Choosing the right web host for your site might not be as exciting as picking color schemes, design templates, graphics and images, but it an essential step on the road to success.
Your website’s speed, availability, usability and security all depend on you choosing well. No pressure but, getting it wrong can cause a lot of headaches down the line. And with web hosting plans ranging from free to thousands of dollars every month, any mistakes could also end up costing you a pretty penny.
In this guide, I’ll give you the benefit of my years of experience reviewing and analyzing the best and the worst web hosts in the market, so you can pick a service that will complement your website and help your online business grow.
Understanding web hosts
Before we get into the ins and outs of what different web hosts offer, you need to understand exactly what it is these companies do and how they work.
And getting a handle on web hosting means asking some pretty strange questions like ‘where does a website exist when no one’s using it?’ and ‘how do people get a website’s data when they click a link?’. The answers are more intuitive than you might think.
All data needs to be stored somewhere. Your computer files are stored on its hard disc. When that’s full, you probably store the extra on an external hard drive or in the cloud via companies like Dropbox. When you want your data, you have to go into that storage device and get it and you can only do that when it’s connected to your computer.
The same principle applies to your website, except its data is stored in servers and they are owned by web hosts. So, a web host basically gives your website’s data somewhere to exist and keeps it available to people using the internet when they want to access it by connecting to your computer via the internet. Without them, your site wouldn’t appear online at all.
So, when someone clicks a link to one of your web pages, a request is sent to your web host’s server to send the data to the user. The reason there is such a variety in types and quality of web hosts is that they differ in the ways they go about storing that data and getting it to users when they need.
Types of server
There are four essential types of server (places where web hosts store your site’s data):
Shared servers are cheap because, as the name suggests, your website shares storage space on a single server with a bunch of others, making it a very efficient method for the web host. Most free web host plans use shared servers.
- Pros: these plans are cheap and can be as efficient for small, low traffic websites as more expensive options.
- Cons: if any of the websites you share a server with need more disc space or bandwidth (more on that later), less will be available for your website, slowing it down and possibly leading to disgruntled users.
VPS (virtual private server) are virtualised dedicated server replicas that mimic the features of more expensive dedicated servers at a lower price.
- Pros: they’re cheaper than dedicated servers and almost as good. Medium-sized businesses will find them more than adequate.
- Cons: while performance is better than on shared servers, VPS servers are still limited in ways dedicated servers are not.
Dedicated servers are rented to businesses as a whole. They’re the best option for people with the money for it. The infrastructure is the same as with shared servers, except you’ll have no server buddies.
- Pros: if you have the money, they’re incredibly reliable.
- Cons: they still have data limits, so very large businesses can still outgrow a dedicated server. You can always have several servers with the same company.
Cloud-based servers are run on public clouds similar to Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure.
- Pros: cloud-based plans are truly limitless because there’s no physical server with a specific capacity to stick to.
- Cons: many businesses misunderstand the pricing plans and end up paying an awful lot for them, so make sure you know when they’re good value and when they’re not.
Web code matters
Disc space and bandwidth requirements
Most web hosts charge based on a website’s storage (disc space) and bandwidth requirements.
- Bandwidth: the number of bytes your site serves in a given amount of time
- Disc space: the amount of data your website contains (usually 1-2MB per page)
Your hosting requirements will depend on how high your website’s traffic is (how many people are using your website at any given time, a.k.a how much data needs to be served at once to those users) and how much data each user is using.
Think of it like this, if you have, on average, 1000 users at any one time accessing a page of your site that has 1MB of data, your usage requirements will be higher than someone with a site managing 100 users accessing pages with 2MB of data each because the total amount of data served at any given time is higher.
There are lots of online tools to help you work out your requirements. You should always know what you need before you shop around for web hosts because you don’t want to buy into a plan that’s too small, or your site will experience a lot of downtime (time when it’s not available to users when they need it). Similarly, you don’t want to go too large and end up throwing money away unnecessarily.
Leaving room to grow
That said, you should never buy a plan that is ‘just right’ for your business at this particular moment in time. It’s much more practical to leave some room for growth.
The last thing you want is to experience a sudden surge in traffic because of, say, a viral marketing campaign, only to find that there’s no wiggle room in your hosting plan to accommodate the extra attention. If it can’t, your site will go offline and your business will lose out on a rare opportunity for success.
I’d always suggest leaving at least a 20% leeway in your disc space and bandwidth needs. Even if you don’t hit the viral marketing jackpot, you won’t need to move host or upgrade your plan after a few months.
Customer service and security
I’d say it’s fairly common for people to consider the more technical side of choosing a web host before they think about their other needs like customer service quality and security. But these always become major concerns.
If you need a lot of handholding, you’ll want to choose a web host with a strong reputation for customer service and multiple contact points like emails, social media profiles, 24-hour chatbots and phone numbers. Essentially, if you are unlikely to be able to fix a server error yourself, customer service should be one of your top priorities.
And, while basic security like SSL certificates and regular backups are enough for most, owners of web shops or other platforms that handle a lot of user data might want to choose a provider that specialises in their industry to make sure their systems meet people’s and industry’s security expectations.
As well as SSLs and site backups, you’ll want to know whether your host is running firewalls and malware detection and whether you can get IP Deny capability, in case you need to block access to your site for certain IPs, e.g. hackers and spammers.
To sum things up…
Rather than signing up with the first web host you come across, or one that’s just really well-known, all website owners should consider what is best for their specific industry, type of business and basic needs. To make the best choice, be sure to think about:
- Whether to use shared, VPS, dedicated or cloud-based servers
- Whether you need a host that works with specialist web code like Ruby on Rails or PHP
- How much disc space and bandwidth you need now and in the near future as your website grows
- And if your provider can offer the kind of customer care and security that you need