Faulkner's Practical Web Strategies for Attorneys - Setting Up Shop: Choosing a Web Host and Registering Your Domain

This is the first in a series of articles where I will cover how to create and manage a firm Web site yourself.

Introduction

When choosing to start a Web site there are two roads you can go down. One is to hire a Web design firm who will take care of all the back-end set-up, which includes hosting and domain registration. The other road is to do-it-yourself. First step in getting your Web presence up and running is to select a Web host and to choose your domain name and get it registered.

Pricing

Let's start off with what is on everyone's mind: How much is this going to cost me? Hosting plans can range from free to hundreds of dollars a month, depending on what your requirements are and what you are willing to pay for. Often you will find that you get what you pay for when it is free, and other times you may be over charged for high-end service. For most solo and small firms who are looking to start a Web presence, you can find Web hosting for as reasonable as $10 per month. I believe it is better to start with what you need at the time, knowing that you can always upgrade your plan if you require additional features.

Where to Find Hosts

There are hosting companies all around the world. If you don't know where to start looking for a Web host, here are a couple of suggestions. First, ask your colleagues in the community or look at their Web sites. Sometimes Web sites have a link back to their Web hosts in the footer. Using this method, you may find a common set of hosts that tailor services to law firms needs. For instance, when I look at other sites in the Web development and design community, I often see two common hosts, Media Temple and Dreamhost. Both have services that are exactly what this community seeks and their reputation is good with community leaders. You may find the same with the legal community.

Second, you can always do a Google or Yahoo! search on Web hosts. Of course, doing a Web search may be overwhelming because there are many Web hosts from which to choose.

Third, you can seek out Web host lists on Web sites like CNET. Finding a host will not be a problem. Finding a host that meets your business needs and criteria is where you will want to focus your time.

Criteria for Selecting a Host

Choosing a host should not be taken lightly. Moving hosts often is not an easy experience. This is mostly due to porting your content from one server to another, not the fact of choosing a new host to move to. Like choosing software to use for your firm, a Web host should meet certain criteria. While your criteria may vary, here are some basic questions that you may ask yourself when looking for a host.

Do you have an existing environment you want to leverage? An existing environment could be with your current client database or file management system that you want to leverage through an extranet or client portal.

Where is the host physically located? Do you care if the host is local or anywhere in the world? For instance, I live in Chicago and my host in California. To me this was not a big deal because I was looking for features and service, not necessarily a local company.

Does the host perform regular back-ups or have redundant servers? You will want to make sure your data is safe, even if the host servers' crash. I remember when the power outage hit Los Angeles about a year ago. My host went down because their power back-ups went down too. They had issues with about three of their servers which meant that they did not come back up online correctly. My data was on one of those servers. The good news was that they backed up their systems on a regular basis and all my data was restored without any problems.

What is the host's privacy policy and terms of use regarding your data? Depending on what you actually put on your Web site, you will want to make sure your data is private. Read the company's privacy policy regarding how they deal with your data. If you leave and move to a new host, do they delete it? Do they "own" it because it sits on their servers? Understanding their terms of use also is important before signing up with a host.

Features to Consider

Features are the bread and butter of what you will be able to do out of the box with your Web host. This is also how hosts leverage their pricing plan. Often the more features they provide, the higher their prices.. Features include everything from bandwidth to user accounts to e-commerce capabilities. Here are some features you should keep in mind when selecting a Web host.

Canned Scripts. Often hosts will provide a default set of canned scripts that can be used on their servers. Unless you select dedicated hosting, Web hosts typically want you to use their scripts instead of loading your own. These scripts usually include ones for several different programming languages such as PERL, PHP, and CGI. A common script that I use when building Web sites is a mail-form script. This allows you to have a Contact Us form on your Web site instead of exposing your e-mail address to get harvested by spammers.

E-mail. Many Web hosts will offer e-mail services with their hosting plans. This allows you to have one or many e-mail addresses at your firm's domain name. This is a great feature from a marketing perspective. Nothing says "I'm a small shop" more than an e-mail address like attorneysmith@aol.com. It would be much better from a prospective client's perspective to see john.smith@johnsmithlaw.com. Having an e-mail address with your firm Web address as the domain allows you to leverage your skills and success in your marketing, and not your size.

Third Party Programs. It is not unusual for a Web host to provide open source software packages pre-installed or easily installed as part of your hosting package. Usually these programs do not have licensing fees or are open under the GNU Public license. For instance, the Web host I use provides what they call "1-click install" programs. These programs include Media Wiki, Wordpress, and Gallery, a photo gallery program. With one-click, enter a couple of parameters required for setup and ten minutes later I have the program I selected installed on my account. This makes using other Web programs easy and non-technical.

Support. Usually your access to support depends on the hosting plan you choose. Basic plans offer less support without having to pay for more than higher priced plans. Be sure to see if the support for the hosting plan you are considering is via e-mail or do they provide telephone support? Also investigate to see if they have a trouble ticket system. This will allow you to receive a ticket number associated with your issue for them to track. Sometimes small hosts do not have this feature.

Domain Registration & Management. Depending on the type of host you select, many will have the ability to register domain names for you. In fact many will throw one in for free with setting up an account with them. There are two types of hosts who can register domains. More common a host will go through an authorized registrar. Other hosts have applied and received authorization from ICANN to register domains directly with them. This can save you money because they do not have to mark up their pricing for domain name registration as much because they can register them at wholesale pricing. Of course you can always manage your domains through a separate party like GoDaddy or Network Solutions.

Security. What type of security does the Web host have for you as an account holder as well as how do they secure their servers from hackers and attacks? You will want to look at both of these types of security when selecting your host. The last thing you want to find your Web site was hacked and changed on a Monday morning. You also want to be able to use a secure server when collecting information or sharing information through a client portal or extranet.

Notifications of Maintenance or Outages. It is always going to happen. Whether it is scheduled maintenance or the occasional hiccup in their server farm, Web hosts go down. It is good to know how they will notify you of planned or unplanned maintenance or outages. Some hosts have a separate status page located outside of their environment which will give you a status notification if there are problems or not. Others will send e-mail notifications. The last thing you want to see is your site is down and you have no idea why. Was it something you did or is it your host? Having a great notification system in place will help you determine the problem quickly.

Templates. There are many hosts who have a Web site builder as a service. This allows you to build a Web site in a wizard and WYSIWYG editor. While this is convenient, often the designs provided may not be desirable for a law firm.

Web Panel / Account Management. The Web panel is usually how you will access your account and services with a Web host. Here you will have a dashboard showing you the types of services you have access to with your account. You should be able to manage your domain(s), add databases, manage your e-mail accounts, etc through this dashboard. Some dashboards are slicker than others. My host built their own Web panel. Others use a common panel called C-Panel. When evaluating potential hosts to use, seek out screen shots of their account management panel. This will give you a good idea of what type of interface you will have to deal with when you sign up with them.

Planning for the Future

While you will want to select a host that meets your current needs, it is good to select a host that will allow you adapt to future upgrades. For instance, if you have a desire to experiment with podcasting you may want to find a host that is allows you to go over your designated bandwidth for minimal additional costs. Or maybe you will eventually want to stream informational videos for prospective clients. Having a steaming video server available for you to upgrade to is good to know. Taking a good look at all their features and services even if they are not in the plan you select. Having the ability to upgrade or add new services al-a-carte to your current plan will give you the flexibility to add functionality to your Web site later without having to seek a new Web host.

Research & Reputation

After you have narrowed down your choices to just a few it is a good idea to do some background checks on them. You don't have to go through a deep analysis, but it might be a good idea to see if anyone has had any horrible experiences with them. People change hosts all the time for one reason or another, but if you find a lot of negative responses about a certain host, it is probably a good bet to stay away from them. You will probably want to do some Google and Technorati searches on the Web host's name.

Domain Registration

It is very typical for a Web host to be able to register your domain name when you sign up for a hosting account. This is very easy to do and you are ensured that your domain will be mapped correctly to the server they set you up on.

You can also use another domain registration service like GoDaddy or Network Solutions to register and manage your domain name. Many of these services also have Web hosting services as well. If you purchase your domain name, or multiple domain names, through a service you do not host with, you will want to have your Web hosting set up first so you can properly map the domain names to your host's servers. Often your Web host will have three IP addresses to point your domain to. After you register a domain name, no matter how you do it, it will take up to 48 hours for that domain name to propagate across the Internet.

It should be mentioned that the personal information you use when you register your domain can be harvested quite easily. It may be worth paying the extra fee to secure your "Who IS" information. Otherwise be sure not to use your primary e-mail address when registering your domain.

Conclusion

Choosing a Web host is not difficult, but you will want to shop around for the host that meets your criteria. By doing a little research about each host you can easily find if the host is reliable and secure. You will want to choose a package that fits your current needs, but can also be expanded to meet future enhancements. You can register your domain, or multiple domains, through your hosting package or you can use a separate service. There are pros and cons to either, though having your Web host manage your domains will make the setup process easier.

Next month I will cover how to hire a Web site designer and alternatives to other legal Web site hosts like FindLaw and Martindale.