How to Choose a Web Host
Today, the world runs on the web, and if you want to do business, it is pretty much mandatory that you have web hosting. The question is, what type of hosting do you need, what questions do you need to ask, and can you get by with free hosting, or do you need to pay for commercial hosting? Depending on your needs, you may be looking at one method or another, feel free to jump to the appropriate section, I’ve attempted to write this article, so eachis independent of the other.
Choosing a Free Web Host
One thing that is pretty much a fact of free web hosting life is advertising. Advertising is the way that a hosting company can offer the space and resources for free, they place advertising on your site, in exchange you get free hosting. The question you need to consider is whether or not you’re comfortable with this. Some free web hosts place a pop-up on your site or automatically insert banner code in the header. These can be annoying and often unrelated to your niche, so the decision becomes, are you willing to pay to have a website that is entirely your own?
FACT: There are some free web hosts who only place a small text link in the footer of your site, this is the preferred method of advertising.
Note: While we’d like to get something for free, should you find a web host that offers free hosting without advertising, consider whether they are altruistic or foolish. If there is no revenue coming in, it’s a high possibility the company may shut their doors in short order.
How much storage do you need and how much room is offered with a free web hosting plan? While the average website contains five megs or less, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is the right amount of storage for you. Do you need to host video or sound files? If yes, then you can quickly eat you the available space.
NOTE: While it’s possible to upload all the video you need to Youtube, then embed the video on your site, not all free web hosts allows the inserting of Iframes, which is the method used to insert a Youtube video.
Different web hosts` have various means of uploading files, some use a proprietary method, others use Cpanel, but the most widely used way is till FTP (File Transfer Protocol).
Many free web hosts only allow you to build out your site using their online tools. IN some cases these are fine, allowing you to create a simple website, but what happens when its time to expand? Find out whether or not you have the option to move these files to another host, or if they are built in a proprietary fashion and only word on that particular host.
FTP access is a web standard, and while it’s not as popular today as in past years, having it available is a plus. Find out ahead of time what is the method used to upload your files.
File Size and Type Limitations
In most cases, someone creating a basic site can get buy uploading only text and a few; pictures, be they gif, jpg, or png, but what if you need more? For example, if you’re creating a program that has an .exe extension, it is very doubtful a free host will allow the file to be uploaded. This isn’t done to thwart your efforts, it’s merely a security measure, but still, it may affect what you are trying to do. Most likely if you’re trying to do that type of site, you won’t be looking for a free host, but one that offers better alternatives.
Speed and Reliability
In today’s fast-paced world, no one wants to wait, and particularly not for a slow loading website. Fast loading pages are a must. Otherwise, you will quickly lose visitors, likely never to return.
Secondly is uptime or reliability, will your host be online when someone accesses your site? Remember, this is your doorway to the world, your announcement saying, “Here I am.” If someone finds your website on Google, clicks and finds the site is down, they’ll quickly go to another vendor, that’s merely a fact of web life.
While it’s probably possible to run a website without PHP (or other programming languages), your site would be limited in functions. There are sites that allow you to embed their tools on your site, however, then you’re dependant on other sites, some of which may not be reliable.
If you want to unleash the power of your website honestly, you need access to PHP, Ruby on Rails and other languages. Beyond this, what type of environment do they run under? Meaning, are their functions limited in power and scope? Can they access and send email? Do they allow you to install a MySQL database, necessary for advanced functionality?
Each month we all pay our Internet bill right? While we might be paying for multiple services, one of they will be data or bandwidth. Each time someone accesses your website, the data is sent to their browser and what is posted is measured in bandwidth. Some free hosts will limit the amount of bandwidth you can use, either daily, monthly or in some cases both. While it’s difficult to recommend a minimum amount needed, which is dependent on you, your traffic/visitor and the type of site you run, bandwidth is indeed a serious consideration.
Commercial Web Hosting – What to Look For
If you’ve decided you’re going to pay for hosting, then you need reliability and speed. You’ll want a host that guarantees the site will be online for at least 99% of the time, hopefully, 99.5%. There is a tremendous amount of competition for your dollars, so take the time to shop around, read the reviews and ask relevant questions.
Data Transfer and Bandwidth
When you see a host advertise, “Unlimited Bandwidth,” should you believe it? In most cases, no you shouldn’t, it’s similar to an all-you-can-eat buffet, they expect you to eat a certain amount, possibly go back for seconds, but if you go back for thirds, you’ll start to get hard looks. It’s much the same with bandwidth if you’re running advertising and your website has a good deal of graphics, it’s possible you can exceed your allotted bandwidth, possibly receiving a bill for overages. In this case, you’ll need to read the TOS (Terms of Service) to find out precisely what is meant by the word unlimited.
NOTE: In most cases, unless you are running a dedicated machine, your server will run out of resources before running out of bandwidth.
If your site grows over time, as you’d expect, your bandwidth will naturally increase, as visitors by, recommend your site to others and share on social media. With that thought, ask your host how they handle billing, should your site exceed the published bandwidth limits. Some places expect you to prepay for overages, which is not a good idea. Ideally, a host will bill you later, if your bandwidth charges are excessive.
CAUTION: The single worst situation is your website going offline if bandwidth is exceeded. If you grow over time, you’ll be able to predict the increase in traffic. If you are actively advertising, or plan to, discuss this with your web host ahead of time, ensuring your site is available when needed.
If you’re hosting music and video files, then you’re in an entirely different situation than what we’re discussing and have likely already made the necessary disk allotments. If you’re running a popular website, with text and images, it’s unlikely you’ll need more than 20 megs or so to run your site adequately. Hosting companies know this, and while they may advertise unlimited space, or “Today only, 100 megs of storage free”, don’t fall for it, or at least, don’t make your decision based solely on their offer.
It would be great if there were no issues on the web, but that is never the case, there will be problems. You want to choose a web host that is not merely competent, that’s critical, but also available 24/7/365. The net doesn’t operate on a time zone, the information flows continuously, and you need a support team who does the same. If you’re running an e-commerce site, people may shop at midnight, Sundays, holidays or 6: am, that’s the beauty of the net, and at least one reason you need fast and available tech support. Often, things are sailing smoothly along; then issues develop at the worst possible time. Read the reviews, email support at midnight, then again on Sunday morning, check their response time. You may never need them, but it’s more likely you’ll need them more often than you think.
There are an amazing amount of programs that can make your website much more efficient. Many of these program run on PHP and require a database like MySQL. It’s imperative, particularly if you’re paying for hosting that your server runs the latest versions of PHP, Perl, SSL, .htaccess, SSH, and Cron. IN all likely hood most reputable hosts will have the most recent versions installed, but it never hurts to ask and be sure.
NOTE: While the industry of web hosting is continually evolving, there are still some hosts who limit the programs you can run, or install them on a case-by-case basis. This is least desirable, as you must wait for tech support to approve then install a script. You’ll want the ability to modify your .htaccess file which can be used for a variety of functions including SEO, password protecting directories and stopping bandwidth theft and more.
SSH is useful for testing programs, maintaining your databases, particularly valuable in today’s web environment. Cron, which runs programs on a set schedule can also be accessed via SSH.
NOTE: While most of the facilities mentioned can be run via Cpanel, not every host uses Cpanel, and there are many people who prefer to access those services directly, rather than via a GUI like Cpanel.
SSL (Secure Sockets Layer)
Whether or not your need SSL will depend on the intent of your website. Are you planning to accept credit cards or collect sensitive data? If so, then you would need SSL. If you visited any sites that sell merchandise, Amazon, for instance, you’d notice their web address begins with https// instead of the more standard HTTP://.
Any reputable web host will likely have the ability to install a security certificate that gives you the SSL protection. It almost always does cost extra, it is an additional service, and you’ll need to have your tech support install the certificate unless you are skilled in doing so.
NOTE: You can avoid having SSL if you are using a third-party service, i.e., Paypal, to collect your credit card payments.
Email, Autoresponders, and Forwarders
Even today, with the prevalence of social media, email remains the number one way to reach your customers. That said, your host should allow you set up email services on your site, for instance, [email protected] or [email protected] Additionally, you should have the ability to set an autoresponder message that is automatically sent to the person who posted the email. It might be something as simple as a vacation message, or a more detailed email about your product or services.
The email accounts you set up should be accessible via POP3 or IMAP and reachable on your desktop or mobile device.
Different hosts will have various methods of allowing users to access the administration section of their website. The most common control panel is Cpanel, in use on thousands, if not millions of sites. This is an area where an average user can perform complex functions without having to know the underlying code. For instance, changing passwords, adding email accounts, setting cron jobs, uploading files, setting up a database and much more. Most web hosts will have some type of control panel, but be sure. There is nothing more frustrating than having to contact tech support to change your password or add an email account.
There will be cases when you need an additional domain, possibly for business, maybe for a friend, perhaps for a client. Should that happen, do you need to sign up all over again, or does your chosen host allow you to host multiple domains under the one account? It’s not unusual for web hosts to allow both multiple domains and add-on domains, but be clear in your understanding, you don’t want surprises later on.
CAUTION: IF you have limited bandwidth or storage provision, be advised that these additional domains would count against your limits.
Generally speaking, there are servers that run on Windows and servers that run on Unix, is one better than another?
It not so much is one better, instead what the wide variety of software available to you is expecting. In most, but not all, cases, the vast majority of software, particularly PHP, is expecting an Apache server running on a Unix machine. Also, since WordPress has become the content management system of choice, WordPress, in particular, doesn’t operate smoothly on a Window’s server, so there is no sense asking for problems, you’ll have enough of those anyway.
NOTE: It is possible to run WordPress on a Windows server, but there is much more configuration needed.
Should problems develop down the road, it will be much easier to find someone who understands an Apache server running Unix, then finding a certified Windows technician.
While I’m writing this article on a Windows-based PC, I rarely, if ever, suggest a Windows server. There is situations when a website was developed with Windows technology, i.e., ASP (Active Server Pages). However, should I find myself in that position, I’d take the time to port the pages over to PHP and go with a Unix based server.
While in life, it’s often true that you get what you pay for, that’s not always the case with a web server. Yes, the price is an essential factor, but competition is brutal in that sector, and you can always find a better price, or a company running a special. The critical factor should be reliability and customer support, only then should price enter the equation.
Monthly Plans vs. Yearly Plans
Speaking personally, I never opt for the annual plan, certainly not when first signing up. Why? Simple really, if I don’t have an existing relationship with a host, I cannot know how they will perform over time. Based on that, I don’t want to be locked into an annual contract should I need to change hosts.
While it’s true that I could save money with an annual plan, the small savings is not worth the problems if they turn out to be a lousy host. Later, I can choose to switch to an annual plan, but only after I’m satisfied they are reliable and satisfy my hosting needs.
It is possible for a company to create a website, offer hosting plans, but not own any web servers and no tech support department. No, they aren’t scamming you, they are reselling hosting from another established web host, often with “White Label Branding.” White label means the reseller does not mention the actual host anywhere on these web pages and for all practical purposes, they are the host.
Resellers aren’t necessarily bad, and in some cases, you can get a better deal with them, than with the actual host. Should you find yourself investigating a reseller, it’s then important to find out all you can about both the reseller and the real host. Generally speaking, it’s far better to deal with the actual hosting company, which ensures you are talking with the people who actually can fix issues should they occur.
International Web Hosting
The Internet is worldwide. Thus there are web hosts in nearly every country. Do you have a website that deals with India and their culture? If so, and if you feel your visitors will come mainly from that area of the world, it’s possible to get hosting in India, or any of multiple other countries. The question is, should you do so? If your website will deal mostly with US visitors, and if your web hosts are in your city, it would be a wise decision to use that host, assuming all other factors are considered. This would allow you to deal with American customer support, visit the company in person if needed, or otherwise transact business in a fashion you are familiar with.
Beyond this, based on the fact competition is high in the US, you’ll often find better prices from US-based web hosting companies.
A lot can be learned by finding out what others think, but doing so might be more difficult than you think? While social media and webmaster forums are a big help, reviews can be faked. It’s not that difficult to pay or have employees write glowing reviews. Conversely, negative reviews may be written by competitors. Read the reviews, but if possible, ask the opinion of someone you know and trust personally, to ensure you hear the truth.
Fact be told, three are no perfect hosts. It’s like the expression, “One man’s garbage, is another man’s treasure.” You’ll always find things you appreciate about a web host, and things you feel could be improved upon. One thing is sure; it’s not all about price. Don’t think that only because they are charging a high price, they’re superior, that’s often not the case and another reason I never initially go with an annual plan. I want a web host to prove themselves before I commit to a yearly contract.
On the other hand, never jump at a rock bottom price. The world of business, of which web hosting is one, needs cash flow to survive. If they don’t charge enough to pay for top of the line equipment, software and personnel, they are not likely to place a high value on you and your data.
What you need to find is a balance between price, features, and reliability. It’s a quest, but one we all need to take to get our websites online.