July 27, 2006, 12:00 AM

When web hosting turns into a disaster

(Page 2 of 3)

With experience, Mosis began his hunt for a new web host with three tasks at the fore: more research, hypothetical scenarios and spelling things out.

“This time around we conducted more research, reading all the fine print on the vendors’ web sites, asking for multiple references, investigating the vendors on the Internet,” he explains. “We thought it was not a good sign if a company promised to help us gain a top listing on search engines but we found that their own site listed low when we did a search for hosts.”

In meetings with potential hosts, PortableSink.com asked many questions and created numerous e-commerce web hosting scenarios, such as what the host would do if the retailer suddenly had to add many more products, to find out what vendors would do, as well as what they wouldn’t do. And it asked suitors to spell out in great detail, in writing, services and costs (see box, page 32).

Four questions

“Ultimately we measured the efficiency of each vendor by asking ourselves four questions,” Mosis says. “Do we like the way their web site looks, and is it user friendly? Based on our research, how long do we think it really would take them to respond to requests? How does their company rate in various search engine listings? And what is our impression of the proficiency of their representatives?”

In the end the merchant went with IPower Inc., which has been working with PortableSink.com since November. The company helped the retailer fine-tune then test the new site. The major part of the fine-tuning was a new shopping cart that is easier for customers to manage, Mosis says. The retailer then dropped its former web host and launched anew in March.

“In our experience so far, I like that our new host’s plan has been tailored to fit the needs of a small business and help the business operate smoothly,” Mosis says. “For example, we perform many site updates, adding and updating products. It was hard to find a company that would do this for a reasonable price. Where our previous, local host service charged $800 a month for updates, our new host created a plan to do 10 updates a month for $40. And when we make update requests, they’re typically done the same day.”

As for the overarching problem retailers face of poor communication from web hosting companies, though there isn’t much telephone talk, Mosis is pleased with the method his new host has in place to cure communication woes. “Today it all is being handled very efficiently through a customer relationship management system on the host’s web site,” he says. After PortableSink.com logs a request, the host fulfills it usually the same day and quickly sends a notification that work has been completed, he adds.

MarketExpo.com has a similar tale. The retailer flailed about for seven years, working with different web hosting companies as well as trying to self host, which proved too time-consuming and complicated.

“We’ve been all over the map trying to figure out this game,” says Houseberg. “Most of our problems centered on shopping cart functionality causing the site to go down, the server or front-end needing to be reset, and the server being overloaded with internal log files or traffic. Even when the site didn’t go down entirely, the fact that it was not working at a shopper’s expected functionality was bad news.”

Early this year MarketExpo.com decided to purchase web hosting services as well as an e-commerce platform from Venda Inc. Before doing so, it analyzed what went wrong in the past with web hosting and laid out a plan of attack for its hunt for a new host. However, the retailer this time went into the search from a different perspective, one it believes was more realistic and helped it make a solid decision before signing on the dotted line.

“Choosing the right partner to grow or host your web site is all about relationships. And in this we know that we can’t expect everything to go perfectly,” Houseberg says. “Everyone still is learning more and more about the perfect e-commerce site and perfect web hosting. And that keeps the game challenging and interesting for all of us.”

When it comes to ensuring a good relationship, Houseberg explains that a retailer unfortunately never can be totally certain. “It’s like starting to date someone: You don’t know what they’re really like until about six months in. For a gauge to potential success, the retailer has to be open and honest upfront about what they want in a relationship, and just tell the vendor after communicating these desires, ‘If you are not the right person to come to the party, please say so now.’ Ultimately, you always have to be prepared to say this isn’t working out and it’s time to migrate to another host.”

During the transition, the merchant was relieved that its choice to go with a web hosting vendor that also operated the e-commerce platform and had a wide range of expertise beyond just hosting proved a good one, Houseberg says. “They had all the e-commerce strategies we were looking for in one venue, and their team was very supportive and responsive. We gave them our new web site design and they helped us work through all the changes and data uploads.”

Big and small

MarketExpo.com judged Venda’s support and responsiveness prior to signing by looking at the company’s work with its current customers. “Our new host has bigger clients that are much more demanding than we are, and I concluded we would be a shoe-in to get the kind of treatment we sought,” Houseberg says. “And now our host is doing more than hosting-it’s dreaming up solutions on things like boosting our traffic and conversion.”

MarketExpo.com dropped its previous host and went live with its new set-up in May. It paid around $120,000 for the e-commerce platform and systems integration and hosting services for the next 12 months. “In general changing web hosts and design always will be a challenge, but a worthwhile one,” Houseberg says. “Now our site is dependably online and continues to improve.”

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