The Best E-commerce Host for You?

Estimate sales growth, ensure potential hosts can work with your existing technology and fulfillment house, then start shopping around

I have found several limitations with the company that is currently hosting my e-commerce site, and I'd like to make a change. Can you give me an idea of what my options are, what the various hosting sites charge, and what I should be looking for?

—M.S., Waynesville, N.C.

Yours is a good question, and no doubt many e-commerce entrepreneurs share your confusion. "It is challenging to make sense out of all that's available now. Hosting, e-mail, and list management, content and customer relations management, e-commerce—there are so many choices. One can get it all in one place or put it together out of component pieces," says Jeannine Parker, an Internet consultant based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Your decision will ultimately depend on the size and scale of your operation. Since you've already run up against limitations with your current vendor, you'll want to make sure that you take into consideration your anticipated growth of sales and find new vendors that can support you as your business grows. "Many companies offer starter e-commerce solutions that work very well while an e-commerce venture is getting off the ground, but become frustrating once a business grows to the point where they want to start having features that are outside of the box in terms of what that starter package supports," says Chris Kivlehan, vice-president of sales and marketing for INetU Managed Hosting.

It's important to remember that Web site hosting and e-commerce are two separate things. A hosting company is something like a landlord that leases you space for a traditional store, says Janet Attard, a small-business consultant with "The difference is that the space you are leased is the disk space needed on a Web server to hold all the computer pages needed for your Web site and e-commerce functions. Another difference is that you typically pay for Web site space a month at a time and aren't tied into year, or multiyear, leases the way you are with a bricks-and-mortar store," she says.

Switching Shopping Carts

You can move your e-commerce site to a new location—a new Web host—just as you could with a traditional retail shop. Assuming that you own your domain name, it will stay the same, as will the basic functioning of your site. However, if you've built the site using storefront software provided by a particular Web hosting firm, you may have to recreate some portion of your site if you move to a new vendor. Be certain you understand this, and the potential cost involved, before you make a change.

If you are dissatisfied with something like the design, programming, or shopping-cart technology on your site, it's possible you could upgrade or change that technology without changing Web hosts. "Find someone who can help you get the type of e-commerce function you want set up. That person would find out if there are any technical limitations to putting new shopping-cart software on the site at the existing hosting company," Attard suggests.

There are some well-known commercial products, such as eBay's ProStores (EBAY) or StoreFront E-Commerce you might check out, Kivlehan says. "If they have the features you see your site needing for the foreseeable future, then those are options to consider. If your ideas are very unique and specific, you may find that a custom-developed solution in a well-known programming language such as PHP or ASP is your best choice. In the case of PHP, there is an open-source e-commerce platform called OS Commerce that a developer can use as a starting framework for your custom solution, so they are not charging you to reinvent the wheel on basic functionality. That will save you money in the custom-development process."

Considerations for a Good Host

Make sure that any host vendors know what kind of technology you're using and are comfortable working with it, says Michael Weiss, a partner at Southern California-based, a Web developer and software provider. Ensuring that a new host can easily work with your e-commerce fulfillment house—or give you access to data and tools if you're shipping products yourself—is another major consideration, he says. "Costs could run from $50 a month to $500, depending if you are on a shared server or have your own managed server—meaning your site is on its own box and your hosting partner is watching and managing the box," he notes. "Other things to consider are security, your ability to access the server to run reports and get to your data, and whether a new hosting partner provides software that allows you to track Web site usage."

Jimmy Duvall, director of e-commerce products at Yahoo! (YHOO) Small Business, says his firm offers all-inclusive e-commerce packages from $40 a month (plus a 1.5% transaction fee) up to $300 a month (with a 0.75% transaction fee). "Small businesses don't typically have the resources in-house to mix and manage all the components themselves, including domain management, e-mail hosting, and e-commerce," he says. "For most small merchants out there, even if they have IT staff, they don't want them to be worrying about server capacity, or wondering whether adding A plus B software will make a solution work." Ask any potential vendors about security, credibility, technical support (are they available 24/7 in case your site goes down over a weekend?), and the availability of third-party developers and software providers, Duvall suggests (see, 9/5/06, "Big Help for Small Businesses"). Good luck!

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