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July 5, 2007

Web Hosting Inside Out

It has become very common to see webmasters posting on popular forums such as WebHostingTalk, angry at their web hosts and demanding a refund. It is not always immediately evident what the cause of the problem is, but it almost always ends up that the problem snow-balled because of a simple misunderstanding between a web host and a client. This article takes a brief look at a few common web host issues and customer responses, in an effort to help you better understand and improve your relationship with your host.

Issue One: “My Site is Not Working”

Perhaps the most common issue is when a client contacts a web host and is too general in their initial contact. For instance, if they can’t access their website from their browser and send a message such as “my site is not working”. Although at first glance one might not see anything wrong with this, consider things from the host’s standpoint: they don’t know what operating system you’re using, whether your Internet connection is working intermittently, etc. There are many things that can cause a website not to load that are completely out of a website host’s control. So if your host answers your question with questions, don’t get mad – they’re only trying to help diagnose your problem, and learn more background information about the situation. Also, if you have time when submitting your support request, be sure to include as much information as you think is relevant, and take the time to ensure it is grammatically correct and worded in an easy-to-understand manner.

Issue Two: No Response From Host

Another common scenario that I see quite often is when someone contacts their web host and does not wait long enough for an answer. Granted, many hosts these days have a response-time guarantee, and if they do not live up to them, by all means, complain. But most often I see situations where a host has a one-hour response guarantee, and a client submits a ticket and waits only about twenty minutes before ranting about how the host doesn’t answer their support tickets. To avoid these sorts of problems, make sure you know whether or not your host has a response-time guarantee for support tickets – and if they do, find out how long it is.

Now, having said that, there are times when you have every right to demand a super-fast response from your host. For instance, if your website is down and you can’t even login, and you have submitted a ticket asking why to your web host, they should answer it ASAP with a genuine reason why and also a realistic estimate of when your site will be available again. Even if their guaranteed response time is twenty-four hours, I think they should make an effort to answer what I’ll term “extra-critical” tickets in a much shorter amount of time than all the rest. Many hosts complain that they cannot fix the problem and communicate with their clients – my answer to that is this: “Get out of the business!” It’s the biggest phony story I’ve ever heard, and you should not accept it as a valid answer from your host.

Issue Three: “Stolen” Domains

The whole issue of web hosts offering free domain names has become a hot topic in the hosting industry lately. I’ll explain:

Many web hosts offer a free domain name to every new hosting account signup. It is usually (but not necessarily always – it depends on the host!) a gimmick, just to get a few more clients. As long as the customer stays with the host, everything is Ok.

The problem arises when a client decides to switch web hosts. Usually, buried in the dark confines of a TOS near you, there is a clause that states something to this effect: “If client receives a free domain name upon account signup and cancels his or her hosting account, he or she must pay a (insert amount here) one-time fee to release the domain name.” Many folks overlook this clause when they signup, and as you can probably guess, this causes alot of trouble when they want their domain name and have to pay a fee to get it.

So what do they do? They sign online and post a complaint! What should they do instead? Pay the fee, and be more careful next time!

What can you as a hosting client do to prevent this from happening to you? As boring as it may sound, it is very important that you read – carefully! – the TOS and AUP agreements for the host you are signing up for. There’s not necessarily anything underhanded and sneaky about these charges (after all, the host has to cover their cost if they pay to register the domain for you and the you only stay on for a month), but if you don’t want to get hit by them, then find another host.

Issue Four: Failing Reliability

Here’s one that perhaps all of us have experienced in some way or another – a superb web host, a rising star with the hosting world at its feet, suddenly experiences pitifully low server reliability. Complaints don’t seem to get through to them, their own fixes don’t seem to work – in short, it looks like a complete and total failure of the hosting company, and it leaves one wondering whether or not they’ll even be around in another year.

The good news for the host and the customer: These are common symptoms of the “hyper-growth” condition that affects every web host at some point or another. Usually, it only happens once in a host’s life (and yes, the host does recover!). The host usually spends its time in the doldrums for anywhere from six months to one year, and after that things are fine.

If you’re a webmaster who stuck with your host through times like this, you have experienced firsthand what I’m about to say: You become one of the host’s favorite clients, and they wil bend over backwards to help you out. For those of you who could not stand the anguish of your site being down more often than up and switched hosts (who can blame you, after all!), realize that it did not affect your old host one bit.

As I already said, every host goes through this phase, where they transition from smalltime player to bigtime giant. There are no exact statistics of how many hosts make it through this phase, but I personally have never heard of one failing through this point in its life. It actually seems to benefit the host in that they can really nail down what they’re about and clarify their business processes, and it seems to help the clients who stick with them in that the clients themselves can provide feedback and actually take part in shaping the company as it morphs into a giant.

As hard as it may be to do, my recommendation would be to stick with the host. They have proven themselves to you in the past, and they may be experiencing growing pains right now, but once they pull out – they will again prove that they can meet your every hosting need. Don’t sacrifice a long-term relationship for short-term site uptime, especially when you’ve been with the host for awhile. And if you choose to stay with the host, don’t complain every few days – nobody else cares to hear the same person complaining over and over again, and even if you stay with your host, they’re not going to care for you too much if you are constantly publicly complaining about their services.

(A personal note: I especially know about the growing pains of a web host – we experienced ours this past summer. It was a huge learning experience, we pulled out, and now things are Ok.)

Issue Five: Unlimited Everything

After touching on every hot button in the hosting industry, I knew there had to be at least one more. I only had tot hink for a few short seconds before it came to mind!

The practice of offering unlimited bandwidth, unlimited storage space, unlimited email accounts, and unlimited everything else is sweeping the hosting industry in a shockingly stupid wave. Folks, I’ll put it as plainly and simply as I possibly can: there is no such thing as unlimited.

Yes, a host advertises this. And yes, you login to your account, and there are no limits on anything. But have you ever noticed, as soon as you start using alot of something, your account is terminated? Do you know why this is? It’s because the host is not getting unlimited service – and neither will you!

Web hosts have to purchase their bandwidth, servers, operating systems, and other equipment and software from real companies. These real companies do not offer their wares in unlimited increments to the hosting companies – Verizon does not sell unlimited “all-you-can-eat” network access for $500 per month, Dell does not sell unlimited server contracts for $200 per month, and Red Hat does not sell “unlimited support” for its Linux operating system for $10 per month. These Web hosts have to pay real, limited prices for the things they buy, and they are just using one of the cheapest marketing techniques around by advertising unlimited resources to unsuspecting victims.

Do yourself a favor and don’t buy from “unlimited” hosts. The unrealistic features sets combined with the rock-bottom pricing mean that the first time you exceed a limit the host is not comfortable with you exceeding, or the first time you call for support, your account is terminated.

Proceed at your own risk!!! (But if I were you, I’d run the other way!)

Author:  Daniel J. Briere is the CEO of Netpreneur Host, a Web hosting and domain registration company for Webmasters and Internet entrepreneurs.