I have been dealing with web hosts since the very beginning of my career as a web developer in the late 1990s. That includes working with some of the very best and the very worst hosts in the industry. There are countless companies out there offering you web hosting services, but how do you choose the right one? Are all web hosts the same? What’s the difference between a shared web server, virtual private server, and a dedicated server? It’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Decide on a budget
Like any major purchase, you should first decide on how much you can afford to spend per month. The cost of web hosting varies wildly depending on the features and quality. Some hosts only charge a few dollars per month, while others charge hundreds. Why are they so different? I’ll get into that shortly, but for right now, think about what the maximum amount per month you are able to spend is.
Don’t pick the cheapest option
Unlike bottled water, you actually get what you pay for when it comes to web hosting. It pains me to watch clients spend a lot of money on a fantastic new website and then turn around and entrust the hosting of that valuable asset to a cheap, budget web host. It happens frequently and it can be hard to convince someone of why it’s a terrible idea. Cheaper web hosting isn’t cheaper because of magic or because it’s inexpensive to run a data center. (It’s not.) You need to ask yourself why a host like GoDaddy can only charge you $5 per month. The answer is simple: they are cutting corners.
Budget hosts often offset the cost of a web server by cramming as many customer accounts into it as they can. The more accounts running on a single web server, the cheaper your hosting bill will be. However, there are some major downsides to this scheme. Because you’re sharing hardware with hundreds of other websites, the performance of your site could be far from stellar. There is also the risk that if one website has a security issue, it could jeopardize the security of your own website depending on how well the host has firewalled the individual accounts. In order to mitigate these problems, a budget host usually imposes restrictions on what you can actually do with your website. This can include limits on storage, bandwidth, and even restrict activities like running backups of your website (which you absolutely must do!).
If you take only one piece of advice from this article, it’s that not all hosts are created equal and the cheapest option is rarely the best choice. If your morning latté costs the same as a month of hosting, that’s not a good sign!
A typical budget hosting account on HostGator will share its web server with about 1,000 other customers! If you’re currently using a budget host, find out how many neighbors you have on your web server using this tool →
Choose the type of hosting you need
In addition to choosing the web host, you’ll need to choose the best type of hosting your website requires. There are 3 basic flavors of hosting that most people need to worry about.
This is the most common type of web hosting because it’s very affordable. Your website will live on a web server that is shared with other customers. This lets the host charge a cheaper price because you’re splitting the cost of the server with everyone else. It’s like sharing a cab with strangers. Unfortunately, because they are strangers, you don’t know if their website has issues that will negatively affect the server’s performance and therefore affect your own website. To prevent this, hosts put up a lot of restrictions in terms of what you can do. This is fine for some people, but it can be a deal-breaker if your website has needs that require a customized server configuration. This is where dedicated hosting comes in.
A dedicated server is a web server that is all yours. It’s like riding in your own personal limousine. Because it’s all yours, you can do whatever you want with it. This is perfect if your website needs special software installed or custom configurations. You also get the full horsepower of the server to power your website. However, because you’re no longer sharing it with others you are responsible for the entire cost of the server. As a result, dedicated servers are more pricey at $100+ per month. What if you can’t afford that? That’s when you might consider a VPS.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
A VPS gives you the best of both worlds: A lower cost because you’re sharing a web server, but the freedom to configure your virtual server however you want. The “virtual” part is key here. Even though you are sharing the physical hardware (the computer) with others, the server is running special software that creates “virtual servers” inside of it. It’s like riding in your own first-class cabin on a fancy train. You’re sharing the train, but your cabin isolates you from everyone else. Virtual servers behave and function like a dedicated server, so you can configure them however you like. That’s pretty awesome for only about $50+ per month. However, since you’re sharing hardware, hosts will restrict you like they do on traditional shared hosting to prevent you from disrupting its performance. Your virtual server will only be allowed a certain level of processor, memory, and bandwidth usage. This affects the performance of your site. They may also restrict you by the number of pageviews per month. The restrictions are not as severe as shared hosting, but they are there.
The new hotness: CMS-specific hosting
In just the last few years, a new flavor of web hosting popped up: web hosting that is professionally tuned to run a specific CMS like WordPress or Drupal. Examples of this type of hosting are WP Engine, Pantheon, Siteground, and Nexcess. A traditional hosting server is configured in a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing you to run any kind of CMS or software on it. A CMS-specific host has configured their servers so that your CMS of choice performs as fast and as efficient as possible. Your site’s security will also benefit greatly by this type of hosting. These are usually “managed” hosts, meaning security professionals have configured your server so that known vulnerabilities in your CMS can not be exploited. They will also proactively maintain and update your server to prevent future threats. Most hosts of this type will also have an integrated backup system, allowing you peace-of-mind without the extra expense of a third-party backup service or needing to manage your own backup solution.
This type of hosting will cost a little more, but the benefits you get in exchange are more than worth it.
Don’t fall for long-term buy-ins
Most web hosts will offer discounts if you pre-pay your hosting one, two, or three years in advance. I strongly recommend paying month-to-month instead. Until your web host gains your trust, you do not want to throw all your chips into the pot. If you pay for two years of hosting and then discover a few months down the road that the hosting is not performing well or that their tech support is terrible, you may lose some or all of your money when you decide to change hosts.
Before you choose between a long-term and month-to-month hosting plan, you need to carefully weigh the options. Is the long-term discount really that good? Is saving $30 really worth trusting this web host for a year? Does the host have a satisfaction guarantee that refunds the unused portion of my money if I decide to cancel my plan early? Read the fine print very carefully!
Read reviews and get recommendations
Just like any product purchase you may make, it’s a good idea to read reviews of web hosts and get recommendations from people. However, before you Google “web host reviews”, a word of warning… 90% of hosting review sites are either strongly biased, are paid for their reviews by web hosts, or their criteria for rating hosts is poor. So where should you go to get advice on choosing a web host?
This is a community of forums where you can search and ask for web hosting advice. Most people on here are helpful and you can read through all sorts of honest reviews. Make sure you read a good variety of reviews from different people to get a clear picture of a web host. One person’s hosting needs can be wildly different from yours.
This is a unique site that gathers what people say about web hosts on social media, analyzes it for positive and negative comments, and then gives web hosts a score based on the results. Based on my personal experience with the major web hosts, their results are pretty accurate!
Update: Since I wrote this article HostingReviews.io has become HostingFacts.com and has changed its format. However, it still looks like a promising source of reliable hosting reviews. Check out their new review format →
Friends and Family
If you know anyone that has a website, ask them who hosts their site, if they like their host, and why they do or don’t.
Your web developer or agency
If you have hired a professional web developer or agency to build your site, you should trust them to recommend a good web host. Chances are they’ve worked with many different hosts and there is nothing better than an experienced hand to guide you!
Make the decision!
The time has come to choose a web host. You’ve got a budget, you know what kind of hosting your website needs, and you’ve done your research on the web hosts that meet your needs. Hopefully you’ve made an informed decision and will be happy with the result!
Still can’t make a decision? Feel free to tweet me @adamwalter and I’d be happy to give you my two cents!