Sure, you're reading content on a website. As a regular Examiner reader, you deal with web hosting every time you visit the site. But do you really know what web hosting is? Many of my small business clients don't.
Though it's very hard to tell by looking at it, this website—and all websites—are actually made up of individual electronic files. Your Web browser (Safari, Firefox, Chrome) translates these electronic files into a user-friendly visual format, usually composed of words, images, videos and sounds, called a "Web page." These files are stored on a "server," so called because it serves up web pages as your browser asks for them.
A "web host" is the person or company that owns or controls the server, and connects that server to the Internet. And that means the web host controls the files that make up your website...which controls your website...which, in a lot of cases, controls your ability to run your business. It's the Internet equivalent of having all your eggs in one basket.
You know that gut-wrenching, sinking feeling you got the last time your hard drive crashed, or your laptop got stolen, and you didn't have a backup? Imagine that feeling multiplied across your company in the event that your web host vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Even a temporary disruption of hosting services can cripple your company and anger customers. One business found out the hard way when its website went down for several hours while their hosting company did some work on a server. Their web host had emailed Formstack, LLC three weeks prior to the maintenance to warn about the impending downtime, but didn't remind the company closer to the day that the downtime was scheduled. So when Formstack's site disappeared in the middle of a busy workday, its customers "couldn't use our forms to process payments and other valuable information for their businesses," said Formstack's CEO, Chris Byers. Some customers were understanding, but others were incensed.
"Since the downtime, we’ve had a number of interactions with our hosting company to ensure that communication is spread to a broader group of people to prevent this in the future," said Byers in a blog post apologizing to customers for the outage.
Other web hosting nightmares are more sinister in origin. One startup company was burned when the company's marketing chief hired a friend—a web designer—who threw in web hosting as part of a package deal...and then disappeared at a critical point just a month before a vital product launch, taking all of the company's files with her.
"Besides the two-three week delay...we didn't get anything off of her server," says Marty Svoboda, the chief marketing officer of Intellicase. "I didn't make arrangements to get access [to our files] via FTP, that was the plan once it was up and running. But yes, I just trusted her. Any time you are in a start-up with limited capital you put yourself in vulnerable positions... but it was a surprise since I had that 'I can't drop the ball' conversation and she said, 'don't worry Marty...you can count on me.' I guess I didn't hear the last part of 'you can count on me... to drop the ball.'"
So how can you avoid these nightmares?
- Don't entrust your entire website—or your entire business—to a single person or a single server. Choose a large web host with redundancy in both employees and hardware.
- Make sure your web host has live 24/7 tech support, available by phone and live chat. Find out how they handle server problems and malware issues and what percentage of uptime they guarantee.
- Make sure you have FTP access to your files and a up-to-date backup of them that you store locally. Be sure the hosting company does regular, secured backups.
- Make sure that your payment arrangements are up to date, so hosting renewal payments aren't delayed by an expired credit card or empty bank account.
I happily trust our web hosting to Bluehost for their outstanding U.S.-based tech support, and Hostgator for their 99.9% uptime guarantee. Do you have a hosting company you recommend? Tell me why in the comments.