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The Human Factor: Questions to Ask a Potential Web Host -

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By Lynna Landstreet - Creative Director, Spider Silk Design

When evaluating a potential Web host, there are a number of questions you'll want to ask. Many of the basics are fairly obvious: what plans does the host offer? How much disk space, bandwidth, etc., is included in each plan? Are the servers UNIX or NT? But there are also a number of less obvious questions.

One thing that people often neglect to find out is how much technical knowledge the host expects clients to have, and what sort of knowledge resources the host offers. Many inexpensive hosts expect a relatively high degree of technical competence, and aren't willing to do much in the way of handholding. This isn't necessarily a bad thing ... the trade-off of lower prices is a greater expectation of self-reliance. However, all good hosts will offer some resources to help you get up to speed and solve your problems on your own. Look for a detailed FAQ, knowledge base, or user's guide.

It's also a good idea to find out what kind of user interaction the host offers: are there discussion forums, a mailing list, or some other means by which clients can communicate with one another? This is not only helpful for problem solving, but it's also a sign that the host is confident in its customers' satisfaction.

Can you examine the forums or list before signing up? If so, that's another good sign. Look through some of the postings - ideally, what you want to see is a small scattering of negative comments, but not too many. Why is it better to see a few than none at all? Because the host that no one has ever had a problem with only exists in our fantasies! If you don't see any negative comments, it probably means that the host is deleting them. Again, letting negative posts stand and hoping that the positive ones will outweigh them is a sign that the host stands behind its offerings.

One of the most important things that you can ask, as strange as it might sound, are questions to which you already know the answers. This will let you determine how knowledgeable the host's tech support staff are; if you ask questions that you don't know the answers to, how are you going to tell if they've been answered correctly? Pretend that you know absolutely nothing about the Web, and ask some really basic questions. You'll be testing the rep's patience, level of knowledge, and honesty: people are far more likely to brush off someone who they think is too dumb to know the difference. Sadly, it's particularly easy to give people the impression that you're technologically clueless if you're a woman ... for once, sexist stereotypes can work to your advantage!

But be sure to mix in some more complex questions as well, particularly if your actual support needs are likely to involve such esoteric concerns as CGI scripting and database development. If you're careful, you can pose these questions without contradicting the impression of naivete that you've projected ... just say that your boyfriend or husband told you to ask. The host doesn't need to know that you're the real geek of the household ... yet.

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