How do we decide if a web host is good? Do bandwidth and disk storage features still matter these days? Which type of hosting service should you go with? In this article, we will get these questions answered with the following walk-through and a 15-point checklist.
How to choose a web hosting service?
In brief –
- Know your hosting needs.
- Investigate on host reliability and uptime guarantees.
- Study web host upgrading options.
- Check all hosting features (such as number of addon domains allowed) based on your needs.
- Check prices on both sign up and renewal.
- Check hosting control panel.
- Read hosting company’s ToS to find out more about account suspension and server usage policy.
- Other supporting features (ie. site backup, environmental friendliness, etc)
Knowing Your Hosting Needs
You can never get the right web host without knowing what you need. So before you go any further – put everything aside (including this guide you are reading) and think thoroughly on your own needs.
- What kind of website are you building?
- Do you want something common (a WordPress blog, for example)?
- Do you need Windows applications?
- Do you need a special version of software (ie. PHP)?
- Does your website need special software?
- How big (or small) can the web traffic volume go?
These are some of the basic questions you need to answer for yourself.
Have a quick picture of what you want to do with your website now. Figure what happens next for the next 12 months.
If you are totally new…
For newbies, the no-brainer rule is to always start small with a good shared hosting account.
A shared hosting account is cheap, easy to maintain, and sufficient for most new sites. Plus, you can always upgrade to VPS or dedicated hosting in the later stage when your site grows bigger.
Shared Hosting Services I Recommend
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What to look for in a web host?
1. Server Reliability / Uptime Scores
Nothing is more important than having a 24×7 operating web host. You need a web host is operating on a powerful server and stable network connections. 99.5% and above is the recommended uptime score; anything below 99% is unacceptable.
There are a number of different ways to obtain a web host uptime info. One way to do so is by reading my hosting reviews – where we publish uptime records based on our test sites from time to time (see samples below).
Alternatively, you can simply track your web host with server monitor tools – many of these tools are free on trial and are very to use.
Uptime samples published in WHSR
2. Server Upgrading Options
Shared web hosts are pretty powerful these days.
On rough guestimation, a shared hosting account should be sufficient to support a proper-optimized WordPress blog with 30,000 – 40,000 monthly unique visitors. You should be doing alright on a shared host if you manage to limit your concurrent database connections below 20 (this is why I said it’s always best to start with a shared hosting if you are new).
If you expect your website to grow really big in next two or three years, then you should consider picking up a web host with room to grow. By grow, I mean upgrading your web host – from shared hosting to virtual private or dedicated server – for more processing power, memory capacity, disk storage, and better security features.
3. Multiple Addon Domains
Domain names are cheap – so cheap that it is hard to resist not owning more than one. Personally I own more than 50 domain names in my GoDaddy and NameCheap accounts. And I’m not alone. according to this Web Hosting Talk’s survey – 80% of the voters own more than 5 domains and more than 20% of the voters own more than 50!
To accommodate these extra domains, we need extra hosting space. And this is why it is important to have a web hosting account that allows adding multiple domains.
Generally speaking, most budget shared hosting companies allow at least 25 addon domains* in one account nowadays but you can never be sure. Some years ago I was careless and signed up on a web host that allows only one domain. And, I was holding more than 10 parked domains at that time. Do not repeat my mistake – be sure to check the domain capacity before you make a purchase.
Tip: Addon Domain = separated website with a different domain that you can host on the web host; Parked Domain = additional domain you “park” for domain forwarding or email hosting.
4. Prices: Hosting Signup vs Renewal Cost
Hosting deals, shared hosting especially, are normally selling very cheap on signup prices but charge much higher on renewals.
It is an industry norm.
Unless you are willing to hoop between two or three web hosts every two years, there is no way to avoid the pricey renewal costs.
In general, any shared hosting priced below $10/mo is acceptable but you might have a lower tolerance. So, to avoid any unpleasant surprise, you should check the TOS and make sure you are okay with the renewal prices before signup.
Tip: One quick way to do this is to click on the hosting company’s TOS link (usually at the bottom of homepage), press Ctrl + F, and search for keyword “renewal” or “renew”.
Compare: Signup vs Renewal price
5. Refund Policy
- Should you choose to cancel your host within the trial period, does the company provide full money return?
- What is the hosting company’s refund policy after the trial session?
- Is there any cancellation charges?
These are some basic questions to ask before signing up.
It’s important to know your hosting provider handle customer refunds so that you don’t have to lose too much money when things go wrong.
There are some hosting companies that charge absurdly high cancellation fees when users cancel their account during trial period. Our advice? Avoid these hosting providers at all cost. On the other hand, some hosting companies provide anytime money back guarantees where you can ask for a pro-rated refund after your trial period (good eh?).
6. Cron Jobs, Auto Script Installer, .htaccess, and SSI
I am always surprise that some web hosts out there still do not offer these basic hosting features nowadays. You need Cron for day-in-day-out operations, Auto Script Installer (like Fantastico, Simple Scripts, Quick Installer, Softaculous, Installatron, and so on) for easy web apps installations and updates, .htaccess access for security/page redirects/etc purposes, Server Side Include (SSI) for easier site maintenance (especially when you are building a static site), and FTP access for easy file transfer.
Unless you are signing up on a specialty web host like WP Engine and Pressidium, else these basic features are must-have. You SHOULD NOT settle with hosting providers that do not supply them.
Ignore Disk Space and Data Transfer Capacity (for now)
Disk space and data transfers are hardly a meaningful comparison factor for shoppers – especially if you are new – these days.
One, if you check, almost all shared hosting providers are offering “unlimited” storage and data transfers. While the term “unlimited” is nothing but a marketing gimmick; web hosting users get more than enough capacity in storage and data transfer. (In most cases, it is RAM and processor power that limit the usage of an unlimited hosting account.)
Two, if you think about it, disk storage and bandwidth hardly matter to an average website owners these days. Images can be stored on Flickr; files and documents on Google Doc, videos on YouTube and Vimeo, large data files on cloud storage.
So in conclusion – you don’t need to care that much on your hosting storage or bandwidth for now.
7. e-Commerce Features
- Are you running an e-commerce website?
- Are you using any specific shopping cart software?
- Do you need to process business transactions on your website?
- Do you need special technical support (ie. PrestaShop guide, or so on)?
If yes, then it is important for you to pick a web host with sufficient e-commerce features support. SSL certification, dedicated IP, and one-click shopping cart software installation are some of the essential features/supports you will need.
8. An Easy-to-use Hosting Control Panel
A user-friendly and functional hosting control panel is very, very important.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a cPanel or a Plesk or a third party control panels (like what we have at GoDaddy) – we are okay as long as it is user-friendly and come with all the necessary functions. Without an adequate control panel, you will be left at the mercy of the hosting tech support staff – even if all you need is some basic server changes.
I once had an account with IX Web Hosting, though it’s not a bad host – multiple dedicated IPs at a very reasonable price plus great tech support – but I had to cancel my account because its custom control panel is very user-unfriendly.
Control panel used in different web hosts
9. Account Suspension: What are the limitations?
Here’s a money tip that most hosting review sites will not tell you: Hosting companies will pull the plug and suspend your account if you are using too much CPU power (yes, unlimited hosting is limited) or violating the rules. So before you sign up on a web host, it is important that you read the rules.
Knowing your account limits help you understand two things –
- How Generous (Or Stingy) Is Your Shortlisted Web Host – Should you go with that web host, or other host with looser restrictions?
- How Transparent Is Your Hosting Company – Can you trust the words coming out from your hosting company? Honest hosting company normally will have very clear guidelines on account limitation.
For examples, here’s what written in iPage’s TOS – note the underlined sentences.
User agrees that User shall not use excessive amounts of CPU processing on any of iPage’s servers. Any violation of this policy may result in corrective action by iPage, including assessment of additional charges, disconnection or discontinuance of any and all Services, or termination of this Agreement, which actions may be taken in iPage’s sole and absolute discretion. If iPage takes any corrective action under this section, User shall not be entitled to a refund of any fees paid in advance prior to such action.
And here’s WebHostingHub’s TOS.
Company (WebHostingHub) agrees to provide resources necessary to run actively scripted websites on our stated software stack, providing CPU time, bandwidth and disk space that fits the profile of the average website running our systems.
i. CPU and Disk I/O – Company’s shared systems allow for significant bursts in activity, but resources must be shared among all clients. Computationally intensive or long running scripts are not permitted; generally speaking scripts should complete execution in 1-2 seconds at most. Database queries must also complete quickly, and databases should not be larger than is appropriate in a shared environment. No script or database queries should perform excessive disk reads/writes or maintain I/O patterns that cause performance issues for other sites. The Customer should promptly act on any notice received from Web Hosting hub regarding resource usage. Any notice received should not be considered indicative that Webhosting Hub will manage any site’s traffic, code, or databases – the Customer must take responsibility for optimizing their sites and databases for the traffic they receive before they affect other users. Webhosting Hub reserves the right to suspend any site whose resource.
10. Environmental Friendliness
Having an eco-friendly website host is the primary concern for some webmasters.
According to science studies, a web server on average produces more than 630kg of CO2 (which is a lot!) and consumes 1,000 KWh of energy annually. A green host on the other hand, theoretically produces zero CO2. There is indeed a huge difference between a green web host and a non-eco-friendly web host.
If you care about the environment and wish to cut down on your carbon footprint, pick a web host that runs on renewable energy (or at least, a web host that offsets its energy consumption via green certificates).
If you wish to host email accounts together with your website, then you should look at the email feature before signup. Most hosting companies will come with the ability to host your own email (something like email@example.com) but hey, it’s always better to check and be sure of it, yeah?
In case email feature is not provided, no big deal. There are a number ways you can own an email account at your own domain. Google Email Apps, for example, is a free and easy one – you get the first 10 email accounts for free and $5/account/mo moving up (at this time of writing). I wrote a detail email hosting guide some time ago, go check out if you need help.
12. Subscription Period
Do not be surprise if you discover some web hosts force their customers to take up unreasonably long contracts. Lunarpages, for example, changed their pricing structure in June 2009 and lured customers to take up a 5-year hosting contract in order to enjoy the $4.95/mo deal. Lunarpages no longer offers such a deal now but still this is a good example in our case.
Should you commit to long term hosting contracts? Our answer is no – Never signup web host with more than 2 years upfront unless they provide clear anytime money back guarantees.
Tip: Hosting companies usually give better offers when users go for longer subscription period. Discounts are great; but I strongly recommend users not to prepay for more than 2 years.
13. Site Backup
There are times when a site crashes. Perhaps a hacker got into your WordPress blog and replaced your index.php file, or your entire database got nuked, or the server had a severe hard disk failure.
If your web host does site backups regularly then there is nothing to worry about when these incidents happen. Your hosting provider should be able to restore back your full (or at least, a big chunk of) site in no time.
On backups, here are a few key questions to ask your web host:
- Does your web host provide full backups regularly?
- Can site backup be done easily via the control panel?
- Can you create auto backup your site easily via cron job or other program?
- Can you restore your backup files by yourself easily (so you don’t have to wait for the support staffs to do it for you during disaster time)?
14. 24/7 Live Chat Support?
Personally I prefer live chat over phone and I prefer web hosting company with comprehensive documentation (so I can just read and solve the problems myself).
But it’s just me. You might prefer email or telephone support instead.
What we want is someone who can throw us the life saving rope instantly when we press the S.O.S button.
Wrapping Up: One Man’s Meat Is another Man’s Poison
I am not 100% sure if the idiom is right for the title but I think you get what I mean.
Thing is – there is never a fix solution to one’s hosting needs.
I wouldn’t recommend iPage or eHost if you are starting out a huge e-commerce website. I definitely wouldn’t recommend WP Engine or Pressidium if all you need is an easy-to-manage web host to run a small WordPress blog.
Different sites or blogs have different needs. When you are choosing a web hosting provider, remember that what you want is to pick up the web host that suits your needs.
It’s not about finding the best web host in the world; rather, it’s about finding the RIGHT web host.
And there, you have it – my web host shopping guide! I hope it eases your host choosing process a little, good luck!
P/S: Cutting it short… Here’s how you can pick the right host in 10 minutes
Still can’t get decided on this? Well here’s another candy for you – Just head over to my best 5 hosting comparison table and pick one that suit you the best.
Sounds too simple? You bet.
Truth is – You do not need a lot of choices to make the right call. What you need instead, is a trustable source (that’s us!) to tell you which hosting company to go with (and which to ignore). Our hosting comparison table is built based on our real usage experience and it is one of the most useful guides available online.