Web hosting uptime guarantee: What does it really mean?

Word 'Uptime' of the yellow square pixels on a black matrix background
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Imagentle)

If you’ve ever been looking for a web hosting provider you’ve probably been bombarded with ads promising a 99.9% or 99.99% web hosting uptime guarantee or perhaps even a bold 100% one, yes?

Well, if you’re not sure what to make of them, you’re at the right place. We're going to dive deep into the subject of uptime guarantees – what they are, what they really mean, and why you should bother finding this out.

However, before we go any further, let’s clear up what is uptime as well as its flip side – downtime. Uptime is measured as a percentage of time a service (web hosting in our case) is available. So, for instance, if a web hosting service is available 99.9% of the time, your website will be up and running for that amount of time.  

On the other side, downtime is the amount of time a site is unavailable – whether due to scheduled maintenance, cyber-attacks, hardware or software breaking down, server overload, or other unexpected events.   

Whichever the case is, you’ll want to maximize the uptime and minimize the downtime of your site, so your customers can reach it at any hour of the day or night. 

So, while choosing the web hosting provider for your site, keep an eye out for uptime guarantees.

What does guaranteed uptime mean? 

An uptime guarantee of “three nines” or 99.9% is currently considered to be an industry standard for web hosting services and it translates to less than 0.1% downtime in any given month - less than 45 minutes per month, roughly speaking.

So, if your site suffers more downtime than it’s specified in the guarantee, you should receive some sweet compensation – probably in the form of account credits or a partial refund.

These types of guarantees are often backed by Service Level Agreements (SLAs), so make sure to check them out before signing up for a service – and don’t forget about the small print.

How is uptime calculated?

To calculate your uptime score take the number of seconds that your monitor was down within a specific time frame (we mostly take a month or a year with long-term monitoring) and divide this by the number of seconds your monitor was being monitored throughout that time frame. This will get you the downtime percentage. 

There are tons of tools out there that can help you translate these percentages into hours, minutes, and seconds, but for the sake of illustration, let’s say that 99% of uptime per month translates to 7-hours, 18 minutes and 17 seconds for that month – it’s a terrible score. 

Likewise, 99.9% of uptime translates to 43 minutes and 49 seconds per month, while a highly-desirable 99.99% uptime would decode to 4 minutes and 22 seconds of downtime per month, which can be safely ignored. 

So, as you can see, a difference between 99%, 99.9%, and 99.99% uptime can be crucial to your business's success.

100% uptime is rare 

So we had a chat about “the nines”, but what about a spotless 100% uptime guarantee? 

Well, it’s not only rare, but it’s statistically impossible to guarantee a site will be up at all times regardless of unpredictable external events – such as force majeure, labor strikes, or pandemic outbreaks.

Also, did you know that downtime due to planned maintenance doesn’t count as “downtime” in most cases? So, if your web hosting provider informs you in advance about a planned downtime, you won’t get compensated for the time your site was down and you can’t do anything about it.

Therefore, if you stumble upon a host that boasts about a 100% uptime guarantee, go straight to its terms of service section or contact the sales staff and see what that guarantee really means.

What happens if you experience more downtime than your hosting provider states it offers? 

Picking out a poor web hosting provider is one of the most common reasons for site downtime, and this is often the case with pocket-friendly options that utilize off-shore servers – well, we guess corners must be cut somewhere. 

So, if your site is suffering a disastrous amount of downtime month by month, getting a small amount of account credit won’t cut it.

With most web hosting providers, you’ll be compensated with a percent of the sum you’ve paid for hosting service, a month's worth of hosting, or you might even get a full refund – in either case, it isn’t enough.

This is particularly true if you’re running a booming ecommerce platform where a couple of minutes of downtime per day could cost you thousands of dollars you would otherwise earn from successful sales. 

In short, downtime is bad for business and if your current provider can’t make the grade, go find the one that can.

Read the fine prints on uptime rates

If we could all agree to read the small print on uptime rates before signing up for web hosting services, there would be much fewer disappointed and disgruntled people on this planet. 

For instance, if an ads promise a 99.9% uptime guarantee this doesn’t mean your site will be up 99.9% of the time – it just means you’ll be compensated if it doesn’t.

Plus, do you remember what we said about situations when an uptime guarantee doesn’t count? It’s critical for your peace of mind (and your business) that you check everything about these exclusions before making a commitment.

In addition to this, you seldom get a say whether your outage qualifies for compensation or not, and when you do – your compensation will be terribly tiny (something close to $0.50 with most starter shared hosting packages).

Also, since web hosting companies rarely refund what you’ve paid for their services in cash, you’ll get a small amount of credit loaded to your account – it’ll probably be so small it won't even be able to cover a month's worth of hosting.

Why does your website’s uptime matter?

The more downtime an ecommerce website suffers, the more sales will come to a halt, which will result in a loss of revenue.

It doesn’t matter how delightful your website design is, if it goes down far too often or takes too much time to load, it’s all for nothing – a customer's trust and loyalty will take a critical hit.

Also, if your site remains down for a devastating amount of time, search engines will recognize that and rank it lower among their results – so, you’ll fail a search engine optimization (SEO) test.  

If all this wasn’t already enough, too much downtime could indicate serious security issues such as out-of-date software, server vulnerabilities, and a lack of security measures overall. So, if your site is constantly going down, it’s high time to take a look at your web hosting provider’s security protocols.

Inevitable website downtime

While with all web hosting providers you’re doomed to suffer some level of downtime, you’ll be safer if you go with the one who offers 99.9% of uptime at the least and backs it up with an SLA – suitable small letters included.

Also, instead of focusing all your attention on a good-looking uptime guarantee, it’s smarter to look at ratings and reviews (both professional and customer ones) before choosing the right web hosting provider for your site.  

Mirza Bahic is a freelance tech journalist and blogger from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the past four years, Mirza has been ghostwriting for a number of tech start-ups from various industries, including cloud, retail and B2B technology.