The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Web Hosting
Choosing a hosting provider is one of the first decisions you’ll need to make when building a website. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the more overwhelming ones.
This guide will give you a quick introduction to what a web host is and how hosting works. Then we’ll get into the different types of web hosting and what might work best for you. Finally, we’ll share a number of considerations to keep in mind when it’s time to pull the trigger.
What is Web Hosting
Very simply put, web hosting is a service that enables you to make your website accessible on the World Wide Web. If you have a website, you need web hosting.
When you pay for web hosting, you’re basically renting space on a server. A server is a specialized, physical computer that stores all the files that make up your website.
Besides providing you with server space, your web host is also responsible for maintaining that server. That means you shouldn’t have to worry about things like security or software.
Most hosting providers also offer additional services as well as different tiers of hosting. We’ll get into these options more later in the guide.
How Does Hosting Work?
Your website is made up of many different files. These include everything from your page layouts to your media files. Your site also has one or more databases. All of these elements are stored on your host’s server.
When someone visits your website by clicking a link or typing in your domain name, their computer connects to your host’s server. That server then delivers your site to your visitor’s browser. Finally, the browser displays your website.
Types of Web Hosting
Before selecting a hosting company, you might want to think about the type of hosting you’re interested in. Not every provider will offer every variety of hosting service, so this may help you narrow down your choices a bit.
Most new websites start with shared hosting. With shared hosting, several websites share the resources of a single server. This makes it a cost-effective option.
You’ll likely be okay with shared hosting for some time, depending on how quickly your traffic increases. Since the server may be partitioned to accommodate hundreds of websites, it is possible to outgrow this type of hosting as your site demands more resources.
With dedicated hosting, your website will have a server all to itself. Not surprisingly, the performance you’ll get from a dedicated server is second to none. However, this doesn’t come without a cost.
Unlike shared hosting, you may need to have some technical skills (or a team) to configure the server. The upside here is that you can set up an ideal environment for your website and even choose the operating system your server uses.
Not surprisingly, dedicated hosting is expensive. It’s also unlikely that you’ll need it unless you’re getting massive amounts of traffic. Some alternatives can give you better performance than shared hosting without breaking the bank.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
A Virtual Private Server (VPS) can be a great compromise between shared and dedicated hosting. A VPS draws on the resources of a few physical servers to create a single virtual server. This makes for a highly flexible option.
Multiple websites share the physical servers, but the virtual server is private to you. So you’re free to install your choice of software and scale resource allocation up or down as you see fit.
Cloud hosting is similar to using a VPS, but there’s a fundamental difference. With cloud hosting, your website is hosted on several discrete physical servers.
Since multiple physical servers host your site, you don’t have to worry if one goes down. You’ll also have nearly limitless access to resources. Of course, all of this comes with a pretty hefty price tag.
If you’re building a simple website that you won’t update frequently, you might want to look into static hosting. A static site depends on HTML rather than databases.
Static hosting is often cheaper since it’s less resource-intensive. You’ll also likely have better performance than a dynamic site. However, you’ll be limited in what you can build.
For example, you can’t build a static site for an online shop. If you’re just putting up a few pages of information about your business that’s unlikely to change, static hosting is a good choice.
Considerations When Choosing a Web Host
Once you’ve narrowed down what type of hosting you’re interested in, you’re still faced with a pretty intimidating decision. Let’s have a look at some points to think about when you’re choosing your hosting company.
1. How Much Traffic Your Site Gets
The amount of traffic your site gets will determine how much bandwidth you need. If you are launching your site for the first time, you may have to estimate this.
The type of site you have can help here. Personal blogs, portfolio, or resume sites are unlikely to get overwhelming numbers of visitors, at least initially. You should be just fine with shared hosting. As your audience grows, you can upgrade.
However, if you already have a large online following or you’re creating a site for an established organization, you may want to choose a more robust hosting plan right out of the gate. Many providers charge by the year for hosting, and you’ll often get better deals if you sign up for several years. If you’re going to outgrow a shared plan in a matter of months, it’s best to start with something a bit better.
If you have or are anticipating large amounts of traffic, your first concern will be if a hosting plan can handle the load. You’ll also want to compare plans based on cost, as your provider may charge a premium if you go over a specific usage.
It’s worth mentioning that cheap hosting plans promising “unlimited” anything tend to come with pretty significant strings attached. You could be throttled if you use too much bandwidth, or certain kinds of websites may not be allowed. If you’re building a serious website, it’s not worth the risk.
2. Value-Added Features
Some providers will throw in additional services that are included with the price of hosting. Some of these features are necessary for building a website, and you can save a few bucks when they come bundled with your hosting.
A few value-added features you might want to be on the lookout for include:
- Free Domain: Many hosts will offer to register a domain for you for free. You’ll likely have to pay to renew it after a year, but it’s not expensive.
- SSL certificate: This is a must, especially if you’ll be running an e-commerce site.
- One-click CMS installation: This is more of a “nice to have,” but it’s well worth looking for, especially if you’re not tech-savvy.
- Content Delivery Network (CDN): A CDN can boost your site’s performance. Having one integrated with your hosting can save you the time of setting one up yourself.
Just keep in mind that these features shouldn’t be the deciding factor. These services can all be obtained elsewhere and aren’t exceptionally costly.
3. User Reviews
Pricing and features are important, but you’ll want to do your homework and check out reviews from actual users. It’s worth noting that some hosting providers offer extremely generous compensation to affiliate marketers. If you’re reading a recommendation without a lot of evidence to back it up, it may not be trustworthy.
Sometimes it’s more helpful to scroll straight to the comments section. You may get a more honest assessment of a provider and some insight into a few different use cases.
That being said, affiliate marketing certainly isn’t a bad thing. Many affiliate websites offer accurate reviews based on thorough testing. Just take your time and use a few sources when you do your research.
Storage is a bit like bandwidth in that if you have a new website, you’ll have to estimate how much you’ll need. For most sites, it’s unlikely you’ll need more than 1GB of storage.
Sites that need more space include those that use many images, like e-commerce sites with many product pictures or a blog featuring high-def photography.
Ideally, you shouldn’t be using your hosting account like an attic. If you optimize images, regularly clear out unneeded files, and opt for embeds when possible, storage shouldn’t be too much of a concern.
Uptime is the amount of time expressed as a percentage that the server hosting your site is operational. Most hosts will make some sort of promise regarding uptime, usually in the neighborhood of 95%.
Whether you believe the claims or not is up to you. Either way, you’ll want to look into it and how you’re compensated if your site does go down. Nothing can replace lost conversions, but being refunded for downtime can take some of the sting out of it.
Having an email address that matches your domain can help build trust with your site’s visitors. While you can always pay for a branded Gmail address, you might want to consider looking for a web host that will throw this in for free.
This is an option that could be especially attractive if you have a staff. Some hosting plans will give you several email addresses when you sign up with them.
Support is one of those things you don’t think about until you need it. Most web hosts offer some form of support, but you’ll want to look into exactly what that includes. A knowledge base is great, but it can’t help you if your site goes down. You want to have at least the option of getting help from a human.
Consider how live support is accessed. Many times you’ll be submitting a ticket via email or through your host’s control panel. Some hosts provide live chat for simple issues.
Phone support can be harder to come by, particularly at lower pricing tiers, so investigate this if you’re most comfortable communicating by phone. While your hosting plan may not include it, you can sometimes pay for a one-off phone call.
Something a lot of people overlook is when live support is available. Being able to contact a team from nine to five doesn’t matter if that team is in a different timezone. If you don’t have access to 24/7 support, make sure the hours are convenient for you.
When you’re just starting, being able to use File Transfer Protocol (FTP) may not matter to you. After all, a control panel is easier to understand and, for most people, nicer to look at. However, you should be able to download and upload files to your site using an FTP client of your choice.
In fact, if you’re serious about your website, it’s a good idea to get familiar with using FTP early on. If you get hacked and can’t access your WordPress admin panel, you’ll be thankful for some basic FTP skills.
Don’t do it. Free hosting may sound great, but you will absolutely pay in other ways. You’ll probably suffer from poor performance, have little to no support, and have pretty strict limitations on storage and bandwidth.
Need another reason? Your web host could go under at any time, and they won’t owe you a thing. That includes your website’s assets, so you’ll be right back where you started.
This can be a very attractive option for beginners, especially if you’re building a website as an experiment. But what happens if that experiment takes off? Free hosts typically don’t make it easy for you to migrate your website.
Unless you’re building a personal blog as a hobby that you don’t intend on growing, it’s better to pay for hosting.
So, yes, there is a lot to consider when you’re choosing a web host. It’s not the most exciting decision you’ll make when building a website, but your future self will thank you for taking the time to do this right.
Do you have any web hosts you’d like to recommend (or warn against)? Share in the comments section!
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