Web hosting 201: Power options

If you're running an e-commerce site or doing heavy transactional business, you'll want to consider these factors before picking a Web host.

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By Emily Maltby, CNNMoney.com staff writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Web can be a great place to market and sell your goods to consumers all over the world. It can also help you communicate with customers and foster a community around your company. The only catch: Site visitors need to be able to easily access those features in order to reap the benefits.

Once you've gotten past the basics of picking a Web host, finding one that will help you build a site with e-mail, blogging and e-commerce capabilities can be tricky - unless you know what to watch out for.

E-commerce applications

If you're selling goods or services on your site, you'll need software to handle payments. Web hosts typically include out-of-the-box e-commerce software in their plan, such as OS Commerce or Agora Cart.

"For basic e-commerce sites, those shopping carts should be good enough. For larger, more complex e-commerce sites, integrating more sophisticated and more customizable shopping cart software is recommended," says Eli Herskovitz, the founder of resource site Top 10 Web Hosting.

He suggests trying out shopping cart demos to get a feel for how the software works and how intuitive it is for the average consumer.

While great security may not make your business, poor security could break it. "Although conceptually, no software is 100% secure, a good software script can minimize the chances of hackers visiting your system," Herskovitz says. This is particularly important when users are revealing sensitive credit card information.

The first thing you should do, before all else, is check to see if your potential host's shopping cart has an SSL/TLS (Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security) certificate - that's the technology that enables "https" pages. While most of the security is behind-the-scenes stuff, the basic reason you need the certificate is to ensure that any information a user sends is encrypted, and that the encryption is registered by a third party.

Now back to the fun stuff - checking out the level of customization that comes with the software.

In the checkout process, one of two things will happen to process your customer's payment, depending on the shopping-cart software. The first option is for the sale to take place entirely on your own Web site. The second, and more common, option is for the sale to take place on another transactional site such as eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500)'s PayPal or Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) Checkout. Before picking a Web host, check with those you're considering to find out which process their shopping cart uses. Some offer both - but be aware that option one will generally involve more customization on your end.

E-mail and blogs

Chances are you already have an e-mail address, and you might also have a blog. Most large Web site hosting companies offer e-mail and blogging software, with a control panel to manage them. If you already have those in place, you'll usually have the option of keeping your existing systems or starting anew.

"Webmail is what pretty much every host will give you," explains Greg Bozigian, owner of digital business development firm Visionary View. "But typically there is e-mail forwarding, so if you want to keep e-mails coming to your existing account, it's not a problem."

A few things to keep in mind when evaluating a potential host's e-mail platform: First, e-mail can take up a lot of space, especially if you're using multiple accounts, so be sure to factor that in when you decide how much disk space you will need. Also, check that the host has spam filters to keep junk mail at bay, and that they're actively maintained. Like antivirus software, spam technology needs to be constantly upgraded to retain its effectiveness.

There are one-click applications for integrating your site and your blog. If you have a Wordpress account, for example, you can install an application called Fantastico on the Web host's control panel, which will easily link the two. (Before picking a host, it's best to check to ensure that its control panel can support Fantastico and any other systems you may need.)

Most e-mail accounts and blogs these days are free. If your host tries to charge you for them, you can often opt instead to integrate free ones.

If you want lots of bells and whistles on your site, you'll also want to be sure the host supports technologies including PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor), SQL (Structured Query Language) and CGI (Common Gateway Interface). Taking advantage of them, though, requires some tech savvy. If you're not prepared to do that heavy lifting yourself, you probably don't want a large Web host - you want a smaller, more expensive firm that will go beyond mere hosting and actively help you build and maintain your Web site.

"But chances are that by the time you are that far down the line, you'll have webmasters," Bozigian says. To top of page

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