Why choose us?
We think we are pretty good at what we do and we have been doing it for a long time; and so we are going to provide a quick guide to seeing through the fakery and glitter you encounter on so many Internet sites. We are happy for you to do the same to us.
The Internet is a strange place where a kid in their parent's basement can set up an Internet company with a website that looks every bit as good as that of any professional company. A few hours with photoshop, a layout editor and some downloaded stock-images of people in suits using laptops in cafes or standing around an office lobby chatting and there's an Internet page ready and built. If they are too lazy or unskilled for even that, they can go to sites like fiverr.com and pay somebody in India or Eastern Europe to do it. On that page at the moment you can buy a full professional-looking site for $33.
Website hosting is another issue. Somebody with a spare PC running a downloaded Linux distribution can set up their own servers and have them online and working in less than an hour. It's simple to do.
Google is not always much help. Anybody selling SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) packages probably knows at least some of the tricks required to make their companies show up in prominent positions on Google and can afford to pay somebody on fiverr a few dollars to create some convincing-sounding spammy articles to make them sound good.
So what can you do? Research, research, research!
Look a little further into that snazzy website!
How much actual information is there on the page? Are there links to sites that they have created or companies they have worked with for example? Some companies may wish to hide their clients for security reasons, which is reasonable, but it's good if they give a rough idea or explain this. Does their "About Us" page make any sense, and does anything sound too good to be true? Is there pricing on the page (there isn't on ours) to give you an indication of what they are charging people? Good hosting is probably going to cost a few hundred dollars a year: does it look like they are covering this with their existing customers, or are they going to rake in those costs from you? Is there a section on the site that highlights the people and their skills? If not, why not?
The company is only as good as its people.
As we said above, the people are important. Sometimes it is perfectly legitimate to farm out some work to fiverr but at the same time, the whole thing needs to be project managed and followed up. Do the people who are doing this have experience? You are looking for degrees and good professional qualifications along with a lot of experience in big blue-chip companies. It sounds a little mean but unfortunately the only way to get wide-ranging experience is to work for different clients and big companies. Long periods of employment at a high technical level with major corporations is a very good sign.
You can check people with some cynical use of Google. Don't believe everything you read on there, and look at sites like LinkedIn and read their brag-sheets with a degree of disbelief. People lie and exaggerate, but it's usually easy to spot those. Look for articles or books that they have written and if you are not very technically minded, ask a couple of people who are to read them and tell you what they think.
What about the other staff? If a company says it has ten people working for them, then is the company making enough money to pay for them? If they are also running a dry-cleaning business out of their server-shop, then is your website support going to go silent as soon as a local hotel dumps off its cleaning? It's fine to ask this stuff - any good company will welcome it.
An Internet company needs good servers.
Ask for details of the servers. A server isn't a chicken: it isn't better if it's local and looked after by happy hippies in the countryside. Internet servers are born to live in Datacentres physically based in huge metropolitan cities with direct gigabit pipes to Internet backbones. A server is of little use to anybody if it's sharing a local-exchange copper wire or a piece of domestic cable with a bunch of people watching Netflix. You can ask where a server is physically located and ask what their upload rates are (not their download rates, as you are accessing them from the Internet, not watching TV from their servers; the only number you care about is their upload ones). Check their location's power and services reliability; it's all very well for them to have good power supplies, but it's useless if the wires blow down every month or the local service-provider only has 12 hours' worth of battery backup in their exchanges.
To test the speeds, the best bet may well be to ask them for a command-line on their servers, or take a laptop there and visit speedtest.net. From a Linux command line you can use speedtest-cli (send them http://ubuntuserverguide.com/2014/01/how-to-test-internet-connection-speed-using-speedtest-cli-on-ubuntu-server.html and ask them to install it).
Look for uptime, and evidence that faults are logged and dealt with. Personally I prefer public status pages to ones that need logging in to see. If they have something to hide, that's one place they will hide it.
It is perfectly legitimate for an Internet company to have no servers of their own at all. People selling services like Domain Names or doing SEO may well farm their actual hosting out to other companies. Ones like ours in fact. It's still reasonable to ask for details of the third-party servers.
Check your security experts even more
Security experts are a breed apart and need extra checking. I suppose I'd better write a blog article about that someday :)