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Google Discontinues Free Basic Web Hosting

Why does any for-profit company discontinue a service? The most obvious reason is that it isn’t making money. When Google discontinued free web hosting, its press release didn’t cite “major cash drain” as a reason. The official statement from Dan McGrath, Product Manager for Google Drive, was:

“After careful consideration, we have decided to discontinue this feature and focus on our core user experience.”

When the company made the announcement in 2015, it didn’t leave users in the lurch; it offered one final year of free hosting. That was plenty of time to find a new hosting company before they pulled the plug on August 31 this year. And there were plenty of options to choose from, which McGrath also referenced in the announcement:

“In the time since we launched web hosting in Drive, a wide variety of public web content hosting services have emerged.”

Read: they were facing lots of competition.

Reconsidering The Cost of Free

The tech giant wasn’t running a business charity. They were doing what other free hosting companies still do to cover the costs– racking up massive amounts of user data for no compensation, placing ads on hosted websites, and limiting costly bandwidth and data transfer speeds. So without a direct financial statement, it’s impossible to know for sure if Google wanted just to shift resources to other activities or the competition scared them off. But the cessation of services can serve as the impetus for a rethink about the cost of “free.”

There’s a broad range of web hosting options available, from long-term contracts with intensive customer support (super expensive), to no-frills, do-it-yourself (cheap and free). So it’s a good idea to match those services with the functionality of the site and your budget. When there is no budget, it’s best to enter into a contract with full knowledge of what’s (not) included. A list of the typical practices of free hosting services is a good place to start.

Some of these include:

  • No domain name – subdomains of the main site are the only option (e.g. yourwebsite.blogspot.com).
  • No site ownership – because you don’t own the site, the hosting company can take it down anytime.
  • Paid advertisements – these are placed on your site with no say in what products/services appear.
  • Limited/no design – standard templates with little or no customization yield a cookie-cutter site.
  • Slow speed – bandwidth and data transfer rates are typically very slow, so users have to wait for pages to load, complete forms, etc.
  • Low search rankings – free sites get a lower priority by search engines (your site isn’t likely to come up on the first page of results).
  • Nonexistent customer support – you’re likely on your own to figure out any problems.
  • Hackability – statically, free sites are more likely to be hacked/hijacked because security costs money; free hosting companies aren’t going to invest in it the same way fee-based does.
  • Upgradeitis – any improvements in the site to address some or all of these issues will cost money.

Why do these things matter?

  • 75% of users never scroll past the first page of search results (HubSpot).
  • Of those using mobile devices to search websites, 67% will leave a site if navigating is difficult, and 72% will leave if it loads too slowly (Zero Gravity Marketing).
  • The speed of a website impacts Google (and other search engine) rankings.

The only readily apparent advantage of a free site is to have a presence on the world wide web. If your site acts as a business card and isn’t going to manage transactions such as sales or customer service, a free site might be adequate.

Loss of security

Photo by Viktor Hanacek

The biggest loss caused by Google’s exit from the web hosting market could be security. As a large and reputable tech company, Google seems to take cyber security seriously. So it’s a good bet that their servers are well protected and leverage state-of-the-art security. The company rarely divulges such proprietary information, but its reputation is better than some smaller tech companies that regularly show up in reports with abysmal hacking statistics.

In addition to being vulnerable to cyber attacks due to poor security, hosting companies can sometimes exclude the basic security features websites need if there’s a problem. For example, the regular backup of sites and data mean pages or data lost due to malware attacks can quickly be rebuilt to get up and running quickly. Many free web hosting providers don’t include backup services.

And a datacenter that isn’t prepared for emergencies puts your website at risk. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes don’t happen often, but they might be a very real possibility, depending on where the hosting servers are located. It’s more likely a datacenter will face a power outage – how is the site prepared to address that issue?

Security concerns only seem to come to mind when a dramatic data theft is reported in the news, but it’s a very real consideration when relying on your website to support your business.

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