Adventures in Web Hosting, Part 2: Perils and Pitfalls in Web Hosting

In part one we looked at some of the things to consider when evaluating a host for your needs, but this post will focus on all the things that might go wrong if you choose a bad host.

Choosing a good web host is an essential part of an online operaton, whether it be a personal venture or a business. Web hosting is an incredibly competitive business (in United States alone there are over 18,000 hosting companies, according to webhosting.info). The potential problems of a bad host can be many, and here are some of the big ones to watch out for:

1. Overselling

What is overselling? Overselling or overbooking refers to the selling of a volatile good or service in excess of actual capacity. There is a difference between managed and unmanaged overselling. While a company may provide hosting plans that are unsustainable if every one of its customers uses the full extent of services advertised, they put other restrictions in place such as CPU usage or inode limit. Resources are always limited, so managing the resource is very important. All shared hosting is typically managed, though each host may vary in its ability at its management. Overselling is quite typical of ISPs and web hosting, and you will hear the term overselling a lot — but if you read the fine print (ALWAYS READ TOS!) that is where you will know how you will be managed. That said, sometimes you might not find out until you get into the Cpanel on what your limits are, and they can also change at the discretion of the hosting company with or without notice.

I listed this item as #1 not because it is the biggest problem, but something that everyone should absolutely stay aware of. As someone who manages a website, this is something that one should regularly keep a close eye on.

2. Hidden charges and cancellation fees

Marketing may tout a low monthly fee on their front page and banner ads, but a finer examination at the terms will likely tell you the low rates are only available if you sign a lengthy contract, that there is a setup fee, customer service fee (pay of you want to have phone support), domain transfer or ownership fees, cancellation fees, charge for add-on domains, or fees for investigating you if you have been accused of spamming, etc.

3. Trial periods and refunds

There are many web hosting companies that will offer trial periods of 30 days, some even 90 days, and there are some that have none. The terms may then indicate that you have to prepay and there is no refunds for unused portions of your service if you become unhappy with their service after the trial period. Some hosts (like Bluehost and FatCow) will happily refund the pro-rated portions of your hosting service at any time. Either way, it should be something that you ask about specifically and comb through the fine print to find out.

4. Downtime

If you are running a business with your website, downtime is costly not only in terms of business revenues lost but, depending on how much downtime you have, also in terms of Google ranking. It is difficult to ascertain a host’s actual network downtime, and there is no such thing as 100% uptime even with the most reputable hosting companies and maintenance time doesn’t count as downtime either. Any uptime guarantee really still only covers part of the hosting fee, so at most you get a few bucks back in credit and not the ACTUAL cost to you. For example, Rackspace’s uptime guarantee is as follows:

Rackspace Guarantees: Network will be available 100% of the time in a given month, excluding scheduled maintenance.
Customer Advantages: A credit of 5% of the monthly fee for each 30 minutes of downtime. A creditof up to 100% of the monthly fee for the affected server.

It is your responsibility to be monitoring the host for any downtime that impact you.

5. Bad security — hacking, spamming, DoS attacks

Security issues are often related to downtime as well but can also have a negative effect on your website reputation when it comes to search engines and email deliverability. If your website resides on a server that has served spam then your email might be blacklisted and bounced when you send it. Also, if your website lives on a hacked server, then the information you have on that server is also vulnerable. Part of your Google ranking is also dependent on your website server neighbors!

In shared hosting you won’t choice in what server you live on and what neighbors you have, but you can check to see if your IP is listed on a block list.

Sometimes downtime can be cause by a denial of service (DoS) or distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on a neighbor or yourself. Even if you have dedicated servers, you may not be able to prevent a nasty DoS attack — many big names have been victims.In cases like this you can only hope that your host is investing in the proper infrastructure and competent enough to stop it quickly.

6. Bad support

Very often, when the economy is tight the first thing that gets cut is customer service. I am not sure why this is, but this is often true. With cheap hosting, you might not get competent support or support when you need it. Sure the host advertises 24/7 support, but can you reach someone if you call at 1am? On a holiday? Better check it out yourself to be sure. If you depend on your website to be up 24/7, it is best to have hosts that have support 24/7.

So far the above mentioned have been the more common pitfalls, but there are others in web hosting that I have heard of in my research. For example:

A lot of these problems can be avoided by following some best practice habits while using web hosting, which is the topic of my next post.

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