Introduction by Leora: When Joe sent me an email asking to write a post, he mentioned that he went to Rutgers. I told him I would probably publish his post, on the condition that it was well-written and that he mentions Rutgers. I hope you will agree that Joe is a great storyteller. See my comments on web hosting at the bottom.
Small business owners: know your web host or pay the price
While the job market was better in 2005, when I graduated from Rutgers University, it still wasn’t kind to English majors. Corporations were increasingly looking for business track students. Newspapers and magazines, long the starting points for English majors, were on the decline. As a result I started a hobby that, with experience and connections, turned into a viable small business. I started blogging about the New York Yankees.
It started as a small venture, but it eventually grew. I partnered with two other bloggers and we created a larger, more dynamic site. Within a year of partnering we incorporated. Three years after starting we partnered with the YES Network. Five years later and we’re a viable small business that generates modest revenue. As with most small businesses, our path wasn’t without obstacles. The biggest roadblock we faced came out of nowhere, about a year and a half ago.
During the 2010 Winter Meetings, baseball’s biggest off-season event, we were humming along. We had sent two representatives, me included, down to Florida to provide coverage. As it turned out, the Yankees made headlines throughout the week, so we filled our blog with compelling content. But on the last day, as talks between the Yankees and the premier free agent started to heat up, we found that we couldn’t provide coverage. Our site was offline.
A call to our web host got it back online, but that was only temporary. For the rest of the day we were up and down — and our uptime was no longer than 15 minutes at a time. That night we had to board a plane home, and for the entire two-hour flight our site was offline. While things got slightly better as baseball fervor died for the rest of the winter, we still experienced more downtime than we’d ever realized. Before the start of the 2011 baseball season, we knew we had to switch hosts.
The importance of quality hosting
For some small businesses, the importance of quality hosting is self-evident. Any e-commerce site will lose money when not online. Customers visiting during downtimes might choose to purchase the items elsewhere, and they might never return. They could also decide, given more time, that they didn’t want or need the product in the first place. The human mind is great at rationalizing things like that.
Our site, too, had a clear need for reliable hosting. Since our primary source of revenue was advertising, we needed to generate impressions. During downtime we generated no impressions, and so earned no money. That money was not recoupable. That is, it’s not as though we saw a traffic spike after downtime that led to a spike in ad impressions. In fact, we noticed a decline in traffic following periods of downtime. That potential revenue was lost forever.
Yet even sites that don’t rely on e-commerce or CPM advertising need reliable hosting. So many users today rely on business websites for research. When they’re shopping around for offline services, they use the web. That makes a small business website akin to a business card. If someone is searching for keywords that match your business and find your site, that’s all the better for your business. But if your site is down, those customers leave and never return.
What separates the good and the bad
The problem, of course, is that many small business owners don’t immediately recognize what separates a good host from a bad one. There are few resources that provide accurate information. Online reviews, for example, skew negative. People with poor experiences are more likely to leave a negative review than people with good experiences are to leave a good one. Then there’s the issue of differentiation: in terms of pricing and service levels, many web hosts look the same.
Here are a few research points I’ve picked out since our disastrous experience that has led to far better decisions when it comes to web hosting.
- Personal recommendations. Surely you know others who have purchased and use web hosting. Ask them what they recommend. Make sure to determine if their uses are similar to yours, of course. Getting information from personal contacts tends to be a bit more accurate than reviews from random people on the web. LinkedIn might be a good place to ask.
- Dig a bit deeper. When we were looking for new web hosting we tried to find what was powering their data centers. We found that the company ABB, for example, provides energy efficient data centers, which are more reliable. (You can read more about ABB’s data centers in a recent GigaOm article. It’s pretty eye opening.)
- Go local. You might see ads for web hosts plastered across the web, but they might not be for you. These hosts (without naming names) typically strive to serve the greatest number of customers. That can take away from their customer service. Smaller hosts might be slightly more expensive, but will provide better service. The test: give them a call. If a human picks up the phone, you’re on the right track.
Addressing the issue now
While your small business might not have hosting problems now, that doesn’t mean you should sit by idly. The potential for future problems should provide enough motivation for immediate change. If you don’t think you’re with the best hosting company — if you have to run through multiple menus to speak with a representative or if others have horror stories of this company — it might be time to switch now. Waiting will only increase your agony if you do run into issues.
Returning to my story, when we switched we initially wanted an instant move. After that week, during which we lost plenty of potential revenue, we wanted out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we found that moving is not easy. Those without the technical know-how typically have to pay a third party for migration. If you take time and shop around for web hosting, though, you can usually find a company willing to take on the technical end of the migration.
That is to say, time is on your side. If you take the initiative and start looking now, you can save yourself considerable frustration down the road. By moving before you encounter problems, you’ll have more options open to you. That means you have a greater opportunity to secure the best service at a reasonable price. Wait until it becomes necessary and you’ll have limited options. Take it from me: you don’t want to find yourself in that position.
Leora’s note on choosing webhosts: I’ve been using Bluehost for almost ten years. I have rarely needed to ask them a question, and their prices are good. I recommend choosing a webhost that knows WordPress well. Some of my clients have local webhosts who are attentive but take a little longer than Bluehost to do proper upgrades.