1. The reliability of the service and their offers.
A brand new hosting provider which boasts features that are too good to be true usually won't last for too long. Let's take the example of one host (I won't give names here) that went offline only a few weeks ago. They were offering 500MB of storage, 10GB of bandwidth per month, domain hosting, unlimited domain parking, CPanel with just about all possible features, absolutely no ads (not even a request to link back), and this only for 150 posts in their forum. Sounds too good to be true? Betcha! After they cashed in two fat checks from AdSense they simply went offline. No prior notice, no apology, nothing.
Things to watch out for:
- Design. If the site looks like it was bought from a man in a white van, or if it's using a design from a free template site, it's probably just a waste of time. If these guys couldn't pay a web designer $100 for a decent layout, they don't probably have the skills to run such a site.
- How long they've been around. I'm not saying that new sprung hosting services can't make it, just be careful when choosing one that's two months old.
- Check their Google PR, ranking on free hosting directories and any other location you might think of. If the site has tons of inbound links, the owners have probably spent a considerable amount of money advertising it, so they plan to do their best to keep the service up.
Advertising placed on your web space is how free web hosting providers support their service. Having someone else's ads displayed on your page is usually the price you have to pay for their free service. There are a select few hosts that won't plug in banners or other forms of advertising in exchange for your performing other services in their favour (like posting in their forum or referring other members). What you should look for:
- How well the ads blend into your design. A red frame at the top will probably not go well with your blue template. If possible, pick a host that allows you to place a banner code anywhere you want-- this way you can put it wherever it best fits.
- Whether or not they display targeted ads. If your site is on dog chewing toys and the ads are on car deals your visitors will probably not like it. Worse, watch out for sites that display pornographic ads.
- What kind of ads they're displaying. Never, under any circumstances, sign up for a site that advertises through popups. Popups are extremely annoying, and most visitors will not return to your site.
- Do they allow your own ads to be displayed? It's one BIG issue you should know before signing up if you plan to make money with your site.
3. Tools and scripts available
Forums, guest books, counters, polls are always nice features to add to your site. If you can't or don't want to handle installing such an addon from a third party you could look for a host that already provides it. Keep in mind that these tools are not always the best and that there are most likely many other free ones out there. On the other hand, if your chosen host provides very few or no such tools, then it's probably either running on a slow server and doesn't want to clog it up or doesn't give a dime about their customers.
4. Monthly bandwidth and what they do after you eat it up
Always, no matter how small your site is, look for a host that offers at least 1GB of traffic per month. Also consider going with a host that will offer you a paid subscription if you go over this quota instead of simply blocking access to your page. Say you hit the jackpot and visitors start flowing in like crazy from day one. Next day you don't want them to see a page like "Sorry, this site has gone over the allotted bandwidth, please check back in a month or so".
Try this simple calculation: say your pages average 50kB, including images, or (approx.) 0.05MB. Now let's say your visitors browse 3 pages on average, before they leave the site. That's 3 x 0.05 = 0.15 MB. If we divide 1GB (or 1,000 MB) by 0.15, we get 6,666 -- the average number of visitors you can get in one month without going over the bandwidth quota. Divide that by 30 and you can have 222 visitors per day. Also keep in mind that search engines also eat up bandwidth, a deep crawl from a spider can eat up as much as 100MB if you have a lot of pages.
5. What your URL will look like
Even though you can get a short URL for free from services like http://go.to or a subdomain (.co.nr / .biz.ly etc), it's always best if your host can offer you a URL that's easy to remember. Choose a host that offers a subdomain if available (http://youraccount.theirdomain.com as opposed to http://www.theirdomain.com/youraccount).
Senior web developer.
Owner of http://web-design-tutorials.blogspot.com