Web Hosting Gone Wild

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I’ve seen it happen far too often to good clients. And it happened again today.

I was contacted by a company with website hosting questions. This firm had been using a well-known national service to host their website since 2014 and, until recently, had no reason to be concerned. The website was stable, had no significant downtime, support was generally accessible, etc. Throughout their history, the company had paid their hosting bill on time, every month and their nominal hosting fee was certainly not unfair. All that changed in the last 90 days.

How We Got Here

Beginning back in March, the hosting company initiated a change in their billing functions in an effort to track “truer costs” of hosting websites. The company explained that the cost of delivering files from a web server should include more specific types of traffic and that previous tracking failed to account for these. A lengthy blog post attempted to clarify their position and offer a layman’s approach to “how” this would be changing. If website owners were careful, they saw the post. If they read the article, it sounded reasonable.

Starting in March, the company’s monthly service fee jumped +270% even though their service levels didn’t increase. The cause for the increase was “over-quota charges” for traffic that was over-and-above their allotted service level.

On the surface, this sounds great! Don’t all website owners want more traffic? Shouldn’t the goal be to drive more people to our websites and deliver more valuable content? Of course this sounds wonderful. The website owners continued to be good clients and paid their invoice on-time.

In April, the trend increased and the monthly service fee increased a whopping +470% over their regular fee. May followed with another ridiculously high ‘over charge’ in similar scale. At this point, the owners of the site began to take notice and started to ask questions.

The company was wise on a few fronts:

  • They hadn’t noticed a significant increase in sales volume from online or offline channels.
  • They hadn’t recently begun any major marketing efforts that would have justified the increase.
  • The numbers were exciting, but didn’t reflect a consistent business environment in other areas. Salespeople weren’t seeing similar increases in interest, calls, proposals, or contracts.

In short – the only known change was the way the hosting company was tabulating traffic and then calculating costs for that traffic. That’s where I came in. I was asked to evaluate the reported traffic and see if there was anything wrong.

Why Research is Essential

Thankfully, the hosting company provided an initial ‘report’ which was — to say the least — rather weak. The numbers were visible, but they were just numbers on a page. There wasn’t a lot of depth, detail, or access to the raw data that would justify the reports.

Additionally, the website owners had historical data tracking through Google Analytics that we could access to compare reports. If one report claims 50k visits from a domain, then the other report could report similar statistics.

Get access to the Data

After arguing with their tech support for a couple days, I was finally able to get access to the raw log files from the website. We’re talking 90 days (over 2 GB) of log files. There are different types of log files and they can contain different data. Unfortunately, these were not the most detailed or ‘verbose’ logs.

The Google Analytics access was much simpler to obtain and much easier to digest. A quick authorization granted me unfettered access to the reports and I could parse through the data easily.

A Deep Dive is Necessary

It’s important to understand that data sources do NOT always track the same information, nor do they report the same data in the same way. For example, the raw logs ought to be exhaustive and inclusive of all traffic, regardless of the source, type, etc. Log files are not easily digested; they’re generally lengthy and complicated text files that can be challenging to read. Additionally, the log files may show errors or failures that other data sources may not display.

Having access to a solid log analyzing software tool is a huge help here. There are many available and most are ‘server-centric’ in that they read log files in real time. I found that Apache Logs Viewer was the perfect tool for this situation.

Just the Facts

I’ll spare the gory details on the ‘process’ of the review and jump to the results. It should frustrate many website owners.

Remember that the hosting company wanted to charge a more ‘accurate’ fee for the costs of delivering content. While I have no problem with this desire, this was the foundation of the concern. What was the company paying for? How did traffic change this much to justify these increased costs? Most importantly – how was this traffic resulting in MORE business?

According to the data from the log files, the ‘primary driver’ of traffic came from a static ‘hot-link’ to a logo file. That artwork had apparently been used on another website for a promotion. The hosting company claimed that logo file had been ‘served’ over 1.6 million times in 30-days to the other website.

Many may jump to the conclusion that a CDN (content delivery network) or a hot-link blocker would preclude this from happening in the first place. Both true statements! We often advocate for these options when we develop a site for our clients. However, in this instance, we know that the other website staff did NOT hot-link our logo. Read that last sentence again. Our logo file was not hot-linked from the third-party website. Which begs the necessary question — where did the 1.6M ‘hits’ come from?

Responses Matter

Despite the inquiries and challenges to the ‘data’ from the hosting company, we’ve had very little response from them. They’ve been avoiding questions and, for those questions that they did answer, they provided only the most bland and broad responses. It’s beyond frustrating to pay for services that you cannot understand – let alone be justified.

Unfortunately for our client, there’s little we can do for them to change the past. They’ve paid their invoices. Moving forward? That’s an area where we can help.

Common Sense Hosting – Common Sense Service

We offer a common sense approach to web hosting that fits our client’s needs. We don’t charge for ‘over quota’ fees because it’s a terribly frustrating situation for our clients. Instead, we deliver reliable, stable, and consistent hosting services at price levels that are equally reliable, stable, and consistent.

We don’t have ridiculously frustrating ‘phone trees’ that force a client through unending options to find some archaic department. Our domestic, on-shore, native english-speaking staff are here to help you with direct-line access. You don’t need to submit a trouble ticket or a support forum post to get access to us!

Contact Us

Ready for a change? Let us know how we can help your business thrive. We’re ready to support small businesses who need common sense support and service. You can reach us at www.RidgefieldGroup.com or 740-264-2641.

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