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Oh, What a Tangled Web They Weave
Here's how to cut through the technobabble of hosting services and get your site running smoothly

"They're all young techno-thieves." That's how Arthur Sacks, who owns a vacation-planning business catering to horseback riders, defines anyone involved in Web site building and their co-conspirators, the Internet service providers. "They speak in obscure terms I can never understand, make promises, and then never come through."

Sacks, 56, has owned his Huntingdon Valley, Pa., mini-travel agency -- Complete Traveler -- since 1992. In 1996, he decided a good Web site could mean great, inexpensive advertising for his business, as well as a distribution channel for books he writes on horseback tours worldwide. But a year later, and after spending more than $6,500 with two Web hosting services, he still didn't have his site up. Only after another year went by and Sacks serendipitously met a trustworthy Web developer while horseback riding, did Complete Traveler make its debut on the Web.

An isolated story? Hardly. Plenty of small-business owners are finding they don't have the time or skills to build a site themselves, leaving them to sort through offers from ISPs and other vendors in hope of finding one that's comprehensible, affordable, and reliable. Even worse, they're doing it under heavy pressure from small-business rivals. According to Dun & Bradstreet, 35% of small businesses with 100 or fewer employees already have a Web presence.

Alas, this is one time where relying on your own smarts is probably a bad idea. Unless you are simply posting a "brochure" Web site -- no interactive elements at all, not even incoming E-mail -- do not try to build the site in-house. It won't be worth the time, money, and labor to get the site up and running, even if you do have a tech person on staff. The ins and outs of computer code are maddening, and even if you master it, the art and technology is constantly advancing, which means your site and your hard-won knowledge will soon be obsolete.

And to be fair, there are some good Web hosting deals to be had. "There is so much that ISPs and long-distance carriers offer now in terms of Web site hosting and service, and all for the right price, that it's difficult to see any reason that small businesses should do it themselves," says Joe Bartlett, an Internet analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group. There are other considerations, too, such as protecting your business from electronic spies and vandals. "The security mechanisms alone that the ISPs offer for Web sites would be absolutely unaffordable for small businesses," Bartlett says.

So how do you avoid the problem that afflicted Arthur Sacks? It helps to have some basic expectations from a Web hosting service. We surveyed some of the major ISPs and came up with a list of seven must-have services that you should expect to come with your contract, which actually could be No. 8 on our list -- don't hire any ISP or Web hosting service that won't put these promises in writing.

1. Basic Web hosting. This includes site design, setting up your domain name, tracking the number of visitors, giving you the ability to do credit-card transactions, and registering your URL with the major search engines. The latter amounts to free marketing for your site, a worthwhile bonus for neophytes, because it helps attract visitors by broadcasting your site's existence to Web-surfers seeking your kind of business.

2. Guaranteed up-time. This means that if your site goes down, you get your money back, usually on a pro-rated basis. (No, you're not likely to get coverage for lost business.) If you have a Web storefront up and running and are relying on your access to it, the ISP should also offer emergency capability. This means its tech staff is equipped with pagers, and if your Web site's server goes down, someone is paged and will fix it right away.

3. Full-time phone support. You want someone who is on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in case you need technical help.

4. Onsite tech support service within 48 hours. Some problems just can't be solved by phone, so make sure there's a live human available for the really big crises.

5. Multiple E-mail accounts on one mailbox. This makes it much easier to add E-mail addresses for new employees. It also ensures that all employees have the same domain name, which is much more professional. It looks too "Mom 'n' Pop" to have E-mail going to five different providers, and it muddles your brand name, too. For instance, if Sacks's E-mail were but an employee of his had, it plants doubt about which company is the real McCoy.

6. Real deadlines. Breaking deadlines has been elevated to a slippery art form in the Web world, but you can't run your business like that. Pin down a time when you can expect your design to be delivered and running, with a refund if the job isn't done.

7. Security. The ISP must offer SSL (secure socket layer) for its commerce servers (what you run a Web site on), firewalls for all servers designated for your company, and encryption for all credit-card transactions running from your Web storefront. What these technical security measures protect against are hackers. The SSL means hackers cannot heist data -- such as a customer's credit-card account number information -- while it is en route from the customer's computer to your site. A firewall, software code that blocks unauthorized intruders from accessing that server's databases, offers extra protection to your data. Encryption is a secret code that scrambles all data and every message sent to and from the server. It's really an added level of protection. If someone does hack the SSL and steals a credit- card transaction message, the hacker still won't be able to decipher the credit-card number, because it will be scrambled.

What will all this cost? Be prepared to pay about $300 per month, plus the basic Internet access rate. The latter will vary, depending on the speed of access you specify. For example, a moderately fast ISDN line may run $100 per month. High-speed cable modems might cost $50 monthly, assuming you can get this still-scarce service. A powerful T1 line costs about $1,200 per month.

As for the actual services, pricing plans vary by company. AT&T has a la carte-menu pricing -- $200 or so for getting you on the network, $50 per month for monitoring (and handling all problems if the server goes down), $50 per month for extra layers of security. It'll refer you to Web design specialists if you need one, which will also cost extra. National ISPs such as Virginia-based PSINet and UUNet offer similar deals, and if you have access to the Web, a search for Web hosts and ISPs will turn up dozens of other choices.

Where else can you look? Check your computer. Microsoft and Netscape come with lists of ISPs. You can search, for instance, in Microsoft's BackOffice among 75,000 listings for an ISP that meets your needs. Just be aware that there aren't really 75,000 ISPs in the U.S. The list includes licensed Microsoft resellers, training centers, and consultants.

If they offer the seven basic services listed above, fine. If not, move on. As Arthur Sacks will tell you, a person can get lost in this electronic wilderness pretty quickly if his guide doesn't know the trail.

By Rivka Tadjer



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