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Asking the right questions will keep you from choosing the wrong web-hosting service

Who hosts your company's web site? Are they doing a good job? Are your clients happy? Is your business expanding its reach? Are you making money?

Whatever your reason for establishing or expanding your web presence, one thing is certain: You'll need outside help. Unless you're an Internet expert and have lots of free time, you'll need specialists ("web-hosting services," or "hosters") who can install and maintain computer equipment, grapple with the necessary software, design your site and update it regularly. These firms will construct your web site, maintain your Internet connection, and do the work you have neither time nor inclination to do yourself.

There are, fortunately, thousands of national and local operators; unfortunately, not all are of equal merit. Select the right hoster and your clients will merrily access your site 24 hours a day, navigate your pages unbothered by broken links and slow load times, and feel a healthy desire to return. Select the wrong one and you'll be plagued with problems: downtimes, surprise overcharges for questionable maintenance, confusing page designs and more.

Hosters can be of any size, from local or regional operators to large outfits that service accounts around the nation. Your first task is to draw up a short list, which you can do by contacting other businesses in your community, and asking who they use and whether they are happy. Large hosters include Earthlink (www. earthlink.net/biz/hosting), Interland (www.interland.com) and ValueWeb (www.valueweb.net). Small hosters can be found by searching for "web hosting" with search engines such as Yahoo! or Google.

Once you have your list in hand, here are some questions to which you must get answers:

How much hand-holding do you want? "The first question you should ask is, 'How much technical support do I need.' " says Laura Machanic, president of New Target, a hosting service in Alexandria, Va. "Some hosters offer lots of hand-holding and very personalized service, up to what is called 'fully managed hosting,' where the hoster takes care of everything. But you pay more for that."

At the other extreme are many of the larger hosters, which expect you to do all the work. "Some large hosters sell really inexpensive hosting," says Machanic. "If you have a technical person on your staff who needs very little assistance from the hoster, then one of these big, highly discounted providers might be a good solution."

How good are their current sites? Past performance is a good indicator of future value. "Look at the quality of the sites that are currently being hosted by the company," suggests Andy Stapleton, chief information officer at DB Wired, a hosting service in Berlin, Conn. "Visit a few and ask yourself whether you want your own site to operate in the same way."

First, find out if the sites load quickly when you access them. Second, if you will rely on the hoster to design your site, consider how well the staff has done with the ones you visit. Are they clean looking. Easy to navigate. "You want a clean, easy to use and functional site that minimizes graphics that can often slow down web pages," says Stapleton.

Third, ask for references, and then call the references and assess their level of satisfaction. Lean toward calling businesses that are about your size - or maybe a little bigger, since you anticipate yours will grow. Some questions to ask: Have you experienced any billing surprises? How often has your web site been down? Does the site sometimes seem slow to respond when you try to access it? How helpful are the technical support people?

The most important questions will likely revolve around billing surprises. As one Iowa businessperson discovered, hosters who charge an hourly rate to make changes to a site often take many hours - and bill customers - for the work, even when fixing the hoster's own mistakes. This businessperson is now careful to specify a ceiling on any requested change.

Are they competitive in price? While price should not be the overriding factor in your decision, you do not want to overpay for what you can get elsewhere more economically. Start with the most obvious points of comparison: set-up fees and the recurring monthly fees to keep the site operating. Monthly charges often run around the $50 mark, but can go as high as $100. On the other hand, some large hosters offering little technical support may charge only $10.

In addition to the fundamental pricing issues, look into the two areas - disk space and bandwidth - that can trigger extra charges. The first refers to the amount of data that you have posted on your site; exceed it, and your monthly charge will increase. The second, bandwidth, refers to the amount of customer activity at your site. "Suppose your business gets featured in the media, and within a week you get many thousands of people accessing your site," says Machanic. "You want to know ahead of time what charges you will be assessed, if any." To avoid unexpected charges, ask if the hoster has software called a "bandwidth delimiter" that will automatically notify you if site activity reaches 90 percent of your allotment.

Get prices in writing. And read the fine print - some hosters require that you sign a two-year contract. All else being equal, go for the hoster that does not require a contract specifying a time frame. You want to be able to pull out of a situation that turns sour.

How is their technical support? You've already called the hoster's references, but test its support staff on your own. "Place blind calls to the technical support number to see how long it takes to get a human being on the line," suggests Machanic. "Then try some test questions to see if the support people are friendly, responsive, knowledgeable and patient."

If you are asked for a customer reference before getting through to a technical person, state that you are making a pre-sales technical call. Note whether the people can explain things to you in plain English, or if they fall into confusing technospeak.

Do they offer a complete e-mail service? Given the importance of e-mail to business, you'll want to make sure you can get the e-mail management you need from your hoster. If your web site is yourbusiness.com, you will want to set up addresses such as jim@yourbusiness.com.

Another service for small businesses is called an autoresponder. This sends an automatic e-mail response to anyone who sends e-mail to your business. The response indicates that their e-mail has been received and that someone from the business will be getting back to the person shortly.

Are they healthy financially? Dun & Bradstreet issues reports on privately held companies. You can also ask your prospective hoster for a financial statement. "Given current economic conditions, the solvency of a hoster has to be thoroughly investigated before you build your site," says Kevin G. Coleman, a Pittsburgh-based technology consultant and former chief strategist at Netscape. "You want to reduce the risk of the hoster closing down on you."

Theoretically, you can move your site quickly to another host if your current one disappears into cyberspace. Realistically, you may run into a number of problems. Chief among them is the deterioration in support in the months just prior to the closing. "Often a company will run right up to the last minute as it tries to get funding to stay afloat," says Coleman. "Such companies end up cutting back on their normal maintenance and cut their personnel. The result is that service degrades significantly." Finally, if your hoster folds suddenly, there may be no one left to help you move your data to another hosting service. If this occurs, you may need to start a new web site from scratch.

How good is their security? Good security is vital. Do they have software installed to keep out hackers? Do they back up your site and, if so, how often and for how much? Do they have redundant servers, just in case the primary server goes down?

What reports do they provide? Once your site is up and running, you'll want to know how many people are accessing your pages, where they're from, how they navigate through your site, and many other facts that can help you tweak your Internet presence. You can get all of that data if your hoster has installed "web-site traffic analysis" software. Two popular programs are WebTrends (www.webtrends.com) and Urchin (www.urchin.com). Ask what software your hoster uses, and get some sample reports to see what data will be available to you.

Finally, for business owners who think of cyberspace as a nebulous concept, it may help to remember that web-hosting services are part of the bricks-and-mortar world. They have a track record that can be scrutinized, customers who can be questioned and staff people who can be evaluated for their future service potential. If you find that a hoster isn't speaking a language you can understand, find another hoster.

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