Where do you start? If you check the listings and ads, you'll see services with monthly fees ranging from $3.95 to $395. Some hosting companies even offer to host your site for free, but you'll have to let them slap ads on your page.
Most hosting companies provide a range of services, starting with low-budget packages and moving up to more advanced, expensive features. Obviously, when you pick a hosting plan, you need to make sure it provides enough disk space and bandwidth for your site at a price within your budget. But what else should you watch for? At the very least, consider the following points.
Most hosting plans limit how much data you can transfer to and from the servers in a month. This is what is known as bandwidth. Once you reach your limit of data transfer, most companies charge you by the megabyte for any additional traffic.
How much bandwidth do you need? That depends. Even busy sites that average more than a hundred visitors a day transfer less than 1GB a month. However, if you provide a three-minute MP3 file or a short video clip for visitors to download, your site will soon break the bandwidth barrier. Most small to medium size sites use less than 10 percent of their allotted bandwidth.
If you have some idea of your anticipated traffic, pick a plan accordingly. If not, estimate and watch your usage carefully for the first few months. Read this article for more information on calculating estimated bandwidth.
For small information sites, 50MB storage space with 1 - 2GB bandwidth should be plenty. If your site applies multimedia technologies such as video, audio, mp3, flash, you will have to plan something bigger.
Note: there's no such thing as "unlimited" bandwidth. If someone claims to offer "unlimited" bandwidth or transfer, they are simply lying. Be careful.
Script And Extra Features
If your web site uses or will soon use SQL databases, CGI scripts, FrontPage extensions, SSI (Server Side Includes), ASP (Active Server Pages)... you'll need a hosting plan that supports these extras. These sorts of higher-end development tools may or may not come standard.
At the very least, make sure you have your own cgi-bin and SSI capabilities. Even if you hate technical stuff, you will need them. Some hosting companies will offer you even more extra features such as mailing list management programs, autoresponders, search engine submission, sub domains, which will be very handy if or when you need them.
File Transfer Options
You'll need to upload your site from your local machine to the server it lives on, look for a host that allows unlimited FTP uploads to get your site online. If you prefer using FrontPage or a web interface for uploading files, make sure your service provider supports it.
You may want people to be able to download files directly from your site. Make sure you are allowed to do that and check what file formats are allowed.
This gives you something to work with until your site has been online for a while and actual traffic statistics have been generated.
If you intend to broadcast streaming media from your site, say Realplayer videos, make sure that your hosting plan will allow for it. Some hosting companies charge a small extra fee for streaming media while some don't support it at all.
How many email accounts will you need for your domain? Estimate the number of mailboxes you want. You might pick one for each employee, if you have any. You should add some for functions such as sales, info, support, feedback, etc.
Another must have is catch-all capability so that you won't miss any email sent to your domain. Also, look into forwarding options so that you can relay messages to an established mailbox.
Take into account how you want to receive the emails. For example, if you want to be able to use your favorite email software, such as Microsoft Outlook, you'll want POP3 access. However, look into web based email if you want to be able to check your messages from any computer when you're not in office.
Once you get the site off the ground, you need web site statistic tools so that you can evaluate traffic and plan future site development.
If you know which pages are the most popular, you'll know by default what your visitors are looking for. If you know which browsers they use, you'll make sure your pages look good in those browsers. And, most important, you want to know how your visitors got to your site in the first place so that you can concentrate your marketing efforts.
Most hosts provide statistical analysis package for reporting on traffic such as Analog, Getstats, Webalizer.
You also want access to raw server logs so that you can run all sorts of numbers using your own statistical software. If your host doesn't provide access to raw log file, just walk away.
How's The Tech Support?
Check out the host's service policy at its site, but remember: support packages aren't always as good as they sound.
Unlike many other services you use online where you can operate smoothly without any help, you WILL need tech support from your host sooner or later. Even if you are a Ph.D. in computer science, you still can't activate or install certain features from your local machine.
So make sure the support staffs are there, ready to fix your problem, whenever you need them. Email them before you sign up.
Is The Service Reliable?
You can't judge a host merely by its feature list. The best insight you'll get into your prospective web host is unedited customer feedback. Check out online forums for comments about a host's performance.
Many gripes may come from customers who are biased or more demanding than you are, so read the reactions to any complaints as closely as the original remarks themselves.
If a host lists any customers with sites that are similar to yours, check them out at key times of day to see how quickly they load or whether they seem sluggish or unresponsive.
If You Back Out, Will It Cost You?
Before you sign up, find out if you are free to choose another web host if this one doesn't work out. So long as your name is listed as the "Administrative Contact" with InterNIC, you can transfer your site to another host: just go to your registrar and enter new DNS (Domain Name Server) address.
Some hosts offer 15 or 30 days money-back guarantee, if you are not happy with them, you can switch to another one and get your money back.
Look for plans with free setup too so that you can test your site before your payments start rolling in.
What Should You Expect To Pay?
The best advice is to know the services you really need, and only pay for those. For example, a typical small church, ministry or business web site with less than one hundred pages can find good hosting package with cgi-bin access, free setup, multiple email account and aliases, SSI, raw logs access, for $10-20 per month. If you need SSL Security, expect to pay $15-35 more per month.
Finding a good host is not always easy. Hopefully this article will help you to know what you should look for while shopping around.