Change of Address - choosing the right web hosting services for small business - Column
If your free Web site is holding you back, it's time to ramp up to your own .com domain
Setting up a free member site via one of the big-name hosting companies--such as America Online, GeoCities, Tripod, or Yahoo--is a great way to get your virtual feet wet running a Web site. The price is right and the maintenance is low, perfect for the online neophyte who isn't quite ready to commit to this technology.
But if you're past the point of dipping your toe in the shallow end and are ready to put your company's best foot forward, it's time for a change. Why, you ask? Lots of reasons. For starters, the technical limitations of these free hosts quickly outweigh any ease-of-use advantages, particularly when it comes to putting your creative stamp on a site. Also, your free Web address--www. theirname/~yourname.com--won't generate the number of clicks you'll need (not to mention the sort of image you hope to convey). Furthermore, these sites are often slow to download, cluttered with extraneous advertising that doesn't put money in your wallet, and unable to provide the most basic e-commerce capabilities. Today isn't the best day to switch over to your own .com domain name; yesterday was.
Since 1993, all .com, .net, and .org domain names must be registered with Network Solutions's InterNIC ($70 for two years, www.internic.net), the official domain name registry. There's no need to pay for domain name searches, because InterNIC, numerous Web hosts, and Internet service providers let you search for free. Once you've secured your piece of virtual real estate, moving your free pages to your own virtually hosted domain site--where your URL appears as www.yourcompany, com--is a three-step process: You must choose a host, transfer all of the data, and then remodel your pages with Web authoring tools.
The Host With the Most Perhaps the best place to start a focused, cost-conscious search is Alex Chapman's Budgetweb.com. In addition to being a valuable resource for defining hosting features, Budgetweb provides a 21-item form that allows you to select a set of options (such as CGI scripts, secure servers, and autoresponders), and then generates a clickable chart of providers that might meet your specifications. Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com), the domain registrar, posts a listing of 50 Web hosting partners that meet its standards. According to Chapman, the most important factors when choosing a host are price, performance, and service. And service, he points out, is notoriously hard to gauge until you've lived with a service for an extended period of time.
So, if you're already satisfied with your ISP, inquire about its hosting options. MindSpring Enterprises (www.mindspring.net), for one, is known for reliable service and around-the-clock tech support. It also offers a variety of Web hosting packages, including the $19.95 per month QuickWeb and $49.95 per month Enhanced Web plans. The first is a good starter kit, providing tech support, e-mail aliasing (firstname.lastname@example.org), up to 15MB of server storage space, and up to 675MB of monthly traffic. The e-commerce enabled Enhanced package adds a secure server, site design tools, search engine, CGI library, another 5MB of disk space, and support for Real Networks's streaming audio and video.
MindSpring is solid, but it's hardly the only flavor available. And because you own your own domain name, you can switch Web hosts if your needs change or if you find a more suitable mix of price, service, and features. Deni J. Mosser, an interior designer for 20 years, utilized her free member Web space not only as the launchpad for graduating to her own domain site (www.mosserdesign.net), but as a showcase for a second career as a Web designer. Mosser settled on EarthLink Network's StarterSite (www.earthlink.com; $19.95 monthly) because it offered her 10MB of disk space, CGI scripts, multiple e-mail addresses, and responsive tech support.
You've Been Transferred If you want to move your pages quickly to your own domain without going through a major redesign, you'll have to tackle the transfer process. Basically, moving your pages to another server involves downloading the pages' source files through your Web browser to your hard disk, and then uploading the files to your new server via FTP (file transfer protocol). Good resources for free or shareware FTP software include C/Net's www.down load.com and www.shareware.com.
"Before I transferred my site [from GeoCities], I looked at its navigation, took out sections that weren't useful, and had to think about stripping out any GeoCities-only code," says Claire Jennings, who runs www.clairescorner.com, an arts and literature site. Because most member pages are generated by site-specific, template-built software and may not offer FTP downloading access, you'll probably have to manually copy your source code and save it to your hard disk.
Here's how to do it: After launching your home page, select View in your browser and pull down Source to view the HTML code for your page. Highlight and copy everything between the <HTML> and </HTML> tags, paste this data into a text editor, and then save it as index.html. Make a backup copy and rename it so it's not lost or overwritten. Be forewarned: Images need to be saved individually, and your member page CGI scripts probably won't function at your new host.
After you've captured and saved your elements, check to make sure that your URL is live at your new host, and that you've received the necessary information to access your site. This includes your site's IP number, your user ID, and a password. To upload your files to your new space, launch FTP and highlight the files you want to transfer to your new site's FTP directory.
Author! Author! After the transfer, visually analyze the results and test all links. First, check to see if your new host includes publishing software in your hosting package. You can also download free, easy-to-learn programs such as Netscape Communicator's built-in Composer (home.netscape.com) and AOLpress (www.aolpress.com). If you're looking for more advanced page-enhancing software, take advantage of increasingly available try-before-you-buy downloadable applications.
Microsoft FrontPage 98 (www.microsoft.com/frontpage; $149) is consistently ranked among the best Web authoring tools. However, if you want to use FrontPage, your hosting company must have FrontPage server extensions installed. You can look into this at your host's Frequently Asked Questions page, or by contacting tech support. But don't feel obliged to stick with FrontPage just because Microsoft makes it. There are plenty of strong programs available today that will make your site sing, and shopping for the best product that fits your needs will help dictate the success of your newly refurbished Web home.
KAREN L. MILLER writes about the Web for SMALL BUSNESS COMPUTING & COMMUNICATIONS, CyberTimes, Time Out New York, and Hearst New Media.