Find out what a prospective Web host can offer your e-store
So you've decided to make the move from bricks to clicks. Or perhaps you've outgrown your space on Amazon zShops or Yahoo Store and plan to go it on your own. A key step in becoming the next Amazon.com (maybe even a profitable one) is to choose the right Web host. Although nearly every Web host can handle the services e-commerce requires, not all can handle them well.
Sure, you could go it completely alone and become your own Web host, but there are costs involved in maintaining a persistent connection to the Internet, not to mention issues of security and data backup. What's more, if you're using cable-modem or DSL service, your provider may not even allow such high-volume traffic. You're better off leaving the hosting to someone else, so you can concentrate on your core business.
Know What To Look For
If you search the Web, you'll find hundreds of Web-hosting services. To narrow your search, first look for a host that specializes in e-commerce, so you'll have access to the latest merchant and shopping-cart tools.
Next, determine your needs. Be as clear as possible about how you'll manage your catalog, collect orders, and process credit cards-so you'll know whether a particular feature offered by a hosting service is of real value to your business. No doubt you'll want the ability to accept credit cards, so look for a hosting service that provides pointers to e-commerce-friendly banks, where you can apply for a merchant account, or one that does the account setup for you. Make sure to compare the fees before you sign on; they can vary considerably from host to host. Then look for bundled site-building software. Many Web hosts include catalog software, such as Miva Merchant Before you choose a host, try out its e-commerce software demos, and be sure you like the results.
Most services' specs are adequate for a small Web store. Disk space among the sites we looked at ranged from 40MB to 500MB. A safe rule of thumb would be 1MB of disk space per item, so if your store had 50 items, 50MB would be adequate. Monthly data-transfer allotments ranged from 1GB to 20GB among the services we examined. A small Web store may generate an average of 50K per page access, amounting to about 20,000 page views for 1GB of traffic. If you sell one product per 20 page views, or 1,000 sales in a month, 1GB of monthly bandwidth transfer would be adequate. Monthly fees for these services generally range between $25 and $50. It's the less-tangible things that can come back to bite you later.
Issues To Consider
The el-cheapo $15-a-month plans often have you sharing a server with 200 (yes, two hundred) or more Web sites. This usually affects both performance and stability of the server-and not for the better. You can get your own dedicated server, but the cost is usually $500 or more per month. Ask how many sites share a server on the plans you evaluate, and whether you can request to be switched to another server if performance degrades because of a busy neighbor. Remember, though, that your choices in Web-site design can affect performance. Graphics are great, but if you use too many or they're too large, you will produce sluggish Web pages.
Support and Maintenance
Find out what's included with your plan. Does the service include data backup, or is that your responsibility? Do you get toll-free tech support? What are the hours? How quickly will the support staff respond to e-mail and phone requests? Several large Web hosts promise only 48-hour turnaround for e-mail requests, which can be an eternity when your problems prevent customers from buying products or contacting you. Telephone support can be better for those emergencies, but it often requires long waits on hold.
Most Web-hosting services make bold claims about their reliability, but fewer provide a written guarantee. If a service does, make sure you understand what it's saying. For example, a 98 percent uptime guarantee might sound good, but when you work out the numbers, you'll see it means your site could be down for 14 hours in a month before the host owes you anything. In some cases, the downtime clock doesn't even start ticking until you point out the problem to the host. Even if the company refunds a month's hosting fee, which is the typical compensation, it won't make up for the lost business.
Get Your Money's Worth
Your ability to switch Web-hosting services is the best leverage you have to get better service and support. To that end, don't be tempted to sign up for long-term commitments, at least not initially. A monthly or quarterly plan leaves your options open in case of trouble. Most services offer 30-day money-back guarantees when you sign up or move up to a more expensive plan. If you're not getting the support you need as you try to get your store off the ground, don't expect service to improve. It's easier to switch hosts before you've set up your store than after you've opened your virtual doors.
Also, don't start with a gold-plated hosting plan for a small business, with the idea that you may eventually be handling thousands of transactions per day. Instead, start with a midrange plan and upgrade as needed. With that in mind, ask whether you'll be hit with new setup fees when you move to a better plan.
A Guide To Get YOU Started
I recommend the following merchants for your hosting consideration. Visit them all and then decide who best serves YOUR needs most efficiently. Keep in mind your choice of web host is one of the most important components of your online business success, so don't make a decision on cost alone.
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