Performance, security, support and cost are the four main factors to consider when it comes to choosing a web host. For veteran website owners, the main things they need to look out are usually quite clear. However, potential website owners may need a little more help.
There are literally hundreds of web hosting service providers in a market expected to value $154 billion by 2022. Sticking to the terms performance, speed, and support may seem a little simplistic so let’s break that down into a little more detail.
The first advice I like to give potential website owners before advising them on what to look out for is a little in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to find the perfect host that offers the best of everything, consider your actual needs and find the best fit for that instead.
Know Your Web Hosting Needs
Looking inwards is a key part of the web hosting selection process.
With such a massive number of web hosting service providers to choose from, many have opted to skew their products in different ways to differentiate themselves from others.
For example, one host might specialize in speed and security where another might offer the best budget-oriented plans. By knowing your needs, you will be able to make the best choice from those among the top segments.
To help better understand your own needs, you can try answering this list of questions I’ve prepared.
What Kind of Website You Are Building?
Some examples of website categories are personal blogs, small business sites, and eCommerce sites.
- How large do you intend to grow it?
All websites usually start small and tend to grow with their traffic volume. It takes time and effort to grow a website, so will you be limiting it after a point, or growing into the next Amazon.com?
- How much help do you need?
Setting up a website can be as easy or difficult as you like. However, each method may come with unique requirements. Are you familiar enough to get by with anything, or will you need more support from the hosting provider?
- What platform will you choose?
Traditionally, websites were built on scripts such as HTML but today things are a lot more convenient. There are so many tools such as Website Builders and Content Management Systems (CMS) that can simplify your tasks.
- Do you have a specific target audience?
Knowing your potential audience can help you make a better choice in web host. For example, are you intending to serve international customers, or those in a specific geographic area?
- Are there technologies you need or want?
Different websites can make use of different technologies. Not all hosts may offer everything. Some examples of these are green hosting, specific versions of PHP or even Python script support.
- Do you have a specific budget?
If your website project is going to be limited by cost, then you need to find something that will fit well in your price range. While normally this is a poor deciding factor, it does nonetheless remain one.
As you can see, choosing the right web host can require as much planning as a business itself. By planning with questions like these you can minimize the need for additional work and cost further down the road.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Web Host
Performance is the most significant trait of any good web hosting service provider. It is what affects the speed and reliability of your website. Remember that your website isn’t an island and many things are required for it to associate well with other entities on the Internet.
For example, your website speed could affect your ranking on search engines such as Google or Bing. It could also directly affect visitor satisfaction, which is one of the core components for your website traffic (and hence, success).
Server Response Time
Ask: What is your usual server response rate?
Although speed is important when it comes to a website, you need to realise that website loading speed is not quite the same as web server response speed. The speed websites load at is highly variable and depends heavily on the contents of the site. When gauging the performance of a web host, it is more correct (and fair) to assess the speed that their web servers can respond at.
In reality, the host is only responsible for providing a quick response speed – and that is what HostScore measures.
Ask: What is your server average uptime?
Knowing how reliable web hosting service provider’s products are can save you a lot of heartache down the road. Fast websites are important, but knowing your websites will always be available to potential customers is vital.
Reliability is usually gauged based on uptime – most commonly shown as a percentage of time that the service is available. The higher the number, the more reliable the host will be seen as.
Solid State Drives
Ask: Is your hosting service full-SSD?
Hard drives are the storage space that all files in a server reside on. Traditionally, these used to be mechanical drives but with the progress of technology today many web hosting companies have or are making the move towards Solid State Drives (SSDs). SSDs are much faster than mechanical drives.
Tip: When looking out for this feature, try to ascertain if the host is using SSD for everything or only for their key applications. In order to fully benefit from the speed of SSDs, your own web files also need to reside on the SSD.
Ask: Can this hosting plan handles X amount of traffic?
All web hosting accounts come with resource limits. Resources are usually made up of processing power, memory and storage space as discussed above. When choosing a web host, keep in mind your requirements and match them with a hosting provider and plan that can facilitate the resource needs of your website.
If your website tries to use more resources than the web host makes available to it, your site could suffer from poor performance or instability. In many cases, overusing resources can lead to an account suspension by your web host.
Tip: If the details section of the web hosting plan doesn’t show resource limits, try to check in the site’s Terms of Service. There are often details on resource usage policies located there.
Data Center Location
Question to ask: Does your host offer a spread of data centre locations?
Most reputable web hosts will never put all their eggs in one basket. This means that they will work with multiple data centers, some of which may be located at strategic positions around the world. Data centers are where web hosting companies place their servers to take advantage of high-bandwidth infrastructure and other needs such as power and cooling.
Data center location might or might not be a factor to you depending on what your target market is. Ideally though, you will want to opt for a data center that is physically as close to your target market as can be.
For example, if you are intending for your website to serve international customers, then a central location like Amsterdam would be a good location. If you are targeting customers from the Asia region then Singapore might be a good location. For US-based traffic, it will always be better to host at a data center near either the East or West coast, depending on your needs.
The reason for this boils down to a single word – latency. Data takes time to travel and the longer distance it must travel, the slower your website will load. By hosting your website data near your target market, you are helping to speed up website loading time.
Ask: How far can my site grow with your host?
If you are thinking of a website that will grow over time, then you also need to take into consideration scalability. Web hosting service providers usually offer multiple types of hosting plans to cater to different usage needs.
Most new websites start off on shared hosting, which is budget friendly but offers less in terms of resources and sometimes even support. This is normal but if you intend to grow your site then it would be best to opt for a web hosting provider that is able to scale you up as your grow.
Scaling up means that you can move on to other plans that can cope with the increased needs of your site as its volume in traffic expands. Ideally you should look for a host that can start you off at shared hosting and let you grow up to anything from VPS hosting plans or perhaps even a dedicated server.
While not crucial, it does help save you the headache of having to move your website to a different web hosting provider should you grow beyond the means of your current host in the future.
Number of Accounts Per Server
Ask: How many user accounts are there in one server?
Shared hosting accounts will host more than one customer on a single server. This is what allows the companies to offer shared hosting plans at affordable prices. However, if a web host packs too many shared accounts on each server then performance of their websites may decline.
Many web hosting companies tend not to disclose this figure, but if you are able, see if the information is somewhere on their website. I’ve noted that some hosts disclose this but bury it deep in documents which most people will never likely read.
Normally, shared hosting accounts will be packed at congestion points of between 150 to 350 per server.
Aside from hosting and serving your website files, web hosting service providers are also responsible for the security of the web hosting environment. This means that they must ensure that their servers are safe for you to use.
Good web hosting service providers also often offer tools that help you keep your websites safe. Some examples of these tools might be backup systems, automated software patching utilities or even allow you to use some of your own security tools.
Backup & Recovery
Ask: How can I backup and restore my account?
Almost all people in the field of Information Technology (IT) know that backup is a vital component of any system. Anything IT-related is open to possible failure and having a backup could mean the difference between a quick recovery and total loss. Imagine how you would lose your entire website if a fault occurs and there was no backup.
Backup systems can be manual or automated. Manual systems require that you perform the backup yourself, or at the very least must initiate the start of the backup system. Automated systems are more convenient and can be set to perform backups at set intervals.
There is also a difference in onsite and offsite backup. Onsite backups mean that the backed up dated remains on the same system as your operating files. This means that if something happens to that entire system, your backup will be lost as well.
Offsite backups take more time as the data is sent to a different physical location from where your operational files are. This is much more reliable and is what major companies often opt for as part of their disaster recovery procedures.
Secure Sockets Layer
Ask: Can I install SSL easily on your platform?
Web browsing companies and search engines alike today are trying to make website browsing experiences safe for users. One of the ways they do this is by encouraging website owners to make use of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates.
SSL certificates help assure users that their websites they are visiting are safe, which is crucial for peace of mind. They are especially vital for websites that store or process user information or process financial information such as on eCommerce websites.
These certificates come in varying levels of security and you can even get one for free (such as the one from Let’s Encrypt). The key thing for potential website owners is to check and see if their desired web hosting plan will support SSL certificates.
Almost all reputable web hosting companies today universally support SSL certificates, but if you are opting for a smaller web host it won’t hurt to check, just in case. Be aware though that installing an SSL certificate may take some effort on your part if you are unfamiliar with the process.
Although the web host might “support” SSL certificates, they might not necessarily provide an easy means of setting it up. If so, you will have to get one from a free SSL provider and set it up yourself. Ideally, the web host you choose enables an easy installation utility for SSL certificates.
Secure File Transfers
Ask: Do you allow SSH access?
Always remember that when you are communicating with a web server, your communications are passing through the Internet. Keeping your website secure is important, but you also should try to make sure that anything you are sending to or receiving from your server is safe.
One of the ways of ensuring this is by using Secure File transfer Protocol (SFTP) to move your files. This helps to ensure that your website files are safe in transmission and can’t be intercepted. SFTP is an option that not all web hosting providers support.
If your desired web host doesn’t support SFTP it can be slightly worrying. However, you can also opt to work around this by using a VPN connection.
Software Patching Tools
Websites often use many different tools. For example, although WordPress might be your primary tool, you may decide to use other plugins – each of them considered a separate add-on. Irrespective of how your site is configured, keeping everything up to date is vital for your web security.
Some web hosting providers offer automated patching tools for popular applications such as WordPress. This will give you a single access point to keep an eye on everything you’re using and ensure they are all updated to the latest versions.
If you’re reading this guide it is likely that this is your first website and you’ve not had much experience with web hosting companies. As with any other product, web hosting also needs customer service in everything ranging from sales to technical support.
When it comes to web hosting companies it is important to note two key things – Type of channel and technical expertise.
Do: Try out the live chat support system.
Because these are online businesses, they often offer multiple channels of support to ease the burden on their staff. Support channels can range widely with everything from knowledge bases to on-call staff.
The first line of support is normally comprehensive information that allows users to learn and solve their own problems. Some web hosting companies have very extensive knowledge bases that even come with video tutorials and detailed how-to guides.
If that fails, then we come to more direct support where someone in the web hosting company helps you out. When choosing a web hosting company, always try to get as detailed information on their support system as possible.
For example, a web hosting company may say that they offer “24/7 support” but this can simply mean that you can submit a request to them for help anytime of the day. It doesn’t tell you WHEN support staff will get around to helping you.
Likewise, a ticketing system that promises you responses within “X” timeframe also doesn’t necessarily mean anything because most email or ticketing systems run by companies have automated responders today. Once your ticket is replied to by the autoresponder, your request for support is considered as “acknowledged”.
Ideally, talk to a customer service representative (using the live chat feature if they have one is fine) to get a feel of how the company’s response is like. This may help give you a general idea of what to expect in the future. I’ve noticed that companies with poor customer service often have front-line staff who are less concerned with customer’s real questions as compared to pressuring them to make a purchase.
Because web hosting companies often offer a wide range of products, it can be a challenge for them to be knowledgeable in every technology. If you want to know that they have the expertise you need, then it would be better to look for a specialized web host.
Take for example web hosting companies like WP Engine or Kinsta. These are web hosts that specialize in Managed WordPress hosting and can assure you that their technical support is directly skewed to help WordPress-based customers.
Ask: Can you help me migrate my websites?
If you already own a website and are moving it to a new host for some reason, it might prove to be a challenge. This is especially true if you have not done it before. Some web hosts offer to help new users migrate websites if they sign on with them.
The difference is in cost. I have seen web hosting providers offer to help migrate websites for free (so long as they comply with certain conditions). Meanwhile, others consider it a premium service and try too charge users varying fees, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of dollars.
If you need help with website migration, make sure you find out how much your new host is planning to charge you in advance! Also be sure to read their terms and conditions, because most easy migrations often apply to cPanel websites only.
How Much is Too Little?
Pricing is something that affects almost everyone who wants to own a website. There are many different types of websites around and unfortunately, not all of them were built with commercial intent. This means that different website owners will have different budgets for their web hosting needs.
Still, web hosting companies need cash to survive and provide the costly equipment involved in the web hosting business. Servers, infrastructure, support staff – all this cost quite a lot. They also must consider the competition and offer product that are good, at reasonable prices.
From a web owner perspective, you might think that isn’t relevant and you only need to find the cheapest that can fit your needs. However, I beg to differ. When I mention the costs involved in the web hosting business -you need to remember that the costs are applicable no matter what price the web hosting service is being offered at.
This means that if a web hosting company is offering a competitive product at rates lower than industry standard, either it is making a loss, or it has cut corners somewhere. This could be in any area from server equipment to customer support – something must go.
Before signing up for the cheapest deal you can find, I urge you to consider the key factors in choosing your web hosting provider that I have stated in the first few sections of this guide.
Signup and Renewal Prices
Ask: How much do you charge when I renew my hosting plan?
Because of the extremely competitive nature of the web hosting industry, I have seen web hosting companies slash prices significantly to entice new customers. Signing up for their hosting plans could see you buy-in at very significant discounts even on normal days.
These offers are fantastic and can be a huge cost saver especially if you are willing to sign on for longer contracts. However, you need to remember that these offers are exactly that – sign-on bonuses. Always make sure you know the renewal prices for the plans you sign on for or you could get a nasty shock when you get the bill for renewal.
InMotion Hosting offers their entry level Launch Plan for only $3.99 per month but renews at $7.99 per year subsequently. This means that after your sign on period, your web hosting costs increase by more than 100% on renewal!
InterServer on the other hand doesn’t increase renewal prices and sells its standard web hosting at $54 per year so long as you are not paying for it monthly. It’s only if you pay at monthly rates that the price is $5 per month, which works out to $60 per year.
These are just two examples of how web hosting companies are incentivizing new sign-ups. As a future website owner, it would be better for you to calculate long-term cost rather than the cost of your web hosting for only the first few years.
Most website hosting companies will have some form or other of money-back guarantee to assure you of the confidence they have in their service. This is important and do not disregard it! Many things can happen and there are so many areas which can potentially create dissatisfaction with a web host.
Signing up for a web hosting service means that you’re spending money up front for a service that could span anything from one to five years. Most web hosts will limit your money-back guarantee periods from between 30 to 90 days from the date you sign on.
There are a few gems out there that offer anytime money-back guarantees, which is why it is important to take note of this clause. It reassures you that if at any point something goes wrong, you won’t be throwing away all that money you’ve spent up-front.
There are also details you need to pay attention to in their refund policy, such as how the refunds will be given (return of cash via same channel made as payment, store credit, etc), how long the process takes and so on. Where possible, try to avoid refunds that only offer store credit!
5. Other Features to Consider
Other features usually include things that are nice to have but not crucial in a web host. This can range form external tools you can easily make use of on your own to requirements that business websites may have to adhere to as part of corporate policy.
Content Distribution Network Support
Ask: Does my plan come with free CDN?
Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) have today become a vital part of the global web hosting system. They work by offering websites access to their own servers to cache data at different points around the world, helping them to speed up content delivery to visitors.
Although you use a CDN with your website on your own, some web hosting service providers will include basic CDN services for you by default, saving you the trouble. A2 Hosting for example has Cloudflare accounts for even their cheapest web hosting plans.
CDNs like Cloudflare can offer a lot of advanced features that you might not get with standard web hosting accounts. In a way, they help power up websites even with their free services.
For example, not all web hosting accounts might support HTTP/2 which speeds up the process of loading scripts by running them in parallel. With Cloudflare, all websites can become HTTP/2 capable with the click of a button.
Ask: Is your hosting service eco-friendly?
Because of the immense power requirements that are required to run web hosting data centers, it is becoming increasingly important to users that the web hosting they are opting for is “Green”. Going green means that the web host acknowledges its business isn’t eco-friendly and takes steps to rectify that in order to contribute back to the environment.
It does this in a variety of ways, such choosing data centers that are eco-friendly in design, buying renewable energy certificates, carbon offset certificates or other means. Some are ways to reduce energy draw while others help offset the carbon emission created by their energy consumption.
Opting for a green hosting provider may be optional, but it is something to consider. Data centers each use approximately 200 terawatt hours of energy a year. Alone, that is already a massive amount but is further compounded by the huge number of data centers needed to run the Internet.
Number of Sites Supported
Ask: How many websites can I host in my account?
How many websites you can run on a web hosting account often differs not just from one web host to another but also on which plan you choose. This is something you need to know if you’re planning on hosting more than one site on your web hosting account.
Ask: Is there a built-in site builder in your system?
If you have little to no technical skills, you can still build a website if your host has a website builder included with their accounts. Website builders let you use a drag and drop interface to build websites quickly and easily.
Some website hosting companies may include a website builder in their package, while others build their entire web hosting business around the premise of a website builder. An example of the latter can be Wix, Weebly or Squarespace.
Ask: How can I install [insert software names]?
Yet another feature useful to have is the inclusion of software installers with some web hosting provider plans. Where some site owners may already know what they have in mind, others may decide to experiment a little.
Software installers are an easy way to set up various web applications for use. If this feature interest you, do take not of what software applications the software installer can set up to ensure they can meet your requirements. Common applications included in software installers include WordPress and Drupal.
Type of Control Panel
Just as the world of operating systems is mostly dominated by Windows and Linux, web hosting platforms are similar as well. Most web hosting service providers will offer users a choice of Windows or Linux based hosting – each of which comes with their own control panel.
Windows hosting comes with the Plesk control panel, whereas Linux offers cPanel. The differences between them are more a matter of preference than anything else as both are good and easy to use. The main issue you might face as a website owner is if you opt for a web hosting provider which uses a proprietary form of control panel.
Proprietary control panels present users with their own difficulty as sometimes they may be hard to use. This isn’t always the case, but the almost universal effect is that your avenues of help can be a little limited as it will be restricted to your web host alone.
By Failing to Plan You Are Planning to Fail
By now, if you haven’t already started screaming and running for the hills you may have realized that choosing the right web hosting provider can be a significant challenge. The best way to approach the whole matter is simply a matter of proper planning.
Choosing the right web host is as much an introspective matter than it is of finding the perfect host. It should be more a matter of choosing the best web hosting provider that is able to fit your needs specifically. It is a case of what’s sauce for the goose, isn’t necessarily sauce for the gander.
With this checklist I believe I’ve highlighted most of the key points you should be taking into consideration.