In descending order of priority
This isn’t just about receiving help when you need but also about when you don’t. The hosting providers’ support staff should be easily accessible at all times and you should be able to have a conversation with them about any of their services. Your point of contact should also be communicative and not intimidate you, deliberately or otherwise.
Billing needs to be transparent and clear about what a provider is charging for and how much. Some providers have overage fees that kick in when your site experiences temporary spikes in traffic, and these fees can be substantial. Hidden fees and lock-ins are a menace. For example, Green Geeks advertises one rate on its homepage but as you’re about to complete the signup process, you find it’s applicable only if you’re signing up for more than a year at once. There’s also a setup fee.
Pore through web-hosting forums like LowEndTalk and WebHostingTalk (and the Review Signal blog if you’re working with WordPress) to see what others are saying about the provider. Do not trust review websites because paid reviews are rampant. A company’s support system and billing might be fine but they might be having deeper technical issues. For example, RamNode is very well-regarded but it seems some of their servers have been rebooted repeatedly to maintain normal functioning.
Some good providers have configs that are well-suited for small blogs and websites. So if your product is growing, it might be useful to switch to a provider that offers plans that expand as you do.
5. Ease of use
Even if you find a provider who’s able to give you exactly what you want for the price you want it at, the resources you’ve paid for should be available without any encumbrance. Additionally, you shouldn’t be made to contact support more than is necessary (which is ideally never).
6. Ownership and management
i. Kevin Ohashi at Review Signal has been documenting a trend whereby the quality of services provided by companies plummets within a year of being acquired by the EIG Group. Ownership won’t matter as long as things are peachy but when it changes hands, beware – often because big companies get big by providing low-quality services.
ii. The better hosting providers, with the exception of low-cost ones like RamNode and SecureDragon, also have a page on their site where they display the names and profiles of their managerial staff. This level of transparency is important because it helps establish that the business isn’t shady, and if something breaks and support is difficult to come by, you’ll know who else you can contact.
Joyent doesn’t provide a conventional support system and isn’t easy to use either. However, it’s clear about being a solution for developers, not rookies. Its website is also beautifully designed; I admire that. Most importantly, Joyent hosts John Gruber’s blog. If Gruber trusts Joyent, I will, too.1The same is true for Arcustech, because it hosts Jason Kottke’s blog.
1. Except when I can’t afford it.