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Web Hosting 101

Once you've brought a Web site into the world, you need to find it a home. Instead of a landlord or real estate agent, a "Web host" provides your site's housing. More specifically, Web hosts provide servers, or computers where Web sites actually reside.

Web hosting options are almost as varied as human housing options. You can find the equivalent to a small, sturdy cottage, a large house in the suburbs, or a cramped apartment mismanaged by an absentee landlord. Fortunately, most Web hosting services are reputable. But even in the realm of reputable providers, there are still some key considerations to weigh.

Do-it-yourself

Though the path of self–sufficiency can be rewarding, it's by no means efficient or affordable. Peter Kent, best–selling author of Poor Richard's Web Site: Geek–Free, Commonsense Advice to Building a Low–Cost Web Site, warns that hosting your own site "is very difficult, very complicated, and full of hidden costs."

While text–and–graphics only Web sites can be hosted on a desktop computer, the drawback is that all of the files and accounts on that computer (most likely your personal computer) are exposed to security risks. To keep your files safe from hackers, you'll have to install a relatively costly firewall.

Hosting a site that has e–commerce capabilities requires both a firewall and a server that is significantly more expensive than a desktop computer. If you're a small business owner considering hosting your own site, your energy could probably be invested elsewhere to greater effect.

Free hosting

Yep, there is such a thing as a free lunch in the world of Web hosting — or at least a free appetizer. Free hosting isn't completely free, after all. In exchange for no–cost space on their servers, free Web hosting firms make money by:

  1. Selling banner advertising space on your site


  2. Requesting a percentage of your sales, or


  3. Selling you additional functionality (such as message boards or merchant account processing, the back end operation of processing credit cards).
If you contact a free provider, ask for clarification of their customer and technical support. You might also want to ask if they can guarantee a certain amount of Web site up–time.

Hosting costs

Shared hosting service Shared hosting service

Web hosting services that aren't free can cost anywhere from $15 to $5,000 a month, depending on the size of your site, the options you choose (such as email boxes or a shopping cart, both of which are discussed in greater detail below in "Important Features") and on whether or not you need a dedicated server.

As its name suggests, a dedicated server hosts a single company's Web site. Dedicated servers are intended for large companies with complex Web sites only; hence their monthly hosting charges of up to $5,000.

Fortunately for small businesses, shared servers (servers that host multiple Web sites) are much more affordable and should easily meet your traffic demands.

Compatibility

Though many people assume that their Web hosting provider must be the same as their ISP (Internet Service Provider — the company that gives you access to the Internet), Peter Kent stresses that this is not the case. You can elect to use either your ISP or a separate Web hosting firm to host your Web site.

One of the most important questions to ask a Web hosting provider is whether or not their server extensions can accommodate the Web site you've designed, or have had designed for you. Some hosting servers, for instance, won't support Microsoft ASP (Active Server Pages), the Web design technology behind FrontPage.

Security

You don't need encryption measures for a text–and–graphics–only site, as long as you aren't hosting the site yourself. (As mentioned earlier, if you are hosting such a Web site yourself, you will need a firewall.) When it comes to building an e–commerce site, look for your Web hosting firm to provide Secure Socket Layer (SSL) or Secure Electronic Transfer (SET) encryption technologies in addition to a firewall. Either SSL or SET encryption will protect sensitive customer information such as phone numbers, addresses, and credit card numbers.

If you plan to have full e–commerce capability (credit card transactions) make certain that credit card numbers will not be transmitted over email. "Once a transaction is completed," Eric Harris says, "the credit card number should be done away with. You can capture name and address, for the convenience of customers on subsequent purchases, but the credit card number should have to be re–keyed each time they visit."

Important features

So let's say you've started with the most basic Web site, a single page consisting of simple HTML text. What other features would you likely want add in the future?

Eric Harris suggests the following. Take note of any features that appeal to you and make sure that your Web host has compatible server extensions.

  • A guestbook that ties into a database. This will enable you to collect customer email addresses, which in turn will help you market your business.


  • A customer feedback form that connects to a database. You can collect customer feedback to post testimonials and to create a list of FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions). If you solicit customer feedback, however, be sure you're prepared to respond in a timely manner.


  • E–commerce. A full e–commerce Web site has a shopping cart and credit card processing capability, also known as merchant account processing.


  • A POP email account. POP stands for Post Office Protocol, the standard email system used on the Internet. POP accounts enable you to have email aliases, or multiple addresses that feed into one actual address. If the name of your business is Bob's Bakery, for instance, your email addresses could include customerservice@bobsbakery.com, orders@bobsbakery.com and catering@bobsbakery.com. (Note: as of the writing of the article, BobsBakery.com is not a registered domain name.)

Parting advice from a small business owner

Andrea Milrad, founder and owner of Littlebigman.org, an invitation and birth–announcement design firm, first chose a small Internet Service Provider to host her Web site. And then she began experiencing frequent site outages.

"There wasn't much I could do," she said. "They didn't have good support. I could never get a hold of anyone." Her advice to others in that situation? Look for responsive technical support that's available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Prior to selecting a Web hosting provider, she says, you should check on the responsiveness of their customer service by calling and emailing and then gauging their response time.


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