With the proliferation of the Internet, there are so many web hosts to choose from that it would be impossible to shop even a significant percentage of them. However, finding the right web host can be critical to the success of your business, especially if your business is predominantly online. Hosting packages can start as low as $4.95 per month for shared environments (I’ll explain later). On the other end of the spectrum, established companies often budget thousands of dollars each month to web servers and related costs. The type of hosting your business needs and the corresponding amount you’ll pay for that level of service depend upon what you are hoping to accomplish with your web site(s). Here are a few tips and scenarios that will help you choose the web hosting platform that suits your needs.
“Free” Hosting Accounts
Visit any of the thousands of the Blogspot.com blogs that post Google AdSense or other affiliate ads, and you can see that there are many people who make at least some portion of their income by taking advantage of the free hosting accounts offered by blog hosts. Setting up a blog-formatted website is simple and straight-forward. All you need is an email address and an idea. Because most of these free hosting accounts run on high performance web servers, it’s a rare case that your blog account and blog site would be down. However, if you are trying to present yourself as a legitimate company, a serious web site with your own domain name and custom web site are essential.
If your web site is on a shared hosting plan, it sits on a web server that likely services anywhere from a few web sites to hundreds of them. The biggest advantage of a shared web hosting plan is obviously the low cost. Shared hosting plans are good for entrepreneurs who are prototyping their ideas to see if they can get them off the ground. When my first internet business was young, I wanted to keep my costs down so that the significant investment was my time. I chose a shared hosting plan that cost me less than $10.00 per month. As the business grew and it became more critical to keep the site up constantly, we outgrew the shared hosting environment, and our host allowed us (as most gracious web hosts do) to transition to one of their Virtual Private Server accounts.
Because most users of shared hosting accounts aren’t a skilled at administrating web hosting environments, most of the technical details (configuring the web server, etc.) are handled by the web host’s employees. This simpler arrangement can be beneficial to people who don’t want to get bogged down in the details of configuring email accounts and databases and Apache web server files.
The main drawback for shared hosting plans is that they are typically not as reliable as other plans. There is no way to tell (in most cases) what other web sites are sharing your server. If you have the misfortune of being neighbors with an image download site that has tons of visitors, your web site is very likely to experience slow load times and periods where it’s inaccessible. It can be frustrating to operate an online store and consistently know that your customers cannot even find you. The downtime can even affect your search engine rankings. If the Googlebot comes to crawl your site only to find that it’s unresponsive, you’re likely to get dropped in the search rankings. In my experience, the technical support available to shared hosting plans drops a few levels from the attention given to plans that cost more. If your web site is relatively new and doesn’t get a ton of traffic, this scenario may be okay for you. However, if you cannot afford to have downtime, be prepared to pay more for hosting.
Virtual Private Server
A Virtual Private Server (VPS) is an upgrade to shared hosting. It typically costs about $40-$60 per month. VPS accounts give users greater access to the nuts and bolts web server account. Often VPS accounts allow lower-level functionality such as the ability to use an ssh program to connect to a Linux VPS. VPS accounts typically have quicker and better response from the web host’s technical support than shared plans. The selling point of VPS accounts is that they don’t openly share all the resources (memory, CPU, bandwidth, etc.) that shared accounts do. However, with a VPS setup, your web site is still sitting on the same computer as other web sites over which you have no control, so there can still be periods of slow response times and downtime.
Getting a dedicated server is like buying your own home and setting it up the way you want it. When you purchase a dedicated server plan, you are essentially renting a computer in your web hosts data center. Dedicated servers give you a lot more control of your web site’s resources. You can set up Apache the way you prefer it, and you can install extensions per your requirements. With the low-level access comes responsibility, though. Letting a novice mosey around on your dedicated server account could result in the destruction of one or more web sites being hosted there just by running a simple command from the black box. If you think your web site(s) merits a dedicated server, make sure you’ve got someone capable of managing the setup.
The types of web hosting accounts mentioned above are pretty standard in the web hosting world. Despite the similarities between the types of accounts, there are often significant differences among hosting providers. Before I settled on the host I use now (HostGator.com), I had to date and dump at least three other hosting companies. Here are some things to look out for when considering who you should choose to host your site.
It’s worth spending time checking the ratings on the host you are considering. Nowadays it’s very easy to get the dirt on most companies. There are several web host review sites online. Reading the experiences of those who have used the host’s service can serve to settle your mind about committing or provide helpful warnings about the company you are considering. One thing to remember when reading reviews is that the source of a review can often be a competitor trying to sabotage a host’s reputation, or on the other hand, nothing keeps a web hosting company from funneling employees to review sites to pat their backs in public. Try to find objective reviews that list facts and details when checking out a potential host.
Before choosing a host, it’s probably a good idea to speak with their technical support to find out if they know what they’re doing. Even though I have a pretty extensive background in web hosting related technologies, I still find myself needing to lean on technical support from time to time. I’ve used many hosting companies whose technical support seem to be guessing, or who are simply reading scripts when they’re asked technical questions. Before you commit to a hosting provider, it might help to ask some pertinent questions of the technical support staff, almost as if you’re interviewing an IT employee. After all, that’s essentially what they’ll become. Most worthwhile hosting providers have an online chat tool that allows you to easily access their highest level support people.