Well I do see your point. But heres a couple of mine!! But just to clarify, the host we are talking about going down...is/was a paid host!
First, I totally agree. The ONLY reason I chose the free (temp) host was to restore my web presence ASAP without cost... while we wait and see whats going wrong with the original hosts.
My logic there is not paying for another paid host in a kneejerk reaction... only to find some apologetic emails from the former host saying everything's Ok now and we are very sorry! As said Ive been with them for 8 years, never had probs like this before so in my mind, 8 years is a good track record. Thats why I paid every year...
My first thought was - with the recent news that the FBI were temporarily taking some servers offline due to a virus scare, that it had included 'my' hosts...it happens! Though it doesn't seem to be the case now
Ive 2 busy websites, (fortunately the second is with another host to hostonce, and has never had the above mentioned issues, so Im glad I decided that in the beginning)
In regards to time spent finding a free host...in my case it took about 25 mins, changing dns settings, 2 mins, and re-uploading, to the temp host, was about 15 mins, so not long at all. About an hour in fact. I cant imagine why it should take any longer TBH..
Search engine listings however, were mostly lost due to me not finding out for well over a week my main site was down. Then me spending a week waiting patiently for replies from the host, so 2 and a bit weeks with no web presence while I innocently tried to track down any problems
As Google no doubt indexes sites weekly, and couldn't find mine, then yes it vanished from its results, ...bummer..but I have a tonne of reciprocal links and affiliates that still point to my site even though google needs to re-index it. So Im still in search results...sort of!
This last point about rankins etc... is not due to 'free-hosts'...its due to my site vanishing from the spider bots as a result of the host going down, etc. The cheesiest-poopiest-free-host can still host sites with top rankings, as the rankings have nothing to do with who hosts it, do they!!
Rankings are a result of many other things...
You say: "For most people I imagine the final sum comes somewhere in between 'should have paid for a cheap host' and 'could have paid for years of good hosting"
But you miss the point here, I DID PAY for years of good hosting to start with, 8 years I said I was perfectly happy, thats just on the one site, on the other site, 6 years PAID hosting so far...and still totally happy!! And once I find my next UK host who have all I want, I will be PAYING them too!
The solution I provided with mentioning the above free hosts, was to help others in the same boat as I found myself with hostonce...to get back online FAST while the main host sorts its issues.
And having said all that.... the free host mentioned is actually surprisingly good...