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SEO Hosting - 3

 

 

SEO Website Hosting - 3 - Additional Factors

Domain names
The subdomain trap
The rented website trap
MS servers
Hosting resellers
SEO hosting
Secure hosting
Poor hosting issues
Network monitoring
Load-balancing
Future hosting developments
More SEO hosting factors
SEO hosting round-up
The Crucial Hosting Quick-Test


Domain names
Registering a domain name, and where it is held, has absolutely nothing to do with hosting. In fact, it is without question better to keep the two entirely separate.

You need a Domain Name Registrar in addition to a host. Your domains should always be held separately from your hosting arrangements, with the sole exception being where a host also runs a capable domain registrar operation and provides a full control panel. A control panel allows you to set up the DNS for a domain, or transfer it out, without any reference to the hosts or registrars.

Domain management is the subject of one of the series of Guides we give clients. This is a complex area and, to be honest, one where a level of technical knowledge is needed that is not always displayed by those who have charge of others' affairs.
Beware of web hosts who require a domain name to be transferred to them as part of the hosting arrangement - no reputable host would insist on this, as it is unnecessary and of course undesirable. It may well be that if there are DNS problems they may wish to discuss the matter further; but this is a rare occurrence. Any kind of lock-in arrangement where someone else holds most or all of your assets (such as the domain name, website copyright, and also the hosting) has to be regarded as some kind of scam. No ethical business operates in this way, unless they are very poorly managed indeed and have not realised that such methods infer a measure of coercion or perhaps worse.


The subdomain trap
Never enter into a deal with a supplier that involves you having to use a sub-domain on their site. If you do this you have nothing; when you move, you lose everything; all your time and money are completely wasted. Since the SEO potential here is awful, you'll have to move - as soon as possible. Then you'll lose everything - not that you had much in the first place.

Here is an example of a sub-domain on someone else's domain:
cms-design.a3webtech.com

Here, we can see that a company called CMS Design have been misled by a website designers called A3webtech into renting a sub-domain on the designer's host. This is a terrible set-up for SEO for many reasons; and a complete waste of money. More important, it's a waste of time that can never be replaced. The one thing you can't buy back is time. A3webtech wouldn't do that of course...

There is no point in investing any time or money in one of these arrangements because they are worthless - utterly, totally useless. This is a similar arrangement to the rented website scam; but probably worse since your domain name is everything. Any reputable website designer or agency will set up your own domain name for you, and arrange hosting to suit. Outfits that don't get a real domain name for clients, and keep them prisoner like this, don't rate highly on the business scale of ethics.

It is acceptable to use a subdomain for development work on a client's site; but the site must be transferred to a real domain as soon as it is signed off.

Make sure you don't get caught by the sub-domain scam.


The rented website trap
Another highly dubious business practice is the rented website. This is where a website designer builds you a website but keeps ownership of it, by maintaining copyright and title to the design and perhaps even the content. Often, the web builder buys and holds the domain name, and arranges the hosting; both this and even the basic website design are common to a large group of sites. There is even the possibility that the site builders have linked the website into a network of other sites they control.

In the end, this arrangement will cost you a very large amount of money - in two ways. Firstly, when you move (as you will have to eventually) you'll lose your website completely - you can't take it with you as it belongs to the builder. Secondly, you may well lose your links, and there is a possibility of losing other benefits as well - depending on how unscrupulous the site builders are. They might lay claim to the site content; and even to the domain name, if they bought it and hold it. Website builders or management agencies offering this sort of arrangement tend to rate very low on the business scale of ethics, so be warned. No reputable agency ties clients into their deals, like prisoners; it's a sign of shady dealing in some form.

Avoid rented websites like the plague - exactly as if the people offering them were suffering from it. Keep away.

Note
Unfortunately, for legal reasons, we cannot mention the words 'mal' and 'practice', joined together as one, in connection with subdomain website and rented website offerings. So we haven't.


Windows servers

A Windows server has to be regarded as a minority requirement - because it is. There are very few reasons to go this route, against a vast number of reasons to go for a LAMP solution.

For a more complete run-down on why you might need a Windows host, please see the explanation on the CMS info pages: CMS Part 4, the No-MySQL page.

In brief, there are particular reasons for needing a Windows host, and this option should only be considered if these select requirements apply to you. The Internet environment is a very different place from that of your home or business PC, and what applies to one has no relation whatsoever to the other. You don't, for instance, need the same OS on a server that exists on a PC in order to view the website, as has been thought occasionally by those new to questions of hosting.

You will only need a Windows server in specific circumstances. This type of server is often called an IIS server, though more fully is a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 IIS 6.0, which means the MS 2K3 server app including the IIS server manager version 6 (which means Internet Information Services, and like many titles or names is irrelevant). The use of Windows 2000 as a production server is inadvisable - it is OK on a LAN, but not for Internet-facing duties.

The prime reason for needing an MS server webhost is that your website uses an ASP-based solution; there are few other reasons that would necessitate such a requirement. In many cases server configuration management on an IIS server will not be available to a webmaster, but instead he will have to contact the hosts for everyday changes. This will make website management difficult - compare this to simple htaccess and php.ini file uploads etc. on Apache.

However many large commercial sites run on Windows, especially in ecommerce. There are several reasons for this which essentially come down to budget: if you can afford it, commercial support options are better organised in this sector. Usually these arrangements also bypass the single largest drawback of Windows servers: the inability of webmasters to manage websites properly as the management apparatus is not available on a shared server.

Therefore, you probably only need or want an IIS server if:

  • Your website runs on ASP / .NET
  • You have a dedicated server or other arrangement allowing full access to the server management controls

Many - or perhaps most - Windows servers have PHP and MySQL available, so this is not really an issue. Obviously, you should avoid resellers and so on who do not have PHP / MySQL on their server, as this means you can't use proper web analytics, forums, wikis etc.


Hosting resellers
In general, hosting resellers - those who buy packages from a host and then themselves advertise as hosts - cannot offer the fullest service or options. This should be obvious; but on the other hand it is hard to determine just who is or is not a reseller.

Resellers for instance have no access to the server - again, obviously - so they cannot offer services such as the ability to change PHP or Apache options, installation of additional software, additional IPs, rapid resolution of hosting issues, and so on.

Problems with the server will take longer to resolve; and in some cases may never be resolved, since you will be dealing with a chain of people.

The only possible benefit to using a hosting reseller is if you have a personal connection with them and trust them to both supply you with precisely the options you need, and to resolve all issues for you promptly. Otherwise, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that resellers should be avoided.


SEO hosting
Some webhosts specifically advertise as SEO-friendly or as an 'SEO Hosting Service'. In general, these hosts do exactly what they say: make a better job of it for search engines than other hosts. They major on the fact that they automatically supply unique IPs to all customers without being asked.

That's to all customers - automatically - and without being asked.

In some cases they supply a range of unique IPs on certain packages. This may seem extraordinary to potential customers seeking just one unique IP from their host and being refused. The fact of the matter is that there is no shortage of unique IPs for those who need them; there is only a shortage of competent and efficient web hosts.

While SEO-friendly webhosts are certainly more efficient than the majority, they are not usually at the cheap end of the scale. You get what you pay for.


Secure hosting
Some websites must prioritise security in order to avoid theft or compromise of the site. Although it might be argued that all websites should consider this aspect, which is true, it is generally too expensive for most to take all possible precautions. However, ecommerce sites, sites operating in a controversial area, sites in a mass youth market, and some others, will need to pay more attention to this than most.

Web hosts who major on security usually advertise this fact in one way or another, and can be found by searching for terms related to secure hosting. Specialist ecommerce hosts are a good bet here since they have to operate in a challenging environment; their security management is often a level of magnitude better than that of ordinary webhosts.

Financial and banking websites obviously need to make extra provision for security, and will probably need to consider physical security carefully. There are specialist hosts who provide secure facilities of this type; these, and other similar protected hosting facilities, are sometimes termed 'postnuke hosting'. Such hosts may even be located in ex-military below-ground rural locations. In London, for instance, such facilities would be advertised as 'outside the M25 area' (the city's orbital ring road).

Secure hosting has some SEO implications, as may be expected. It will be more expensive, and you should not sacrifice any of the previously-detailed requirements simply for security. Negotiation is appropriate here, since hosts of this nature usually offer a more personal service. There are often technical differences between the network provision here and that normally encountered - firewalls are used extensively, it is impossible to ping the websites, FTP takes a long time to connect, traceroutes just disappear into the ether, server set-up is far more conservative, https channels are more carefully controlled, mail servers have special provisions, bulk emails may not be permitted, and so on. It may be best to sign a short contract first, rather than a 5-year one, to ensure that security has not been placed above search friendliness. It is all very well having a secure site that will also survive various natural or non-natural disasters, but if there is no traffic then the advantages seem too expensive.

Poor hosting issues
There are numerous signs that your host is not among the most capable. Some of these are detailed here:

Dedicated IP not available
One of the most obvious signs that you are dealing with a reseller. Hosts who cannot offer a unique IP are almost unheard of, otherwise.

No PHP or MySQL on the server
A server needs certain basic software installed or website owners are not being offered proper hosting. It is harder to compete in the commercial world when this is the case; it's fine for home websites but not enterprise use.

PHP code interpretation and MYSQL databases are needed on all web servers, as a basic facility, and indeed so that they qualify as real servers in the first place. It is irrelevant what type of server it is - all servers can have this software installed. There are no negatives or reasons why it is not good practice on some servers. The only people who cannot offer this facility are (yet again) usually hosting resellers, who often only have basic machines in their package deal. Of course, they have no access to the servers as they may be thousands of miles away.

Windows servers are occasionally affected here. However, if you search for <windows hosting mysql php> you'll find that most hosts do of course offer these vital applications. The ones who don't are to be avoided as there must be serious questions about their competence. There is no technical reason why PHP or MySQL cannot be installed on a Windows server. There are no insurmountable security issues. Otherwise, the majority of Windows hosts who offer these add-ons would be in trouble; and this includes some of the largest Windows hosting suppliers, with some of the largest sites.

Server downtime / server offlines
Another factor found with poor hosts is the online / offline issue. Downtime is time when the server is 'down', ie not working. Obviously this isn't good. In practice, almost all hosts have an uptime figure of better than 99% - they'd probably go out of business if they didn't. However, this figure is misleading as it doesn't show offline frequency - ie the number of times the server went down, even if only for a short time.

If a server is often unavailable - even if only for a very short time - it has serious implications. Firstly, it points to major problems on the server. Secondly, it has a deleterious effect on the search situation: search engines that find your server is often out will reduce your site weighting accordingly. They don't like you - because they rightly suspect that visitors they send to you might find the site is down, and they just can't have that.

It is vitally important to understand that the number of offlines has no real effect on the downtime figure. A site can go offline 50 times a week but still have a 99% uptime figure - we've seen it. It's very hard to pin this down (impossible actually) without a network monitoring service, which has to to be set up to check the site at least every 5 minutes. A time period greater than this is of no use for this particular purpose - it might only catch 10% of the offlines or less. It doesn't matter how short a time the offlines are there for, search engines will still see them. The spiders are on your site a great deal more than you could possibly imagine - certainly much more often than they tell you. For instance, if, in your search engine account, it states "XXbot last successfully accessed your home page on [one week ago]", then you might find that particular spider is actually on your site twice a day or more. And if they find problems, they'll come back more often to check up. In which case, here - they'd find yet more problems...


Network monitoring
So: you need network monitoring. The base timegap figure is 15 minutes: your site is checked at that interval. However, many instances of troublesome server offlines are frequent 30-second or 1-minute outages. These are particularly common on poorly-run Windows servers. A 15-minute network monitor obviously has little chance of seeing many of these offlines - but searchbots will. A searchbot can be on your site for an hour or two. It would take a mathematician to work this out (and I'd like to see this done actually), but my personal estimate is that a 15-minute monitor will see 10 or 20% of the outages. Therefore if you see 10 offlines a week with a 15-minute monitor, then you might be looking at 50 or 100 outages a week. This sounds appalling but we've seen it. A 5-minute service will see more; and a 1-minute service will see a very large percentage of the total outages (but still not all). A free 15-minute service is the minimum you need; a commercial website needs a 5-minute paid-for service; and sites with an SLA need a 1-minute service. Don't listen to what your hosts tell you the score is here - honestly, they haven't a clue. We have seen servers off more than they were on where the hosts swore the uptime was spotless.

Exactly why hosts don't organise an independent 1-minute network monitor for sites on their own servers is one of life's great mysteries - it would seem vitally necessary, even to the meanest of intellects - but logic just doesn't cut it sometimes. You'll get all kinds of excuses and explanations, but never the simple, obvious answer, "Our 1-minute independent network monitor service on your server agrees with your results for the past week and we've fixed the problem. We apologise." You can try to explain to them that Google, your network monitor service, and your customers all report the site as down too often (and this means from everywhere in the world so it's not a local loop problem that only you see) - but all you'll get is fancy explanations and denials. In the end you have to vote with your feet.

Load-balancing
For load-balancing and other high-traffic hosting issues, see the separate page on the SEO Hosting menu at right.

Future hosting developments
One area where hosting competition will develop is bandwidth. At present, good SEO hosting deals may be had with either good, reasonable or poor bandwidth allocations. In other words you can sign up with a good host but find your bandwidth requirement adds unforseen costs. This is a fairly common scenario in value hosting accounts with qood-quality hosts, since to be fair they provide excellent facilities at a very reasonable cost - and the bandwidth has to be paid for somewhere.

For example you can get a good SEO starter account for around £60 / $100, including a unique IP and free databases; but the monthly traffic bandwidth might be only 5GB. This is sufficient for small sites and startups but you'll soon need more unless you operate in a market where traffic volume is naturally low and your search results are not harmed by this factor.

So 5GB will suffice at first in many cases, but you'll then need to upgrade. Typically, 5GB will be used by around 400 visitors per day; 10GB = 700 visitors; 15GB by around 1,000 visits per day; and so on. These figures are an average, and can vary widely for image or other media-based sites as opposed to text-based sites. A visitor number of 1,000 a day is normally seen as the minimum paying number to operate a commercial website with - depending on the market of course. This number would be light for an ecommerce site, but extravagant for an estate agent (realtor) in a small niche area, who might get paying results from a couple of hundred (in local lettings for example).

Bandwidth is becoming cheaper, but requirements are going up. There are some hosts who offer unlimited bandwidth but these do not always appear to be full-service hosts of the type we recommend. The disparity between what is on offer and what you will in fact need is nowhere so wide as in reseller hosting deals. Here, you will find deals with an allocated bandwidth so small that the monthly fee advertised could easily be tripled to pay for the bandwidth you would need to service your customers. For instance you can find reseller deals with a quoted bandwidth as low as 50GB, which you can see from the figures given above will not get you far.
More SEO hosting factors

Custom error pages
A custom error page set-up feature is useful for two reasons: image and security. Hosts with a good cPanel will allow this, and you can then create your own error pages to show up when something goes wrong. For security purposes, you should have a 400, 401, 403, 404, and 500 page. A 406 page shows when an attack of some sort, or the possibility of one, is detected; if your host does not use their own, to collect data on attacks, then again you should create your own.
This will mean that your custom-built page shows whenever there is a bad request or missing file, and it avoids the standard server error page showing up, with all the server version details on it. Of course, all those details are easily available elsewhere, but all and any steps should be taken to improve security.

As far as image goes, it is preferable to create your own pages since the effect is an order of magnitude better than that of default server pages being shown. To a certain extent, business is about image - or at least showing that you can take care of the details - so by sorting this out you have taken a step in the right direction. There are some minor SEO implications as well, and custom pages are generally a good thing from all points of view.

Cron jobs
These are chronological or time-related tasks: auto server maintenance tasks that can be enabled if required. These are useful in large and busy sites for doing things like rotating server logs, flushing a cache, and so on. Again, superior hosts provide this facility via the control panel.


SEO hosting round-up
As you can see, search-friendly web hosting is both a specific type of modern website hosting provision and a descriptor for top-class services. It can vary from simply being a superior webhosting service, through specific and automatic provision of those facilities that assist in commercial success. There are so many good hosts now, with a range of useful and pertinent services, that there really is no need whatsoever to put up with third-rate old-style webhosts any longer: vote with your feet.

To finish up with, here is a quick test to see if your host is any good. This is the  fast, timesaver version - to save you running through all the points on the previous pages.

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The Crucial Hosting Quick-Test
Here's a rapid check to see if your host actually qualifies for the name - if they fail this then, really, they don't qualify as webhosts - in the 21st century at any rate.

1. Do they provide a minimum of two FREE MySQL databases with ALL packages?

2. Do they provide a known and recognised control panel (such as cPanel or Ensim) with ALL packages?

3. Do they have default PHP security in place - or has it been overridden at server level to allow old and badly-written software to run?
[See the previous pages for an explanation of this.]
Remember: you can't fix this with a local htaccess or php.ini file as the whole server is now vulnerable and can be exploited, including your site, via XSS.

4. Do they offer a unique IP, at $30 a year or less in total (i.e. including any SSL certificate required), if you request one?

5. Do they provide some form of technical detail request support, to see if they match your requirements, BEFORE you sign up?


This is the basic test to see if they qualify for further investigation. It is pointless going any further with 'webhosts' who don't pass this initial sanity test.

Remember that of course you will need to know if they have default PHP security in place, and what software versions are running on your server, before you sign up - naturally. Why would you sign up for a deal without knowing if they were running PHP3,  for example - which, however amazing it seems, we have seen - and you might well sign up with one without knowing until too late. Would you get your money back?

It is way beyond time that hosts started to offer full transparency to potential customers. If they qualify as real hosts in the first place, it can't hurt them, after all - only those with something to hide need worry. 
 
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