Content, Design—and Hosting
While much thought is often given to a website’s content and design, what often receives less due diligence and planning – possibly because it requires more technical ability – is hosting. And yet the reliability of your website’s hosting can make or break not just a user’s experience but also the very security of your site and even how well it might rank in searches.
Website Hosting Reliability
When looking at the reliability of a hosting service, there are several areas to consider. Here are some of the major ones:
Ideally, your website should be accessible to a visitor 100% of the time. But in the real world, servers go down, network routers fail and humans make mistakes -- so even the best systems have some amount of downtime.
So what's a good number? Like so many things, the real answer is: it depends.
- 99.5% uptime may sound good, but consider that this allows for 3.6 hours of unexpected downtime a month.
- 99.9% uptime, allows for about 43 minutes of unexpected downtime per month.
- 99.95% uptime, allows for about 21 minutes of downtime per month and is what major cloud service providers (Google Cloud Platform, Amazon Web Services, etc.) will guarantee for public-facing websites/web apps.
- 99.99% uptime, allows for 4.3 minutes of downtime/month and is what some service providers will guarantee for specific parts of defined systems.
- The fabled "5 9s" or 99.999% update, allows just 20 seconds of downtime/month. To achieve this all systems must be 100% automated and auto-correcting. Very few service providers will guarantee this--and if they do, expect a hefty price tag.
- 100% uptime is a myth. While it can be achieved for a period of time, few providers will guarantee it - or the guarantee they offer will have limited consequences. If someone is promoting 100% uptime, ask for the fine print.
At the end of the day, uptime is a cost/benefit calculation. Increased uptime guarantees cost more but the website will have less unexpected downtime. Asking yourself: "How much does it cost in money/credibility/opportunities if my website is down?" can guide you to the right answer for your particular case.
Though the speed of your website is not a reliability issue, it is directly correlated to its perceived value and should be considered part of hosting requirements.
If your website is slow, it's a bad website in the eyes of your customers, and they will abandon it—even if it's beautiful and has great content, they will be gone if they have to wait. Rule of thumb is the site should load in under 3 seconds. We aim for the 1-second range.
Simplifying it a bit, hosting can be done on shared servers (many websites on one server), dedicated servers (your website is the only site on the server), and virtual servers (dedicated servers on very high end shared hardware—often called cloud computing or cloud hosting). We offer cloud hosting.
There are pros and cons to all of these, but suffice it to say that in this case, "you get what you pay for." Shared servers are the least expensive, but since the server is hosting many websites, you are at the mercy of the resources being demanded by all the other websites so they can be very slow at times.
Dedicated and virtual servers can be configured to strike the balance between required resources and expected traffic (plus headroom—see Traffic Surges, below) to provide enough speed for your particular website's needs. These environments are typically not "plug and play" and require a team (internal or external) to set up and maintain.
Website Traffic Surges
Perhaps you’ve made a major announcement, or something on the news is spiking traffic to your site.
Your hosting service should be able to handle unexpected traffic spikes—and allow continued access to the site by all visitors. There are different ways a host can do this, but one advanced method is to put in place a protocol that allows for virtual web servers to come online as needed and intelligently route traffic to the server with the least amount of traffic. Once the surge has diminished, these virtual servers would then be released to keep down cost.
We’ve said this many times before, but, unfortunately, it still holds true: there are a lot of nefarious players on the web, and they can wreak all sorts of havoc with your website. These can include denial of service (DoS) attacks, site-defacement, site data held for ransom, etc.
Here are just a few considerations of what a good hosting service should be able to offer to protect your site:
- Physical plant and hardware security, with strict personnel access and privilege controls
- Regularly scheduled security scans
- Two-factor authentication
- IP lockdown for administrative access availability
- Enforced password strength and periodic forced password updates
- Always-on SSL required for ALL sites hosted (think: "weakest link" scenario)
If for some reason – whether it be from an attack, a hard-disk failure, or something else – your website were to corrupt, your hosting service should have regular backups of your site and data. Check to see how often these are done—and how they are protected.
As a company eyes growth, it often needs to consider how its website will reflect this, and if the hosting allows for scalability. Often this is tied to the hosting plan, so the key question to ask upfront is how easily and quickly will the host be able to accommodate such growth—and what the costs of this will be.
One key marketing tool is website analysis, including overall site traffic, pages visited most, percentage of repeat visits, CTRs, etc. Most often these analytics are not provided by the host, itself, but by a service such as Google Analytics. The key question to ask a prospective host is if they will set this up for you as part of your hosting or will they leave you to do this on your own. Often, it is not the most difficult thing to set up, but it’s nice to have it bundled in the hosting package.
All hosts we know of provide a level of support, but some key questions to ask are:
- Availability. What hours is the support available? Is it 24/7/365? If not, how fast does a customer service representative get back to you?
- Tiering. Does the hosting service tier support so that the most important issues, such as a site going down, are addressed immediately?
- Knowledgeable and Friendly Service. Does the host representative listen courteously, understand and reflect back to you his or her understanding of the issue, and then help resolve it in an expedient manner?
- Cost. What are the basic monthly costs for support? And what are the costs for overages. If hours for support are not needed one month, will the host carry these over, in full or part, to the next month?
Content Management System (CMS)
We’ve put this last despite its high level of importance since it does not necessarily have to be part of a hosting plan. That said, most good hosting services, recognizing the need for a company to easily and quickly amend their site, will offer a CMS as part of a turnkey hosting package. For instance, Squarespace has an integrated CMS. You cannot host your website on their platform without using their CMS. The same is true for many other hosting platforms, including us.
The best way to test how easily you (or your web manager) can use a hosting service’s CMS is to ask for a demo before you sign up. Some things to look for are:
- Is it intuitive and straightforward? You should be able to easily find a function (such as adding a blog or editing a bio) where you think it might be or at least follow a logical progression to that function.
- Can you easily preview the additions or edits just made?
- Can you schedule the publishing of new pages or items?
- Can you schedule the archiving of items or announcements no longer pertinent?
- Are historical iterations of your revised pages easily accessible?
- Can you easily move around items on a page via the CMS?
- Can the templates of your website be easily modified
- Can new functionality be added cost effectively
- Other functions you believe are important in the management of your website
Migrating Your Website for Better Hosting
While Content, Design and Hosting are often bundled together by one service provider, they do not always have to be, and there may be inequities between the three. Sometimes a company will call us and say, "we like our website design, and our content is great, but we’re not happy with our hosting service. What can we do about this?"
Typically, if the hosting issues are major, we will recommend migrating the website over to another host. This is not without some level of pain, but a solid host that delivers reliability, speed, security and has great customer service will save countless hours of headaches, and can even make you money when considering the cost of a hacked or down website.
We have world-class hosting capabilities and a great web platform. If you have questions about hosting, site migration, or any other questions, please feel free to contact us. We’re happy to help!
Thanks and be well,
~Your Friendly Animus Rex Team