Update: March, 2014

I’ve removed two recommended hosting services because of recent problems. So until I’m satisfied they have returned to a satisfactory level of customer service I’ve pulled them from my suggestions. The rest remains the same.

I think the number one question I’m asked is “Which web hosting service should I use?”

And then I get the “Well, this guy told me I should use —” or “I’ve tried 3, 4, 5 web services and they all were awful.” This is usually followed by detailed description of how the person was “ripped off” (some were genuinely ripped off, but that’s for reasons we will discuss elsewhere).

Before You Sign-up With a Web Hosting Service

If I asked you what vehicle I should buy for my business, you’d say, “Well, it depends upon what you want to do”, right? It’s the same with web services. The absolute minimum that you need to know before shopping for a web hosting service is:

  1. What you want to do and communicate with your website?
  2. What features do I need (for example, do I need WordPress support)?
  3. What you can afford to pay?
  4. Who is going to do the work to build and maintain the website?

There are a lot of other things to consider, so I’ve written a handy little worksheet available here (some day soon I’ll have time to make the style match this site).

Next question is:

Do You Need or Want Your Own Domain Name?

(Know this stuff and want to jump to the skinny on my Recommended Hosting Services? Click Here.)

The domain name is the bit that ends with .com or .net or .biz or whatever.

If you are in a guerrilla bootstrapping situation (like starting a business for under $100), you can skip your own domain name and use a free web hosting or blog service like Google Sites or WordPress.com. If you use one of these free services your URL (web address) will read thisismywebsite.google.com or thisismywebsite.wordpress.com. (And your email will be whatever free email service you use like mail.google.com, Hotmail or Yahoo!) Eventually, as your business grows, you will want your own domain name.

If you want the authority of your own domain name, you will need to license one from a domain name registrar. These are businesses that have been authorized by ICANN (the international group that controls the Internet) to hand-out domain names.

Some web hosting services will offer a free domain name registration when you purchase a web hosting account. Be absolutely certain the domain name is registered in your name.

Why? Because if you are unhappy with your service and want to move your web site, you want to transfer your domain name. You can only do that if it is registered in your name. If the web hosting service also is an official ICANN domain name registrar, you don’t have to worry. If you have any doubts, just ask before you sign-up for an account.

If you want to make absolutely certain the domain name is registered in your name, register your domain name before you sign-up with a hosting service.

How much does a domain name cost? Right now the price for a 1-year license is between US$8—16.00.

I have used dotster.com (who recently purchased domain.com) for over 10 years with complete satisfaction. Transferring and managing my domain names has been easy. Since I register several domain names through my account, I get a discount on each one. There also are discounts for registering for several years at one time.

Okay, I have my domain name. Now what?

The next question is whether you are doing your own website development and maintenance. If you are using someone else, they may offer or require you to use their web hosting service as well. (Ssh! They probably are re-selling space that they buy from a large hosting service or are a re-seller getting a referral fee for every client they sign-up.) At the very least, your web designer will have someone they like to work with or recommend.

If, however, you are wanting to do your website changes, then you have lots and lots of choices.

How do you make a final web hosting service selection?

First, you are going to want to use a CMS- (Content Management System) based website. Trust me on this. You want to be able to make your own changes to your website content 24/7.  As you know, I usually recommend WordPress to small businesses and organizations. If, however, WordPress seems overwhelming because of the many options available to customize it, there are some web hosting services like Squarespace.com that provide a limited set of templates and fewer options. All of the web hosting services I recommend (see list on the right-hand column of the page or below) offer a “web site builder” program (as well as supporting WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and other CMS programs).

Now consider your other needs.

These days any competitive web hosting service offers plenty of disk space, bandwidth, unlimited email accounts and so forth that a small business needs. The differences are in the finer details. Does your business or organization have any special needs? For example, does your business have special autoresponder needs for your email accounts? One of my clients required that each and every email receive a custom autoresponder for every staff email account. So Westhost would not work for them, but Dreamhost and Bluehost were perfect. Do you need streaming video capability? Or have a special industry data entry program that has specific requirements? Maybe you want to integrate your Google or third-party calendar into your site.

Some of my favorite features are:

WordPress Automatic Upgrade Support — Starting with version 2.7, WordPress began offering the ability to upgrade inside the WordPress Administration area. Now you can also search the themes and plugins at WordPress.org, install them and upgrade them from inside the WordPress Administration area — provided your web hosting service configuration allows you to. Now this isn’t a critical issue, but once you’ve gotten used to automatic upgrade support (especially when you’re upgrading 20-30 WordPress installations on student sites), it’s like having automatic transmission and then going back to manual — on a hill. All of the web hosting services I recommend supports this feature.

Live Chat Support — instead of having to call technical support, hang out with a headset on so I can type while talking, worry about one of us not understanding the other’s accent and being conscious of how much time is passing, I can open a Live Chat window in my web browser, type in my question or problem and a technical support person will type a response. If it takes a few minutes for the support tech (or me) to look the up an answer, I don’t care. I can still do other things (and so can the support person) so there’s a lot less pressure on both sides. Plus it’s always available 24/7. Both Westhost and Bluehost offer Live Chat Support.

What’s on your list? Some web hosting services offer your own chat program, others will send your email to a Google Gmail account (great spam filtering). Some offer live streaming for video and audio. There are literally dozens of features. You need to decide what do you absolutely have to have and what would you like.

If you are planning on using WordPress (or Joomla or Drupal), you will need a web hosting service with:

  1. MySQL 5.0 or greater
  2. PHP 5.2.4 or greater
  3. the mod_rewrite Apache module

And if you are in doubt, you can always write to the web hosting service and ask before you give them any money.

So what web hosting services do I recommend?

After working with a variety of hosting services through the years, I have found three I enjoy using. Therefore, I joined their affiliate program. (This means that when you click on my affiliate links and purchase any service from them, I get a referral fee. The reason so many blogs recommend GoDaddy is that they pay the most in referral fees — and they have to for a reason.) I only recommend services that I have used or are currently using and found to provide excellent service and value. So here they are in reverse alphabetical order.

WestHost - 175x225
Westhost is what I use for my student “sandboxes” where each student gets his or her own WordPress installation for training and testing. I have had as many as 20 different WordPress sites installed without any problems. Westhost offers unlimited MySQL databases with even their most basic account. This is where I fell in love with the WordPress automatic upgrade. Imagine having to upgrade 20 installations with FTP! Westhost also offers Live Chat Support which came in handy when I scrambled a database late one night. Westhost is in process of converting their account management program to C/Panel, which is my personal favorite (and one of the most popular among dominant hosting services). You can also get a free 1-year domain name registration with a new account. The Personal Package (which is plenty for most small businesses) runs as little as US$6.95 for 36-month pre-pay contract, $8.95 for a 24-month pre-pay, $10.95 for a 1-year pre-pay and $12.95 for quarterly payment.

Bluehost came to my attention working with some clients. Several times I found myself working with people already using Bluehost — and loving it. I talked with some other web developers and they praised Bluehost as well. Bluehost has a huge backbone connection (this means they have the fastest Internet connection possible), offer unlimited data storage and a unique drag-and-drop website builder (for those of you who don’t want to use WordPress but want an easy do-it-yourself solution). They also have the Live Chat Support  and live streaming for video (thanks to that backbone connection). They use C/Panel for their account management (which makes me happy) and they are about to get a new account from me (as soon as I have time to do all the packing and moving). And yes, they also offer a 30-day trial account and free 1-year domain name registration. Bluehost also offers a US$6.95 per month (US$250.20) for a 36-month contract, US$7.95 per month (US$190.80) for a 24-month contract or US$8.95 per month (US$107.40) for a 12-month contract. Bluehost is the biggest hosting service on my recommended list. Sometimes web hosting services can’t keep pace with their growth, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Bluehost.

affiliate_link (Yes, they are running a special promotion right now)

FatCow has a funny name and an unconventional website, but I’ve had several students in my last four classes rave about their Customer Service. So I took a look. FatCow is a great choice for any environmentally-conscious businesses. FatCow is 100% wind-powered and works to be as Green as possible. On a more practical note, FatCow offers a free domain name or transfer with new accounts, unlimited databases (you know how I love that), unlimited domains on a single account, and all the rest of the usual suspects — plus phone, email & live chat support 24/7/365. FatCow is also using C/Panel for your account management program (although they have it labeled as “beta,” one of my students has been using it for over a year now). FatCow has been offering some pretty aggressive specials lately, os you stand a good chance of getting a bargain.

There are tens of thousands more web hosting service options. I’ve whittled the list to three that I can recommend to avoid “choice paralysis.” You may also want to check with friends or other reviews, but always check your list of the features you need or want at hand before making a decision.