Hosting search strategy
Web hosting reviews search strategy
The search for web hosting reviews is a very important (if not the most important) part of your whole web hosting shopping strategy. Shopping for hosting is not exactly easy because today's hosting offer is very-very vast. It is huge! There are thousands of bigger and smaller web hosting companies. And there are cheap, not-so-cheap and expensive web hosting services.
Economically or mathematically, you should go for the cheap solution. After all, if you can get the same thing for fewer dollars (or euros or whatever) it makes sense to go for it. Unfortunately, it's not that simple because "on paper" you are promised similar things. In reality, you will or you will not get what you were promised. It might not be very difficult to find web hosting companies (just go to DMOZ - hosting category and you'll find enough web hosting companies to visit a whole week) but what can you do to select the really good ones?
Using web hosting forums
If you take two web hosting companies that offer similar packages at different prices you might be tempted to believe that the one that charges more would provide a better service. This is not necessarily true. My opinion is that the only real and effective criterion in selecting between two or more web hosting companies without actually buying a package is to obtain real reviews from real customers.
My favorite places to look for web hosting reviews are the open forums. Anyone (you and me included) is free to express himself/herself there and so are the web hosting customers. Almost anything we post remains there unedited by third parties (as long as we are polite and we follow the rules of each particular forum).
Forums have some limitations of course, such as business owners writing favorable reviews for their own company or business competitors who write negative reviews about competitors, but these are rare cases and fortunately, if there are any doubts regarding the credibility of the reviewer, the forum participants ask for explanations. There are also moderators who look over things and remove what needs to be removed. So, in general, the public forums are a very valuable tool for finding out what's the reputation of a certain hosting company.
Now, not all reviews are the same. Some are more valuable than others. For example, while some are really detailed, some are really basic: "yes, I use xyz company and it's really great."
It is also important who writes the review. The more posts a reviewer has, and the longer he has been a member of the forum, the more credit I tend to give to his/her words. It's just human nature to think like this, but it's not necessarily the most reliable criteria, so be careful with this. Also, if the profile/signature of the reviewer, or review itself includes a website hosted by the discussed host, this ultimately gives you some reassurance that the person has nothing to hide. Preferably the reviewer should link to a site he has with the company that is reviewed.
My favorite web hosting forums for finding reviews are WebHostingTalk (aka WHT) and HostHideout, but I spend time at Hostingdiscussion.com and SitepointForums.com as well. I especially visit WebHostingTalk because it's much more populated than the others and it has a customer focused approach compared to HostHideout, which is essentially a forum geared towards hosts and their problems. If you'd like to visit more web hosting chats and forums you can find some at DMOZ - web hosting chats and forums.
Now let's suppose that you decided to search for reviews about the company "BogusHosting" (not exactly a very good name for a business, is it? ). The first step would be to go to the Search page of that forum (almost every forum has a search feature). Then all you have to do is type the name BogusHosting in the appropriate field. A good idea is to look for "Bogus Hosting" (with a space) too, as some users might put a space between those two words when reviewing.
Then basically all you have to do is press the "search" button and the results will appear. When I'm at WHT I often
select the "Search titles only" option. That yields less but much more valuable, focused search results.
If the results do not not satisfy you (not enough of them or inconclusive) then you can create a new thread and ask for customer reviews on that company (that usually means you have to register at that forum - it's free if it's an "open" forum). My advice is to select 2-5 web hosting companies that really interest you and ask for opinions about them. Do not use a thread to ask opinions on 10 companies. You get better results if you concentrate on just a few. Also specify that you're looking for customer reviews to prevent people from posting "I heard that they're good/bad" stuff.
Most likely, if you select those few companies the right way (based on already existing customer reviews), you'll find that they're all very good and that you can choose any one of them, which is kind of nice. This is the only time when I might think about saving money by going with the one that's cheaper. However, it is good to test those web hosting companies first by sending them presales emails.
If you decide to start a search for hosts, it is good to have a relatively long initial list of hosts to start with (say 20 or so). Then you must find and read as many reviews as you can about each of them. Your goal should be to gradually eliminate hosts until you only have to choose between 2-5 of them - the fewer the better.
I like the hosting companies that have a forum of their own (often called a support forum). Hosts use such forums to allow customers to interact to each other and also as an alternative means to provide support. Not all such forums can be used by people other than their clients. Often though, you can register (for free) and post presales questions or just participate in the discussions.
Great is the fact that you can see what/if problems occur often and how problems are dealt with. The ultimate benefit is that you can contact their customers and find out what they think about the service: are they satisfied, did they notice certain problems that never get solved etc.
The way the company manages the support forum is also important. If instead of acknowledging problems and doing their best to solve them, they make a habit out of deleting threads that might damage their image, I would have serious second thoughts about using their service. I believe deleting threads it's an unprofessional manner of handling such things.
Also, some companies close the support forums when serious problems occur. This deprives the customers of a means of communication. Sure, they might still have the helpdesk, email and others at their disposal, but just try to imagine how frustrating this can be when you're looking for answers while you're having problems. You sign-up considering that you'll be able to contact other customers in times of trouble and share information. A closed support forum prevents you from "enjoying" this advantage.
To find out about these things try to contact their customers, start a new thread asking for this kind of feedback or spend some time on their forums carefully watching for suspicious things.
Using web hosting directories
Web hosting directories that have advanced search capabilities are indeed very useful for finding hosts offering what you need within your price range. This is something that hosting directories can truly be good at. Two such directories that also happen to collect reviews, but which do not seem to influence the results to their liking, are Hostjury.com and Webhostingratings.com.
The two directories I mentioned, because they seem to collect reviews in a trustworthy fashion, could be also useful in assessing hosts' credibility. In the case of all sites you have to be careful that some hosts still manage to manipulate things to their advantage by asking certain customers to write reviews or offering advantages to customers who write reviews there. On the other hand others, such as Webhostingratings, haven't been updated in a very long while, so the info presented there is quite dated. Surprisingly, in many cases it still accurately reveals the current state of affairs though.
You might also like WhoIsHostingThis for its straightforward approach and useful host comparison feature.
Anyway, now you have 4 ways to verify a host's credibility: web hosting forums, the host's own support forum (that is if they have one), plus websites where the reviews are reasonably believable.
Notes of caution
1. If a company does not have a 30-days-no-questions-asked-money-back-guarantee or a free one month trial, I advise you not to pay for a whole year in advance. Pay monthly. If things turn out to be less than what you expected, you might be able to move without losing much money.
Paying yearly is something I might consider doing if the total sum is reasonably small for me to afford to lose it (a gauge that depends on each person).
2. Reading threads can be a very time consuming task. It can sometimes take you a few hours just to read all the threads about a single company. If you decide not to use my list of selected web hosting companies, be prepared to spend some time searching and reading on those forums.
3. No hosting company will have only happy customers. So don't worry if you find an occasional negative review or opinion. Look at how the situation is handled by the host (usually the host replies). Also keep in mind that unhappy customers are much more likely to complain than happy customers are to praise.
With that, I wish you success in finding a very good, honest, reputable web hosting company.