Part 3: How to choose the best web hosting company for your needs

Summary: In this section we are going to help you choose the right hosting solution. We'll talk about different types of web hosting, show how to choose the right hosting plan, and finally clear up any confusion you may have.

Web hosting server types

We previously discussed the different types of operating systems, but there is more to learn. We are now going to take a look at different hosting types that are offered. Like we've briefly mentioned in Part 1, hosting can be roughly separated in following categories: shared, VPS and dedicated servers. These options differ by the server space size and hardware packages, unlike previous Windows and Linux choices.

Shared server

On a shared server you share space with other users. It is the equivalent of doing your business at a farmers market, meaning that you have some restrictions and what you do may affect others and vice versa. However, it is cheaper than a dedicated server and everything you need for a small business website is included in the plan. The price of a shared hosting plan is very affordable and may vary between $5 and $15 with the good providers.

Virtual private server

A “virtual private server” (VPS) is a hybrid of dedicated and shared servers, but you can also look at it as a higher class of shared server. It is equivalent of having your business in a mall. Unlike shared servers, where you share all of the resources, a VPS is divided into sections and each website resides within its assigned section. Each section is separated and they act independently of one another. Pricing is somewhere in between dedicated and shared hosting (from $15 to $100) and might be a good solution if you run a high traffic website.

Dedicated server

Dedicated servers are the easiest to explain. They are, as their name says, dedicated. It is a physical server that you do not share with anyone else and no one else has access to. You can host one or more websites, it is up to you. It is the equivalent of having your own business on your own piece of land. They are the most powerful option, you can do virtually anything, but also the most expensive option, ranging from $50 to $2,000 per month. Unlike the other options you will need to have some IT skills, or hire someone who has them, because everything you do with your website is up to you.

Other types

Note: In the most cases a “shared server” hosting plan would be enough to run your small business website or blog. But it is always good to keep in mind what other options exist, in case your site starts to grow and you start getting 1,000s of visitors per month.

Evaluate the web hosting company and its services

Occasionally, we receive emails from our readers asking us which web hosting company and plan/package they should choose for their upcoming website. Most web hosts that you will find offer different plans/packages to choose from. You also might be asking, “Can I trust a certain hosting company? What will happen with my website if it attracts a lot of visitors? Should I sign up for the biggest package right away? Etc.”. Let's answer these questions and look at the most common questions you should have in mind when choosing a hosting plan.

Checking to see if the company is trustworthy

The most important thing you have to check is whether you can trust the company. A good reputation is paramount. The rule of thumb is to check the website of the service provider for general signs of trust such as physical address, phone number, general company information, and testimonials. Ask yourself: “Would I trust and give this company my personal information”.

The truth about web hosting review sites

Let's talk about web hosting review and “top 10” sites. If you do your search for specific company reviews you will find many sites providing this information. As a newcomer you might find this info useful and decide to go with one or the other company based on the information found. But this is not always the case as many times the recommendations are fabricated by the website owner. These are sometimes based on the compensation he is getting from specific hosting providers, and not by actually displaying reviews from the real customers who are using the services. Simply put, you will see a lot of fake reviews and “top 10” lists, so be careful with that info.

What if my website grows?

Many newbies don't want to agree with the fact that their new website will hardly have any traffic. We're not saying that you won't be there one day; we simply say that it will take some time. If you are not some celebrity or planning to spend big money on advertising, we recommend you go with the basic shared plan. When your traffic exceeds your current site's allocation, and you're certain that this new traffic level is going to be permanent, simply upgrade to a higher package that meets your needs. Don't rush to upgrade on the first hint of traffic, sometimes that burst of traffic is just where some popular website or blog notices your site and talks about it, sending some of their visitors to you. In other words, as long as your web host allows you to upgrade your packages without issue, you don't have to worry about your site's future expansion. We have upgraded packages numerous times since we've launched FirstSiteGuide, without any problems or intervention on our end.

Read the terms and conditions

We all do it, check the box with the fine print that says, “Terms and Conditions” without ever opening it. Nobody has time to read these endless pages. Web hosts' terms and conditions can be slightly different from one another but they all usually sum up to this: By reading this, you agree to our terms and conditions, where we listed an enormous number of things that we find illegal and/or unacceptable, and if we find you in any kind of violation of any of those, we will take actions and suspend and/or even delete your account without any upfront notice. The good news is that usually this won't happen.

Price and payment options

As in any industry, you can find extremely cheap and extremely expensive offers. The trick here is to make sure you get a web host that lets you upgrade or downgrade your web hosting package without any problems. If your web host requires you to pay an additional fee simply because you need to switch your shared hosting plan, I suggest you look for another host. Obviously if you upgrade to a new plan, you will have to pay some extra for the new package. I'm referring to some sort of penalty or transfer fee that is charged simply because you want to change from one plan to another. As a rule of thumb you will end up paying somewhere around $5–15 per month for your shared hosting plan plus your yearly domain registration fee.

Promos and up sells

If you do your research online you will find amazing deals and offers that go as low as $1.00/mo for web hosting. If you read the Terms and Conditions for this kind of offer you will understand that this is just a promo price to get you in and after the first year with the company that rate will usually go up significantly. I've seen people caught by surprise when the renewal date comes so we want you to be aware of that. Also with the low offers, watch for the up sells that company might offer to get more money out of you. Keep this in mind, search for the company that will suit your needs and don't rush to buy the cheapest plan out there or even go with free option.

Money-back guarantee

Most companies offer certain full money back periods (30, 45, 90 days) and in that period you will get a full refund. You might see “Anytime money back guarantee” claims from some companies. This usually means that you will get the prorated amount back after the suggested period passes. Make sure you read their “Terms of Services”.

Technical support

Does the company's technical support function 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Note that I will not accept a host which does not have staff working on weekends or public holidays. You will be surprised at how often things go wrong at the most inconvenient times. Incidentally, just because a host advertises that it has 24/7 support does not necessarily mean that it really has that kind of support. Test them out by emailing at midnight and on Saturday nights, Sunday mornings, etc. Check out how long they take to respond. Besides the speed of responses, check to see if they are technically competent. You wouldn't want to sign up with a host that is run by a bunch of salesmen who only know how to sell and not fix problems.

Unlimited is not always unlimited

Web hosts usually offer “unlimited” plans for your website. However, nothing is unlimited and it's just a simple math formula where the host knows what the average customer uses. Two main things that you need to know here are: disk space and bandwidth. Hosts know that while one customer might be using more than average space and bandwidth of the server (basically being unprofitable to them) there are hundreds of customers that are using very little to none.

Disk space is a space for your website and you can think of it as a size of your business place. You can get “unlimited” disk space because web hosts know that web pages are very small, 40-50 KB in average. 20 MB is more than enough for average websites. To put things in perspective, today you can buy fairly cheap external disk drive, and on one that is 1 TB in size you can store 500,000 average sites.

Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred from the web server your website is on to the browser of a person that is viewing your website. You can look at it like the number of customers that can go through your business space. Majority of websites use less than 2 GB of bandwidth a month. Those are the ones without uploads and/or downloads of software, audio or video material. If you do that, your consumption will probably be around 50 GB. Of course, here we do not take in account websites that are designed specifically for upload and download.

There are many websites that are under-performing. By under-performing we mean websites that don't use up too much server space and don't get too many visitors. When you take that into account there is always some free space if somebody needs a bit more than average disk space or bandwidth.

Reliability and uptime

What is uptime? It is a measure of time that tells us how much a machine, in this case server, is available and working. The opposite of that is called downtime and it is a measure of time when the machine is not working. Any web host that offers below 99.9% uptime should not be considered. But why should you not ask for a 100% uptime? The reality is that every server needs a time to reboot and fix eventual hardware fails.

0.01% of downtime means that your server could be unavailable about eight and a half hours over the course of a year. If we take in account that servers should be rebooted every month for maintenance, and let's say that reboot takes about a half an hour that leaves about four more hours. Maybe this does not sound terrible, but for some business websites each minute counts. The reality is that servers are pieces of hardware and, though quite reliable, need maintenance from time to time.

Location of the company and servers

If you don't stay in the USA, you have the option of hosting your site with some local provider. The advantage here is the ease of dealing with them (they are after all easily accessible by phone call or a visit), your familiarity with the local laws and easy recourse to those laws should it be necessary. It should be your choice if your target audience is local (e.g. a local fast food delivery service). On the other hand, hosting it in USA has the advantage of faster access for what is probably the largest number of your overseas visitors (particularly if you have an English-speaking audience). You also have a large number of hosting companies to choose from, and as a result, cheaper prices.

The Internet is global and you can see everything on it no matter where the servers are located. For example if a website has a French web address that does not mean that the website is actually on a server that is located in France. Although data is traveling at exceedingly high speed, there will always be a bigger time delay with a bigger geographical distance of a server and user's computer. The best solution would be to locate your website on a server that is geographically closest to your audience, so do not forget to check where web host actually locates their servers.

Web server and operating system

We have discussed this issue in the previous part of this guide. In general, most people will want to sign up for a web host offering a Linux based system and running the Apache web server. Most web-based software assumes your website is running on such a system, and you will usually experience fewer compatibility issues with it. In my opinion, the only time you want to use a Windows server is if your site will be running Windows specific programs, like ASP.

Backup security

One thing that we mentioned before and we will mention again is backup. here can be A huge difference between web hosts' backup options. It is important to have a good backup plan, so the best option would be a host that performs daily backups. The worst option would be to go with a host that has no backup plan. Many web hosts offer backups for some additional fee, so check that out. If price seems reasonable then it is most definitively worth the cost. Remember, if your website goes down and you have no backup, there is no way you can get it back. To repeat once more: regular backups are a must!

Different hosting control panels

With hosting control panels, you do not manage content of your website, but you manage everything administrative that is associated with your web hosting plan. Inside a control panel you will find sections to manage email accounts, users, file management, security and different applications. There are number of variations, butĀ for now, we are going to mention a few of the most popular ones and describe them in detail in Part 4:

  • cPanel–the most popular and widely used, very customizable
  • Plesk–similar in functions to cPanel but with different layout
  • ISPConfig–open source, with the ability to manage multiple servers
  • OpenPanel–open source, very user friendly and easy to navigate

SSL (secure server)

If you are planning on selling any goods or services through your website, you may want to see if the web host lets you set up SSL (a secure server). You may have seen this on other websites where their web address begins with an “https://” instead of “http://”. Setting this up will normally involve additional charges or a higher priced package. At this point, the main thing to do is to check if they are available at all before you commit to the host. You will definitely need to have as SSL if you plan to collect credit card payments yourself. If you're relying on a payment gateway instead, like PayPal, and are not otherwise collecting sensitive or private information from your customers, it's possible that you don't need this facility.

Programming languages and other features

If you are paying for a web hosting account, you want to make sure it supports multiple programming languages and other features. Some of the most common are: FTP, PHP, Perl, SSI, .htaccess, SSH, MySQL, Cron. If you are not planning to develop a custom website from scratch you probably won't be dealing with many of these. However, if you are hiring a developer to help you with some of work he might need some of these features.

Confusion between “Web Hosting” and “Web Platforms”

To add another important dimension to web hosting, we must talk about platforms or web tools. Sometimes, they are also called apps, applications, scripts, programs, widget, etc. but they all mean the same thing. “Web platforms” are the software that you install on your hosting account to build your website. The term “platform” usually refers to the script that makes a whole site, while the rest of the terms are used for smaller programs. A platform is the basic skeleton that will help you in designing your website. Essentially, it is a group of multiple files and one or two databases that work together.

Like your domain name, your platform is not tied to your web host. If you change your location, you can take all of your stuff with you. This means if you change your server, you can take all your files and databases with you. The domain name, platforms, and host make your website available online, but you can change each one of them independently of one another any time you want. We will talk about different platforms later in this section.

Ultimately, when designing and publishing your website, the user interface that you'll be working with most is the tool that lets you design your website. If you get one that doesn't work the way you're accustomed to, then you'll probably struggle to create your website. In other words, the “easy-to-use” aspect that newcomers are looking for lies not with your web host's operating system, but with the tools that you choose to use to build your website.

What type of a website are you planning to build?

In order to pick the perfect tool to build your website, you first need to know what type of website you want. Keep in mind that you can create whatever you want. Maybe you need a portfolio or a blog website, or you just want to primarily sell your goods. To make it easier for you we have the following recommendations:

Creating a standard website or a blog

  • Wordpress–recommended!
  • Joomla–recommended!
  • Drupal
  • Web builders (not offered by every host)

Creating an e-commerce website

  • PrestaShop–recommended!
  • OsCommerce
  • OpenCart
  • Magento

What kind of website you need depends on what are you trying to do with it. For authors, an informational/blog hybrid is one of the most popular choices. If you are an artsy individual, a portfolio/e-commerce with a hint of blog could be a way to go. If you are working on a project with a team, a directory/community hybrid can make things go smoothly. The possibilities are endless. We'll describe the most popular choices below.

Building a website or blog

Once you have settled your domain name and web host, the next step is to build the website itself. The possibilities of creating a website are endless and it can be done from scratch using HTML and CSS or by using design tools and then apply it to the web. However, as a business owner you probably don't have time to learn how to code. In this section, I will assume that you will be doing this yourself and using one of the recommended tools. If you are hiring a web designer to do it for you, I recommend you still get familiar with it since you are going to manage it.

The tools that you will be working with are called CMSes (Content Management Systems). It is a platform that will allow you to publish, edit, modify, organize, delete and maintain your content on your website from one central interface. Although essentially all of them do the same thing and have many similar features, it is up to you to choose which one suits you the best. Think of a CMS as a car. They will all take you from point A to point B, but you will choose the one that you feel most comfortable with. Let's look at the most popular.

WordPress–there is no CMS list that exists without having this entry. It started in 2003 as a blogging platform, but in over a decade it became one of the most popular open source CMSs in the world. Approximately, it is used by whooping 50% of users. The main reasons are that it is really easy to use and it is very flexible. It is completely free with hundreds of templates and thousands of plugins. The visual editor allows you to immediately see all the changes that you have made. WP Community is huge and very helpful, meaning that it is almost guaranteed that you will get an answer to your troubling question, within hours of you asking.

Joomla–depending on whom you ask, it is second most used CMS in the world. It is open source, free and one of the most user friendly solutions out there. It is powerful and good choice if you are planning on having a heavy article content. Joomla is a CMS that is somewhere in-between WordPress and Drupal.

PrestaShop–is a free open-source ecommerce solution used by over 165,000 online stores. It has support in 160 countries and 63 languages. Any graphic tool that you will potentially need is integrated. It presents the tools clearly, and the rest of the dashboard is easy to use. A big plus is seamless integration with PayPal. There are many free modules and templates, but you may need to pay for specific upgrades.

Beside the above recommendations, there are other CMSes that are somewhat less popular, but that does not mean that you shouldn't considering them.

Note: There are also web builders, tools that will allow you to build pages without any knowledge of coding. They are separated in two categories: Online proprietary tools which are provided by your web hosting company, or third party apps that you can install. Offline builders sometimes require basic understanding of HTML and CSS. They work on a principle of creating a page offline on your computer and then publishing it to your host server.

Hosted website solutions

Hosted website solutions, both free and freemium, are something different and have nothing to do with getting a hosting account. In this case the hosting and most of its related functionalities are done by another company. You usually get the tools to create your website but are restricted to the functionality offered by that company. Another downside of the hosted solutions is that you can't move your website anywhere else and it could be difficult to expand. If your goal is to make a personal website, perhaps you do not need more than the most basic option. Usually you will have an access and do everything from the online dashboard.

Most popular hosted website builders

All three tools are popular on the web. You can sign up for free and pay a premium later if you want to get rid of the subdomain addition to your site name (free version will look like this yourwebsite.wix.com or yourwebsite.weebly.com). The SquareSpace offers 14 days free trial option after that if you are planning to keep your website you will have to pay a set fee. Again with these tools you will be limited to the features offered by each company.

Most popular hosted blogging platforms

On all three products you can pay a small premium to get rid of the wordpress, blogger or tumblr addition in your hosting name. There are many more, but these three are excellent if you wanna have some fun. If you are serious about your business, you should go with self-hosted website options.

Note: A web builders and blogging platforms are really popular options among newcomers.  If you just want a simple personal website or blog, you might have fewer complications with one of the options mentioned above. They are also great for newbies, where you have the ability to play with these tools and get comfortable with building a website for free. If you are serious about your website, it is better to invest a little more financially and learn a bit more about CMSes, in the long run.

All parts

1Introduction to hosting 2Available technologies 3Choosing the company 4Using primary services 5Glossary