Like most things in life, there is no One-Size-Fits-All in web hosting solutions. And rarely can one web hosting service perfectly meet all of your wish list. You have to decide what is most important to you and what you can live with — or what you can live without. (Rather like finding a partner really.)
Beware the Bad Budget Boss
Too often we get hung up on looking for the cheapest deal. (This is why American Airlines and United are still in business.) I once sat in a near empty First Class section on a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles for only US$25 more than the people smashed together in economy. Yet I’m certain that if you’d asked those folks if they’d pay an extra US$25 for comfortable seating, earlier boarding, a free drink, guaranteed carry-on space and other amenities, most would have said yes. Why didn’t they get the same deal? Because the other passengers simply looked for the cheapest flight and didn’t check out other options.
There’s more to a good deal than price.
The best deal is the one that best serves all of your needs.
Beware the Signup Versus Renewal Price Hike
When looking at price, make certain you know the actual price of the service. Many hosting services offer special Signup prices to get you hooked, but may cost quite a bit more to renew. These companies count on you renewing rather than going through the hassle of moving your site and service (and it is a hassle no matter what “that guy” tells you; this is why so many web hosting services now offer website transfer for a nominal price). It’s like those credit cards offering 0% interest rates for a year to transfer or open an account — who then hit you with they whopping double-digit interest afterwards knowing you aren’t really going to pay off that maxxed out debt in a year. Sure, we all say we’re going to pay off the debt that first year but suddenly we suffering through the “What a Great Deal!” financial hangover.
Types of Web Hosting Service
Before you can choose a web hosting service, you need to know what kind of service you’re looking for. This will be based on the 5 Big Questions below, but here is a quick definition and estimate of costs for the various types of hosting services offer.
Shared Server Hosting: Typical entry option where you are one of many sites hosted on a single web server (computer). You are sharing access including disk space, CPU access and bandwidth. Think of it as communal living, except without the brown rice and tenant meetings. (Or maybe it’s more like that office refrigerator where someones going to complain if you take up a whole shelf with a week-old pizza or stash limburger cheese without an airtight wrapper.) Average costs: US$6/month regular price (with annual payment) to US$50 regular monthly price (with considerably more space, service or features).
Managed Hosting: Managed hosting can vary greatly from simply maintaining backups and optimization to full-blown content updating. The idea is that there will be some hand-holding and regular site monitoring in some form, usually with backups done and available for restoring downed sites. It also usually provides a specific amount of technical support and direct contact. Make certain you know what you are actually getting and expect to pay more for staff time provided. Think of this as living in a managed apartment complex; it may offer basic building maintenance or you may have a doorman and on-site superintendent for emergencies or maybe be even full, daily maid service. Average costs: Expect at least US$30/month for basic maintenance service and tech support to US$250/month+ or fully managed service.
Managed WordPress (or Other CMS) Hosting: Again, Managed WordPress, or other Content Management System, hosting runs the gamut based on site size and traffic, but you should get optimization for improved speed and greater security. Depending upon the service, you may get custom plugins or themes, custom site management tools and more. I highly recommend Managed WordPress hosting if you aren’t using an e-commerce solution like Shopify and aren’t really interested in learning internet technology. Over 27% of the Internet is now built on WordPress software so you can find whatever you need in the way of add-ons or themes. To maintain the speed and security there are, however, restrictions on what you can add-on and do in terms of custom-coding with your site. This is like living in a condominium with association rules and restrictions. Average costs: US$10/month regularly priced to US$130/month+ for large sites including an SSL Wildcard certificate. (Actually, you can get free managed WordPress hosting at WordPress.com, but you have severe limitations including no business or advertising or private domain name, but “bootstrappers” can use it as a starting point.)
Dedicated or Private Server: Basically, the server is yours. The hosting service simply keeps it up and connected to the internet. You’re going to need your on webmaster to maintain it and the software on it. But if you need the speed, the privacy or the total control this is your option. Average cost start at US$100/month regular price and go up. Think of it as single-family house ownership; the town keeps the streets paved and open, the sewer and water flowing and the rest if your responsibility (though there are some community deed restrictions and laws you need to comply with).
Reseller Hosting: For those people who are looking to start a web hosting or web development agency and setting up clients’ sites on the server. You should know what you really need and what questions you need to ask (like will your potential clients violate the web host’s Terms of Service Agreement?).
Cloud Hosting: Usually necessary for high-traffic or bandwidth-hog sites, and if you need this level of service, you know it and you’re development team will be delivering their report and recommendations shortly. (At the very least, you have a consultant, yes?)
Enterprise Hosting: Enterprise is for the really big guys. If you need enterprise hosting, you have an actual IT department that will be making recommends in their presentation at that meeting you’ve got scheduled.
To Get the Right Web Service, Start With the 5 Big Questions
1. How much e-commerce will you do? In other words, is your site mainly selling things or telling things?
If you are mainly focused on information and your income comes from services, donations, affiliate sales or advertising, then e-commerce is moot but allotted bandwidth and server speed may be crucial, especially if you rely on advertising income. If your income comes from selling things you deliver to customers, then focus on the best e-commerce solution for your business.
Do you really need a full e-commerce solution?
Is you site primarily a web store selling lots of products that you’ll be shipping? If so, then e-commerce features should be your first priority. And if you are taking international orders, then you definitely want to look at how each solution handles foreign currency, shipping costs calculations, taxes and possible restrictions.
If you are selling digital items, first decide how many and how you will handle distribution. If you are using digital product distributing service, that will be the bulk of your costs — if not your entire website service (though most creative artists also need a blog site to promote and build their audience, but this can be done very cheaply.) If you are unfamiliar with digital distribution services, here’s an excellent article on the Top 10 Online Services to Sell Digital Products Effortlessly (you know, of course, there’s actual effort involved).
You also need to budget more for a good e-commerce solution. E-commerce is far more complex with greater security needs than even the flashiest website. You will also need to pay for a SSL (Secure Socket Layer) connection. This is part of dedicated web e-commerce solutions like Shopify or Paypal, but may be an additional annual cost when setting up your own e-commerce solution like Woo Commerce or Magento.
If, on the other hand, you have just a few items to sell, only sell a few items seasonally, sell a simple subscription or solicit donations, you may just want to use a few Paypal payment buttons.
2. How much time — or money — are you willing to spend on website maintenance?
In other words, are you willing to devote at least 20-hours a month of your time or staff time to keeping your site’s server software up-to-date and optimized? Be honest here. If you really hate dealing with the technology, particularly geeky web technology, or it bores you, then plan on paying a bit more for managed web hosting or budget to hire a freelancer to regularly maintain your site (there are services for this as well).
I put this second because most people and organizations ignore this issue completely. They swear they will update the site, pay attention to security issues, do backups, read up on software demands and so forth — but they don’t do it until something bad happens. If you really hate working with technology, use Facebook to keep in touch because you “don’t have to think about it” or don’t know what operating system your computer — let alone your hosting service — uses, then please, please get managed hosting.
3. How will your drive traffic — and how much traffic — to the site?
Be realistic. Don’t over- or under-buy services. Initially, having massive disk space and data transfer limits are rarely important. (It’s often like grandma having 256GB on her iPhone 5S). Yes, it would be nice to have your site go viral but how likely is that. (I call that tactic the “Winning the Lottery,” and it’s about as good a marketing plan as it is a retirement plan.) You can start small with minimal capacity, but if you really plan to drive a lot of traffic to the site, either through viral marketing or advertising, then you need to be able to scale your web hosting service quickly. Make certain your web hosting service can make the necessary changes quickly and without disruption to your site.
And don’t be a pig! Greed kills. “Unlimited” space and bandwidth is never really unlimited. (See note about Terms of Service Agreement and account limitations below.) You wouldn’t expect to feed a family of 12 for the price of one All-You-Can-Eat Buffet meal, and you’d be appalled to see someone start shoveling the buffet into a cooler while shouting, “It says All You Can Eat so I’m taking as much as I want!” If you have a shared hosting service (the least expensive), then at a certain point of success your web hosting service may require you to pay more. If you are using the resources, you should expect to pay for the resources. This is where the ability to scale up and move to a dedicated server (or servers) is handy. If you actually need more space and bandwidth because your site is so successful, you shouldn’t begrudge the costs.
For example, I recently considered moving a hosting account to a managed WordPress service now offered by my web hosting service. Unfortunately, to make the shift I’d have to treat it as a complete transfer to a new account and service. Eventually, I will make the shift but for now I opted to test the managed WordPress hosting at another web hosting service with a different domain name. On the other hand, my Westhost web hosting service made it easy to upgrade my basic business account when a surge in WordPress students required over 100 individual installations. Since my bandwidth usage only spiked for a few days, while my average bandwidth usage leveled off within a month, Westhost didn’t squawk.
(Though I did get a call once from one of the techs saying, “Uhm, there’s nothing wrong with your account or anything, but, uhm, we were wondering what you do because we couldn’t help noticing you have over 80 installations of WordPress and we have a bet going on about what you’re doing with them?” Once I explained that I taught hands-on WordPress classes and my students used the installations, the Westhost tech said, “Wow! That’s cool!” When I asked who won the bet, he replied, “No one. None of us thought of that. But we couldn’t figure out why you had so many installations, but no traffic, and then a big spike, and then nothing for several weeks before another big spike — and almost no content.” I decided it was best not to ask what they actually thought I was doing and he didn’t offer…)
4. What are the account limitations?
Knowing the web hosting terms of service limits tells you three things about the company you are considering:
- How generous is that company really? Do they promise the sun, the moon and the stars but actual commit to showing up and taking your money (like certain politicians)? Or do the limitations match what they promote on the sales pages?
- How transparent is that hosting company? Can you trust them? Did they try to hide something in the fine print? (Honest web hosting companies have very clear guidelines and accessible information about limitations.)
- Do you want to associated with that web hosting service? Is it a good neighborhood? Do they allow porn or pirating or other services that could harm your organization’s (or your) reputation by association? Are they likely to get shut down or attract the attention of the Dark Web slime? (You can also look at their advertising and sales copy. Consider whether it seems honest, trustworthy and professional. Or do they make suspiciously “Too-Good-To-Be-True” offers or use titillating images (yes, I’m looking at you GoDaddy).)
5. What features do you really need or want?
Make an actual list and prioritize. It’s too easy to get distracted by the shiny options dangled in front of you or fall for the macho bragging. You don’t want to end up like those guys trying wa-aaay to hard to impress by hanging all those gold chains around their thickening their necks. The really cool and powerful look sleek and streamlined.
Do you want unlimited email forwarders, an automatic script installer & manager for WordPress or other specific software, live chat support 24/7, .htaccess, SSL certification or support for a specific SSL certifier(like the free one — see Add-On costs below), or the ability to run cron jobs? If you’re head starts spinning when you read a list of service features or you find screenshots of the Control Panel terrifying, you may want to seriously consider a managed hosting service based on your primary needs.
Oh, and if “some guy” tells you that you have to have a specific feature, be certain you fully understand why the feature is recommended it and why you need it. (Yes, I include me in this. Never accept the excuse “Because I Said So,” demand a complete answer.)
Also, test the company’s honesty and support by opening a chat or emailing Sales and asking about those features your want or don’t understand. Ask for an explanation of a feature you already know about and see what kind of answer you get and how long it takes to get that answer. (Keep in mind Sales questions get answered a LOT faster than tech support questions at most businesses.) Ask for an explanation of a feature you don’t understand. Look for a Knowledge-base or Google the company’s support pages. How complete are they? How clear?
And once again, if you find this all terrifying and something you hate doing, consider managed hosting.
Remember the Add-On Costs (There Are Always Add-On Costs)
Check carefully to make certain you are adding all of the necessary costs into your website and marketing budget. For example, while many web hosting service offer a “free domain name registration,” this is usually only for one-year. Look at what that domain name registration will cost after the first year. Also, consider if you want a “one-stop shop” or keeping your domain name registration separate from your web hosting service just in case you want a divorce later. (Much easier to move your site than to transfer your domain name, especially by the less-than-scrupulous hosting services (I’m still looking at you, Go Daddy.)
Remember, don’t just look at the cheapest price or the biggest buffet list. What’s the point of All-You-Can-Eat if the food is edible? (Once had to put my foot down with a friend and say “No more All-You-Eat Chinese Buffets that cost less than $9.95!” I mean, seriously, think about what you are getting when the price is too low!)
Common Add-On Costs
Domain Name Registration
As I mentioned, even if you get an initial free domain name registration, at some point you will need to pay to renew your domain name registration (you don’t own your domain name, you license it from ICANN). Some managed web hosting services will bundle this into your annual service charge.
I, personally, like to keep my domain name registrations separate from my web hosting service because I’m much more likely to want to move my web hosting than transfer my domain name. By keeping the two separate, I can move all the content of my site to a new web server and then simply change my domain name servers (DNS) with my domain name registrar. It’s a bit trickier to transfer the actual domain name registration and takes longer. In addition, it lets the web hosting service know you are leaving. It’s like when you are getting a divorce. Do you really want to telegraph you’re leaving before you back your valuables?
Usually, the worst horror stories I get from students or clients is about problems when they wanted to leave a web hosting service that was also their domain name registrar. On the other hand, I’ve had some perfectly amicable separations from web hosting services that have changed ownership or prices, and I’ve had students and clients who would rather avoid another username and password, so they keep everything in one service.
The choice is up to you, but you will have a domain name registration fee at some point. This usually runs between US$8-26, depending upon the service and the domain extension; .com or ,org are usually higher than say .tv.
SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) Certificate
Most web browsers now have an “insecure” warning for sites without an SSL certificate. If this isn’t included in your basic web hosting package (and it rarely is), then you probably should look at getting an SSL. Some hosting services will offer a general, shared SSL. This is better than nothing but isn’t enough if you take or request personal information. SSL services run between US$40/year to US$200/year depending upon the type and service. If you are setting up multiple domain names and sites under one hosting account, then you will want a Wildcard SSL which will cover everything (and cost more). Again, check the hosting services you are considering and calculate the value of an SSL certificate, if it’s offered with the service.
You might also want to look for a hosting service that supports a free SSL service like Let’s Encrypt – a free, community-based SSL service. The down side to free services like Let’s Encrypt is that you have to manually set-up — and maintain — the certificate keys and code. And this is a monthly task. So if you consider whether it isn’t worth US$40-80/year to have a commercial SSL service offered through your hosting service that they install and automatically renews and validates the key each month.
What kind of technical support — and how much — is included with your web hosting fee? How much technical support is included? Do you need or want extra hand-holding or service? I love 24/7 Live Chat support, especially when I can have the transcript emailed to me so I can keep a troubleshooting file for my sites. Other people want a hour a month of updating or the ability to call and actually talk to someone from tech support while they try to update or troubleshoot their site. And, of course, some people want someone else to do all of their site updates, optimization and so on. You may be moving your site to a new hosting service and be willing to pay for a site transfer. Or maybe a site transfer is offered free as a bonus to get your business. There may also be a “one-time” add-on service that you are willing to pay for such as WordPress Optimization. If you aren’t paying for managed WordPress hosting, you may want to consider paying for a one-time WordPress site optimization which is typically US$150 per site per time (so do it AFTER you’ve finished all of your initial site development and plug-in installation). Some web hosting services include automatic backups and free restoration from the backups; others charge or simply will not do restores from their backups for individual sites.
Not all technical support is the same. Be certain you understand what level and type of support you are getting with your service. I personally love Live Chat because I don’t have to hang out on the phone while others like to actually talk with someone. I left Dreamhost when they started wanting to limit me to email technical support (and not much of that) unless I paid for a much more expensive hosting service. But be realistic. Don’t expect hours of hand-on holding and teaching you web coding and programming for $6/month!
Third-Party Services and Shareware Support Contributions
You will probably be using plugins or services that either ask for a donation or have a subscription fee. Often this is minimal, but these small amounts can add up quickly if you aren’t careful.
If you are using software whose economic model is based on users contributing or donating for support — DONATE! Seriously, failing to do so is penny-wise and pound-foolish. I had one student who bragged about how he’d built his site using downloaded WordPress plugins instead of buying the software costing upwards to US$300 and it didn’t cost him a penny because the developers “were stupid enough to give it away and ask for donations.” His business was very successful, but a year later I got an hysterical phone call from him because his core plugin had stopped working and the developer no longer supported it. What can he do? I pointed out he had two options: Switch to another, commercial plugin and pay someone to convert all of his user data onto the new system or he could hire a PHP programmer to fix the plugin. He cried, “But that will cost me thousands of dollars! Maybe tens of thousands because I’m losing money every day I’m down!” My reply was, “Gee, maybe you should have donated $25-35 to the plugin developer so he’d keep supporting the plugin or paid for the commercial software.”
You may also want to budget for third-party services such as Akismet (to prevent spam in your WordPress-based site ), Vaultpress (to do regular site backups and to move a WordPress-based site to a new server), Jetpack (a variety of WordPress services including usage stats) or Wordfence (WordPress security plugin). If you are allowing comments on your WordPress-based site, I highly recommend paying for Akismet service. For less than a movie ticket a month, you’re saved from battling thousands of spambots and human spammers.
Your budget may be tight at the beginning, but look carefully at what will save you time, stress — and money — in the long run when choosing web hosting services.