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All Hosting Isn’t Created Equal

March 15, 2015

Choosing a hosting company may seem easy enough – after all there are hundreds if not thousands of hosting companies out there. For less than $5 a month you can usually find unlimited disk space and bandwidth with 99.9% uptime – what more do you need? It turns out, quite a bit more, actually. It is, in reality, very difficult to find a reliable, fast host at reasonable costs. As a company that considers hosting a key part of our offerings, we encounter similar challenges and it’s become harder to make a recommendation when customers want to sign up for hosting themselves.

The effect of poor hosting is significant. Not only does a slow website cause degradation in the user experience, but it may, now or in the future, affect search engine ranking. After all, search engines are all about providing the best user experience and convenience.

Let’s explore some technical challenges:

  1. Content management systems are database driven. That means that you don’t only have to worry about the speed at which the site’s HTML is rendered, but rather how quickly the server transfers information to and from the database. Since much of the content is pulled from the database, you can often experience desperately slow load times.
  2. Cheap hosting usually bundles hundreds, if not thousands of small websites on one server. The idea is that collectively, the sites will not overburden the server’s hard drive or bandwidth. Plus, many hosting companies will tout their load-balancing technology that routes requests based on how much traffic is coming through at any given time. Unfortunately, the web is a very unpredictable place and between traffic spikes and Denial of Service attacks, a server at capacity has no room to handle unforeseen issues.

Simply put, not all servers and not all connections are created equal. Only a few hosting companies will offer details on their hardware and software as well as the speed of their connection. New technology is, of course, better.

and the non-technical challenges

  1. You’d be surprised how the many hosting brands are owned by the same parent company. Many of those brands’ server facilities are consolidated as are their customer service departments, while the brand continues to tout its former glory. While you might think you’re trying a new host, you may not be at all.
  2. Impartial reviews on the Internet? While there are solid reviewers out there, many others are either paid by the hosting company or receive affiliate/referral payments. That doesn’t necessarily discredit them, but it plants a seed of doubt.
  3. Smaller hosting companies that promise excellent service often do very well…at first. As they grow (and good hosting companies usually grow very fast) it becomes harder to maintain the same quality. Eventually many lose their luster or get bought out by conglomerates.
  4. While many hosting companies claim to specialize in certain content management systems, there’s no standard by which their expertise can be proven. Ask your web designer to forward a few technical questions to the hosting company. If they can answer them quickly and accurately (without escalating to a manager), they’re probably legit.

Of course, there is the issue of an improperly designed website. Especially when it comes to open source content management systems, certain plugins or applications that are poorly designed can slow the website to a crawl or crash it altogether. Diagnosis of these issues should be made by a programmer or firm with extensive experience in the content management system you are using. Claiming that a poorly designed website is the cause of the problem is also a great way for some hosting companies to shift blame…just saying.

Solutions?

Unfortunately, today’s hosting environment is convoluted and saturated. What works today, may not tomorrow. With that said there are a few recommendations we can offer.

  • If your web designer has their own shared environment i.e. they have rented a dedicated server and run a few of their clients’ websites on it, you might get the speed of a dedicated box at a much lower cost (a dedicated server usually runs $200+ per month)
  • Benchmark your website speed. Most hosting companies offer some sort of trial period or money back guarantee. After doing your research sign up for a few packages and upload your website to each. Test each by accessing them at different times during the day. Note how long it takes the website to fully render and see which is consistently faster. Yes, it’s a pain, but you’re starting a long-term relationship.
  • Use third-party tools to measure your website speed. Google offers a tool within Webmaster Tools to track your website speed – at least as they see it. You can also use other great resources such as Pingdom’s Tools: http://tools.pingdom.com/fpt/
  • Try VPS or Virtual Private Servers. While it is more expensive than a shared environment, you may see some performance gains without the cost of a dedicated box.
  • Or just take your chances. It may require several calls to customer service to complain about speed before they take you seriously, but most larger hosting companies will try to accommodate you.

So, remember, you may have that shiny new website, but make sure you’re putting your best foot forward with great hosting to match.