The biggest misconception of all: ‘All web hosting is the same’ | Heart Internet Blog – Focusing on all aspects of the web

Recently I came across a Facebook discussion about whether a Black Friday deal on a TV was a bargain or not. The argument was based solely around two factors: the price, and the size of the screen.

The quality of the display, the components, the features, the integration with other devices, the ports, the historical reliability, the company’s reputation, the age of the model, the look of it, when the next version will be released, how ‘future proof’ it is – and all the other specs and potential considerations – weren’t mentioned anywhere in the debate. For all intents and purposes, they simply didn’t exist.

Sure, size is important – but is it really wise to make an expensive purchase purely based on that one factor?

But the ‘one spec’ rule is how companies have sold technology for years. Another case in point: the digital camera. Often people make this decision (or companies sell it) purely based on the number of megapixels it has. In reality this isn’t important as a single factor past a certain point unless you’re planning to print your photos on huge canvases. The average Joe Bloggs taking holiday snaps for Facebook or the family album doesn’t need a 20MP camera, but that's probably the one thing he looks for. Maybe he likes waterparks so it’s important he can get a waterproof or splashproof case for it. Maybe he likes taking photos on nights out so it’s important the camera can handle low light conditions well. Maybe there are dozens of other strengths he's likely to want in his camera, but the reality is that he's just going off a single number, a single spec, and expecting all his needs to be catered for.

In some ways, web hosting is similar. Although it’s not (yet) really a common consumer purchase and there is no ‘one spec’ rule, people tend to pick out two or three factors that are important to them (number of databases, amount of bandwidth etc.) to make comparisons. It’s reasonable enough: all human beings need to simplify situations to reach decisions (for more on the psychology of this, see paradox of choice).

As web hosting is more of a tech savvy purchase, there’s much more of a tendency to research, read reviews, and source personal recommendations. But even with more data (specs, features, and opinions) you can ever process, your experience will be different to anyone else’s, and so everything else is only helpful to a point.

The biggest misconception of all – and I’ve heard highly intelligent and respected people in the industry say this and believe it – is ‘All web hosting is the same’.

And even though I’ve heard it before, I’m always just as surprised to hear it again. Here’s why.

Between different web hosting companies, there are a huge range of varying factors and sub-factors, for example:

  • Data centre/s (location, who owns them, what staff they have, what their setup is like, etc. etc.)
  • Hardware and networks (what servers, how many, what specs, how old, how many customers per server, management)
  • Systems (customer management, domain management, third party tools, in-house tools, the ways these are integrated, etc.)
  • Staff and culture (how many staff, when do they work, what experience do they have, how motivated are they, how are they allocated by role (i.e. how many sales staff, how many support, how many engineers), etc.)
  • Company policies and goals (what’s permitted, what’s prioritised, how much flexibility there is etc.)
  • Size (number of customers, budget, etc.)

These are just a few of the things that influence the service you receive. In addition to that, they’re very difficult to compare in any in-depth way from a customer perspective. Even if a customer considers a factor, they will almost always look at it on a surface level. For example, you’re more likely to look for or want a ‘UK data centre’; you aren’t particularly bothered where in the UK is it or what its features are as long as it’s not someone’s bedroom and you’re not buying space on a home hobby server. But in reality there’s a huge difference between a company having a couple of racks in a random data centre in the sticks and their own fully-controlled, current building in a well-connected location.

So fair enough, these are all factors that explain why all web hosting isn’t the same across different companies. That makes sense.

But what about that the factors vary even within the same company?

If you’ve ever looked at web hosting reviews or asked for opinions on social media, it’s not uncommon to find a huge conflict in opinion. One person will say ‘This company is rubbish, I only give them one star because I couldn’t give 0, and all the 5 star reviews must be fake’. Another person will say, ‘I couldn’t fault them. Absolutely perfect, fast hosting and great support. No idea what this one star review below is about’.

So how can both these things be true?

Because you’re adding even more factors into the mix the further you drill down.

The truth is that all web hosting varies even cluster by cluster, server by server, website by website. You could be on a brand new, five or even six figure top spec shared hosting server with some great neighbours who never hog resources, and the server configuration and platform could be perfect for your needs. You’re not likely to need to raise a support ticket, and since you seem to be wearing your lucky pants, you get a great response from a senior member of the support team whenever you have the odd question. Your experience is a five star one.

However, your friend – who’s with the exact same company and has the exact same spec shared hosting package as you – has been having a totally different experience. Unluckily (let’s call him Unlucky Jim), he happened to buy a hosting package and had it randomly allocated to a server that’s a couple of years old and has been acting a bit unpredictably on and off over the past few weeks. Just as it’s started to become stable again, his ISP has routing issues and is temporarily unable to serve websites hosted with that specific web host. As all the other websites Unlucky Jim visits regularly (Facebook, Google etc.) he can access just fine, naturally he reaches the conclusion that it’s his web host having issues again. 

When he angrily contacts their support team, they inform him it’s an issue with his ISP that they have no control over, and he immediately thinks they’re refusing to take the blame. Unlucky Jim takes to social media to rant about how they’re the worst company ever. You’re surprised to see his tweets because you’ve had the exact opposite experience, and you debate it back and forth for a while without really getting anywhere or being able to see the other’s point of view. He moves to another host and has a great experience. Two days later, another customer is allocated to the server Unlucky Jim was hosted on…and their opinion is that their host is the best ever.

That’s because there’s one thing that no technical spec, description, review or opinion can ever account for: the luck factor. It’s like playing the lottery but with a far higher chance of winning.

Sure, it can be heavily influenced, and this is how you can roughly sort the good from the bad to some degree (or feel like you can). Your web host could decide to buy some new cheap servers, or they could decide to buy new expensive ones. They might replace their servers every year, or every decade. They might be unlucky enough to get a batch of servers with a manufacturer fault, or they could end up with ones that are even better than average. They might invest in building an in-house, trained support team, or they might outsource with work-from-home temps. You could decide to run a very busy high-resource video website, or you could decide to run a low impact database-free markdown site. Your neighbours on your server could do the same as you, or the opposite. That roadworker making street repairs 200 miles away might accidentally drill through a critical wire at any given moment, or he might not. And so on and so forth across hundreds, if not thousands, of factors.

At any second, any factor can come into play, and from their combined influence over a set period of time, you’ll form an opinion on whether the service you’re using is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  And this is when you get to the trickiest and most complex aspect of all: the human factor. Because just as all web hosting isn’t created equal, neither are all humans. You might be the kind of person who forms an opinion in five minutes (particularly if you happen to hit a series of very good or very bad factors in a short space of time), or over several years. On a personal level, you might be having a terrible week, or the best ever. You might have clients who are angry with you, or you might have clients who are understanding.

And even though you can make purchase decisions that are more likely to lead to a positive experience (for example, selecting a dedicated environment and a web host that has more five star reviews than one star), like every other web hosting customer, staff member and company, there are only so many factors you can control. Ultimately, every single hosting experience is different.

So the next time someone tells you it doesn’t matter which TV, camera, or web hosting you choose because they’re all the same, buy them a coffee, point them in the direction of this post, and tell them they've got a lot of reading to do.

(Header image photo credit)


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