reviews mixed in but these stand out like a sore thumb if the host is really bad.

One quick way to tell if a review site is truly honest or not is use the "EIG test". Endurance International Group (EIG) is a large multinational that quietly buys up good well-known hosting companies only to make major money-saving changes that ultimately wreck the service and products. Everyone in the industry should know to stay away from an EIG owned company.
Here is a list of EIG companies

So what is the EIG test? Well, if you look at a review sites tops ten hosts list and they promote names like Arvixe, Hostagator, Blue host, iPage, eHost or Fat Cow then you are looking at an affiliate page and you should take anything that you read on that page with a great deal of skepticism.

Don't get me wrong, some review sites have some handy tools like how many domains transferred in or out in the past week or uptime and these are great but it is up to you to do your own research just to be sure.

In researching this article, I did come across a few review sites that were telling the truth about EIG hosts like Arvixe and I would suggest that you check them out first: besthostnews.com, hostingfacts.com and hostingreviews.website.



Where not to go For Research

There is not really anywhere that I would recommend that you avoid during your research. Just be aware that not all reviews and opinions are to be taken at face value.

The review sites should always be viewed with a strong distrust but they can expose you to new unknown players. Don't forget to use the EIG test!

Another oddly untrustworthy source (for Windows hosting) is the ASP.net site. This is the official Microsoft site for the .NET community. I assumed that Microsoft did some vetting of the hosts that they promote but apparently not... This is where I found that host that was banned from Webhostingtalk.com. It looks like ASP.net feature any sites that push the latest and greatest .NET tools (and probably pay an affiliate commission).


Create a List of Five or Six Hosts

As you do your hosting research, keep a list of hosts that tick all of your requirement boxes. Just list the hosts that meet all of your requirements. Be ruthless in your evaluation! This will only save you time, money and grief in the long run.

At the same time, you can keep a second list of a few "maybe's" that come close to meeting your needs - just in case you can't find enough to give you a good sample. Check all of these sites against the list of Endurance International Group (EIG) located here: Here is a list of EIG companies. Remove any EIG companies from your list!



Narrow Down Your List

Compare this list against negative reviews on the review sites and webhostingtalk.com. Also enter the host name and reviews into your favourite search engine to find more reviews. Reverse rank your list by the number and level of negative reviews so the worst hosts are at the bottom of the list. This should leave you with at least three or four decent hosts to work with.



Set up Free or Billed-Monthly Accounts

Now comes the fun part... Once you have your short list of hosts that look good on paper, it's time to put them to the test. To accomplish this, you will need to open a trial account on each host for testing. Many good hosts will give you a 30-day test account but if they don't, it is well worth paying the $5 or $6 for a 30-day account to see how good they are. If you don't like the host, it is usually very simple to cancel and month-to-month account.

If a host will not give you a free trial account or a short term account - this is a big red flag. Many hosts have a 30-day money back guarantee but I am always skeptical of these terms. Preventing me from testing their service is a really big red flag for me.

Setting up a test account will allow you to test much more than just uptime. You'll be able to see how fast and reliable their DNS and internal network is and, at the same time, audition their control panel, databases, help ticket system and everything you'll need to be comfortable with before you sign-up for that annual contract.



Why Uptime Is Important to Me

There are many valid reasons why a Web site may be down. I accept that installing software or operating system updates and security patches are a good thing. What I don't accept is random, unpredictable, repeated and unnecessary outages. This is usually a sign of attitudes and activity at the host that I would not accept from my own employees and contractors - and really, what is a Web host if not a contractor?

Uptime may not be high on your list of importance but remember: 31 days = 2678400 seconds. This means that a host with an uptime guarantee of 99% can still be down for 26784 seconds each month! This translates into 446.4 minutes or 7.44 hours of allowable downtime every month that people never seem to question. Well, I question it. Many hosting companies hide behind service level agreements (SLAs) that protect them even further.

On one occasion, when I reported to a new host that all of my 8 sites were going down together for 7 minutes, the same three times every day, they replied that the SLA allows for anything up to 2 hours before they have to investigate (and closed the ticket). I even checked other peoples sites hosted on the server and found the exact same result.

Needless to say, I did not stay with that host for very long. To prevent this from happening in the future, I decided to take a more thorough approach when investigating a new host. Now I run an uptime test on all new perspective hosts.



Upload a Trial Web Site

This is a little time consuming the first time that you do it but I now have a standard test site that I upload to test all new hosting companies. It is a one page, data-driven site with an index page that serves both static content, included content, off-page JavaScript and it also displays records from the database. The database records are fairly heavily image laden in order to test load times. You want to test everything that your sites will need if you sign up with the host so include any elements that are important to your projects. I usually use the temporary URL provided by the host but if you want to get really serious, you could create testing domains and repoint them to the test accounts but this could get expensive.



Run Uptime Tests

Nothing tells you more about a hosting company's quality/value more than uptime. For this you'll need to enlist the services of an uptime monitoring company. There is one small snag that you should aware of. Due to a variety of network related factors, uptime monitors are not perfect. One monitor may see site downtime due to a local issue where another monitor will load the site perfectly. The best way to prevent false uptime/downtime is to use multiple uptime monitors.

Okay, I am thrifty so I don't like to pay for uptime monitors. There are not many free uptime monitors around anymore but I use: Statuscake.com, Uptimerobot.com and Gotsitemonitor.com. Pingdom.com used to be good until they limited their free accounts to a single monitor. My first choice from this list would have to be Statuscake.com because they run multiple monitor servers from around the world and their results are pretty accurate.

I usually try to run the uptime testing for at least one month. This will give you a pretty good idea about how reliable a particular host's uptime really is. Set the bar high. Challenge any downtime with a help ticket. This will quickly reveal if the host will hide behind their SLA or actually investigate the outage and provide a response. Believe me; it is very possible to find hosting companies that can stay up for months at a time. Typically, I will not consider using a host if there has been downtime that cannot be attributed to valid server maintenance or if they show no concern for downtime in general.



Ask Presales Questions

It is very important to get a feel for any new host before you commit to a contract. If they provide a telephone number for support, I recommend that you try it. Not all hosts actually staff these lines. I have a standard list of questions that I ask all hosts - so I can easily compare their answers. Typically, I ask about server location where the help desk staff are located and request in-depth uptime SLA details.

This is where you have to listen to your gut. If you are not happy with a response or sense an attitude that you don't like, make note of it and factor that in when you are making your final decision.



Create a Trouble Ticket

As part of setting up your trial site, you'll probably need to open a help ticket. If you don't you may need to be clever and ask a question that you already know the answer to. My favourite ticket is one dealing with downtime. This is where you learn a lot about a host. This is my biggest flag or all - if a host is cavalier about downtime - I waste no time and I am out of there!

The help ticket system is your main method of contacting a hosting company and if it is slow or ineffective, these are more red flags. Grade each host on response time, understanding your question, speed of successfully closing the ticket and most of all the content of the responses. For example, I have had responses to poor uptime ticket make statements like: "It's shared hosting, what do you expect?" This was a poor host...



How to Decide on the Best Candidate

Patience, patience, patience... wait for your uptime testing to run at least 30 days on all of your test sites. Look at your short list and compare plan features, uptime, help desk service and any other observations that you made during your trial period. Only you can decide what details were important and what boxes got checked. For me it has always been very clear where my time and money should be spent after going through over a month of research.



After You Have Selected a Host

Hopefully you have taken your time and found a great host that will stay great for a long time. Unfortunately, things change and eventually, your new great host may not look so great anymore. Do not be paranoid, you have been careful in the selection process so you should have a good solid host. It pays though to pay attention to your main criteria. If your new host slips below you definition of acceptable and they are unable or unwilling to meet your criteria, then it is time to start to entire procedure all over again.



Conclusion

I know that this method that I have described requires a lot of time, effort and is sometimes tedious but it is very effective in identifying the best hosting companies. I make an effort (and I urge you to too) to tell the hosting companies that do not make the final cut why I am leaving. Hopefully, if enough of us adopt this strategy, the hosting community will be forced to change. Best of luck!



A Few Tips on How to Research a Reliable Web Hosting Company

Do not rush into committing to a long contract
Avoid EIG companies!
Be skeptical of hosting review sites
Do not ignore red flags presented by potential hosts
Thoroughly test-drive a host before you buy
The best hosts do not always have a fancy looking website
Do not be drawn in by a host's shiny professional web sites



Update - January 2017

I have been receiving a lot of requests from people wondering which host I ultimately picked. I was unsure how to respond at first because I did not want to become one of those people trying to make money from the unsuspecting. But after really thinking about it, if you want to take the easy path and trust my research then here I go... I finally decided to go with Interserver.com.com. This is an affiliate monetized link so if you don't want me to make anything from your benefiting from my research, then feel free to simply type it in your location bar yourself. Why did I cave? Well, my experience with this company has been excellent - most importantly, their up-time has been the best that I have ever seen. In fact, their record (so far) for the longest period of up-time is 121 days! Also, it would be very simple to determine where this site is hosted...



Resources

Webhostingtalk.com

Tools to check domains on your IP:
tcpiputils.com/domain-neighbors
yougetsignal.com/tools/web-sites-on-web-server/

Honest Hosting Review Sites:
besthostnews.com/arvixe-reviews/
hostingfacts.com/hosting-reviews/
hostingreviews.website/arvixe-review

Not so Honest Hosting Review Sites:
lp.hosting-review.com/
whoishostingthis.com/hosting-reviews/
pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2424725,00.asp
toptenreviews.com/services/web-hosting/best-web-hosting/
hosting.asp.net/hosting
webhostingsecretrevealed.net/hosting-reviews/
cnet.com/web-hosting/
sitegeek.com/
ASP.net

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