The tangled web we weave

A company’s web presence today is no longer a nice-to-have; it is core to an organisation’s brand, whether the site is used to sell products or simply to provide a window to the business. Yet the average organisation is surprisingly blasé about their choice of web hosting provider – until there is a problem. A significant percentage of companies running transactional websites don’t even know where their data is hosted. Given the sensitivity of much of that data, this is quite alarming.

Often the selection process when choosing a hosting partner, particularly for small businesses, comes down to cost; little thought is given to whether the resulting service is appropriate and geared to the company’s specific needs. Alternatively the web hosting service may have been recommended or even brokered by the company’s web design agency, lulling the organisation into a sense of security that may not be warranted.

Sign up in haste, repent at leisure
The risk is that a poorly thought-out web hosting decision can cause all sorts of problems down the line, as a business becomes more reliant on its online presence for new leads, or to provide support to its customers. If the site doesn’t function well, is plagued with performance issues and/or is difficult to update readily, this will reflect badly on the business and have an impact on the customer experience, harming sales.

Given the speed with which complaints about companies now go viral via social networks, companies can’t afford to subject their customers to hiccups in online service, unacceptably slow site performance, or the display of incomplete or out-of-date content. Customers have been so spoilt into having any information they want served up to them instantly that they have almost no tolerance for a sub-standard web experience. Research by market analyst firm Aberdeen Group has found that just a single-second delay in web page load time results in 11% fewer page views, a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction and 7% loss in sales conversions.

Yet, oddly, many smaller and mid-sized businesses will put up with an underperforming web site. Given what’s at stake, this is quite mystifying.

Fear of change
Fear of change and disruption is a big part of the problem. Too often organisations feel tied into their existing service provider. Rightly or wrongly they worry that their web domain name, email addresses, customer data and other critical assets could be held to ransom if they threatened to move to an alternative hosting company. Of added concern is the risk of downtime as web content is moved from one hosting service to another. And how can a company be sure that the new service will be better?

Combine these doubts and it’s easy to see why so many companies stay put, preferring ‘the devil they know’ to the risk of the intangible.

Another contributing factor is that many small hosting companies, or resellers of hosted services, are difficult to contact – both in the event of a service problem, and as the company tries to make enquiries about what’s involved in changing provider. It may be that the direct contact is merely a third-party, a one-person outfit running a web hosting business as a secondary job, tapping into an ISP’s data centre and selling on the service for a small commission. In situations like these, it is no coincidence that a phone number is not provided for support and that the only form of communication is via email, usually with a long delay.

Or perhaps, to keep costs down, support is being provided from overseas. Companies may not realise this until it’s too late. They may be equally unclear about the terms and conditions they’ve signed up to – whether there are service-level agreements to underpin web site performance or guarantee the responsiveness of remedial action in the event of a problem, or how enforceable these terms are. Even if they tried to take legal action, the risk of web downtime as a case is brought to court would be too great to most businesses to justify the process.

You get what you pay for
And so companies learn the hard way that a cheap and ready web hosting service can cost them dearly in the long run. It’s easy for anyone with basic IT skills to set themselves up as a web hosting provider, selling on someone else’s service as a sideline. While the attractive resale prices they offer look attractive to the frugal, austerity-conscious business owner or IT manager, this is when caution needs to be applied.

In addition to a good solid service, backed up by positive online reviews which are easy to look up on the Internet, companies should look for a number of other important qualities in a hosting partner:

  • Solid SLAs ensuring web performance and support response times;
  • Good communication – a UK number to call, as well as an email address, for any support issues;
  • Clear terms and conditions – outlining the provider’s responsibilities, and details of what would happen in the event that the customer wanted to switch to another hosting company;
  • The credentials of the underlying service provider – whose network and data centres does the service rely on? Where are the data centres and what SLAs underpin their availability and performance?

Companies should also consider which qualities of the service are most important to them, and ensure these are adequately provided for. There is a reason that hosting services can range from several pounds to several hundred pounds a month – you get what you pay for. At one end of the spectrum, the service will be pared back to the bare essentials much like a no-frills airline; at the other extreme will be an all-you-can-eat proposition including comprehensive managed ICT services.

The best-case scenario for the discerning purchaser is a menu of options, ensuring transparency so that a business can set its own priorities and see exactly what it is getting for its money. If phone-based support, a super-fast response time or top-of-the-range security is important, they may have to accept that this will cost extra, but at least they will be making an informed decision.

The problems arise when terms aren’t set down at the outset or companies overlook the small print. As ever, the devil is in the detail.