8 Elements of A Great Web Host
Every website needs hosting — but how do you pick the right provider?
These days, it feels like there are as many web hosting providers as there are websites. Loud offers of discount coupons, unlimited this, and unmetered that clog up your screen, trying to win you over and get your signature on a hosting contract. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and it’s even easier to lose your patience. But don’t sign up with just any provider!
Hosting is one of the first and most crucial factors for any website. After all, your site’s success depends a lot on its performance, and that depends, in turn, on the quality of your web hosting plan. Whether you’re starting a personal blog or revving up the online home of your amazing new start-up, here are some things to keep in mind when picking a web host.
Not all web hosting plans are created equal. Many hosting providers tend to promise unlimited storage and/or bandwidth, but what many undiscerning customers fail to note is that those offers come with many caveats. Though many “unlimited” plans don’t have hardline caps, for example, most providers still reserve the right to shut your site down if you exceed normal usage limits. Similarly, many “unlimited” plans use shared hosting, which means that you still divide server processing power with thousands of other users, risking site slowdowns or performance hitches even if you do have “limitless” resources.
So tip #1: “Unlimited” is a buzzword. Tread carefully.
It’s better to gauge your site’s potential resource demands and use those as a benchmark when choosing from different hosting packages. You know best about what kind of performance and traffic the site is meant to deliver, and it follows that your hosting plan should be the one with the resources to support that. It’s tempting to include some extra juice in your hosting plan just in case, but that could get expensive–and, as our “unlimited” discussion up there shows, it might not even be the best solution.
Variety of Hosting Types
That said, here’s tip #2: Make sure you have room to grow.
This is especially applicable for websites that aren’t just for personal use. These websites will naturally be aiming to increase their traffic, and as time passes, the demands on your hosting infrastructure are bound to grow. It’s often costly and inefficient to jump the gun and pay astronomical fees for more resources right from the outset, but that doesn’t mean you should forfeit the option to scale up entirely.
Look for hosting providers that can upgrade you to better shared hosting packages, or even VPS or dedicated hosting options. Ideally, the process can be done seamlessly, too, and with minimal disruption to the site itself. Nobody wants to shut down a successful site for a few days just to switch hosting servers — a pause could stall your site’s momentum, and if it goes on for long enough, it could jeopardize your site’s prospects for growth. Even the most loyal customers will falter if your site happens to disappear just when they need it — but you won’t gain any favors if you stick to hosting you’ve outgrown just to avoid the hassle of upgrading.
Good web hosting providers will give you a number of upgrade options as needed, and the best ones will take care of the whole upgrading process, free of charge.
Flexible Contract Terms
Some web hosting providers offer rock-bottom prices for their plans, but look closer and you’ll often find conditions attached: prices only applicable for your first year, perhaps, or only if you sign up for a years-long hosting contract. Discounted initial prices come standard in the web hosting industry, so it’s best to double-check and see if the regular rates fall within your budget as well.
Don’t forget to check available payment cycles and contract lengths while you’re at it. Some providers will offer you a number of choices: monthly and yearly payment schemes are common, but some will also offer 3- or 6-month plans, as well as longer 2-,3-,4-, or even 5-year plans. Shorter is generally better, as it gives you the freedom to terminate the contract and switch to a different hosting provider sooner if issues crop up.
That said, longer contracts tend to come with sizable discounts. If you’re set on a particular provider and you see yourself sticking with them for the long-term, an annual contract (or longer) might be better for you and your wallet. Just make sure that there are guarantees about, say, service quality, technology updates, and price stability before you sign on. Otherwise, you might find yourself locked into three years of increasingly outdated hosting technology and skyrocketing prices.
Good Control Panel and 1-Click Apps
Most web hosting providers will give you an online control panel for administering your website. The most common option seems to be cPanel, though many providers reskin it with their own additions and layouts, too. Alternatives like Plesk (especially for Windows-based hosting) and even some in-house/proprietary solutions also abound.
It doesn’t matter what brand you end up with, so long as it performs its job well: control panels should serve as your central command center. Look for easily accessible controls, navigable option panes, and an uncluttered interface.
A good hosting provider will also include some kind of 1-click app installation platform with your plan. Softaculous seems to be the most popular choice, but it’s not the only one seeing regular use. As with your control panel, the particular platform doesn’t matter — in this case, as long as you’re guaranteed easy deployment of the apps that you need, then you should be fine.
CMS like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla, as well as e-commerce systems like OpenCart, Magento, and PrestaShop are typically bundled in with most hosting plans, alongside hundreds of others for media galleries, blogs, forums, and more. If you’ve got specific apps in mind, check that your potential hosting provider can give you a 1-click installer for effortless use.
This is a big factor if you’re planning to create subdomains, run multiple sites, sell some web space yourself, and/or have multiple domains redirecting back to your main site. Some web hosting providers will put a cap on the number of domains you can host with your account, so it’s best to check your domain hosting limits or the costs of expanding those limits if need be.
Reliability and Security
No website survives with spotty availability. “Uptime” is the term used for the period of time that your site has been active and functioning; conversely, “downtime” refers to periods when your site crashes, slows to an interminable crawl, or is otherwise inaccessible. When it comes to web hosting, 99.999% is the much-vaunted platinum standard, but don’t rule out certain choices just because they don’t appear to have enough nines.
Generally, 99.5% is a good bar to set for regular websites; many providers will claim at least 99.9%, and if they make good on that promise, you’ll be fine. Some providers give you uptime guarantees or SLAs stipulating compensation in the event of downtime — you’re not likely to get anything big, but it’s a good signal that the hosting provider pours effort into maintaining a good uptime record. Anything below 99% is unacceptable, period.
Security plays a big part in the stability of your website, and any provider that offers extensive security coverage as part of your hosting plan quickly scores a few points. Check for dedicated SSL certificate support (especially important if you’re setting up an online business), proactive malware and virus scanning, DDoS protection, regular automated data backups, and so on.
It’s unlikely to find all of those services offered free as part of your plan, though. Instead, the key here is to find a provider that offers decent default security services and good prices for any additional security features you’ll require.
Marketing and Analytics Tools
Websites live and die on visibility, or at least on the traffic that visibility brings. Make sure your hosting provider is SEO-friendly, with a system that’s conducive to being found, if not tools to help you boost your site’s profile. Some providers will even give you free marketing credits for various search engines, which is a great bonus.
All of your hard work will count for little if you don’t have any idea how your site is performing, though. Analytics let you gauge your success, but more importantly, they allow you to pinpoint what and where you could improve. Go with a hosting provider that gives you access to website statistics of all kinds: everything from monthly traffic numbers to visitor geolocations and more. You don’t need to know everything, though — just make sure that you get numbers for the metrics that you deem essential.
24/7 Customer Support
Something can always go wrong, and you’ll want a responsive, competent support team to have your back when it does. At minimum, go for a hosting provider with a reliable channel of communication (whether that’s email, support ticket, or something else) and a proven response record. You can find lots of customer feedback online, especially for bigger outfits like HostGator and Bluehost.
It’s better if your hosting provider has multiple avenues for support requests, though. At least one real-time support channel, like phone or live chat, can come in handy during those times of urgent crisis. An active user community is no substitute for dedicated and knowledgeable support staff, but it is a good supplementary resource to have, especially if you choose to go DIY for your troubleshooting.
The Bottom Line: What Do You Need?
In the end, you’re the only one who can determine if a hosting provider is a good fit for your website. All of the above factors are important, but in varying degrees — and which ones take top priority will depend on what your website needs.
So before anything else, take a moment to sit down and hash out which elements you really need from your web host. We’ve given you these 8 elements to get you started, but the rest is up to you!