Other research tools
Evaluating hosts' trustworthiness
Web hosting reviews
Hosts' trustworthiness, first and foremost can be established by finding out what their clients say about them. As I already explained in another article, credible customer opinions can be found at web hosting forums and a few, but just a few, hosting directories. While reviews made by customers are certainly the most important source of information, there are a few other things that can help in creating a more complete image about a host.
BBB (Better Business Bureau)
For U.S. and Canadian based companies, there is such a thing as BBB. Some countries might have similar organizations, but, as sorry as I am, you'll have to search for them on your own.
Customers can complain via BBB regarding their unpleasant experiences with various companies and BBB will act as a mediator. The company will defend itself of course, in order to keep a clean record. Finally, based on BBB's conclusions, a company's record can be satisfactory or unsatisfactory.
BBB also shortly explains the most common issues that were brought to their attention. Although companies' characterizations are somewhat canned, perhaps in order to preserve objectivity, they can be quite helpful. Basically BBB gives you a yes/no good/bad type of opinion/rating.
One thing to note is that BBB's records often seem to be consistent with the reports my own conclusions which are based on customers' freely expressed reviews on forums.
BBB can also come in handy if you are mistreated by a host, and while BBB can be useful for you in your search for a good host, you should always think about the others out there who might be on a similar quest. So, if you feel that you were blatantly deceived or otherwise mistreated by a host, you might want to consider reporting that host to BBB, if not for your own sake, then for the sake of others.
Basically the whois tool tells you who is the individual or company behind a certain domain (website). But there's more than just this.
It might not be completely fair towards new companies, but we, as potential clients, have to be concerned whether a company is experienced or just another "new kid on the block". While all companies have to start somewhere, including the good ones, it's just normal to look for one that has a few years of experience.
While the Internet could arguably be considered to be still in its infancy, it's not hard to find companies with a relatively old history that can back-up their claims.
Whois records can tell us when certain domains were initially registered. While sometimes old companies start a new site to address customers with certain needs, more often than not, a new domain signals a new company.
Now, "new" is a relative thing. One might argue that new on the Internet is a totally different thing compared to real-life new, as few things on the Internet are older than 10-15 years. Just for the record: as I write this, many of the "big boys" of the Internet are fairly new, with fewer than 10 years of experience - and I'm not talking just about hosting.
Anyway, I would say that a hosting company that was started less than a year ago is a new company, but I wouldn't say that a new company (according to my definition of new) doesn't deserve my business. It depends on who's behind it and also on what I expect from it.
Other things which can be discovered with a whois check are a physical address and/or a telephone number. One other thing that, strangely, I find interesting, is the expiration date, or rather the period for which the domain was registered. If the domain is registered for a period of 3 or more years, that can be construed as a sign of seriousness. It means, for me at least, that the host plans to be in business longer than a year.
Using www.whois.sc and/or www.webhosting.info
These websites can be quite helpful in uncovering information about hosts. All you have to do to use it is to type this in your browser: whois.sc/thedomain.com or whois.webhosting.info/thedomain.com. Besides the regular information given by a whois check, these tools provide some other information that can potentially be useful.
One is the Reverse IP information, which gives an approximation of the number of websites that share that specific IP/hostname. To use it effectively you should not just verify the domain of the host itself, but that of other websites that use that host.
Now, just because we know the number of domains that point to an IP we don't necessarily know how many websites that server hosts, as one server can have more IPs associated with it. Even if we'd know the number of websites on the server that wouldn't tell us much about how crowded that server is.
Each website is different. Some websites are huge, popular forums, while others are simple, pure HTML, two pages websites with a few hundred visitors per month. A few forums could equate in terms of strain on the server with a few thousands small sites. Further still, some domains can simply be parked there and not actually drive significant traffic.
On the other hand we have to take into account that not all servers are the same. They differ both in software and, arguably more important, in hardware. A powerful server can easily host 2-3 times more websites than a low end server and maintain a similar level of performance.
Ultimately we can't really draw a clear conclusion based on the number given by the Reverse IP tool. To accurately estimate how crowded a server is, we'd need some server load, CPU usage and memory usage statistics.
One thing I must note though: more often than not, the cheaper the host, the more domains point to a single IP.
Internet Wayback Machine
The Internet wayback machine can be a lot of fun, but it can be useful too. You can see how a website looked at various moments in time and, when it comes to hosts, you can both approximate how long they've in business and how they've evolved. You can notice how their prices have changed (if they've changed), how their packages have modified over time and, quite importantly for many of us, if they've ever offered questionable things like unlimited space and/or bandwidth. That would be a bad sign, but it could also mean that in time they learned better or that they were bought by another company.
If you're very thorough and determined to find the host of your dreams, these tools can definitely help in making a good decision. They may not be the most precise tools but they certainly are better than nothing. What more can I say? Success!