The World Wide Web has become the single
fastest growing scientific phenomenon in recorded human
history. Like the Oklahoma Land Rush, everyone's racing
to stake a claim out on the electronic frontier. According
to the Internet Index Issue #27, ninety-eight percent
of the words in Webster's English Dictionary have been
registered as domain names. That's a lot of real estate.
In 1899 all you had to do was put a stake in the ground.
These days it's a little more complicated but we're
here to help.
Registering a Domain Name
Instead of a stake in the ground, the
territory of the web is marked by domain names. A simple
analogy for how domain names work is your phone book.
For computers to communicate with one another, they
have to be directed to the correct "location"
on the web, which is specified by a number like 188.8.131.52.
Most of us can remember the phone numbers we call all
the time but if someone asked us for the number of Microsoft
so they could check on the latest Windows updates, we'd
probably be lost.
Functioning like a phone directory,
a name resolution service was developed that allows
a name to be associated with the unique number that's
assigned to a web site. It's easier for most of us to
remember names than numbers. So when you register a
domain name, a record is created for it. When your site
is hosted, the hosting company assigns an address to
your domain name. Your domain name record is updated
with the unique number that corresponds to your new
web hosting space and that allows other people to be
able to find your site using your domain name instead
of having to remember all those numbers. A web surfer
simply types in the name and the domain resolution service
takes over. A DNS server looks up your number and sends
the visitor to see you, so to speak.
These days registration of a domain
name is almost totally automated. You simply choose
the name you wish to register, choose a registrar and
sign up. You don't need a "home" for your
name like you would have in the old days (say around
1995). Registrars will "park" your name for
you until you need it. This allows you to come up with
the perfect name and register it before someone else
does, even though you may not be ready to actually host
anything at the moment. As long as you are listed as
the registrant in the domain name record, you own the
domain name, even if there's no site there, and even
if the registrar's tech support people are listed as
contacts in the record.
Assessing Your Site Requirements
Once you've made the decision to launch
a site, you are suddenly faced with a whole new set
of decisions to make - what will the site do, who will
manage it, will it be updated regularly, will you build
it yourself, will you sell things, will you collect
email addresses, do you want streaming media, will you
provide downloadable files, do you like the color blue?
The questions can seem endless and in some cases, senseless.
You owe it to yourself to educate yourself
to the greatest extent possible about the technology
that you feel your site may require. The jargon may
be a little intimidating, and to be truthful, no one
needs to know what CGI stands for. But knowing whether
or not you need CGI scripts to operate your site is
something you definitely have to learn.
In the old days (you guessed it - 1995),
most of the web was static. That means you put something
up on a web server in HTML and it stayed that way until
you changed it. Under that arrangement, "webmasters"
were in high demand, since you had to know how to manipulate
HTML at least a little bit to get things to work. These
days, technology exists that enables just about anyone
with a browser to update a web site. Some of these technologies
allow web content to be pulled from a database, so instead
of editing a site, all the owner has to do is change
the data in the database, which is usually easier than
remembering to close your font tags. Other technologies
allow interactive online catalogs, automatic credit
card validation, continuously updating news, streaming
music and video broadcasts and even ad banners that
know your name.
Once you know enough about your project
to know what technologies you need, you can narrow down
your search for hosts who offer those technologies.
Assessing The Hosting Options
When it comes to hosting options, more
is not necessarily better. Sometimes a hosting company
who devotes their efforts to a niche market will have
more tools of the type you need despite offering fewer
overall options for site hosting. If you don't need
database services, then a company who only offers simple
Front Page site hosting may be perfect for you. Some
hosts separate everything into individual "options."
which are sold a la carte, as add-ons to a basic hosting
plan. Other hosts offer all-inclusive packages that
cover most of what the average web site needs, with
options to add-on specific technology support as you
need it. Still others seem to offer everything you could
possibly want as part of every single account.
If you do need specific technologies,
be sure to read all the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
files a host may provide online. Be sure you understand
how the technologies you need actually work - it's not
uncommon to see hosts touting "Flash support"
as a hosting feature. There are no server components
required for Flash movies to work on a site - the support
is provided by the browser. This just gives the hosting
company another "option" to make their list
of features longer. But if you want to stream audio
or video, you will need server-based software to assist
Contact tech support via email and ask
about a specific technology - bring up a problem you
may have had in the past and ask them if they've ever
encountered it. See how long it takes before you get
a real response (not an autoresponder). Call the tech
support number and see if real people answer the phone.
Time how long you sit on hold before you get a real
If you're shopping by price, remember
that you get what you pay for. More often than not,
you can get a discount for paying quarterly or yearly
in advance. If this is an option, consider it carefully
- how hard will it be for you to cancel (if you can)
if you are not satisfied with the service? Will the
company refund your money if you're not happy?
Check the fine print on transfer limits,
storage limits and email services. Will the company
notify you when you've maxed out your transfer limit
or will they just start charging you by the megabyte
for additional download traffic? Remember that every
single "call" to a page on your site generates
a download - a "hit." There's a hit for the
page request and a hit for every separate element that
comprises the page - all those nifty navigation buttons
that change color when you mouse over them - if they're
graphic-based, that's two hits for every button. All
these downloads apply toward your transfer limit. If
you plan to use 200 Mb of storage (most sites use nowhere
near that amount of space), so people can download MP3s
or graphics or some other kind of files from your site,
you're going to have to be concerned with the transfer
limits if you expect any measurable traffic.
The rules of good website building stipulate
that any single web page should "weigh" no
more than 30-35K. Using that as a guide, you can estimate
the storage space you'll need for the pages themselves,
plus any downloadable files you might want to share.
A graphics-intensive site would have "heavier"
pages than a text-based site, so take that into account
when you're looking for hosting space.
Choose Your Weapon
In short, if you can carry out most
of these steps and find a host whose answers and services
fall into your personal comfort zone on these kinds
of important issues, you'll have a short list of companies
worth making additional inquiries about. You can check
their client list, ask for references, look up testimonials
and more simply by using your browser. Most reputable
hosts keep a list of clients on their own web site specifically
for this purpose. Don't be afraid to make a few phone
calls if you're considering a large investment in hosting
services, like collocation or dedicated servers. Send
a few e-mails, ask friends about experiences they've
had. By the time you're finished, you will have enough
solid information to make your hosting choice with confidence.