The hidden cost of cheap hosting

Wed, 13th February 2008, 18:16

The web has no shortage of cheap web hosts. A quick search shows plenty of low-cost hosting plans, with wild claims. 24/7 support. Unlimited bandwidth, storage or email accounts. Free domain names. You can be like a kid in the candy store, with everything being thrown at you. As an added benefit, you can have a green host and save the environment while you save green in your wallet. It almost is too good to be true. Is the old adage "You get what you pay for" woefully outdated and "old-economy"? Do we finally live in a world without limits? Is there a Santa Claus?

Wal-Mart World

For better or worse, we are living in a Wal-Mart world. The lowest price is now the expectation. The true costs of the low price aren't looked at. It may be jobs that were once high paying moving to cheap (or child) labor overseas. It might be the creation of the disposable economy, where items that were once investments are now expected to stop working after a year or two. We live with the dichotomy of having simultaneously low and high expectations. We have low expectations of high quality and high expectations of low price.

The web hosting world has generally seized upon this mentality. A lot of hosts promise the world for a price quite lower than you pay for bottled water or your Starbucks. It creates the impression that hosts that charge more are gouging customers. Why would I pay $15 a month for a host with caps on my usage when I can get the same thing for $4 a month and no limits on my usage? Do I look like a sucker?


Unfortunately, you do look like a sucker. Marketing is betting on you being uneducated about your choice. Marketing counts on you being flattered by shiny and glossy. Marketing is even seizing on your environmental conscience. Whatever it takes, whatever promises need to be made to make your money their money will be made. Do you wish to lose 100 pounds without diet or exercise? Do you want to become a millionaire by only working one hour a day? Do you want it all from your web host, everything, for only four dollars a month? Marketing is long on promises and short on delivery.

Marketing creates a tricky situation. On one hand you have web hosts who, in addition to doing the job you pay them to do—namely, host your website, are now expected to answer any question you may have. Having DNS problems at home? It is your host's problem, not yours. Unsure why your WordPress plugin borked your entire site? Call your host! On the other hand, you have web hosts who have made a promise to you. They have promised 24/7 support, unlimited everything. Your website has been down for three days, your support tickets are unanswered and you are quickly finding out that this promise means nothing. What did you expect for four dollars a month?

My expectations

What would I expect for four dollars a month, you may ask. I seem to be very opinionated about this issue, since I am writing an opinion piece! I would expect a promise or commitment made to be kept. I know that it is unrealistic to expect the best service at a bargain basement price, but once I have been told I am getting 24/7 support and I have paid what the host deems fair then you had better deliver. I've held my end of the bargain, I've paid you. It is not uncommon to purchase web hosting in year or even multi-year packages. I've paid for a commitment on your end. Imagine the feeling of being stuck for a year or more knowing you have been tricked. I've been there, it doesn't feel good.

I also expect myself to be as educated as I can before entering into an agreement. I can't really complain if I haven't done my homework. Sure, I may have been intoxicated by a shiny website. I'm as responsible as my host for the deal made. It is my job to look at the claims and make a responsible decision. Let's take a look at some of these claims, and what they really mean.


If you do nothing else, before you sign up for any unlimited plan, read the Terms of Service (TOS) or Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). Here you will find the limits. Typically there are limits on RAM usage or CPU usage. This is sensible for shared hosting. If you are on a shared host and one of your neighbors sites is getting hammered, you don't want your site to suffer as a result. Most of the time this becomes a rude awakening right at the moment when you begin to reach success. For me, the first time I was Slashdotted I was hosted by 1and1. The site went down for 2 days and I was potentially facing a much larger bill.

RAM/CPU usage are very real limits and you would be wise to investigate what these limits are before signing up. Overselling is almost a standard in the industry. The bet is that you will go nowhere near what is sold to you, and this is a fair bet. With a properly managed server (this is key) overselling isn't even a problem when addressed honestly. A good rule of thumb might be that if you cannot find any real information of RAM/CPU usage limits then assume the worst. TOS and AUP can be used against you to have your account suspended, terminated or you may face big fees.

24/7 Support

Unfortunately this is an area of outright deception typically. I had signed up, after moving from 1and1, with a host who (in the prettiest graphics imaginable) bragged about their outstanding 24/7 support. I felt I needed it, and was coming from horrible support at 1and1. I thought my times of being on hold for 45 minutes, communication problems with non-native English speakers and contradictory answers were over. I was shocked when it took over 96 hours and my threats of cancellation to even get a response. Then another 72 hours to get a second response. Support is not cheap. Good support is definitely not cheap. Research any host making these claims. You cannot get better support than I do from my host, so it is possible. Just make sure through research that the claims are met.

99.9% Uptime

There are so many ways to measure this that to me, the term is meaningless. If you see it, research the claim by doing a search with the host's name and the word “downtime” or “problems”. You will find many hosts making these claims have clients that were down for hours, days or even weeks. Don't believe the hype until you have researched it. It is far more instructive to find out how hosts have coped with downtime. It will happen. You want to be confident your host communicates clearly and honestly when it does. This guarantee meant nothing when I was down for three days with a previous host.

Free Domain Name

This can save you some money, but also potentially locks you in with your host. It is not uncommon to try and cancel your service only to find your domain tied up. Do some searching for “cancellation” with your potential host/registrar's name to see if people have problems. You might save yourself a big surprise down the road. Your domain name is your brand. My advice is to keep it separate from your hosting. That said, I purchased my domains through my host due to the excellent service I receive. Think long and hard about this decision.

Research, Do It!

There seems to be a direct correlation to the price of hosting and the ratings we see on this website. 2MHost offers hosting for $2.75. This is how they are rated. IPowerWeb is offering a “sweetheart” deal of $4.95 hosting. Here is what their customers say. IX Web Hosting features the word “unlimited” prominently on their page. Here are their ratings. Eleven2 offers 24/7 support and according to their website “we don't sleep”. Recent reviews claim otherwise. Do you notice a pattern here? The point is to make sure to do your research. If something sounds too good to be true, odds are it is. Make sure to view the forums of the hosts and look at how complaints are dealt with. Marketing is betting on you being uneducated. Prove them wrong.

The Flip Side

As I mentioned earlier, the other side to this is unrealistic expectations put on web hosts. We will soon have a calculator available where you can input how much you pay for hosting and other variables and get the number of clients a support person has to cover to pay for himself. The impatient among you can click here to do it manually. The point, to quote the article, is this:

Support for a host isn't supposed to be questions like "Can I do this in html?", "Can you help me configure phpBB (or any other script)", "Can you help me learn to tie my shoes?".

Support is there to:

  1. keep your services online.
  2. keep your servers fast and reliable.
  3. communicate effectively during emergencies.

That is easily forgotten, or misunderstood. I'm not defending hosts that oversell their support. I'm saying we are all getting a very good deal on support without actually realizing it. If you ask a question that falls out of the 3 points above, make sure you take the time to thank your host. Write a review bragging about their outstanding service. Don't expect the world for nothing. Hold yourself to the same standard you hold your host to.

A Call for Clarity

Finally, I would like to say that a lot of these issues would not be issues were it not for the arms race of marketing that you see. If you are offering a fair price, is it that hard to realistically discuss the limits potential customers face? If you are being bogged down by frivolous support questions, offer free 24/7 support for critical issues and premium support for anything else (like scripting issues, etc...). If you are a customer, don't buy a KIA and expect it to perform like a Mercedes. Do you know how much bandwidth and disk space you will actually use? If not, then why are you lulled in by 1 terabyte of storage for $5 a month? We hear a lot about “Overselling” but we hear nothing about “Overbuying”. Positive word of mouth is the engine that will get us out of this. When you have a good experience with web hosting, let the world know. You may help someone just like yourself as they head into the scary world of paid hosting.

Thank you.
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