Web Host Ethics

By Richard Lowe


Okay, I've had to change web hosts half a dozen times in the last year and I've noticed a pattern. It's a very clear and simple pattern, actually a series of behaviors on the part of web hosting companies. These behaviors cause these companies to lose customers and gain poor reputations.

To sum it all up in a single word: ethics. Web hosts need to act ethically. As long as they are ethical towards their business and customers, they thrive. When they become unethical, they will fail.

What are web hosting company ethics? This is a code which all hosting companies need to follow if they want to stay in business for the long term.

The most important goal is up-time - Almost anything can be forgiven as long as sites are up and running, as close to 100% of the time as possible. Every feature provided by a hosting company needs to be working and working properly. A small amount of downtime (an hour or two in a month long period) is acceptable, but more than that is not.

Every time I've had to change web hosts, this was the base reason. Unexplained and unexpected downtime. Oh, there were many excuses and many reasons which I'm sure were perfectly valid. But the basic reason why I create and maintain a web site is so people can see it - and they cannot see it if the site is down.

To make it even worse, sites which are down for a significant length of time have side effects. Webrings owners often check for broken rings using automated code - down sites will trigger suspensions and even deletions. Search engines tend to drop sites which are down too often or for too long a period of time. And, of course, visitors may remove your site from their bookmarks, thinking you have closed it or moved on.

The second most important goal is performance - I understand that you want to jam as many sites on a single server as you can. This is how you maximize your profits. Please understand that all of the web sites which you host must perform well. So don't overload your servers.

Stay in communication - We all know that things happen. Sometimes servers do crash and once in a while they require maintenance. Let your customers know about important events. If you are concerned that they might consider it spam, give your customers the option to receive updates if they desire.

I had one host (Hostrocket) which performed, in my opinion, one of the most hostile acts that I have ever seen against a paying customer. I had a CGI script on my site which logged each 404 error in a text file. Normally this script was harmless and used little CPU. Unfortunately, with the new breed of worms striking the internet, 404 errors went way up and the script began using large amounts of processor.

One day I tried to reach my site and didn't get my friendly front page. I got a "forbidden" error. I freaked out and sent off a quick email to the web host support group. I didn't receive a response. Not a word (and it was only early afternoon). I sent another, then another. Nothing. Finally, 18 frantic hours later, I received a note that my site was closed down because of the script.

The number of four letter words that spewed from my mouth that day would have turned a street girl's face red. I was so angry - not because they closed my site, but because these idiots (again, Hostrocket) didn't tell me what they had done. Because of that, I wasted almost an entire day trying to figure out what was wrong

What I would have done had I been the technical person in their company is simple. Just disable the script and send off an email to the web site owner explaining why and telling him not to do it again. If the owner ran the script again, then shut down the site (and, of course, send another email).

Needless to say, I regained access to my site, copied my databases to my hard drive, then switched web hosts. Within two days I had moved my site to another, much better hosting service (and, of course, I deleted the offending script).

Don't test on your production servers - I know you want to upgrade your Apache to the newest version or install the new control panel right away, but please don't immediately install anything on your production servers. Believe me, your customers don't care about any of this - they want working sites. Saying "everything is going slow because we upgraded" is not acceptable - the host should know ALL side effects of any upgrades from actual testing long before any change, however, small, is made to a production system.

Do what you say you are going to do - I was with a hosting company called Bizland for over a year. They were good most of the time except for (a) excessive downtime, and (b) they didn't deliver on their promises. They kept saying CGI will be released in April, then May, then June. Finally, I decided I could not wait anymore (and also concluded the host was down too much) so I moved my site.

Free hosting companies seem to have a bad habit of using production systems as test beds. This is one of the strong downsides to using free hosts - they really don't care if your site is up or not, as long as the advertisements are displayed.

Acknowledge your trouble tickets - One web hosting company that I was with for quite a long time was Addr.com. These guys had easily the best support so far. What stands out in my mind is every single message that I sent got acknowledged by a human being.

The sequence was as follows: I would send a trouble ticket and get an automated response. A short time later, I got a note that the ticket was handled. I always respond with a "thank you", because I've been a support person before and I understand the power of getting thanked. Addr.com even responded to the thank you with a "you are welcome" message!

To contrast, another hosting company (hostrocket again), had a nasty habit of just closing tickets. I'd send in a question and get an answer, then ask another question as follow-up. I would never get a response, then check to see that the ticket was marked "closed". This is not the way to keep a customer happy.

Actually read your trouble tickets - I write very clearly in trouble tickets, precisely because I've been a support person and I know exactly what is needed. I'm constantly surprised at how many times web host support people simply don't read the ticket and thus do the wrong thing.

One particularly glaring example was a ticket which I sent in which said to set up a certain domain with bigmailbox. The support person (from Hostrocket) changed the MX record for an entirely different domain, in spite of my message clearly stating "change it for domain xyz". This caused my site to lose email capability for two days until they eventually figured out what they messed up.

Most importantly, remember where you get your money from - This message is for all web hosting companies everywhere. Your money comes from those people called webmasters. Free hosting companies get their money indirectly via the content provided by webmasters. With paid hosts the relationship is direct and to the point - money is paid by webmasters.

If you annoy your customers or don't provide service, then you will find yourselves out of business. And in these days of a looming recession, good customers are gold. Keep them happy and your company will prosper.


About the author: Richard Lowe Jr. is the webmaster of Internet Tips And
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