(This is the thirteenth in a series of postings about citizen media business issues. See the introduction here. All of these entries are considered to be in “beta” and will be revised and refined as they find a home on a more permanent area of the Center for Citizen Media web site. To that end, your comments, additional examples, and criticisms are welcome and will be invaluable contributions to this process.)
The last Citizen Media Business Issues post concerned the first step to establishing a website: registering a domain. A domain, however, is nothing more than a name to help people to identify and remember your site. The next step, then, is to make something for that domain to display. These two steps are separate, and treating them as such is advisable (see Registering a Domain for more on why).
Web content is stored on servers, computers with substantial connections to the Internet that map what a user types in their web browser to a file you’ve created. While it’s technically possible-with a bit of know-how-to make almost any computer function as a basic server, using your home PC and broadband connection to host a website is a bad idea. It won’t save you much money (if any), takes a lot of time, poses a security risk, and will be unreliable at best. Even if your ISP is one that doesn’t forbid web hosting (as Comcast does), the connection you have almost certainly isn’t robust enough to serve small amounts of content to more than a handful of people. Considering the cost to get a more reliable connection-such as a “T1″ line-runs at least a few hundred dollars a month, you’ll probably be better off going through a web hosting service.
But where to start? There are thousands of companies who want to sell hosting to you at wildly varying prices. Should you go with a free host because you “have nothing to lose?” Should you use the biggest, most populous company for its reliability?
A good first step is to make a list of what you want in terms of specs and features, starting with the three most important…
Bandwidth, Storage Space, and the Ability to Upgrade
Once you’ve started and have a feel for the amount of traffic coming in, a common formula for determining bandwidth needs is to multiply together the average daily visitors, average page views per visitor, and average page size, multiply that by 31 (days in a month), then double your result.
[Web statistics like page views and daily visitors will be more deeply covered in a later post.]
Storage is the amount of hard drive space on the server you will have available for all of your text, media, and programs. How much you need depends on the sort of content you’ll be offering. If you plan to only link to third-party sites for multimedia and won’t be storing large files, you probably don’t have to go overboard, but you also don’t want to be in a position of being forced to delete old content because you’ve run out of space.
The ability to upgrade is key. Launching a new site, it’s hard to know exactly what it’ll look like down the road and even harder to determine how much traffic it will attract. Use your best guess in the beginning (a couple hundred MB of storage and 5GB of bandwidth will usually be fine starting points for most), but be sure that whatever host you pick will allow you to bump these up if necessary without incurring additional set-up fees. When comparing prices, take note of the differences in storage/bandwidth levels above what you’re initially looking for. You might find that some companies offer a basic plan at low cost, but increase prices sharply for upgrades.
Other Features to Think About
Subdomains are what come before your domain name in a URL. They are primarily used for organizational purposes. For example, you may wish to point a user to http://news.yoursite.com for news instead of http://www.yoursite.com/news/.
eCommerce web hosting refers primarily to shopping cart software and on-site credit card processing. Some sites give you the features (like a static IP and appropriate language support) to bring in such software and set it up yourself, but it’s difficult to do so. Getting an eCommerce hosting package usually entails everything being done for you. Having a shopping cart and processing credit cards right on your site certainly feels more professional than redirecting users to third party sites, but if selling a variety of things is not your site’s raison d’être, you probably don’t need this.
You will have to decide which operating system you want to run: Unix or Windows. Whether or not you run Windows at home is, for the most part, irrelevant, and unless you know of a particular reason you have to use Windows (such as being an avid Visual Basic programmer), Unix is the more popular choice-and probably the better choice for citizen journalist types given the much wider array of free software available for it.
Most websites today use more programming languages than just html. For example, if you want to have a forum or blog, you’ll need to use database software like MySQL, which is almost always part of the deal. Language support will in some part depend on which operating system the server is run on, but Java, Perl, PHP, and MySQL compatibility is a good standard.
FrontPage Extensions if you will use Microsoft FrontPage to create your web pages.
Multiple email addresses. Email is a standard feature, but if you want to create addresses for several people (members of an organization, users, contributors, and so on), you’ll need to make sure the limit is high enough.
The level of customer support varies wildly from host to host. Phone support is helpful, but don’t get too excited about 24/7 call centers. It can increase your out-of-pocket cost and many of them are staffed overseas by people who may be better trained at selling additional services than being able to help you without the aid of an administrator who doesn’t work 24/7. Make a call at an odd hour and send an email with specific questions about the services beforehand to see how it’s handled. How long did it take to get a response to the email? Did it answer your questions well? Did a knowledgeable person pick up the phone?
When shopping for a host, you will see large price differences between dedicated, virtual, and shared server space. These terms refer to usage of a single machine-you share a server with others, have one dedicated to you, or use a server that has been partitioned into separate “virtual” servers. Dedicated servers are, of course, much faster than shared servers, but if the main reason you want a dedicated server is for the technical control/administrative flexibility it allows, virtual servers will function the same way without the increased bandwidth. The vast majority of web pages are run on shared servers, which is a fine place to start. Very few of you will really need the features of a virtual server, and if you do at some point, you can always switch over. Likewise, a dedicated server is almost definitely overkill, but you can always upgrade if you need to.
Reading Marketing Material
Look for money back guarantees. As with most good business transactions, you should be allowed to cancel and get a refund within a certain timeframe if their services aren’t up to par.
Beware the word “unlimited!” So many bargain hosts advertise “unlimited bandwidth,” but fail to point out that your bandwidth is limited by their bandwidth. If you’re on a crummy server packed to the gills, your “unlimited bandwidth” could be substantially slower than other companies’ “limited” bandwidth. Remember that the people you’re sharing the server with have the same unlimited bandwidth. Should one of them decide to become a popular place to download huge files, with no bandwidth cap you will suffer.
The more a company talks (brags) about its server specs and tells you exactly what to expect, the better. One useful such metric is an uptime percentage, which is literally the percentage of time the host’s sites have been up. Hosts themselves are not typically keen on releasing this (though some do, and deserve credit for it), but there are a number of third party programs that will measure it over time. A common marketing tactic is the “uptime guarantee.” This “guarantee” is not actually a sure thing, but a promise that if the the stated measure is not met, you will be compensated. To what extent you are compensated and how difficult it is to prove, however, are another matter. GoDaddy, for example, has an uptime guarantee of 99.9%, but a look into the GoDaddy Legal Agreement reveals the way it really works:
If Go Daddy fails to maintain this level of service availability, You may contact Go Daddy and request a credit of 5% of Your monthly hosting fee from Go Daddy for that month. The credit may be used only for the purchase of further products and services from Go Daddy, and is exclusive of any applicable taxes.
While free/bargain hosts sound attractive, there are almost always huge disadvantages. Most will force you to display some sort of advertising, which can make your site look very unprofessional (see, for example, any free Geocities page). They are also typically less reliable, slower, have little or no support, may not be around long, and have far fewer features. You should expect that a good host will cost somewhere in the vicinity of $10-$20/mo.
The most notable exceptions to the “avoid free hosts” rule are blog-hosting services. These are, as the name suggests, companies that will host your weblog-usually at little or no cost. The next post will go into more detail as to the pros, cons, and differences between these services, but basically, blogs are a cheap, easy, and fast way to get your content out to the world. They come with a variety of features, but are constrained by the blog format and can’t pack dynamism that a regular website can.
While basic templates and the use of subdomains like http://yourblog.wordpress.com can give off an amateurish vibe, most of these services can be extensively customized visually and subdomains can be rendered somewhat invisible by a forwarding domain name (see post on registering a domain name for more on this). Or, even better than forwarding, some of these sites allow you to treat them like normal little web hosts, “mapping” your domain to their servers and skipping the subdomain altogether (Blogger provides this feature at no cost, but most require an upgrade).
Mega Hosts, Resellers, and Everybody Else
So you have your list of desired features and you know about a few things to look for or avoid, but there are still so many choices. Mega hosts like GoDaddy and 1&1 Internet host millions of sites. They’re good because you know they aren’t going anywhere, will be fairly cheap, and will have giant user bases to draw from for help should customer support not provide what you need. On the other hand, their primary concern is to pump out as many sites as possible, often cramming too many sites on a server. They also are less likely to bend over backwards to help you and less likely to think twice before taking down controversial content.
Note: If free speech protection is important to you, the Citizen Media Law Project has a great section on free speech in its Legal Issues to Consider When Getting Online section and Dedicated Hosting Guide has a list of “11 Web Hosts that Won’t Dump You at the First Sign of Controversy.” GoDaddy has a problematic reputation in this regard.
On the other end of the spectrum are resellers. Similar to the reselling practice in domain registration, hosting resellers are people or companies who buy space from hosts wholesale, then market and sell it to you. The upside to doing business with a reseller is that it’s cheaper and they tend to have decent interfaces. However, they don’t have physical access to the server and you will frequently have to rely on them to act as middleman (and you’ll have to rely on the host they work with). Reselling is an easy business to get into, so they can be unreliable and many are just there to make a quick buck or as a hobbyist project. While there are, of course, many reputable and reliable resellers out there, the cost of web hosting has come down so much over the years that deals you get through a reseller are probably not worth the risk.
Your best bet may be to find something in between-a mid-sized host that offers the features you want, the ability to upgrade, and that you’ve properly checked out. Finding a host is kind of a big deal; you don’t have to do it often (hopefully never again), and picking the wrong one could cost you readers and a great deal of time, so put a little effort into it. A great forum for finding reviews (not to mention deals, advice, and technical how-tos) is WebHostingTalk.com. Avoid what looks too good to be true, do your homework, leave some options open, and read the fine print.
(Ryan McGrady is a new media graduate student at Emerson College where he is studying knowledge, identity, and ideas in the information age.)