When you run a business, you often find yourself having to learn about things that fall way outside your comfort zone. For many, web hosting fits firmly into that category.
But it’s not like web hosting is “optional.” If you need a website, you’ll need web hosting of some kind. And, let’s face it, if you’re running a modern business, it’s pretty likely you need a website!
This article sets out to demystify the complex world of web hosting. After you’ve read it, you should be informed enough to choose the right package. Most importantly, you won’t waste money on bells and whistles you don’t need.
What is Web Hosting and Why You Need It?
Every website needs somewhere to “live.” Essentially, it needs a server to host the files, images, documents and other things that make up the site.
In the very early days of the internet, some companies and enthusiasts would host websites on “in-house” equipment of their own. This is now extremely rare, and the job is instead given to a web hosting company.
These companies maintain all the equipment (typically many racks of severs located in enormous global datacentres). Customers then pay a monthly or annual fee to upload their websites to that infrastructure, in order to make them available for public access.
Essentially, when you pay for web hosting, you’re renting your website its home on the internet.
What’s the Difference Between Web Hosting and Domain Registration
There’s often a lot of confusion between web hosting and domain registration. It’s not helped by the fact that the two services are often purchased together and from the same company. But not always.
Registering a domain simply means that you’re buying the right to use it for a set period of time (often on an annual renewal basis). However, registering a domain doesn’t mean you have anywhere for the site to “live.’ That’s where the web hosting comes in.
If you imagine a very simple business with one domain, you will typically renew both the domain registration and the hosting on an annual basis. However, they are two distinct things, even if you buy them at the same time.
How Does Website Hosting Work?
The basics of website hosting are surprisingly simple. Essentially, all of the files that make up your site sit on a server, ready for people to access them and view your content when they visit.
Obviously the intricacies are far more complex in reality. There are often complicated databases powering modern websites. Various other things interconnect, from payment systems to product catalogues, depending on exactly what functions your website performs.
When you sign up with a web hosting company, you’re paying them to deal with the lion’s share of that complexity. Typically you will have access to a Control Panel or Dashboard interface for your hosting.
From there you can do things like uploading website files, setting up email accounts, and installing systems like WordPress or Shopify. Your web host will usually also provide security features and backups of your site(s), though exactly what you get will depend on the host and the package you choose.
How Website Hosting Works With Your Domain Name
So you have a domain name, and your site uploaded to its new hosting package. How do web browsers know where to find the site?
This all happens using a system called DNS (Domain Name System). It would be easy to write thousands of words on the intricacies of DNS. However, for the purposes of this article, it is simplest to think of it in terms of a huge global database that keeps a record of where each website lives.
DNS uses IP addresses. As such, it knows where to find your domain – which will be at an IP address belonging to one of your hosting company’s servers. Your DNS records are usually managed by whichever company you used to originally register the domain(s). If you change to a new web host, you amend these records to “point” your domain to its new home.
(It’s worth emphasising that the process here has been simplified somewhat, but it covers the basics you need to know for now!)
Website Hosting Terms and What They Mean
Hopefully you now have a good understanding of what web hosting actually is. However, unless you’re a techie, it’s still likely that you’ll quickly feel you’re drowning in jargon within minutes of browsing any hosting company’s website.
In this section, we’ll look at the terms you commonly see on such sites, usually as part of their (long) features lists.
Those feature lists are always designed to look impressive, so we also touch on what kind of things you should be impressed by. Some things, in reality, you’ll get regardless of who you sign up with.
Bandwidth refers to the amount of data you can transfer between your site and your readers.
You’ll quickly notice that almost all web hosting packages claim to offer “Unlimited” bandwidth, even on their cheapest packages.
So why does it matter? That’s a good question.
If you’re just running a simple site, especially a static “brochure” style site to promote your business, you probably won’t need to give bandwidth much thought. However, if you’re doing something that will require masses of bandwidth (think lots of users, lots of videos or lots of huge files), it could be more of a concern.
In reality, you’ll find that most “unlimited” bandwidth promises come with some kind of “fair use” caveat. If you’re using more than your fair share, especially when you’re on a cheap shared hosting package, you will definitely hear about it, and be asked to move onto something more suitable.
Another thing that’s often described as “unlimited” on the cheaper hosting packages, disk space is rarely an issue unless you’re running a really sizeable site.
Ironically, it’s once you get into more expensive options, such as dedicated and Virtual Private Servers, that you may have a limited amount of disk space and need to pay if you require more.
Generally speaking, if disk space is something you need to worry about, you probably already have a large site, and know your requirements.
Almost all hosting companies make some mention of WordPress on their features lists. That’s unsurprising, as WordPress now powers around 35% of all sites across the world. There’s a good chance yours will use it, whether you build it yourself or hire a developer.
WordPress is a free Content Management System that makes websites (relatively) easy to build and very easy to update and manage.
When you’re choosing hosting, you’ll often see mention of a “one click” install of WordPress. All that really means is that it’s made very easy to for you to get a basic WordPress site up and running, even with no technical experience.
Broadly speaking, you will be able to run WordPress on hosting from any mainstream hosting company. However, an exception to be aware of are companies like Weebly and Wix. These companies offer an alternative way for small businesses to quickly set up a website, and use bespoke platforms of their own that integrate hosting as an all-in-one package.
Another thing you may see is reference to is “site builders.” Some web hosts offer various tools designed to help non-technical people quickly get a site up and running.
The usefulness of these is limited, in reality, unless you want an extremely simple brochure site. It’s not that complicated to set up a basic site in WordPress, and doing so makes the site exponentially more flexible and scalable.
Many web hosting firms are responding to this by offering add-ons and free themes for WordPress, instead of encouraging use of site builders.
SSL (Secure Socket Layer)
SSL certificates ensure people communicating with your website can do so in a secure and encrypted way. Web hosting companies are increasingly offering free SSL certificates with their packages. Some do still charge extra for them.
Up until a few years ago, SSL certificates were only really considered essential for sites dealing with personal or financial details. However, in 2018, Google began to highlight sites without SSL as “not secure” in their Chrome browser.
This is not a good look for any professional business. It’s worth ensuring you have SSL for your company site.
Uptime statistics and promises are another thing that, at first glance, seem to look almost the same on all hosting websites. However, there are some important nuances you should be aware of.
99% uptime sounds like a lot, but could still mean your site has the potential to be offline for more than three days each year! If you’re running an eCommerce business, and your site is where the money comes from, that’s not great at all.
There’s also a big difference between an uptime statistic and an uptime guarantee. With the latter, you can expect to be compensated if the company fails to meet its commitment to keep your site live.
It’s easy to find historical uptime statistics for web hosting companies, both on their own sites and on third-party roundups. Depending on your business model, they may not be enormously important to you – BUT, in some cases, that extra .9% could make all the difference.
New business owners often think about their website first and then their email. However, it is relevant when choosing web hosting.
Some basic provision of email is usually included with a web hosting package. Usually this means the ability to set up POP3 or IMAP email accounts in the format of [email protected]
Sometimes there will be additional bells and whistles on offer. These could be part of the package or chargeable as an extra. Examples include the ability to link into Google Apps to use Gmail as the platform for your email, or corporate-standard Microsoft Exchange email.
One important thing to note is that some hosting packages may not come with any email provision at all. This is especially common among the new breed of managed WordPress hosting providers, which we discuss later in the article.
Most importantly: don’t forget about email when choosing your web hosting – or you could end up needing a separate service.
FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a means of transferring files directly to and from your website’s server. You usually use a dedicated program for this (such as FileZilla), but some web hosts also offer the means to do it using your web-based control panel.
With more and more sites using Content Management Systems (CMS) like WordPress, the average site owner doesn’t have to do much with FTP nowadays. However, this is a feature you will often see mentioned while you look through technical specifications.
One of the big reasons people use web hosting firms instead of having their websites living on servers in their office is security.
Hackers do try to compromise websites, and it’s not only big businesses that they target. Hosting firms have the expertise to put preventative measures in place to make life difficult for cybercriminals.
When you’re researching hosting firms, you’ll find that they often list various security features, some of which are upsells and add-ons. Obviously it feels unwise to skimp on security, but it’s worth finding out exactly what you’re getting for the money.
A Word About Support
Support is obviously very important, as you need to be able to get hold of your web hosting company if something goes wrong. If you make money using your site, any downtime cuts off your revenue.
24/7/365 support is advertised as being on offer from many hosting companies, but it’s worth delving deeper to find out exactly what this means. There’s a huge difference between a ticketing system where somebody will get back to you within 24 hours, and the ability to pick up the phone and actually speak to somebody.
More and more hosting firms are withdrawing telephone support nowadays, so it’s worth finding out exactly what you do get. Is it live chat? Email support?
The answer to that question is very important.
Different Types of Website Hosting Explained
We’ve covered all the different hosting features you’ll typically see when researching providers, but you will also notice different types of hosting. These can come with wildly different price tags, so you’re no doubt wondering which you need.
This section explains the differences and will help you to choose.
The cheapest hosting packages you’ll find are always shared hosting packages.
For most small websites, and even small websites with big aspirations, a shared hosting package is usually sufficient, at least to begin with. If all you need is a static “brochure” site, it’s likely all you will ever need.
Shared hosting means that your website shares a physical server with lots of other sites belonging to some of your web host’s other clients. This isn’t generally a security concern, as you can expect everything to be properly segregated. However there are other disadvantages that can come into play.
The main issue is that all the sites on each server share that server’s resources – things like disk space, memory (RAM) and processor power. If one site (which could be yours) experiences a sudden surge in traffic or gets hacked, it can have a detrimental effect on the other sites on that server.
As we’ve established, shared hosting is often perfectly sufficient for simple sites, or online businesses that are just getting off the ground. However, they don’t tend to offer the fastest performance, or the “bells and whistles” that hosts reserve for their more expensive options.
Managed WordPress Hosting
Managed WordPress hosting is a relatively new addition to many web hosts’ product ranges. There are also companies like Kinsta and WP-Engine that specialise specifically in WordPress hosting.
Managed WordPress hosting is usually considerably more expensive than a basic shared hosting package. For the extra money you typically get specialised support, hardware and software specifically intended to make WordPress run at its best, and extra additions like server-side caching to make sites run faster.
Managed WordPress hosting is a popular upgrade for people whose sites begin to gain momentum and traffic. It’s worth emphasising that it’s probably an unnecessary luxury for sites that are just getting started.
Virtual Private Servers (VPS)
Virtual Private Servers are another alternative step up from shared hosting. In reality you may still be sharing physical hardware with other customers, but you have an entire virtual server environment all of your own.
There are various ways in which this is useful. A VPS gives a much more advanced level of control and customisability, and performance shouldn’t be compromised by another site belonging to somebody else.
Some web designers pay for a VPS and use it to host several of their clients’ sites. Or, if you run a busy blog or web app, it may get to the point where you need the extra capacity and performance.
As with dedicated servers (described next) VPSs generally come with various customisation options. You’ll need to choose an amount of disk space and processing power, for example. Unsurprisingly, they cost more than a shared hosting package.
Dedicated servers have a lot in common with VPSs: You have control of your own server and can do things like reboot it at any time and install whatever software you want.
The key difference is that with a dedicated server, you are literally leasing your own piece of hardware. You are paying for exclusive use of a physical server in your host’s datacentre.
The reasons to go for a dedicated server are, again, similar to the reasons to opt for a VPS. However, you typically have even more free reign as to how you use and configure the server.
How Much Does Website Hosting Cost?
At the entry-level, at least, website hosting is not particularly expensive. Below are some example costs.
It’s worth noting that you can usually benefit from substantial discounts by paying annually up front, instead of on a monthly basis. Presumably you hope that your site will be around for a long time, so it makes sense to do this if budget permits.
Shared Hosting: Shared hosting can start from as little as £3-4 per month. However there are often compromises involved in the cheapest packages, or you find when reading the small print that the lowest price is only valid for the first year.
Assuming £7-10 per month for a good quality shared package is safer, and more realistic.
Managed WordPress Hosting: Managed WordPress hosting is more expensive. It begins at around £20 per month. It’s worth noting that busy sites can quickly outgrow the lowest pricing tier and move up to paying something more in the region of £70-100 per month.
VPS Hosting: VPS pricing depends a lot on the chosen server specification. As a rough guide they begin at around £20 per month.
Dedicated Servers: Dedicated servers start at around £75 per month, and it’s possible to spend significantly more than that, depending on your exact hardware requirements.
How to Choose a Good Website Hosting Company
Choosing the right web hosting company is something of a minefield, and it’s worth noting that many online review sites have hidden agendas. Web hosting companies pay high commissions to their affiliates, so it’s important to be sure you seek information from places you trust.
There are four key things to consider when choosing a website hosting company:
Service: We’ve already discussed the availability of support and finding out the ways you can contact the relevant people. However, service is also about the quality of that support when you get it.
The best way to research this is to seek out online reviews from real people – just as you would if you were choosing a hotel. Remember that people are more likely to share negative experiences than positive ones, so read plenty of reviews to gain an overview.
Reliability: This is all about those uptime percentages we discussed before. Have a look at the uptime that providers have actually achieved recently. This data is easy to find online.
Speed: Website performance is increasingly important nowadays. Google doesn’t like slow sites, and can punish them with poor rankings in the search results. Internet users are also increasingly impatient with slow sites, meaning you can realistically lose business if performance is weak.
How much you need to worry about speed does depend a little on how key your website is to your business model. If it’s a big factor, you will find lots of interesting studies where techies have compared the performance of different hosting firms in depth.
Price: Obviously price is a factor in any business decision you make. However, with web hosting there are typically lots of options at all price levels.
Price certainly doesn’t directly correlate to quality in this industry. It’s arguably best to come up with a shortlist of providers based on the other factors, before putting price into the equation. The likelihood is that the differences will be reasonably small.
Web hosting is incredibly complex, but hopefully it feels slightly less so after reading this article.
If you’re just starting out with a basic website and limited traffic, the reality is that any web host will be able to get your started. However, a relationship between a business and a web host is typically a long one. Changing providers is a time-consuming hassle.
As such, it pays dividends to do some groundwork and make the right choice from the start. Choosing web hosting is a little like marriage in that respect. If you do your research, you can avoid stressful times and a messy divorce!