What's On Offer - An Overview
You are running a business. Perhaps you want to test the waters before shelling out large sums of money to set up your commercial web-site. Or perhaps you simply want to save as much money as possible. Whatever the reason, you have probably at some stage seriously considered using a free web host. If so, then you this overview may go at least some of the way in helping you make your choice.*
All of the hosts surveyed below offer virtual domain hosting, email, and (approx) 20-40mb storage space, along with some version of online forms processing ability (eg through Frontpage extensions or cgi-scripts). Most require banner advertising be placed on users' web-sites, though they do also allow users to upgrade to banner-free hosting for a fee.
These, then, are the commonalties. Now to the differences. What sets these hosts apart, and why would you choose one over the other?
It really depends on your priorities….
If you are seeking support and the opportunity to network with others, your first choices would probably be hypermart.net or bizland.com
Hypermart.net is an "all rounder" [www.hypermart.net], which offers a very full range of site hosting features., including cgi and Frontpage support. It also has a wide range of free support facilities and web-tools.
Bizland.com [www.bizland.com], like hypermart.net, bills itself as a community as well as a web-host. Bizland also provides a free shopping cart.
If you hold a foreign (non-US) domain, then Netfirms (www.netfirms.com) should probably be your first point of call. Netfirms can host any country specific domain name.
If your priority is to set up an online shopping cart and merchant account, then look closely at freemerchant.com [www.freemerchant.com] , which specialises in providing shopping carts for small business merchants. Freemerchant.com also allows users to attach free shopping cart functionality to their existing web-sites. It does not require banner ads -- a big plus. On the other hand, the reliance on templates for developing sites can limit the ability to customise the design of one's site
All of the hosts we have mentioned so far are Unix-based. If you, on the other hand, prefer working in a Windows environment, then atfreeweb.com [www.atfreeweb.com] is seriously worth considering. Notable features include support of Active Server Pages and Frontpage extensions.
Free Hosting - What to Watch Out For
We have looked at some of the benefits of using a free host, and listed some of the important players in the free hosting market. In this part we will list of some of the major drawbacks of using a free host for your business.
1. Limited Support
Your free host's primary source of income will be their advertisers, and this is where their primary loyalty will lie -- not with the user. In addition to this, many free hosts have lots of users - after all, they need a big user base to support their advertising! So, whatever support services they do offer will probably be thinly spread. These two factors - primary focus on advertising revenue along with a large user base -- mean that you will probably get less support from them than you will get from a host for whom users are the primary revenue source.
2. Unreliability of Software and Servers
Servers may be slower due to the numbers of users hosted, or simply because top quality servers are not a high priority. Email may be unreliable. In such cases, you the user will often will have no rights or recourse.
3. "Fishooks" in the Terms
Many free hosts will limit your use of their servers in ways that could present problems, and in some cases will even terminate your account if it is not used. As an example, hypermart.net's terms state that:
"HyperMart-hosted Web sites are subject to removal if there is no activity (hits or edits) on the site for fifteen (15) days. HyperMart reserves the right to delete any site it deems unacceptable for any reason without prior notice. "
So if no-one visits your site, and you do not edit it, in a 15-day period, tough luck, your account will be removed! This will not do your business any good! And, of course, you have very few rights here - again, the primary loyalty of these free service providers will be the advertiser rather than you, the user.
So, study the host's terms of service closely!
4. Limitations on Use of Web-Space
Most free hosts require that a banner ad be placed at the top of each page on your web-site, and you will have little control over what type of ad is placed. The content of the banner ad may clash with the image your web-site is presenting; and, of course, if obtaining advertising funds of your own is a planned source of revenue, then obviously this banner be a problem for you!
Free hosts will often rule out certain types of trading altogether. For instance, if you plan to resell web-space, or host a banner exchange, you will not be able to use hypermart.net, as its terms of service rule out these uses of its servers. Similarly, if you plan on gaining a large part of your revenue from affiliate programs, or commissions gained from selling other merchants' products, then freemerchant.com is not for you, as it explicitly rules out creating links to affiliates.
In conclusion, if you are running a mission-critical site, free hosts are not the best places to go. (But, then, you probably knew that already!) However, if you are simply testing the waters or experimenting with a site to see whether your business idea works before fully committing to it, then by all means, try a free host - but keep your eyes open!
* Note: Because there is such a huge selection of hosts to choose from, I have been somewhat selective: reviewing only the better-known hosts, or those who can offer something unique which 'sets them apart from the crowd'.