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Small Business

Pick a host that serves you well

SMALL BUSINESS

By JULES ALLEN, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 1998


Living in the Tampa Bay area leaves you little choice when it comes to phone companies.

Where I come from, we call this Hobson's choice. I'm not sure who Hobson was or quite why somebody made his or her choices slim, but much like H, we're stuck with GTE.

However, if there's one thing worse than just one choice, it's a virtually unlimited selection. When you get around to deploying your Web site, you could conceivably spend months picking through the hosting providers just in Florida.

Imagine that every pizza outfit in the state could deliver to your house. Who would get your order? Somebody, somewhere is going to have a bacon-lizard-anchovy special but how are you going to find it? Picking a hosting provider is such a problem.

I'm going to make the assumption that you don't have the inclination or money to pull a dedicated, digital circuit into your business, put up your own Web server and have somebody be responsible for making sure the thing is on, working and secure. That's a lot of work, even for a large company.

So the solution is to outsource your Web site hosting to a third party who specializes in such matters. Picking a provider is a tough decision, but a very important one, too.

The wonderful thing about the Web is most things you do, you can undo. If you skin your knees, pick yourself up, move your site and try another provider. It's not the end of the world.

Feeding from the same trough

If you've got dialup Internet access from anybody but America Online, AT&T, GTE and the other big boys, the people who provide you with this service will certainly be interested in your business.

Small Internet service providers have a continuing investment to keep up with increasing bandwidth needs, finding smart personnel and other obvious costs of running a small- to medium-size business.

If you've experienced their technical support firsthand, there's a good chance that their Web support will be the same. In many cases, you'll be e-mailing or speaking with the same people who may already be as comfortable with you as you are with them.

It's possible that your ISP understands the dialup business but does not quite understand the hosting business. Those that don't won't be around for long anyway, but you don't want your site to suffer the consequences of somebody else's mistake. Try to get at least three references before you commit.

My personal site, combined with ISDN dialup, weighs in at $30 a month from a Tampa ISP. I've been with it since 1993 and the rates have remained the same, which is rather nice. My site is pretty vanilla but I do get traffic statistics e-mailed to me each month and service has been exceptional.

Other ISPs in the area surely will offer a similar deal. If they don't, keep dialing.

Flip through the back of any technology magazine and you'll find ads for companies that offer dedicated hosting services without the dialup part. This could be a wise way to go if your ISP doesn't offer hosting or wants an arm and a leg from you. The price, on average, seems to be about $25 a month, but I have seen some for as little as $4.95 a month. How they're feeding themselves is beyond me.

If your site is being built by somebody else, you might want to seek his advice on hosting. Be wary if he doesn't offer at least two alternatives -- often there's a financial incentive for him to host with a certain provider and that could cloud his impartiality.

www.You.com

It is imperative that you get a your own domain. Don't mess around with www.somebody-else.com/you/ as you'll be tied to it for the rest of your business' life. Changing URLs is a huge inconvenience. For a measly $70 investment to secure your name, your URL is the key to nobody knowing just how big or small you are. It is also totally portable and can be picked up and dropped into a new ISP overnight.

If you can, try and secure a domain with the .com suffix. Especially if your clientele are non-technical -- geeks know the difference between .net, .com and .org, but Joe Public has a hard time with it.

A trendy thing is to use one of the offshore domains to spell out English words in your URL. For example, http://jump.to/jules/ or http://surf.to/jules/ (neither of those work, by the way). It is also conceivable that somebody might think your business is located on the Tonga Islands.

Try telling somebody one of those offshore URLs over the phone. If you can't say your URL, it's too hard and you need to pick another one. This can mean being quite creative as the .com space is getting very crowded. But it's worth the effort.

The AOL connection

Love it or hate it, AOL is King of Consumer Dialup. If your business caters to this area of the market, you should make sure your site is accessible from AOL during the busiest times.

You might imagine that the spike for consumer sites would pick up after close of business. Things actually start to heat up sometime after lunch on the East Coast and settles down after the Californians start thinking about bed time. I've been to California and the civilized part I stayed in considered this to be about 10 p.m.

If you don't have an AOL account or know somebody with one, I suggest you take up its offer of a free month, dial in and see how your site looks and how fast it loads. Be sure to test other sites if things are slower than molasses; AOL may just be having a bad day.

I randomly test the sites I manage on a 28.8k dialup modem line from AOL, GTE and my local ISP. Some days they're all superfast, some days they're not so fast. Such is the way of the Internet, unfortunately. At some point, we're going to have guaranteed, available bandwidth. That time is not now.

-- Readers may send questions about this series to techtimes@sptimes.com, or to Tech Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.


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