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Rob's 2017 Web Hosting Guide

servers (27K)

One of the most important decisions you'll ever make for your web project is choosing your web host. With hundreds of companies situated all over the globe competing for your business, narrowing down the field can seem like an impossible task. Well, fear not; I've got you covered! In almost twenty years of developing sites and applications for the Web, I've had to choose web hosting for my clients more times than I can count. In doing so, I've gained insight into all of the most relevant factors in choosing hosting. I'm going to outline those here, along with a short list comprising of the very best hosts today. Between them, you're bound to find the perfect one for you.

A Few Key Questions to Ask Yourself about your Site

You'd be amazed how much the kind of website you will be running can influence your web hosting choices. Blogs, online stores, social media platforms, and secure applications all demand very different types of hosting.

In addition to classifying your site into a general category, you should think about what (if any) exceptions may come into play. In general, I'm not big on future-proofing sites and applications, but a bit of planning in this area can save you a lot of grief down the road. For instance, I've had a lot of clients ask me to create a simple blog for them, only to come back to me a little later and ask me if I could tweak their site to sell "a few" products. Selling even at low volume entails a lot of technology, including a secure (https) connection, CA certificates, as well as ecommerce software to facilitate purchasing of said products.

In short, the type of website you want to run will determine what technology you need, in terms of software and perhaps platform as well. For instance, I had a client set up on Windows servers, which worked flawlessly until he needed a third-party plugin that did not support that Operating System. In that particular case, there was no way of knowing in advance that we would need to make a switch, but you should check out which OSes are supported by your preferred software products, just in case.

Another important consideration is how busy your website is likely to become. Business owners tend to sport rose-colored glasses. Otherwise, they would have never gotten into business. Unfortunately, overestimating your traffic can lead you to expensive plans. On the other hand, underestimating your numbers can lead to downtime and site failure should it experience a sudden spike. As your site becomes more popular over time, you can alway upgrade your plan.

Web Hosting Tiers

As you research the plethora of hosting plans, you'll find four broad categories: shared, virtual private server (VPS), dedicated hosting, and WordPress hosting plans. Each tier offers different specs and features as follows.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting involves many customers sharing an IP address and a single set of computing resources. Think of it as sharing an apartment with roommates. It's very inexpensive, which makes it hugely popular. It's the perfect choice for personal blogs and websites for smaller businesses and non-profit organizations. The downside is that, should one of your roommates turn out to be a resource hog, your site will suffer as a consequence. Therefore, high availability had better not be a priority!

Price: $10 or less per month

Virtual Private Server (VPS)

A VPS (Virtual Private Server) gives you your own unique IP address and a larger portion of server resources. Although you still have to share the same server with other sites, a VPS houses less sites per server than shared hosting, and each site has its own individual resources. That translates to more control for you and greater stability for your site. A VPN is well suited to larger organizations and online businesses.

Now, unexpected issues like a traffic surge won't impact your site, but do expect to pay more for VPS hosting, as compared to shared hosting.

Price: $20 to $60 per month

WordPress Hosting

If your site is suitable for either of the two hosting tiers above, you may also want to consider WordPress hosting. It's for people who want to build their sites using the popular WordPress Content Management System (CMS). Originally introduced for blogs, thanks to an astounding array of free and paid plugins, it has been found to handle more elaborate business sites as well.

wordpress (202K)

Dedicated Hosting

As the name implies, with dedicated hosting, your website has the whole server to itself. That means that your website is free to utilize the server's full power. It's reserved for sites that require an incredible amount of server resources. Hence, this solution is perfect for running Enterprise-level systems that cater to a large number of users and requires enormous amounts of processing. It is the most pricey of all hosting types.

Even with the high price tag, depending on your support package, the web host may not necessarily handle all of the backend and/or technical issues.

Price: $100+ per month

Feature and Technology Considerations

Once you've settled on a hosting type, the next order of business is to create a list of features and technologies that you'll need. If you're more business oriented than a coder, chances are that you'll want site builder application to design your website and/or Content Management System (CMS).

Customer support is also an important factor. Perhaps you'll need 24/7 support - if not by phone, then at least by chat or email. Forums, knowledge bases, and help tickets are all well and good, but speaking directly to a knowledgable support person is often the quickest and easiest way to get your site back on track as quickly as possible. The helpfulness of customer support does have a tendency to improve with the cost of the hosting package. Some boast incredibly knowledgeable and helpful customer support squads, while others will reply to emails with a one sentence answer that does little to solve your problem.

The server Operating System (OS) should definitely be considered carefully. Linux is typically the default option due to its robust operation. Some services offer a choice of Linux or Windows hosting. The latter is usually influenced by the need for specific server-side applications that require Windows, such as SQL Server or .NET applications. Even though Windows is known for its user-friendly GUI, most web hosts offer a graphical interface or a control panel to simplify server administration and website management on Linux.

Bear in mind that Windows hosting is often more expensive than Linux hosting, especially in the dedicated server area.

I have had many situation where I found a plugin or application written in a specific language such as PHP or Java only to discover that my hosting did not support it! Therefore, if you have any inclination to use a specific language, be sure to check with prospective hosts whether or not they support them.

Cron Jobs, Auto Script Installer, .htaccess, and FTP

These are a few tools that I have found to be indispensable over the years, but conspicuously absent from many hosting packages. Cron jobs, or scheduled tasks for you Windows users, are processes that execute on a schedule. I relied on these to update cached data that would normally come from RSS feeds at a substantially slower rate. We ran the cron once a day to refresh the cache. Auto Script Installers like Fantastico, Simple Scripts, Quick Installer, Softaculous, Installatron, and so on and a must for easy web app installations and updates. It is highly beneficial to have access to the .htaccess file for security/page redirects/etc purposes. Finally, FTP access greatly simplifies file transfers.

All things being equal, hosting providers that provide these should receive greater consideration than those who don't.

Site Availability

It goes without saying that a site that goes down a lot will probably lose a lot of customers. It therefore pays to do a little digging to find out what exactly are the host's uptime stats. Uptime is given as a percentage such as 85.9%. The gold standard is the five nines: 99.999%.

Moreover, how long are servers typically down for in the event of maintenance and/or outages?

Ecommerce and Marketing Services

Setting up eCommerce and marketing services can get pricey so the more you can get as part of your hosting, the better! These may include email marketing tools, shopping cart applications, SEO products, and others.

Email Support

Email is part of just about any hosting plan nowadays, so you can expect to receive an email account with your domain name such as "sales@mybusiness.com". In fact, some hosts offer several email accounts. But why stop there? There are hosts with unlimited email accounts with a default user so that anything before the "@" sign will go to the default account.

Another key consideration with regards to email is forwarding. I like to have all me emails go to my email client on my office PC. Forwarding allows me to combine emails from a variety of sources so that I can deal with them from a central location. Alternatively, you can open all of your accounts separately within the same email client.

Subscription Period

Don't be surprised if you find that some web hosts ask you to purchase very long contracts in order to enjoy their most affordable deals; even 5-year hosting contracts are not unheard of.

Should you commit to long-term hosting contracts? The short answer is no. Never sign with a web host for more than 2 years up-front unless they provide clear anytime money back guarantees.

Site Backup

Bad things can happen. Perhaps a hacker got into your WordPress blog, or your database got corrupted, or the developer blew up the site. (don't laugh, it's happened to people I know!)

When an incident such as these strikes, it's nice to know that you or your hosting provider can restore your full site in no time - at least to the previous day's contents.

On backups, here are a few key questions to ask your web host:

  • Does your web host provide full backups regularly? If so how often?
  • Do you back up databases as well as web content?
  • Can you create auto backup your site easily via cron job or other program?
  • Can you restore your backup files by yourself via the control panel?

Multiple Addon Domains

Owning a domain name has never been so cheap. With so few .com combinations left you'd think that scarcity would kick in and drive prices through the roof. In fact, the introduction of numerous other extensions such as .net and .info have opened up entirely new avenues of domain naming.

Being such a cheap commodity, web hosts have often throw in multiple domain names to sweeten their hosting plans. You might think that one or two will suffice, but you'd be surprised how many ingenious marketers have found ways to promote their site(s) using small, single page sites. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by Web Hosting Talk, 80% of the voters owned more than 5 domains and more than 20% of the voters owned more than 50!

Generally speaking, even the cheapest shared hosting companies allow at least 25 addon domains. Nonetheless, be sure to check the domain capacity before you make a purchase. You might even want to inquire whether a prospective web host allows adding multiple domains down the road.

Site Comparison

Now that you know what to look for in a web host, here's a side-by-side comparison of the most popular choices right now. If you want to know more about a vendor, either click anywhere in that column to visit their site or take a look at the corresponding summary below the table.

host_comparison_table (190K)

HostGator 1&1 InMotion DreamHost GoDaddy Bluehost Hostwinds LiquidWeb A2 MochaHost

Hosting Vendor Summaries

Here is more detailed information about each vendor in the above table:

HostGator

The feature-packed HostGator boasts prices that are easy on the wallet and offers a boatload of tools to webmasters. HostGator does offer quality dedicated and virtual private server (VPS) server packages, but its shared plans are what makes them stand out from the saturated web hosting market. In fact, HostGator's shared packages are so robust that PCMag named the web host their top pick in that subcategory. The service is also very easy to use, making it the best choice for novice webmasters.

PROS CONS
  • A variety of featured-packed hosting plans
  • Useful site-building software
  • Good customer service
  • Great uptime
  • No Windows-based VPS hosting.

 

1&1

1&1 is an affordable web host that offers rich website-creation tools, solid support, and impressive uptime. It's your best bet if you need WordPress hosting.

PROS CONS
  • Rock-solid uptime in testing
  • Good customer support
  • Offers Linux or Windows-based servers
  • Easy-to-use website creation tools
  • No setup fee
  • WebsiteBuilder Plus tier is required to add code to site templates
  • Competitors offer longer money-back-guarantee periods
  • Lacks web chat

 

InMotion

InMotion is a feature-stacked web hosting service that offers many attractive features, but a few issues keep it from being the top dog.

PROS CONS
  • Good uptime
  • All plans offer unlimited email
  • Lengthy money-back guarantee
  • Easy-to-use website-building software
  • Lacks Windows servers
  • No managed WordPress hosting
  • Need to create separate logins for all add-ons

 

DreamHost

DreamHost boasts a robust feature set and wallet-friendly prices, but this outstanding Web hosting service is best for those who are experienced in website administration, not newbies.

PROS CONS
  • Lots of security features
  • Extensive domain-management tools
  • Excellent VPS offering
  • Unlimited data transfers per month
  • Cloud storage plans
  • Generous money-back guarantee
  • No site builder
  • Lacks Windows-based servers
  • May prove intimidating to the uninitiated

 

GoDaddy

GoDaddy is a feature-packed web hosting service that boasts rock-solid uptime, excellent customer service, and flexible website-building tools.

PROS CONS
  • Rock-solid uptime
  • Excellent 24/7 customer support
  • Windows- and Linux-based servers
  • Email tightly integrated into Microsoft apps
  • Managed WordPress hosting
  • Base-level shared hosting plan lacks a month-to-month payment option
  • Skimpy email offering
  • Dedicated hosting lacks email

 

Bluehost

Boasting excellent uptime and intuitive website-building software, Bluehost makes it easy to create attractive, functional, and stable pages for your business. However, it lacks a few features found in rival hosting services.

PROS CONS
  • Wide range of web hosting options
  • Excellent uptime in testing
  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Weebly site-building software
  • Lacks Windows-based servers
  • No monthly shared hosting plans
  • Aggressive upselling
  • Users need to install add-ons to do just about everything

 

Hostwinds

Hostwinds is a robust web hosting service that has the tools you need for building highly functional and user-friendly websites. It's a top choice overall, and is particularly strong for dedicated, reseller, and VPS hosting.

PROS CONS
  • Excellent dedicated, reseller, and VPS hosting plans
  • Good customer service
  • Unlimited email and monthly data transfers
  • Minecraft server hosting
  • Not every plan has a Windows server option
  • Lacks managed WordPress hosting

 

Liquid Web

Liquid Web is expensive and lacks shared Web hosting, but it's a flexible, feature-packed online host with outstanding customer service and excellent dedicated and VPS packages.

PROS CONS
  • Offers Linux- or Windows-based servers
  • Excellent VPS and dedicated hosting plans
  • Prorated VPS plans
  • High-end specs
  • Lacks shared hosting plans
  • Expensive

 

A2

Packed with features, A2 is a web hosting service that's more than worthy of being the foundation for your website.

PROS CONS
  • Robust hosting packages
  • Excellent customer service
  • Terrific uptime
  • Good money-back refund plan
  • Not every plan has a Windows server option
  • Relatively expensive

 

MochaHost

If you're the kind of customer who likes to know exactly what you're getting from your hosting provider, MochaHost won't disappoint; its plans are described in granular detail, right down to the version of Python offered, or the maximum number of IPs each host can theoretically sustain.

PROS CONS
  • Massive range of web hosting packages
  • All reseller hosting plans include unlimited bandwidth
  • Dedicated servers are provisioned in the cloud for more resources, less downtime and no ceiling on the resources customers can utilize
  • 100% uptime guarantee
  • Itís not clear who founded the company, where the staff are located or how many data centers are in use
  • Company does not publish or archive detailed uptime figures

 

Still have questions? Email me at rgconsulting(AT)robgravelle(DOT)com. I'd be more than happy to point you in the right direction!