How To Choose a Web Hosting Service That Works for You

web hosting service

How do I choose my web host?

If you’ve done any research lately you know that choosing a web host can be quite an adventure. There are hundreds of web hosting services, each offering a myriad of options. Many of those options only make sense to techno-geeks. Many options are completely irrelevant for your situation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and start considering only criteria that you understand, price often being one of the few.

Since I have recently been through this exercise, I thought it might be helpful to cut through the techno-speak and narrow down the options to the most important ones for most people. For that reason, I’ll provide a brief overview of the main hosting options and then focus on the one option that makes the most sense for the majority of people.

What Kind of Hosting Do I Need?

When you visit a web host’s website, you will see terms like the following:

  • Web Hosting (aka Shared Hosting) – your account is one of many on a single computer (server). This is the least expensive option since the cost of running the server is distributed among many accounts.
  • Virtual Private Server (VPS) – your very own server…sort of.  In essence, you’re still sharing server hardware, but you get more of it hence you get better performance with a corresponding increase in cost.
  • Dedicated Server – your own private server. This can be a server leased from the web hosting company or one that you purchase that they attach to their network for your exclusive use. Not only are you paying for the server hardware, but also to attach it to the web host’s network.
  • Cloud Hosting – “the cloud” is a buzzword that is widely misunderstood by many people, both technical and non-technical. Traditional hosting is done on servers contained in a single location referred to as a “server farm.” Cloud hosting is different in that there are a number of such server farms in various locations around the country or the world. The advantage to cloud hosting is that your site is accessed via the server farm closest to the location of the visitor. This reduces the time it takes for data to travel from the server to the visitor and back thereby increasing performance. Needless to say, this comes at a higher price than typical hosting.

Those are just the major categories. When you click on any one of them, you’ll be presented with even more options and packages of options at varying price points.

For purposes of this article, I will focus on Shared Hosting. Relatively few people need anything more than a shared hosting account and those that do either have the technical expertise to manage them or will hire someone (often the hosting company) to manage them. The rest of the world uses shared hosting.

“Unlimited” Shared Hosting

The typical shared hosting account offers “unlimited” disk space, bandwidth, domain names, email accounts, etc., for somewhere around $10/month which puts it in a price range easily affordable by most. Some hosts offer cheaper plans that are limited to one domain name, a specified number of email accounts, and other limitations. Make sure that you can live with the limitations before opting for one of these minimal plans. For the small difference in price, it generally pays to get the “unlimited” package. Domains are like potato chips. It’s very hard to have only one!

Read The Fine Print

By the way, I put “unlimited” in quotes because many web hosts actually have limits that aren’t obvious. For example, my previous host was unable to backup my account because I had exceeded the maximum number of inodes allowed. Inodes are units of disk storage that are defined by the server’s operating system.

Web hosting servicesEach file (document, photo, script, etc.) stored on the server’s drive consumes a minimum of one inode.  Having many small files uses more inodes than several large files. I had a whole lot of files on my account because of multiple instances of WordPress and other software packages I was running on the account. I used up my quota of inodes while having used a fairly small amount of disk space.

So, I had unlimited disk space to use, but the host’s automatic backup had stopped backing up my account. In my case, this wasn’t a big deal since I had my own backups in place for my individual sites, but there are many website owners who find out about this limitation only when their server crashes and the host informs them that the backup is incomplete or non-existent.

Some hosts, including my ex, have recently begun offering “cloud backup” (there’s that buzzword again!) as an extra cost option to address this issue. In my opinion, no one should rely on the host’s backups except perhaps as an absolute last resort. Ultimately, your data is your responsibility and you should be backing it up yourself.

Uptime Guarantees

The vast majority of web hosts advertise 99.9% uptime guarantees. This means that they guarantee their servers (and by inference, your website) will be up and running 99.9% of the time in any given month. That extra 1/10th of a percent gives them a little slack for the inevitable hardware and network problems that servers are prone to.

If you do the math, 1/10 of one percent of 30 days is just over 43 minutes. That means your site could be unavailable up to 43 minutes total during any given month and the host has met their uptime commitment.  Some web hosts actually post their server uptime.

You can monitor your site’s uptime yourself using a monitoring service and if your site is critical to your business you should be doing so. Keep in mind that the uptime guarantee applies to the server on which your site is hosted. Obviously, if the server is offline, your site will be offline, too. If your site becomes unavailable and the server is online, however, that’s likely out of the scope of the uptime guarantee.

Performance

It should be obvious that the more shared hosting accounts are assigned to a given server, the poorer the performance is going to be for those shared accounts. All it takes is one or two of those shared accounts to hog most of the server’s resources to drag down the rest of the hundreds of accounts on the same server.

Web hosting servicesIf you’ve ever had too many programs running at the same time on your personal computer, you know what server overload is like. The computer can’t fit all the programs and data into memory at once so starts juggling them trying to keep up with the demand. At best, the programs run maddeningly slower. At worst, you start to experience system freezes and/or crashes. Servers have a lot more horsepower than your personal computer, but there is a limit to what they can handle, too.

Web hosts do try to limit this kind of problem and sometimes get a bit overzealous in that regard. If you’re running a singe website on your account and you’re not getting huge volumes of traffic to the site, you’re not likely to run into resource limits unless something unusual happens, such as a brute force login attack (bad) or your latest blog post hits the front page of Digg (good!).

Barring such a scenario, however, a single site should not run into problems with shared hosting. If you are running multiple sites from your account, the odds go up proportionate to the number of sites you’re hosting.

One option that is becoming more prevalent is Solid State Disk (SSD) storage. SSD can result in a very significant improvement in performance because the disk is so much faster than a standard disk drive. You may not see much difference if your site doesn’t access the disk heavily, but there should be a noticeable improvement in most cases. If your web host offers SSD, they will make sure you know about it. If you don’t mind paying a few bucks more per month, it’s a highly recommended option.

So Which Host Should I Choose?

Perhaps a better question is which hosts should I avoid? Generally speaking, the better known to the public a web host is, the less likely I am to use them, much less recommend them. Good marketing campaigns can put the name on every tongue, but can’t overcome shortcomings in the product.

In my experience, the marketing is often compensating for those shortcomings. Two examples are HostGator and GoDaddy. I recently left HostGator after a number of years with them because they were bought out and their service deteriorated at an astonishing rate. I will be publishing a post on my blog shortly with those details. Suffice to say that I will not use nor recommend any host owned by EIG, the new owners of HostGator.

As for GoDaddy, I have several clients hosted on GoDaddy (their decision, not mine). GoDaddy’s administration interface is such a pain to deal with that I’ve talked to their support staff more than all other hosts I’ve dealt with combined. If I’ve needed to contact their support to get what should be simple things accomplished, I can only imagine what a non-technical person goes through.

In short, don’t shop strictly on price or name recognition. Most shared hosting providers will be around the same price range and the better ones will likely be toward the top end of the price range. I expect to pay around $10/month for shared hosting without any upgrades.

Buying a longer term contract will get you a break on price, but there’s something to be said for going month-to-month in the event that something like the HostGator buyout happens.

John Sawyer

John Sawyer

John Sawyer is The Small Business Website Guy, an IT professional with over 30 years’ experience in software and web development. John specializes in developing and maintaining websites built on the WordPress platform. His mission is to provide technical services to businesses and individuals who would rather run their business than mess with their website.

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Comments

  1. Am not sure it’s possible to know what host to chose.

    When I started blogging in 2009 I made the mistake of chosing GoDaddy.

    But If I had listened to Jeannette, and others years ago I would have had far worse problems than I have had with GoDaddy. Dealing with GoDaddy seems like nothing compared to the problems they have had with well known hosting companies.

    Having said that when I started a website for my company in Sweden I did not chose GoDaddy but a small European company that, unlike GoDaddy, is extremely helpful. But they may go down the same route as the companies Jeannette and other online friends have used? Who knows? Time will tell.

    • Hi, Caterina,

      Nothing in life is 100% certain except that things will change over time. The best anyone can do is to do their due diligence, get as much information as practical, and make a decision. If it turns out to be the wrong decision, get a refund (or take your lumps) and move on. No one hosting company is going to be right for everyone. That’s why there are so many choices.

      I’ve dealt with at least a dozen hosting companies over the years, most of which started out good and eventually went sour for one reason or another. Fortunately, if you’re moving from one CPanel host to another (and you’re not over the inode limit as I described), the new host will transfer your old account free so it’s relatively painless.

      In short, as long as you’re satisfied with the host you have, stay with them. If they eventually become problematic, moving to another is a lot less painful than it used to be.

      Thanks,

      John

      • HostGator 🙂

        But no, you’re right, it is difficult to choose and VERY difficult for the author to know what sort of hosting someone needs.

        I think it’s safe to assume folks want 1. a basic plan that doesn’t break and 2. something they can figure out without any stress. Beyond that it’s really just confusion when bloggers talk about features (which most all places do provide).

        On another note, I love how you didn’t bash a host here. I truly respect Yoast, but when he writes articles bashing platforms it just comes off as distasteful. Better to highlight features, features and let the reader decide!

        They’ll be using it, afterall!

        • Hi, Greg,

          You’re right, basically, people want hosting that just does what it’s supposed to do with a minimum of hassle. Finding one that fits that criterion requires some thought about what the site is intended to accomplish and how the hosting provider’s features fit that need. Some features are necessary and others are mostly flash. The trick, of course, is determining which are which.

          Thanks,

          John

    • Hi, Steve,

      HostGator had a very good reputation until the recent buyout and subsequent disasters. That reputation will probably carry them for a while until the reality catches up with them. I was with them for years and quite happy until everything unraveled.

      I’m using A2 Hosting (http://www.a2hosting.com/4175.html) now after having checked out several others. I actually signed up for A2 and another host simultaneously and ended up choosing A2 as the better value for the money. I moved my hosting clients there, as well.

      Just so you know, the above link is an affiliate link meaning that I make a commission if someone uses the link to sign up with A2. If that’s an issue, simply use http://www.a2hosting.com instead.

      Thanks,

      John

  2. First time i hear the term “cloud hosting”. yes, yes, i know cloud, just hadn’t heard cloud hosting as a service before – learnt something today so thanks, John!

    (off topic, i was just wondering sine when Jeannette is so knowledgeable about technical stuff when i realized it is a guest post LOL)

    For the needs of my personal websites and blogs shared hosting has been fine. However, soon i will need to make a shift and i was wondering just today – what exactly is the difference between VPS and dedicated server? I saw the brief descriptions here and they are clear… sort of. But for instance, i know i an steram video from a dedicated server – can i do the same from VPS? or it all depends on the provider?

    • Hi, Diana,

      A VPS is sort of shared hosting on steroids. The primary difference is that with shared hosting you have “unlimited” disk and bandwidth, but limited processor and memory resources available. In other words, less available horsepower.

      With a VPS you contract for a specific amount of disk space and bandwidth as well as processor and memory resources. The processor and memory resources are guaranteed to be available to you on a VPS while on shared hosting they are not. On shared hosting, another account hogging the resources can adversely affect your account while that is not the case on a VPS.

      A dedicated server is just that: your very own computer all to yourself. 🙂 Your limitations are those of the hardware and not dependent on what anyone else is doing. The bigger the computer you buy or lease, the more horsepower you have available.

      You can stream video from any hosting account. You don’t want to do so from any hosting account, IMO, for a number of reasons too long to detail here. Suffice to say that I would store video on Amazon S3 or YouTube and link to it from my site. That relieves my site of the burdens of disk space, bandwidth, processor speed, etc. On Amazon S3 I can protect the videos from being downloaded or even being viewed by anyone not authorized to do so. YouTube is easier and cheaper (read: free) if you’re okay with the video being publicly available.

      Thanks,

      John

  3. I spent alot of time selecting the right web hosting company. I am using Rackspace and I have Dedicated Server. I have a heavy duty website and needed extra bandwidth, backback service daily, unlimited tech support. The service has been outstanding but then it should be for $1500.00 a month. After having my site go down, I have tried to do what I can to insure it will be back up. Apache has quirks with my sql and reboots every so often but other than that I have had no problems.

    • Hi, Arleen,

      For that kind of money, I’d be more than a little unhappy with a server that doesn’t play nicely with MySQL. The combination of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (known as the “LAMP stack”) is a staple in the industry and should not be having those kinds of issues. I don’t recall ever seeing an issue like that on any host I’ve used. There are even versions of the LAMP stack that can be downloaded to one’s personal computer and run locally for development purposes.

      Thanks,

      John

  4. I went with GoDaddy at first because they have so many commercials on TV, and it was the only name I knew of off-hand when I first set-up my blog. Fast forward a year and a half later, and I paid someone to switch me to BlueHost. GoDaddy had speed issues and their customer support was terrible. I’m happy with BlueHost.

    • Hi, Jeri,

      Hopefully, you’ll continue to be happy with Bluehost. They have also been purchased by EIG. I still have a few clients on Bluehost.

      Thanks,

      John

  5. Once I decided to start a blog, I knew I wanted to self-host and I really had no second thought but to use BlueHost. I had used them to host my radio station’s website several years earlier and loved the ease and service I received from them. The few times I had to call someone for help, it was painless and resolved quickly. I’m certainly a satisfied customer thus far!

    • Hi, Pamela,

      I have quite a few clients who are or used to be on Bluehost. The ones who used to be were not at all happy with Bluehost and many had the same experience I had with HostGator. Bluehost, in case you didn’t know, is also owned by EIG. The changeover wasn’t quite as dramatic with Bluehost as with HostGator, but I have seen a deterioration in performance and some of my clients have reported poor support response, as well.

      All that said, every host has problems and unhappy customers as well as those who are satisfied with the service they’re receiving. As long as you’re happy where you are, there’s no good reason to move.

      Thanks,

      John

  6. My Goodness, there is a lot to know. I usually work with my web guy on these things. it really helps cut to bottom line. He knows what I need and offers up great advice and choices to choose from. Since I started with Go Daddy out ignorance, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be nearly as good at figuring it out without him. 🙂

    • Hi, Susan,

      It’s good that you have someone to assist you with the technical end of things. As with most things, we tend to want to handle them ourselves, but often it’s more productive and cost-effective to hire someone to do those things we don’t know how to do ourselves.

      Thanks,

      John

  7. Thank you for all the great information. Someone was suggesting that I use GoDaddy, but I’ll have to rethink that. You have provided lots of useful information, not just in the post but in the responses to comments.

  8. I used to use Hostgator and personally I didn’t like them at all, interface etc, everything. My other sites are on various different hosting providers including JustHost and GoDaddy. I don’t have any bad experience with GoDaddy, but for emergency I’ve decided to keep away from them in the future, there are so many bad reviews about them…

    • Hi, Oksana,

      HostGator’s interface is standard CPanel. Many hosts have the same basic interface while others either create their own version of the CPanel interface, or roll their own control panel, so to speak. CPanel can be a bit intimidating because there are many functions available, but once you get used to it and know which functions you use regularly, you can pretty much ignore the rest of the options. The benefit of the standard CPanel interface is that once you’re used to it, you can easily work with any other host that uses the same interface.

      GoDaddy’s interface is a prime example of a “roll your own” and is unlike any other host I’ve ever used. I’m sure if you’re used to it you’re not going to like CPanel, and vice-versa. I’ve had to learn it to administer my clients that are still on GoDaddy, but I certainly don’t like it.

      In short, we tend to like what we’re used to and switching to something different can be painful.

      Thanks,

      John

  9. Hosting is such an important decision. There are so many factors to consider when making your choice, everything from customer service to up times. We have been with Cartika Hosting for years now with no issues. Whew…

    • Hi, Cheryl,

      A good host is definitely worth hanging on to. 🙂 After all the research, there’s only one sure way to know if a host is what it says it is: take the plunge and see how they perform.

      Thanks,

      John

  10. John,
    Thanks for the tip about SSD (Solid State Disk) storage. I wasn’t familiar with that option. I’ll have to keep that in mind the next time that I encounter hosting issues (which are pretty much inevitable with shared hosting accounts.)

    What are your thoughts about paying a little extra for a dedicated IP address? I have one for my blog under the belief that it will provide me with some protection from being associated with spammy sites in bad neighborhoods.

    As for GoDaddy, I advise clients to avoid them like the plague (when it comes to website hosting). I hosted HTML sites with GD back in the early 2000’s (before they started advertising on the Super Bowl) and they were actually quite good back then.

    The problem is that they never seemed to build the infrastructure to support CMS (Content Management System) sites like WordPress and Joomla. Once I started building Joomla sites and hosting them there, I encountered a slew of problems. The final straw for me was when one of their tech support associates admitted to me that the reason my site was going down so often was because “there’s a known issue with that server”. They refused to move my site to another server. So, I moved my sites instead. 🙂

    • Hi, Sherryl,

      SSD is a relatively new option, but one that will become increasingly more popular going forward, I feel. The speed difference is significant. The caveat with it is that disk speed is only relevant for disk operations, obviously, so if your site is slow for other reasons, e.g. bad code, it won’t help much, if at all.

      Having a dedicated IP can be helpful for several reasons, but avoiding spam blacklists isn’t one of them. Your site may have its own IP, but email sent from your hosting account will go through the host’s mail server(s). If the server assigned to your account ends up on a blacklist, you will still have the problem. If you’re sending email through your hosted domain, there are techniques for authenticating that the email came from your domain. Search your host’s support knowledgebase for “Reverse DNS” and “DKIM”.

      I avoid all the above by only using forwarders on my hosting account and processing all my email through GMail. If someone sends email to one of my domain addresses, it’s forwarded to GMail which has been set up to recognize the account address and reply using that address rather than my personal GMail address.

      My biggest problem with GoDaddy (aside from the screwy way they do things) is that talking to multiple support people tends to result in multiple answers, most of them wrong. Often their own support people can’t figure out how to fix things. That said, most support departments have multiple levels of support. The ones who answer the phone are Level 1, or what I call the “Manual Readers”. They look up your question and read you the answer, typically off the documentation you can find online anyway. If they can’t find your question, or the answer doesn’t apply, they have to consult with Level 2 support, who are typically more knowledgeable. If Level 2 can’t fix it, they escalate it to the system administrators who are the ones who really understand the system. You usually don’t communicate directly with system admins and if you do, you’d better speak fluent Geek. 🙂

      Thanks,

      John

  11. I ended up with a VPS service and even though the move was a bit stressful, I am enjoying better performance and increased customer service. By purchasing a longer plan I was able to get the costs in line….just a few dollars more a month for three year contract.

    • Hi, Jacquie,

      A VPS typically does provide better performance because of being “almost a server”. 🙂 It’s a good interim step between shared hosting and a dedicated server and as you said, the cost can be brought down considerably by going with a long-term contract.

      Thanks,

      John

  12. Hi, Dan,

    There are a number of WP-specific hosting companies out there. As you said, they’re more expensive because of the specialization. If you only have one site, they’re worth considering, although they, too, have their idiosyncracies. Some, for example, charge extra for phone support so the monthly fee ends up being pretty significant. As with all services, it pays to read the fine print!

    Thanks,

    John

    • Dan — well, that’s top of the line, from everything I’ve read and heard. While you were traveling it was no doubt the safest choice, too. Few to no problems with your host company.