Is it time for your business to have a Web site?
For a small or medium-sized business, a Web site can be a useful complement. It can help spread your brand. It can make it easy for potential customers to find you, thus bringing in new business. It can even give you the chance to experiment with new products and service offerings without disrupting your main business. At a minimum, a business Web site is like a virtual Yellow Pages advertisement for yourself.
Designing your Web site is important, and we cover that in Foolproof Web Design. We explain how to decide what goes into your site in Plan a Web Site That Works. But another crucial decision is often overlooked: finding a reliable hosting service.
Just as your business documents reside on your office computers, the files that comprise your site need a place to call home. The specialized computers that hold these files and send them to people’s Web browsers are called Web servers. While you could operate your own Web server, it’s easier and more reliable to pay a hosting service.
Web hosting is priced by two things: the size of the files that comprise the site and how much traffic your site gets. For a simple site, you can find hosting services for between $ 10 and $50 per month.
Your first consideration should be your Web address — the customer-facing name of your Web site. You can choose to register your own domain name, which your hosting service will use. Or, you can set up your site as a “sub-domain,” that is, an extension of your host’s domain. If you have your own domain name, your Web address will be www.mycompany.com. If you choose a sub-domain, your address will be something like www.mycompany.mywebhost.com. For more on domain name registration, read How Do I Get a Domain Name? Many hosts also handle domain name registration for you; we discuss this in Can a Hosting Service Help You Get a Domain Name?
When shopping for a Web host, here are the things you should consider:
- Amount of disk space: The amount of hard-disk space provided to store your Web site on their servers varies a great deal, from 200MB to several gigabytes. But don’t worry about it; whatever they offer should be more than enough for most businesses.
If you have a site already, just look at the amount of disk space the entire thing takes up on your local drive. If you need more later — if you put up tons of product pictures, or decide to offer video tours, or get into e-commerce and catalogs and other options that eat up a lot of disk space — they’ll sell you more. Check the hosting service’s menu of prices to see how much more it will cost to, say, double the basic offering. Consider that your upside risk of future success.
- STRONG>Bandwidth limit: Every time somebody visits your site, the pages they visit and the graphics on those pages are sent to the visitor’s browser. The more visitors you have, and also the more kilobytes of text and pictures that are on your pages, the more stuff goes back and forth on the Internet, and therefore the more bandwidth you’re using.
Since the Web hosting service pays for access to the Internet, every hosting service has some upper limit on the amount of bandwidth you can use, given as the number of gigabytes downloaded from your site each month by your visitors. Generally you get plenty of bandwidth, especially for a basic business Web site. There is no easy way to calculate in advance how much bandwidth you’ll use, but again, the Web host will sell you more if you need it.
- Tech support: Strong competition means many Web hosting services offer very low monthly fees. The service can make money if, as much as possible, day-to-day operations are automated and self-service. The simple and very capable tools the vendors provide you for setting up and tweaking your site have the beneficial side effect of letting you do most things yourself, with little need for handholding.
The most expensive single thing for the vendor is providing technical and business support to you for when your site goes down or you have problems getting the system to do what you want. Most vendors offer only e-mail support for basic customers: If you have a problem, you send an email and wait for an answer. For your basic business Web site, this is fine — it doesn’t cripple your business if the site goes down over the weekend because it’s basically just a convenience for potential customers.
But if you get a lot of visitors who depend on your site, or generate a lot of sales through the site, you’ll want telephone support, and you’ll want it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If there’s a chance you could end up in this situation, only consider signing up with a Web host service that offers fulltime telephone support. It will cost more; it will be worth it.
- Web design tools: Most Web hosting services offer some sort of Web-site development software, and some offer several choices. Generally the packages they offer are easy to use.
The most useful tools for beginners are page templates, or preformatted pages. These are similar to Word templates; they let you enter copy in the appropriate spots. If you’re ambitious or artistic, you can use more advanced programs that let you create your own design from scratch, or modify an existing design.
- Lots of e-mail boxes: Hosting packages include e-mail addresses that let you receive company mail at an address similar to that of your Web site: http://www.mycompany.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll be able to add individual mail boxes for your staff, and e-mail addresses for special purposes, such as email@example.com. The number provided ranges from more than enough for any typical small business to enough to service a medium-sized business that supports full employment. You can take advantage of this largesse by creating specialized mail boxes, such as for special projects and contests.
- Search optimization: You want your business Web site to be easy to find, and that means showing up near the top of search results on the major search engines. Some Web hosting services offer a “search optimization” service that will identify the important search terms, known as keywords, that will help you rank higher in search results. For a deeper discussion of search engine optimization, see What Is Search Engine Marketing?
If your Web site is simple, it will make few demands on you or on the Web hosting service. So, don’t spend too much time selecting a hosting service. If you plan to upgrade your site, adding video or e-commerce, for example, then it pays to invest the time and effort to find a competent service. Ask for referrals from friends and associates, or start with search to find hosts, and then compare their prices and offerings. If you later have problems with your hosting service, you can switch.