CXO

How to choose the best web host: A cheat sheet

A website is a basic necessity for any small business, but you don't have to employ an army of IT pros to make it happen--let a web hosting service do the heavy lifting.

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In a digital age marked by an always-on and always connected populace, your company's website often serves as the primary storefront for your business. Whether it is a site brimming with the latest technology that requires an army of IT professionals to maintain it or just a single webpage with contact information, your website is where you make that all-important first impression.

Fortunately, creating a functioning and inviting website does not have to be an expensive or time-consuming project. With the help of web hosting services, large and small businesses can project a public presence that is as professional and polished as a website produced by that army of IT pros mentioned earlier.

For a small fee, a web hosting service can provide your business with a domain name and publish a credible, secure website that drives customers to your products and services. All it takes is a few mouse clicks, some basic information, and about an hour of your time.

SEE: Web hosting services comparison tool (Tech Pro Research)

Who are the major players in web hosting?

The basic definition of web hosting is about as straightforward as it gets: It is a service that provides the infrastructure that allows an organization to publish a website. A web hosting service generally charges a recurring fee that provides the subscribing entity with a domain name, storage for website pages, and a server that allows general access via the internet and a web browser.

There are dozens of reputable and viable web hosting services available globally; most offer a similar basic set of web hosting services, while some specialize in less crowded, and potentially more lucrative, niche markets. Choosing the right web hosting service for your small business will require research and careful consideration.

Perhaps the most important factor when choosing a web hosting service is knowing exactly what your business needs from the provider. Most of the web hosting providers (whether listed below or not) will work with you to provide the service and features you request, but only if you can express those needs in a coherent way.

This list of web hosting services presented in Table A is in no particular order and only represents a sampling of available services. The features offered by each provider, as well as the cost of their services, changes over time, so it is important to do your own vetting before deciding which service works best for your business.

Table A

Feature

Host

Base small business cost Uptime guarantee Storage (business) Building tools Domain Support
1&1 $7.99/month 99.9% 100 GB Yes Yes 24/7
DreamHost $13.75/month 100% 30 GB Yes Yes 24/7
HostGator $5.95/month 99.9% Unmetered Yes Yes 24/7
GoDaddy $20.99/month 99.9% 60 GB Yes Yes 24/7
Bluehost $2.75/month 99.9% Unmetered Yes Yes 24/7
iPage $7.99/month 99.9% Unlimited Yes Yes 24/7
InMotion Hosting $6.39/month 99.9% Unlimited Yes Yes 24/7
Squarespace $18/month 99.9% Unlimited Yes Yes 24/7
TMDHosting $5.95/month 99.99% Unlimited Yes Yes 24/7
Liquid Web $59/month 100% 40 GB Yes Yes 24/7
SiteGround $3.95/month 99.9% 10 GB Yes Yes 24/7

Note: Unlimited storage means you can use as much storage space as you need for your website for the price listed; unmetered, on the other hand, means the service will not charge you directly for the amount of storage you use, but will monitor it. If your website uses an extraordinary amount of storage for your paid level of service, the provider may bump you to a more advanced, and more expensive, level.

Additional resources

What should I know about choosing a web host?

In order to be successful in the long term, a business must choose the best web hosting service for their particular set of circumstances. There are many criteria to consider when choosing a web hosting service; some are obvious and measurable (e.g., cost and guaranteed uptime), while other criteria (e.g., customer support) is more subtle and subjective. This TechRepublic cheat sheet will explain what web hosting is, why it could benefit your business, and what features you should consider when choosing your web hosting service partner.

Advanced features like scripting support, shopping cart processing infrastructure, and guaranteed uptime will vary depending on the web hosting company. These additional and advanced features are what separate one web hosting service from another and will be the factors that determine which service is right for your business needs.

The servers provided by web hosting services are generally classified into one of these four categories.

  • Shared: Probably the most common option for small businesses with minimal levels of traffic, shared hosting means that more than one website is stored on a single server or a single piece of hardware. Shared servers are often the least expensive option, which makes them appealing to startups and other small entrepreneurial businesses.
  • Dedicated: When a single server plays host to a single website, it is called a dedicated server. This configuration allows the computer power of that server to be concentrated on just the website it is hosting. The dedicated server is usually more expensive than a shared server but that extra cost can be worth it to businesses where website performance is paramount to success.
  • Cloud hosting (VPS): Similar to the shared server, virtual private servers (VPS) allows many websites to be hosted by one cloud-based server system. A VPS is essentially the cloud-based version of a shared server; however, because of the scalability, flexibility, and redundancy of cloud computing, the VPS can offer more features. A VPS is often a good choice for businesses with computational and feature requirements that fluctuate over time.
  • WordPress: Physically speaking, a managed WordPress server can be hosted by any of the three previously mentioned configurations; the difference is that a WordPress server is specifically designed and optimized to serve WordPress pages, which are often used by bloggers, journalists, and other content creators.

The type of web hosting server your business ultimately chooses will be dependent on your service requirements. A thorough assessment of your business needs with regard to your website should be made before you begin to consider any web hosting service. In addition, thought should be given to future needs and the potential for your chosen web hosting service to be accommodating and flexible.

Additional resources

Why is it important to choose the best web host?

According to a list of internet facts published by Hosting.com, there were 3.95 billion internet users in the world as of June 2018 and that number will continue to grow rapidly in the years to come. One of the best ways to reach those billions of potential customers is with a website, and the most efficient and least expensive way for a small business to get a website is through a hosting service.

An early 2018 survey of 351 small business owners conducted by Clutch, showed that 64% of the respondents currently have a website. Importantly, of the approximately one-third respondents that currently did not have a website, some 58% plan to have a website by the end of 2018. The survey also reveals that 26% of the small businesses surveyed payed less than $500 to create and host their websites.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

In this digital age, the website has become the public face of many organizations; it is often the way a business makes first official contact with a potential customer and is therefore extremely important for customer acquisition and retention. If your small business does not have a website, it is operating at a severe disadvantage to the competition that does. In the modern world, a website is basic standard operating procedure.

By contracting with a web hosting service, small businesses can establish a digital presence with international reach without having to purchase hardware, install an operating system, deploy the proper web server software, write the required HTML, JavaScript, PHP, etc. code to build a functioning website, or hire the IT staff to maintain and secure all of that over time. With a web hosting service, a small business can concentrate on what it wants its website to look like and what information it wants to convey—all of the infrastructure maintenance and troubleshooting can be left to the professionals.

Additional resources

What features should I consider when choosing a web host?

When choosing a web hosting service provider, there are over a dozen features to consider. Beyond checking whether a provider offers a feature, organizations must also consider the quality and the reputation of the service. Beyond even that, choosing a web hosting service provider for your business essentially means choosing a new business partner. Choosing a web hosting service is a long-term commitment and should never be made without serious and comprehensive research.

Cost

Probably the most obvious and the least important detail to consider is cost. Most web hosting services will offer their basic services at a reasonable price. On average, the subscription price for basic web hosting services can be purchased for under $10 per month—including the purchase of a domain name.

Be sure to read the fine print on your contract because many services will offer low promotional rates for the first year or two and then raise the price to "standard" levels once the promotional time-period is complete.

Understandably, additional services beyond the basic levels will add to the overall cost of the service and will vary, so businesses requiring advanced features will want to get every thing in writing, most likely in the form of a service level agreement (SLA).

Performance

According to Hosting.com, slow loading websites cost the US e-commerce market more than $500 billion annually. Customers have very little tolerance for slower loading websites, so the performance capability of a web host is a crucial consideration for the decision-making process.

When comparing the performance capabilities of various web hosting services, note what hardware the provider will use. You will also need to consider what type of server you want to use for your website: Shared, dedicated, or cloud-based. Your choice will determine what performance you can expect from your web host.

SEE: The best web hosting providers for 2018 (CNET)

Scalability

Beyond the sheer speed of performance, some businesses require a web hosting service that can scale performance in an instant when requested and scale back when demand wanes. A retailer, for example, may have a season during the year where thousands of orders arrive in a matter of weeks—the hosting service must be able to scale up and then scale down as necessary. This is an advanced feature that not every web hosting service can provide.

Uptime

Once you establish your website, you'd like for it to be up and accessible 100% of the time, but no web hosting service can ensure perfection, so most providers commit to 99.9% uptime. If your business is willing to spend a little more for extra uptime guarantees, you might be able to negotiate 99.99% uptime. Whatever level you agree to, be sure to get it memorialized in an SLA.

Customer support

While all of the technical considerations of choosing a web host service provider are important to the decision-making process, customer support and the depth of rapport your business can establish with that provider is often the most important factor. The ability to establish a beneficial working repartee with your web hosting service provider's customer service department will often be the deciding factor when choosing a service.

As Sean Garrity of HostingAdvice.com puts it:

"In the eyes of the customer, a solid support system is probably the biggest differentiator. No one wants to send support tickets out into the ether and hope that someone gets back to them someday. The best hosts offer personalized customer support through live representatives via phone or chat, and many complement that with a knowledgebase that allows for self-service for less technical issues."

Security

According to a 2018 report from security firm SiteLock, in the second quarter of 2018 the average SMB website was attacked 58 times per day, every day. Small businesses—most of which are already stretching their limited resources—would have a difficult time fending off so many attacks on their own.

A web hosting service should have the means and the resources to offer a secure website infrastructure, complete with the latest updates, patches, and active security protocols necessary to hold off the onslaught of daily cyberattacks. Security features, guarantees, and expectations should be negotiated as part of an SLA.

SEE: Web hosting providers take three days, on average, to respond to abuse reports (ZDNet)

Bandwidth

Beyond the speed at which interactions can be processed, a small business must also consider the volume of data they will require from their web hosting service. A small business with a website that draws only a few visitors a day looking for contact information has much different needs than a business streaming thousands of media files daily.

Most web hosting services can handle a multitude of scenarios but will adjust pricing depending on the bandwidth requested. An SLA laying out exactly the amount of bandwidth your website will need and providing for any spikes in bandwidth requests that may occur, will go a long way toward avoiding unexpected service charges.

Storage

Web hosting services will offer various levels of storage depending on your needs. A small business with only a landing page has much different storage needs than a business with hundreds of pages of content. Once again, making the correct decision on storage will depend on your business needs and should be documented in the SLA.

Website building tools

Many web hosting services offer a set of building tools that make developing a professional-looking website for your small business simple. According to Sean Garrity of HostingAdvice.com:

"Building websites used to be reserved for tech-savvy pros and large companies with pockets deep enough to hire a team of developers and designers. Today, the barriers to entry into online markets have been knocked down. Anyone with a PC and an internet connection can leverage one of the numerous site builders to broadcast a brand online. These tools provide intuitive, drag-and-drop environments and templates that require no coding knowledge to get a professional-grade site up and running quickly. Leveraging a site builder is a great, cost-efficient choice for SMBs and entrepreneurs looking to sell products online and build a web presence."

The quality and quantity of the development tools offered by web hosting services differ greatly, so you should look for services that offer the specific tools you'll need to build your website.

Domain names

As of the first quarter of 2017, Hosting.com says are over 330.6 million registered domain names. Finding an easy to remember, unclaimed, and highly-brandable domain name in your industry may not be all that easy. A domain generator can help you find an unregistered name.

Once you find a domain name, your chosen web hosting service should offer to register it for you. In many cases, the service will offer to do this for free or at low cost, but be sure to read the fine print, because that may be only for the first year. Domain names must be renewed annually and there is always a fee—be sure you understand just who is responsible for filing the renewal paperwork each year and how much it will cost.

SEE: Domain names 101 CNET)

Email

Almost all of the web hosting services will offer email support as part of even their most basic packages; however, it is important to consider what email capacity you need for your business. If you are a one-person operation, hiring a web hosting service that provides 10 email accounts may be plenty. On the other hand, if you have 50 employees, you will need to find a web hosting service that offers much more capacity.

Mobile capability

According to Hosting.com, as of April 2017 there are 3.5 billion global mobile internet users, which means there are now more mobile internet users than desktop users. Consequently, your small business website must be compatible with a mobile interface to by effective.

As part of their site building tools, some web hosting services will offer a system that produces a dynamic website that can be displayed on a desktop or on a mobile device. Mobile interaction is vital to success in the digital age, so mobile capability for your website should be a priority.

Transfer of existing websites

Unless you are just starting out, your business is likely to have a website already. In many cases, you will want to transfer the existing website over to a new web hosting service; depending on the website, this can be a difficult task to complete in a timely manner.

Some of the more sophisticated web hosting services will offer the help of expert technical personnel to make the transition from one host to another as quick and efficient as possible. Some web hosting services even offer this expertise at no charge as an incentive for making the switch.

Ease of use

For the most part, the most popular web hosting services can be accessed via a standard web browser. This interface allows you to update your content, track visitor activity, and otherwise manage your website. This configuration works great for simple websites typical of small businesses.

If you need to implement special scripts, insert specific code, add advertising tracking widgets, etc., you will want to research how accommodating a web service is to those advanced requirements. If access to those features requires the services of your providers' internal technicians, it may raise the overall hassle and cost considerably.

Compliance

With the recent implementation of the GDPR and other data privacy and protection laws, compliance has become a major consideration when choosing a web hosting service. A compliant service should offer specific assurances on how it will protect any data collected by your website.

When considering whether a prospective service is compliant with the GDPR and other regulations, you should ask questions about data encryption, SSL certificate support, the security of its Web Hosting Automation Platform, firewall deployment, and internal security measures like strong passwords and authentication protocols. This information should be detailed and documented in an SLA.

Operating system: Linux v. Windows

Most website servers use a version of the Linux operating system and associated web service infrastructure; however, some organizations prefer to use a Microsoft Windows server. While many of the web hosting services can handle either OS, not all of them will—and, the ones that do, may charge different rates depending on the operating system. Before you decide on your service, you should check their capabilities in this regard.

Additional resources


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Image: carmenmurillo, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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