Web Marketing Today

How to Shop for an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to Host Your Business’s Web Pages

Some kinds of shopping are fun. You take a spin to your local mall, look in shop windows and watch the people. Unfortunately, shopping for a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) for your business Web pages isn’t fun.

If all you need is someone to host your Web pages, incidentally, the ISP can be anywhere in the country. But you probably want the Internet access for yourself and your business, as well as a local number to call up to check your e-mail. So you’re off on a journey to find a local ISP.

As a Web page designer with clients all over the US, I’ve had a unique opportunity to work with many different ISPs. Since my own strong values are high quality and modest prices for my clients, here’s what I have learned that will help you on your own quest for the perfect ISP.

Types of ISPs

You’ll find ISPs all over the map in terms of price and service. I believe there are three types of ISPs:

Part-Time Hobbyists. These are often priced very nicely. But if you need some new service or technical support, you’ll just have to wait, thank-you. Price is the attraction here, not service. Hardware is minimal. One way to tell if you have a part-time hobbyist is to telephone and see how long it takes to get a reply. Another is that access is available in only one community. Be careful here. While this could be very good, it could be unreliable, too. Never set up an on-line retail store with such a hobbyist ISP. But if you have a business-to-business site that won’t attract a large number of “hits” each week it may work for you. Check some of their business customers’ Web sites periodically to see that (1) you can contact them and (2) download (viewing) speed is adequate.

Small Businesses. These ISPs takes the whole enterprise very seriously. The ones who will survive know that excellent customer service is necessary to grow their business. You’ll find technical support is available fairly quickly. Often tech support personnel will be on-call and work out of their homes with beepers. As the business grows, the tech support personnel will be in the office during regular hours. Prices are competitive and service is often very good. Look for expansion of local access numbers to various areas of your state. Some of these specialize in services to business.

Large Businesses. These deal in volume. They have in-house technical support, and often provide many services to business, though their level of flexibility is down from the small business ISP. They aren’t so eager to please, so customer service sometimes suffers. Prices for personal ISP accounts will be competitive, while prices for business services are often somewhat greater than the small business ISPs. They have the best equipment and fastest connections to the Internet. You can recognize the large ISPs because they tell you they are the biggest.

Beginning Your Shopping Spree

Unless you have a local business friend you trust who has some personal experience with an ISP, you’ll be wise to do your homework. In my area of the country (Sacramento, California) two “freebie” computer tabloids are available at libraries, grocery stores, and fast food outlets. This is where you can expect ISPs to advertise. If you can’t find these, there are two URLs to try:

Yahoo’s list of regional ISPs
Carefully write down the Web addresses for each ISP, and check them out on-line. They usually give prices for business services on one of their Web site pages. Some will be so high you won’t go any further. While you’re there, look for an e-mail address that will respond to inquiries about business Web pages. By the way, info@host_name is often an automated e-mail responder; it may not get you a real person.

The Checklist

Once you’ve collected e-mail addresses, prepare a checklist of questions to send by e-mail to each of your prospective ISPs.

When Bill Tait of Skeleton Development Corporation was looking nationally for an ISP to host his on-line store, he prepared a specific list of questions, of which I’ve extracted a few. After describing the kind of Web site he had in mind, he asked ISPs their price for offering:

  • Virtual hosting of an existing domain name
  • High-speed (T1 or faster), redundant connection to the Internet
  • Netscape Secure Commerce Server
  • Proven history of reliability and uptime
  • 10 megabytes (MB) of Web space
  • Access to the server’s C compiler, Perl interpreter, and his own, unique cgi-bin directory. (These allow for programs to support a “shopping cart” application)
  • Unlimited e-mail addresses for their domain.
  • Auto-responder e-mail system
  • Mailing list program (such as majordomo or listserv) for a discussion group or newsletter
  • Unlimited telnet and FTP access

Now your checklist will probably be different and perhaps not so demanding. Bill found that only about 25% answered his e-mail inquiry. That tells you something right there.

Ask Some Current Business Clients

Next, Bill checked out more thoroughly the ISPs that responded. He looked at the businesses hosted by each ISP and wrote down e-mail addresses to contact each. Then he sent the business clients a questionnaire that went something like this:

“I am hoping that you can help me. I am considering host_name as a host. If you could, please spare a few minutes to candidly reply to these questions:

  1. Has your service been VERY reliable?
  2. Roughly how many times has your WWW service been “down”?
  3. If you have problems, is host_name tech support accessible and responsive?
  4. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your overall experience with host_name?
  5. How long have you used host_name?
  6. Any other comments?

Thank you very much for your time. Any help is truly appreciated.”

He found that 50% of the businesses he contacted willingly answered his questions. None seemed offended at his query. “Some of the responses were alarming,” he says. “I stumbled across a few clients very unhappy with their ISPs.” This eliminated several more prospective ISPs.

Now, Bill had a short list of ISPs who met his requirements, with whom he had some degree of confidence. Hard work? Yes. But for a very Internet-intensive business like Bill’s, he couldn’t afford to make a mistake.

Good News, Bad News, Good News

The good news is if you conduct this sort of two-stage survey, your chances of securing a good ISP are much improved. The bad news is you could still make a mistake. The good news is that if you do, and if you have your own domain name, you can always transfer to another ISP if you need to.

If you just can’t find an acceptable ISP in your community, don’t despair. You can have any ISP in the country to host your Web pages. (If you’re one of my clients, I can make some recommendations.) E-mail sent to the e-mail address at the remote ISP can be automatically forwarded (using a .forward file in your root directory) to any e-mail address you desire, such as at CompuServe or America Online. When a good ISP comes to town, you can always transfer then.

The bottom line? Do your homework on an ISP and you’ll probably end up satisfied (and hopefully prosperous).


Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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