How to Choose a Basic Web Hosting Provider
Hosting is something that every website needs, but no one really enjoys shopping for it. With thousands of hosts to choose from it can easily become overwhelming if you don’t know what you should be looking for. It’s also a decision that you’ll want to get right, because changing hosts can be a cumbersome experience with some websites.
Every website is unique and will have its own needs. Web hosting is not a one-size-fits-all solution, so you’ll need to know what is important for your website in order to find the best host for you. For the purposes of this article we’ll be looking at the subject from a perspective of a typical small business that needs a basic shared hosting provider. High-traffic websites or those with unique or specific demands may need to go with a VPS (Virtual Private Server) or a dedicated server. Most of the principles that we’ll cover in this article will still apply when shopping for a VPS or dedicated server, but we’re specifically focusing on basic shared hosting here.
If you’re looking for a host, what factors should you consider? Let’s take a look.
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Let’s get price out of the way first. It certainly should not be the main factor in your decision, but it will be a factor. With so much competition between hosts there are plenty of affordable options, especially when you’re looking for shared hosting.
The price difference for shared hosting between different providers is usually only going to be a few dollars per month, which is not enough to decide primarily based on price. If you choose a host because it is the cheapest option and you wind up with a lot of down time, slow loading pages, or poor customer service, you’ll wish you had paid a few extra dollars for a better host. That being said, higher prices don’t always mean better reliability or service, so be sure not to judge based on price alone.
Most hosting plans are paid on a monthly basis, but some hosts may require you to pay a year (or some other length of time) up front. Many hosts that offer monthly pricing will also offer a discount if you pay for a longer period of time up front. I always prefer to pay monthly unless it is a host that I’ve used in the past and I’m confident that I won’t want or need to change hosts in a few months.
2. Support and Customer Service
The level of service that you receive from a host will have a major impact on your level of satisfaction. Good service is well worth a little bit of extra money, and a host that provides poor service is only going to frustrate you, even if the price is low. Poor service can also cost you money if it means that your site is down or not functioning properly.
Each host will vary in terms of the support options that they offer. Almost every host will have some sort of support ticket system where you can enter your request and receive support by email. The response time will vary, but good hosts will generally get back to you within a few hours or sometimes less.
Many hosts also offer support by online chat. This type of support is not always ideal for more complex issues, but for minor issues that can be easily resolved it is often an ideal option. Instead of waiting for a few hours to get a response on a support ticket, you may be able to get an answer to your question in just a few minutes with the help of chat-based support. However, just because a host offers chat support doesn’t mean you’ll be connected to someone instantly. I’ve had situations where I waited over 30 minutes just to be connected to a support rep.
Phone support is also offered by many hosts, but not all. Just like support via chat, phone support is often not ideal for more complex issues. However, if your site is down or there is an emergency, it is nice to know that you can get in touch with a real person. In an emergency it’s not very enjoyable to sit and wait hours for a response to a support ticket, not knowing if anyone is even working on your issue.
Before you decide on a host be sure to check and see what types of support they offer, as well as their support hours. Most of the larger hosts offer 24/7 support, and this is definitely something that I want from a host. If there are issues with your hosting on the weekend or during off peak hours, it can be very frustrating if you can’t get support quickly.
In addition to the standard types of support, some hosts also have an active presence at social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. When you’re researching hosts it’s not a bad idea to find their social profiles and check their level of activity. Are they responding to customers who reach out to them through these channels? Many hosts will use their social profiles to post notifications if they are experiencing major issues, which can be helpful for communicating with customers.
Social media profiles also give you an opportunity to see what the host’s customers are saying about their support. Keep in mind that every host will have issues at some point, especially shared hosting, so you’ll be able to find upset customers from any host. However, for hosts with quality support you should also see some positive messages from their customers on Twitter, and you should see some interacting through the host’s profile.
Some hosts will have a specialty or focus. A great example of this is WP Engine, who focuses exclusively on hosting WordPress-based sites. It’s a good idea to look at the specialties of any hosts that you are considering and see how they match up to your specific needs. For example, you’re probably not going to want to host a WordPress-based website with a host that specializes in Drupal. You probably won’t get any type of support related to WordPress, and their servers may not be configured optimally for WordPress.
You will also find hosts, like WiredTree, that specialize in VPS and dedicated servers. Other hosts may specialize in only shared hosting and not offer VPS or dedicated servers. Of course, you’ll want to consider a hosts specialties and make sure that they match up to your needs.
Hosts that specialize will often come at a higher price, as is the case with WP Engine, but you should get some expertise that can justify the price difference.
4. Number of Domains
If you are looking to host more than one website you will also want to consider how many sites you can host on one plan. Many shared hosting plans will allow you to host multiple websites, and sometimes unlimited sites, on the same plan. For those who have multiple sites to manage this can result in money saved, as well as the added convenience of having all of your sites in one place. Some hosts will offer different plans depending on the number of sites that you want to host. For example, HostGator‘s lowest-priced plan allows you to host one domain, and all of their other shared hosting plans allow for an unlimited number of domains.
5. Room for Growth
Although you may only be looking for a shared hosting plan now, the needs of your website could increase over time to the point that you would want to consider upgrading to a VPS plan. It’s a good idea to consider this possibility before deciding on a host. Do they offer plans like cloud hosting or VPS that would allow you to grow in the future? If they only offer shared hosting you would be forced to move to another host if you needed to upgrade.
VandelayDesign.com was hosted with WiredTree for several years and during that time that site was constantly growing and we upgraded plans every few months. Upgrading with them was easy, there was nothing to do on our end. If they had not provided plenty of room to grow we would have needed to move to a new host long before we did.
Be sure to look at the other plans offered by a host that you are considering, not just the plan that you would need right now.
6. Specs and Limitations
When you’re comparing one hosting plan to another you’ll probably be looking at the specs and details listed by the provider. When it comes to low-cost shared hosting there are a few things to keep in mind. First, many hosts will list disk space and bandwidth as “unlimited”. At first this may seem like you can get an unlimited amount of traffic to your site on a shared hosting account. The reality is that shared hosting accounts, even if they offer unlimited bandwidth, will not be able to hold up to large surges of traffic. You’re more likely to reach the limits of a shared hosting account because of other reasons than bandwidth and disk space. See The Whole Truth Behind Unlimited Hosting for a more in-depth look at this topic.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if your site is growing, you’ll likely need to upgrade at some point anyway. If you choose a host based on the listed specs of a particular plan, it’s possible that you can sign up for that plan and then realize in the first month that it doesn’t sufficiently meet the needs of your website. It’s better to choose a host based on their reliability and level of service, and once your site is on their servers you can work with them to make sure that you’re on the right plan. If you need to upgrade they should be able to help (I’ve never come across a host that wasn’t helpful when it came time to upgrade to one of their higher-priced plans).
7. Customer Reviews and Ratings
When it comes to web hosting there are plenty of websites and blogs where you can read reviews. The problem is, many of the reviews are biased or completely made up. Reviews will often include affiliate links. This practice isn’t wrong if it is disclosed, but you should keep in mind that the person writing the review has something to gain if you sign up through their affiliate link. Many reviews are honest and truthful, but others are not, and telling the difference is not always easy. The other problem with reviews is that they can be posted by employees of the company, or competitors can post negative reviews.
Forums like Web Hosting Talk can be a good place to research hosts and read what other users are saying. Doing a search on Twitter or another social network for a host’s name can also help you to see what their customers are saying. It’s also a good idea to check with other people you know to see what hosts they recommend, and what hosts they would avoid.
Another method is to see what hosts particular sites are using. If you notice that a lot of fast-loading sites are using the same host, it may be one that you want to consider. A great tool for this research is WhoisHostingThis.com. Enter a domain name and it will tell you who is hosting the site. Keep in mind that you won’t necessarily know which plan they are using, so you may be looking at a site that is hosted on a higher-priced plan that what you are considering. Also, some sites will be optimized better than others, so performance can vary. WhoisHostingThis.com also has tons of hosting reviews that you may find to be helpful.
Most hosts, but not all, will provide you with email addresses at your domain name. For example, some managed WordPress hosts like WP Engine do not provide email addresses, so this is something to consider. If you go with a host that doesn’t offer email addresses you can use Google Apps or Outlook.com to setup the email at your own domain, it will just take some extra steps.
9. Control Panel
The control panel of your hosting account is where you will do things like setting up email accounts, create FTP user accounts, install WordPress, and tasks related to your server. The most common control panels include cPanel, Plesk, and DirectAdmin. If you’ve used cPanel on one host you’ll be very familiar with how it works even for a different host. So if you have managed other websites in the past you may prefer to stay with a host that uses a control panel that you are already familiar with. There are also some other benefits, such as the ability to easily move from one host to another with the help of cPanel. Both your current host and your new host will need to use cPanel in order for this to work. Some hosts also allow you a choice of control panels, or the option to upgrade to a particular control panel.
If you are going to be using a content management system, blogging engine, e-commerce platform, forum script, or some other type of script for your website, you may be able to install it very easily through the control panel. Most hosts offer Fantastico, Softaculous, or some other similar program that will allow you to easily install a number of different scripts on your website without touching any code. For most users this is a major convenience, and fortunately, it is included with most hosting accounts. If you know what CMS or script you want to install, be sure to check that it can be easily installed before signing up for the hosting account. Almost all hosts make it very easy to install WordPress since it is an extremely popular CMS.
11. Do They Support Your CMS?
If you will be using a content management system, a shopping cart, or some other script, you may want to check to see if the host will provide support for it. In many cases the host will make it easy for you to install a CMS but they won’t necessarily provide support related to it. The hosts support reps unfortunately cannot be experts at every CMS or script, so they won’t always be able to help.
For basic WordPress related issues, I’ve found that most hosts will be rather helpful even if they do not officially support WordPress. You may not get answers to every question, but if they are able to help they usually will. If you need expert support, consider choosing a host that specializes in the CMS that you are using, like WP Engine.
12. Migration Assistance
Will you be moving your website from another host? If so, you may want to get help with the migration. Many hosts offer free migration assistance that can make the move much easier for you. Other hosts may offer migration assistance for a fee per site. Moving a site from one host to another can be challenging if you don’t have experience with things like databases, so consider taking advantage of any assistance that the host is offering.
Lastly, each host will have features that they will offer. Most hosting pricing pages include long lists that detail all the features of their plans. In reality, most of these features won’t matter to you, so don’t be influenced by things that are irrelevant. Pay attention to whatever features matter to you, and compare hosts based only on these.
Some features that may or may not make a difference to you are things like a free domain name, SSL, a dedicated IP, Google AdWords credit, unlimited databases, site builders, reseller options, green or eco-friendly servers, and site builder software or apps. Decide what you need, and don’t be influenced by the rest.