If you are selling a product or service online, then your website, by definition, is an ecommerce site, which means not just any kind of web hosting will do for you — simply put: ecommerce sites need ecommerce hosting.
Websites that deal in the buying and selling of things (whatever those things may be) have special requirements from other types of sites, such as those merely conveying information. These include a shopping cart or checkout counter with secure payment processing and search engine placement features.
Not all types of web hosting offer all these services, but one type does: ecommerce hosting.
When searching for an ecommerce host, there are certain things to look for, including both ecommerce features and general web hosting features like cost value, customer service, and reputation.
Prefab eStore vs. Custom-Designed
There are two predominant types of ecommerce web hosting to choose from: the standard and ultra-convenient turnkey online store (aka "store-in-a-box") and the custom-designed estore. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, with the best choice for you dependent on your resources and goals.
A turnkey store-in-a-box gives you everything you need to set up shop right away, though these stores tend to lack a little in originality or uniqueness in their look and feel, as well as being less customizable, say to tweak existing features or add your own. If you don't like the limited options provided for setting up form fields, for example, there's nothing you can really do about it; you're stuck with the options offered by the particular framework of the estore you choose. So if you do choose this prefab estore kind of setup, choosing wisely means thoroughly exploring what you can and cannot do with the tools it offers. The predominant advantage for most users of this type of turnkey estore, when it comes down to it, is that it's the more affordable option for fledgling ebusinesses on a tight budget.
By contrast, a custom designed online store gives you total creative freedom in front-end look and feel, along with carte blanche in setup of back-end functionality and features. But it'll cost you a whole lot more. Plus, whereas most stores-in-a-boxes come with ecommerce hosting, in many cases of custom-designed estores, the web designer is a separate individual or firm from that which will ultimately host the site. In other words, a store-in-a-box offers a more DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to website design with ecommerce hosting built in, while for a custom designed online store you'll probably hire out your website design and then find a separate company to provide your ecommerce hosting. In this latter case, you won't need to use any web design features included with your ecommerce web hosting plan, and moreover, you'll want to avoid ecommerce hosts that require you to utilize their prefab format.
SEO & Marketing Tools
Search engine optimization is crucial for ecommerce sites, which is why many ecommerce hosts offer SEO tools and credits as part of their feature set. For novice ecommerce business owners especially, it pays to compare the search engine placement tools, free search engine ad credits, and SEO analytic tools offered by the ecommerce hosts you're considering.
Search engine placement tools may include automatic submission of every new page of your site to a set of popular search engines. Keep in mind, however, that most people these days use Google, with a distant second and third being Yahoo and Bing; a few still use Ask or MSN. But many of those other search engines waved in front of your face to woo your business won't bring you much business at all. Better to see what you can get from your web host toward promotion on the few top search engines than the largest number of smaller ones.
This may include free ad credits on those larger search engines, which you should definitely take advantage of if offered. Some ecommerce web hosts may even offer you a keyword selection tool, which is well worth learning how to use to mastery in optimizing your ads. Which leads us also to analytics tools, invaluable in determining the effectiveness of and fine-tuning your SEO and marketing campaigns.
The Cost of Unlimited Disk Space & Bandwidth
Of course, beneath those features that facilitate ecommerce is an infrastructure of general web hosting features that should also be taken into account. These include factors of disk space and bandwidth, uptime guarantees, and the quality of its datacenter(s).
Many web hosts are still offering "unlimited" disk space and bandwidth, and while this may seem convenient, it's not a no-brainer. Because when you're paying for unlimited disk space and bandwidth, you have to ask yourself what you may be giving up in trade. A small site, whether for a niche market or a local site with a short geographic reach, doesn't need unlimited disk space and bandwidth, and for that matter won't even come close to utilizing it.
What a smaller site requires is quality customer service: strong, friendly, knowledgeable and, above all, available when you need them by the means (phone, email, chat, searchable knowledgebase) that you prefer. A datacenter in your geographic area may even be more valuable to you than unlimited disk space and bandwidth as it provides your local users a quicker, more reliable experience of browsing your site.
And finally, once you've narrowed down the list of ecommerce web hosting companies to those that offer what you need at a fair and competitive price, the best way to then find the cream of that crop is to look to their customers. Don't just rely on testimonials on their website, though those are helpful too (particularly if the people providing them have last names); seek customer feedback about the web hosts you're considering on other websites, such as consumer review sites and web hosting online forms.
In short, when trying to determine the best ecommerce hosting according to cost value, compare what you get with the price you're paying for it. Even comparably priced ecommerce web hosts may offer a considerably different set of features.
Disclosure: As is the case with many other industry/topic specific magazines, websites and trade publications, we do receive compensation from some of the companies whose products we review within and outside of the web hosting industry, including, but not limited to, paid advertising placements, referral fees, contextual advertising links and sponsorship packages.