Geek News

I’ve been building Web sites since 1994 – it’s hard to remember that the “commercial” Internet is more or less 14 years old now – so I’ve used many different companies during the last decade and a half.

The hosting business began in 1994. In October 1993 there were only a couple of hundred Web servers in the entire world, but the Web “flowered” during the summer of 1994, with around 1,500 Web servers by June. The boom really took off when Netscape Navigator was released in October of that year.

After 14 years I’m completely frustrated with hosting companies. I recently switched to a new service so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If history’s anything to go by I’m doomed to disappointment.

There’s a cycle people go through with hosting companies. You find a new one, and it’s great. It has all the features you want. Their technical support is fast and efficient, and everything goes well. Then they teach you to hate them.

As the firm grows they have to hire more support people. No longer is the tech you’re talking to a real geek. Now you’re talking to a generic tech-support person who has had a week or two of training and now knows enough to be dangerous. So support gets worse.

Eventually the support staff does something stupid. Servers may not run as well as they used to, the staff starts breaking things on your site, and when things go wrong it takes forever to get fixed.

Here’s an example of something that happened to one of my clients a few months ago. This client used to have a small site doing a few thousand dollars a month. I set him up with a great hosting company – cheap and reliable, with really responsive tech support.

His business grew with time. Eighteen months after he started his business was doing three quarters of a million dollars a month. He should have moved his site to something more robust, but he didn’t want to spend the money, and this hosting company was cheap, reliable and had really responsive tech support.

Then one day I got a message from my client saying that his shopping cart wasn’t working. Nobody had touched anything on the site so I e-mailed tech support and was told that they had changed a database setting, and it was this change that had killed the shopping cart. There was more – they told me they weren’t willing to change the setting back to the previous setting.

A few hours later they told me that the site should not have been running the e-commerce software we were running. All of a sudden, after 18 months running a very popular e-commerce package, I’m being told that they will not allow us to use this software. All of a sudden everything’s my fault, and an hour or two after this they literally close the site down.

My perfect hosting company had turned into a monster.

So how do you find a good hosting company? There’s no perfect answer. It’s certainly very difficult to search for good hosting companies online. There are many “review” sites, but are they real reviews? These sites often make money by getting commissions from hosting companies so it’s hard to tell whether you’re getting the real story or a convenient story.

One major hosting company has created many small Web sites that rank well in the search engines and direct people who are looking for information about the company to unadulterated praise. One common marketing technique in the hosting business – affiliate marketing – pays people to say nice things about hosting companies. Site owners say nice things about your company, they direct visitors to your site, and then they earn a commission when those visitors sign up for your service.

Of course hosting is a tough business. How do you make money charging $5, $10 or $15 a month for a service that is difficult for people to learn and understand?

On the other hand, most hosting companies make things tough on themselves. Here’s a classic example. I signed up for an account with Verio, one of the world’s largest hosting companies. A few minutes later I received a welcome e-mail providing account information. Throughout the e-mail there were references to the “control panel,” but where was the control panel? The e-mail certainly didn’t say. So I called tech support, and they told me. “Look I can’t be the only person who has trouble finding the control panel,” I said.

“No,” the tech-support guy said, “We get that question all the time.”

What’s the moral of this story? Well, there isn’t one.

My fingers are tightly crossed. I’m hoping, after 14 years, that I’ve finally found the perfect hosting company.

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He’s currently working with e-book software company DNAML, www.DNAML.com, to introduce its products to U.S. publishers.