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? Let me help you discover the answers to these questions and more. I’ll guide you along the way with a complete walkthrough accompanied by a specially designed 16-point checklist to ensure all you know exactly how to choose the right web hosting.
The process: How to choose a web hosting service?
There are so many factors involved in this that it could overwhelm most people, but let’s focus on these key items.
1. Know 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 about what you really need.
- What kind of website are you building?
- Do you want something common (a WordPress blog, perhaps)?
- Do you need Windows applications?
- Do you need support for a specific script (e.g. PHP)?
- Does your website need special software?
- How big (or small) can your web traffic volume go?
These are some of the basic questions you need to answer for yourself.
Picture in your mind what you want your website to be now, then build on that idea until you’re roughly 12 months ahead of that. Don’t just consider what you want to offer, but also what may want or need.
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. It also lets you focus on building your site without having to worry about other server-side tasks such as database maintenance and server security.
Remember, you always have the option to scale up and upgrade to VPS or dedicated hosting at a later stage when your site grows bigger.
Newbie-Friendly Hosting Services
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* Prices listed here are checked on quarterly basis (last check Feb 2nd, 2018). Please refer to official websites for best accuracy.
2. Server Reliability / Uptime Scores
Nothing is more important than having a 24×7 operating web host, after all, your visitors may come to your site from time zones all over the world. You need a web host which is stable, both in terms of their servers as well as network connections. 99.95% is considered a norm these days, even for shared hosting accounts; anything below 99% is unacceptable. Premium accounts often boast of 99.99% or better uptimes.
There are a number of different ways to obtain web host uptime information. The simplest way to do so is by reading my hosting reviews – where I publish uptime records based on my test sites from time to time (see samples below).
Alternatively, you can simply track your web host with server monitoring tools – many of these tools are available either for free, or at the very least offer a trial period. They are efficient and very easy to use.
Uptime samples published at WHSR
3. Server Upgrading Options
Shared web hosts are pretty powerful these days.
Through rough guesstimation, a shared hosting account should be sufficient to support a properly optimized WordPress blog with 30,000 to 40,000 monthly unique visitors. Database connections usually work your server harder and the more people you have connecting to your website at the same time, the more it will suffer performance-wise.
On a shared hosting account, things should be fine as long as 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).
* Click to enlarge image.
If you expect your website to grow really big over the next two or three years then you should consider picking up a web host with room to grow. By grow, I mean that it is able to offer you better plans. This could be upgrades from shared hosting to a virtual private or dedicated server for greater processing power, memory capacity, disk storage, and perhaps even enhanced security features.
4. Multiple Addon Domains
Domain names are cheap – so cheap in fact that it is often hard to resist not owning more than one. I personally 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. This is why it is important to have a web hosting account that allows adding multiple domains.
Look for web host with more than 50 addon domain
Generally speaking, most budget-friendly 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. Unfortunately, I was holding more than 10 parked domains at that time. Do not repeat my mistake – check the domain capacity before you make a purchase.
Useful 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.
5. Signup vs Renewal Price
Hosting deals, especially for shared hosting, are usually cheapest during signup. Be aware though that these often come with a much higher renewal price, so be careful before clicking ‘buy’ on that plan that is offering you a sign up price at 80% discount!
This is an industry norm.
Unless you are willing to hop between two or three web hosts every two years, there is no way to avoid pricey renewal costs.
In our host review, we deduct point for hosts that jack up their price more than 50% on renewal. But generally I am okay with companies that renew at below 100% price jump – meaning, if you signup a host at $5/mo, the renewal fees shouldn’t go beyond $10/mo.
To avoid any unpleasant surprises, check the ToS and make sure you are okay with the renewal rates before signup.
Compare: Signup vs Renewal price
Note that usually hosting companies that slash their price at signup are the ones that jack up renewal price the most.
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6. Refund Policy & Free Trial Period
- Should you choose to cancel your hosting plan within the trial period, does the company provide a full money-back guarantee?
- What is the hosting company’s refund policy after the trial period has ended?
- Are there any cancellation charges or extra fees?
These are some basic questions you should get the answers to before signing up.
It’s important to know how your hosting provider handles customer refunds so that you don’t lose too much money if things go wrong.
There are some hosting companies that charge absurdly high cancellation fees when users cancel their accounts during trial periods. 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 is over (good eh?).
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7. Essential Features in a Web Host
Sure, some things like file management and site stats are almost always there, but also keep an eye on ftp / sftp, one click installer , and DNS management. Also, there should be a file manager – make sure you can edit the .htaccess file from there.
Either way, the aim of the one-click installer is to make your life a heck of a lot easier. These are sort of installation wizards that help you install things like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, or a host of other web applications. All you’ll need to do is fill in some names and perhaps specify a directory or so along the way.
FTP / SFTP Access
FTP / SFTP access is invaluable for moving large amounts of files safely. Some hosts try to get away with just the file manager, but that is usually quite limited.
* Click to enlarge.
.htaccess File Access
The .htaccess file is also extremely powerful and can help you make site-wide administrative changes. It controls almost everything from redirects up to password authentication and management, and will be vital at some point in your future endeavors.
Unless you are signing up on a specialty web host like WP Engine and Pressidium (these focus on WordPress hosting mainly), these basic features are a 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.
If you check, almost all shared hosting providers are offering “unlimited” storage and data transfer. While the term “unlimited” is nothing but a marketing gimmick; web hosting users often get more than enough capacity in terms of storage and data transfer bandwidth. (In most cases, it is RAM and processing power that limits the usage of an unlimited hosting account.)
If you think about it, disk storage and bandwidth hardly matter to an average website owners these days. Images can be stored at Imgur or Flickr, files and documents on Google Doc, videos on YouTube and Vimeo, and large data files on any of a huge number of cloud storage sites existing today.
So don’t overly worry about your hosting storage or bandwidth for the time being.
8. 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.
9. An Easy-to-use Hosting Control Panel
A user-friendly control panel with extensive functionality is very important, since it’s the brain of your hosting account.
It doesn’t matter if it’s cPanel or Plesk or even a third-party control panel (like what GoDaddy offers), as long as it is user-friendly and comes 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 service.
I once had an account with IX Web Hosting, and although it’s not a bad host – multiple dedicated IPs at a very reasonable price, plus great tech support – I had to cancel my account because its custom control panel was very user-unfriendly.
Control panel used in different web hosts
10. 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.
Because the power of their shared servers is often not something they like to publicize, crouched in ornate language, you will be told somewhere in the terms and conditions that your account may be suspended or terminated for over-utilization of resources – they just usually won’t tell you how much.
It’s also fairly certain that almost ALL web hosts will not tolerate the hosting of any illegal files and/or services. So if you intend to run a website allowing people to download pirated files, you’re probably out of luck for the most part.
Knowing your account limits help you understand two things –
- How generous (or stingy) your shortlisted web hosts are – Should you go with this one, or another host with looser restrictions?
- How transparent your hosting company is – Can you trust the words coming out from your hosting company? Honest hosting companies normally have very clear guidelines on account limitations and their terms of service.
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, […]
And here’s WebHostingHub’s TOS.
i. CPU and Disk I/O – […] 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.
11. Environmental Friendliness
Having an eco-friendly website host a the primary concern for some webmasters.
According to science studies, a web server on average produces more than 630 kg 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 reduce the carbon footprint attributed to your company or yourself, 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 features before signup. Most hosting companies will come with the ability to host your own email (something like firstname.lastname@example.org) but hey, it’s always better to check and be sure of it, yeah?
In case email features are not provided, no big deal. There are a number ways you can own an email account at your own domain. G Suite, for example, is a service offered by Google that will let you own your own emails, hosted on their servers. It starts from as low as $5 per user per month.
13. Subscription Period
Do not be surprised 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 the case can still serve as an example.
Should you commit to long term hosting contracts? Our answer is no – Never signup with a web host for any period of more than two years running, unless they offer clear anytime money back guarantees.
Useful Tip: Hosting companies usually give better offers when users go for longer subscription periods. The discounts are great; but I strongly recommend users not to prepay for more than 2 years. Technology develops rapidly and you might find your needs vastly different in a short space of time.
14. Site Backup
Computers crash, equipment fails, these are the facts of life even as death and taxes are. Your site will also be vulnerable to these factors, or perhaps a hacker got into your WordPress blog and replaced your index.php file. Maybe your entire database got nuked.
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 your full site in no time at all (or at least, a big chunk of it).
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 manually via the control panel?
- Can you create auto backups of your site easily via cron jobs or other programs?
- Can you restore your backup files by yourself easily so you don’t have to wait for support staff to do it for you during a period of disaster recovery?
15. Live Chat or Telephone Support
Personally I prefer live chat over phone and web hosting companies with comprehensive documentation (so I can just read and solve the problems myself).
But that’s just me. You might prefer email or telephone support instead.
Ultimately, we want someone who can throw us a life preserver instantly once we press that S.O.S. button.
I tried 28 hosting companies’ live chat support in 2017 – SiteGround, InMotion Hosting, Web Host Face, WP Engine, and Go Get Space stood out as the winner in this test.
16. Server Responsiveness
We don’t mean if your hosting company responds to you quickly or not! Responsiveness is a measure of the time it takes from when someone hits enter on your domain name until the server acknowledges that request.
Often known as Time To First Byte (TTFB), your server response speed is more than for self-gratification at having the fastest loading website. It’s been documented that the longer a user waits for a website to load, the more likely they will leave the site before it even finishes loading.
Your website speed also affects how Google and other search engines rank you in search results.
This is seldom something that a web hosting company will tell you. One common guideline is often price. Top-of-the-line equipment and infrastructure does not come cheap. If your host can afford to charge you $2 per month for hosting, things are getting a little fishy.
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.
The thing is – there is never a fixed solution to one’s web hosting needs.
I wouldn’t recommend a free web host if you are starting out a huge e-commerce website. I definitely wouldn’t recommend expensive managed WordPress hosting if all you need is an easy-to-manage web host to run a small hobby blog.
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 for YOU.
And there, you have it – my web host shopping guide! I hope it eases your host-choosing process a little, good luck!