what you need to know when choosing a web host

If you’re planning on having a website, you’re gonna need a web host. A web host is a company with servers that store your website files and makes them accessible to internet users. the web host is like a landlord who rents you a house or apartment. For a website to be hosted though, it will need to have a domain name. a domain name is a name associated with a website that follows the protocol: www.something.com. www stands for world wide web and .com, short for ‘commercial’, is just an extension used for categorization purposes. consider the domain name as the title of registration of a website. it’s a unique name that will be associated with your website and will serve as its address. by hosting your website, a web host gives you a web address also referred as url, which is what people type on their browser’s address bar to view your webpages. before even considering having a web host you need to decide what type of website you need. broadly speaking, web hosting services fall into two categories: hosted or self hosting.

hosted vs self hosting

the most common type of hosting service is self hosting. It has long been the standard on the web. you build your website or have it developed then, to make it accessible to the world wide web, you purchase a plan with a hosting company. though some offer monthly plans, you’re better off going with a yearly plan as it is usually cheaper. self hosting service is more suited to the do-it-yourselfer, the advanced user or someone who wants to have more control.

a hosted service is an application platform that provides you with templates that you can customize to easily create your own website in a few steps with no technical knowledge. some of these hosting services are free and others charge you a monthly fee. this type of hosting is more suited to someone who doesn’t want to bother with the nitty-gritty of building a website but wants a web presence fast, free or at a low cost. we’re not gonna cover this service at length since it offers you a full package with few options.

hosting packages

if you’re new to the web and shopping for a web host, you may be overwhelmed with all the terminology that sound like greek. depending on what your needs are, the option you choose will vary in terms of storage, bandwidth, speed, functionality and security ranging in importance and prices from low to high you have:

  • shared hosting – usually recommended for basic websites, as it’s the most economical way to get online. your site is stored on a server with other websites that share the same resources. because of that, there are a number of down sides, such as low speed, reliability and security.
  • vps hosting – recommended for more advanced users who may need to install specific packages or software not provided by shared hosting. your website is placed on a server with other websites, but unlike shared hosting, it resides in its own partition which behaves like a virtual server within a server.
  • dedicated servers – with a dedicated server, your website gets access to the full server, since it’s not shared with any other users. this allows for faster performance, as you have all the server’s resources entirely, this is a good choice for websites that requires a lot of system resources, or need a higher level of security. this is the recommended route for websites with lots of visitors (traffic) or custom requirements not available in a shared hosting environment.

basic requirements

at a minimum, all hosting packages offer some basic features. web space where you can store your website files so they can be accessible on the internet; the ability to upload your website files to the hosting server via file transfer protocol (ftp); the ability to create email accounts. a control panel to help you manage your website files and functions. also by today’s standards, most web hosts will give you access to at least one database and a way to administer it. everything else is extra that you may never use but some which are critical if you’re going to use applications such as wordpress or joomla. they are automated installation scripts like fantastico or softalicious and phpmyadmin for database administrator.

control panel

a control panel is like a dashboard where you can find all the options for managing your hosting account. there is a section for email. that’s where you create new email addresses, forwarders etc… there are other sections for file management, databases, etc…if you want to create or update ftp accounts, set up or modify a database or database users. though there is a multitude of control panels, one of the most popular is cpanel, as it’s used by the majority of web hosts. so if you’re dealing with a lot of web hosting, familiarity can be added convenience. others include plesk, centos and h-sphere, to name a few…

tech support

whether you’re a novice or an advanced user, everybody needs tech support once in a while. you wake up hoping to ring up a lot of sales on a busy day but when you check your site, you have a grey screen that says ‘cannot connect to the server’ or something like that. you panic. log in to their website but schucks! they don’t have a phone number. tech support could be rolled into customer service but what makes it different is how qualified the support team is in solving technical issues. you don’t wanna be dealing with a web host that is clueless each time there’s an issue. all web hosts will tell you that they don’t support third party applications. so if your wordpress or joomla is acting funny, it’s not really something that most will be willing to take a look at. at a minimum, they’re required to troubleshoot any issues stemming from their own servers.

customer service

in this age of the internet, a lot of businesses, online and offline, are limiting phone support or cutting the cord altogether. depending on what your needs are, it may be helpful to check how responsive their customer service is. do they have a contact phone number? how long is the average wait time? or do they have only web-based customer service? do you have to reach them by email only and how long do you have to wait before you get a response. or do they provide online chat for a faster response? it’s your money, so great customer service should be part of the package.

cost

if you’re budget conscious or constrained, price is a consideration. web hosting rates can range from free to an upward of $99/month depending on the configuration. a free webhost is not recommended for a business website. what you gain on the one hand, you lose on the other in reliability, security and service – if your pages are not plastered with ads. in the end, everything should be factored into the price. it’s not unreasonable to pay between $3.99 and $6.99 for shared hosting.

reliability

when you shop for web hosting you’re regaled with claims of 99.99% uptime, redundant capacity and a lot of gobledigook that lay people cannot understand. When you have a website, especially for business, you’d want it to be up at all time. that would be ideal but in real world, internet notwithstanding, computers break down or need updates and maintenance. so when they claim 99.99% uptime, that means their servers are up almost all the time, which is pretty awesome. fact of the matter is that you won’t know until after you signed up. if you’re not the kind that is checking your website regularly, it may even be down more often than you know until a perplexed customer calls you saying ‘I was trying to access your website but it says “cannot be found” or something like that’. the best way to check the reliability of a web host is to ask questions on niche forums, review sites and people who have used their service.

security

data security should be top of mind when reviewing a web host. all web hosts will tell you that they’re not responsible for the security of your website. this is simply due to the fact that nobody can guarantee you absolute security on the internet. yet, there are some web hosts who are more proactive and implement some basic security checks to prevent the most common hacks. some web hosts also have better crisis response systems in case of a security breach. another safeguard is the availability of an automated backup system to restore web data when it has been compromised. in addition to their internal backup systems, more web hosts provide you with the option of setting up backups of your files according to a frequency that suits your desires. one thing to keep in mind is that backups do occupy disk space, which is often not unlimited.

speed

though not related to reliability, speed is also a factor to consider when choosing a web host. speed is the time it takes for your web page to load on a browser. it depends on two things basically: one is the distance data travels from the server hosting your site to the local computer. if your business serves a local geographic area, it is best to find a web host with servers located near your place of business. the second factor is how many websites your web host crams into a server. if there are too many requests on the server, data will accordingly travel slower increasing the load time of your web pages.

bandwidth

bandwidth, to put it simply, is the amount of data that you can transfer in a given amount of time, usually a month. a more appropriate name for it would be monthly data transfer. this may sound too far-fetched but unless you have a basic website with limited traffic, you may run into bandwidth issues. each time you type the address of a website on your browser, you make a request to the server to send the necessary files for the display of that page. if you have a multimedia-rich website with a lot of images, video and sound files, your bandwidth requirements will accordingly be more than for a basic website. likewise, even with a basic website, if you have 100,000 visitors to your site, your data transfer needs will be bigger. some webhosts will set limits to your bandwidth while some offer unlimited data transfer.

scalability

when you’re in business, you cannot afford to overlook planning fro the future. as you grow, your needs change. of course if you outgrow your present web host you can switch anytime. there are some downsides when you change web hosts. your domain name will point to a different server. for the new info to propagate, that is: updated on all the servers around the globe, it may take from 24 to 48 hours. nobody would relish the idea of having their business website offline for such a long time. I have overseen such operations for clients. to mitigate the effects of the downtime, the changeover should be started at the slowest time for the business, for example saturday at midnight. that way, by start of day monday, if you’re lucky, the propagation is complete. having a good idea of what your future needs may be, can go a long way toward helping you choose a web host that will grow with you or can accommodate your future growth.

reviews

reviews are all important. you cannot rely too much on what hosting companies tell you about their business. so good reviews are like unbiased endorsements. though not a guarantee that the service offered will meet your needs, reviews can give you a good indication of the quality of service and answer a few other questions that you may have. there are quite a few review sites online that rate websites according to mysterious criteria. though you can see some hosts making the cut on almost all the lists, there are reasons to believe that they are rigged. I used to rely almost blindly on cnet reviews but since I saw godaddy and a few others I wouldn’t recommend listed there, I started thinking twice. though harder to come by, getting reviews from web owners who have actually used the service is a little more reliable. you can get second opinions on forums, groups on social networks like yelp, linkedin or facebook

extras

some web hosts offer a lot of extra extras, though most of them serve more as marketing pitch than they offer real value. if you’re planning to host many websites, you may consider a webhost that provides unlimited domains. unlimited domains though, is only useful if it goes with unlimited disk space and, if you’re using database-driven websites, unlimited databases. depending on how you plan on integrating search engine optimization (seo), it may be counterproductive to have a lot of websites with the same ip address. some web hosts boast of offering you over 500 extras – wonder how they had the patience to count that many!!! those include unlimited emails, like anybody needs a thousand emails! marketing suite, security suite, building tools, etc… most of these can simply be ignored, though a 30-day money back guarantee is just like money in the bank. if you’re not satisfied within that period of time, they’ll refund your money.