How to Choose a Web Host

by wheretheroadforks

Your host plays a major role in your site’s speed, uptime, and security. They also assist you with technical support to ensure that your site runs reliably and efficiently. Poor hosting can really hold you back and slow your site’s growth. When it comes to choosing a host, you’ll want to consider your site’s computing power needs, your budget, the amount of support you need, and more. This guide explains, step-by-step, how to choose a web host for your site.

a laptop with wordpress open

What is a Web Host

A web hosting company sell server space. Servers are special computers that store your website’s files (code, images, videos, etc.) and make those files available for others to view online. Essentially, the server sends your site’s data to your visitors’ web browsers when they click on it. When you buy hosting, you’re paying for storage space, computing power, and often times technical support for the service. Your host also maintains and manages the physical server and makes sure it stays online as much as possible.

There are different types of hosting available that use different types of server technology. A few common types of web hosting include shared, VPS, and dedicated. Web hosts also offer a variety of plans with different amounts of storage space, bandwidth, and computing power.

Some hosts only offer server space while others offer domain registration, email hosting, site management, website building tools, technical support, various security and backup features, and more. There are hundreds of web hosts and plans to choose from.

web servers
Web servers

For more in-depth info on what web hosting is and how it works, check out this great article from Namecheap.

How to Choose a Web Host

Because choosing a host is such an important decision for your site, you’ll want to spend a decent chunk of time researching hosts and asking questions about the services they offer. In this section, I’ll outline the steps you should take to choose the best host for your site.

1. Determine the Storage Space and Bandwidth Needs of your Site

Web hosts charge, in part, based on the amount of storage space and bandwidth you use. Most hosts offer a range of plans with varying amounts of resources. Some hosts offer customs plans for larger sites or plans that allow you to pay as you go for the resources that you use.

Storage

Storage is the amount of space that your site takes up on the server’s hard drives or SSD drives. This includes all of your site’s files and databases including code, photos, videos, programs, etc. Sites that use lots of visuals require more storage space than sites with mostly text. Large sites with lots of pages use more space than small single page sites.

To determine how much storage space you need, you can check with your current host to see how much space you’re using. For example, if you see that your sites take up 10GB of space, you know you’ll need at least 10GB of storage space at your new host.

You should also factor in some extra space for future growth if you are growing your site. Websites grow larger as you add content. If you’re starting a new site, you can look at the size of the files you plan to host to help you decide. Usually, the lowest tier plan will offer plenty of space to start. You can upgrade as you require more space in the future.

For most sites, storage space isn’t much of a limiting factor. Most small to medium-sized websites require just 1-5GB of space. Most hosting plans offer around 10GB of storage for the basic plan. Higher tier plans offer more space.

digital storage drives

Tip: Don’t self-host videos on your site. Instead, upload them to a third-party service like YouTube or Vimeo and embed them. This will save you a lot of storage space and bandwidth. Chances are, they’ll load faster and work better as well because you won’t have to worry about compatibility. You’ll save money too because your site will be much smaller. For more reasons why you shouldn’t host your own videos, check out this article.

Bandwidth

Bandwidth is the amount of data that transfers between your server and your visitor’s computers over a given period of time. In other words, it’s the number of bites that you serve. Usually per month. When a visitor loads your website on their browser, they’re using up some of your bandwidth.

Most hosting plans allow you a specific amount of bandwidth per month. For example, a base plan might offer 100GB of bandwidth per month while a higher-level plan might offer 1TB of bandwidth per month. Some hosts allow you to pay only for the bandwidth that you use or create a custom plan for your site’s bandwidth needs.

You want to choose a plan that matches the amount of bandwidth that your site uses. Try to be honest with yourself so you don’t waste money paying for more resources than you need. At the same time, you want to give yourself some room to grow if your traffic is increasing. Most hosts allow you to scale up or down as you need but this may end up costing you more so it’s best to choose the right plan from the start.

You can calculate the amount of bandwidth you need by multiplying the number of visitors by your site’s average web page size. For example, if your web page is 1MB and 500 people load it per month, you’ll use 500MB of bandwidth. This bandwidth calculator can help you get a more accurate number.

Some hosts use the number of monthly visitors instead of bandwidth. For example, they may market their plans as ‘up to 10,000 visitors per month’ or ‘up to 25,000 visitors per month’. In this case, you can use Google Analytics to view your monthly traffic to help you choose the correct plan for your site.

If you run a small site for a local business, your bandwidth usage will probably be low. If you run a large site that gets a million visitors per month, your bandwidth needs will be much greater. For new sites, you can start with the base plan with the least amount of bandwidth then scale up as needed.

Another consideration is bandwidth spikes. If a piece of your content goes viral, you could experience a surge in bandwidth usage. For example, maybe your site usually gets 500 visitors per day but one of your articles goes viral and you get 20,000 visitors in a single day. Some hosts will shut you down if this happens. Others will charge you for the extra bandwidth that you used. Others will let it slide if it’s a one-off event. When choosing a host, you should ask what happens when you experience a large spike in visitors so you don’t get surprised with a big bill or inaccessible site.

Tip: Be Wary of Unlimited or Unmetered Offers

Some hosts market their storage space or bandwidth as unlimited or unmetered. These things aren’t actually unlimited or unmetered. This is just marketing talk. They absolutely have limits. No host is going to let you upload a terabyte of video and serve a million visitors per month on their basic $10 per month plan.

If you read the fine print, you’ll find that the host will throttle your site, cut you off, cancel your service, or charge you more if you use too many resources. The problem with these unlimited plans is that you don’t know how much storage or bandwidth you’re paying for. At any time, your host could throttle you or shut you off.

Personally, I avoid these unlimited plans for this reason. I would much rather know exactly what I’m paying for. This way, I can plan ahead. If my site starts using too many resources, I can upgrade to another plan or switch hosts if I’m not happy with their offering. I won’t be surprised with a big bill or an unreachable website because my host decided that I was using too many resources on their ‘unlimited plan’. The last thing I want is for my site to go down while a post is going viral.

2. Consider How Much Support You’ll Need

Probably the biggest difference between web hosts is the level of support that they offer. These days, the technology and prices are similar from one host to the next. Excellent support really puts a host ahead of its competitors. When choosing a host, you’ll want to consider the response time, quality, and depth of their tech support.

a customer support agent

The best hosts offer 24 hours phone and chat support as well as email tickets. They allow you to reach a support agent in minutes. A bad host might only offer an email ticket system. It may take hours or days to get a reply. At the very least, you should choose a host with chat and email ticket support with reasonable response times. Phone support is a nice bonus. You should be able to get a response from support within a few minutes at the most if you’re contacting them through chat.

The quality of support is important as well. Some hosts employ highly trained support staff that can solve almost any technical problem you may encounter. Other hosts employ low-level support staff that doesn’t know what they’re doing half the time. Some hosts outsource their support. In this case, it’s a mixed bag. Usually, there is a hierarchy of support agents.

The depth of support is important as well. Some hosts offer fully managed web hosting. This means the host takes care of server maintenance and configuration, software updates, site security, backups, monitoring for malware and hacks as well as support for most technical issues that may arise. Other hosts offer self-managed hosting. In this case, you’re responsible for pretty much everything including server maintenance and management. Some hosts offer partially managed hosting. In this case, they may maintain the servers and assist with security but leave updates and backups up to you.

Finally, you’ll want to consider the cost of support. Usually, support is included in the price of hosting. Hosts with high-quality support usually charge more than hosts with lower-level support. Some hosts include basic support but charge extra for more in-depth support. Some hosts don’t include support in the price of hosting but offer support for an extra fee.

Before choosing a host, you want to consider how much support you’ll need. Full-stack web developers probably don’t need much technical support. If you’re starting your first website, you’ll probably want fully managed hosting with good quality support to keep your site running fast and reliably. If you’re somewhat knowledgeable or you’re a quick learner, you might choose to go with partially managed hosting.

You’ll also want to spend some time researching exactly what each of your potential hosts cover in terms of support. The term ‘fully managed hosting’ can mean different things to different hosts. Most managed WordPress hosts handle everything except problems that are theme or plugin related. Some managed hosts will assist you with speed optimization. Some update your CMS and others don’t.

Finally, you should test out the support. Contact a support agent through chat or phone to see how quickly they respond. Ask them some technical questions to see how knowledgeable the support staff is. If they reply quickly with full, in-depth answers, you know that the support is decent.

3. Choose the Type of Hosting That You Need

Several different types of web hosting exist. The type of hosting you choose plays a major role in the price as well as the speed and scalability of your site. Some types of hosting use different server technologies while others use the same servers with different configurations. Some types of hosting give you more control over your server while others limit control.

Large web hosting companies offer a multiple types of hosting. Smaller hosts may specialize in one type of hosting (often WordPress hosting). Every host offers different levels of service with different amounts of computing power, storage space, and bandwidth.

The best type of hosting for your site depends on your budget, speed requirements, site size, what your site does, how much traffic you get, etc. Choosing the type of hosting you need can help you narrow down your hosting options because not all hosts offer all types of hosting. Below, I’ll outline the most common and most popular types of hosting available to help you decide.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting is the cheapest and most common hosting option. With shared hosting, your site shares resources (RAM and CPU) with a number of other sites on the same server. Your site is also stored on the same storage device (usually an SSD drive) as other sites. There could be hundreds of sites stored on the same physical server.

Shared hosting is the most affordable option because the host can fit the most websites on each server and with this configuration. The server also runs at full capacity most of the time. No resources are wasted and the server is never sitting idle.

The problem with shared hosting is that the performance of your site depends on the other sites located on the same server. For example, if someone else’s website experiences a sudden spike in traffic, your site may slow down because the other site is using too many resources. Think of it like sharing an apartment with roommates. If some of your roommates are using the kitchen, it will take you longer to cook your meal because you’ll have to wait to use the stove.

Another problem with shared hosting is that your access to some of the server’s capabilities is limited. For example, the host may restrict which programs you can run on the server so you don’t use up too many resources or accidentally introduce malware. You may not have shell access. You don’t have complete control.

Shared hosting is an excellent choice for beginners with sites that don’t get a lot of traffic. This is an entry-level hosting option.

Virtual Private Server (VPS) Hosting

VPS hosting runs your site on a virtual machine or simulated computer within the server. Basically, multiple virtual servers run within one physical server. Each virtual server is partitioned off and runs its own operating system. Multiple sites still run on the same physical server but they each have their own dedicated space to operate within. Each VPS has some dedicated RAM and CPU resources as well.

This setup offers better performance than shared hosting. Having said that, your site can still slow down if another site on the same server experiences a spike in traffic because some resources are shared.

Maybe the biggest benefit of VPS hosting is that it gives you full control over your server. You can install whatever software you like. In order to do this, you will need some technical knowledge of server maintenance and management. A VPS is kind of a hybrid of shared hosting and a dedicated server.

This setup works great for those who need more control of their server and better performance than shared hosting offers but don’t need the expense of a dedicated server. VPS hosting is cheaper than dedicated hosting but more expensive than shared hosting.

Dedicated Hosting

With dedicated hosting, you rent the entire physical server. Your website is the only one hosted on that server. You’re not sharing any computing resources with anyone else. You get full use of all of the RAM and CPU power that is installed on the server.

Hosts that offer dedicated serving offer different server configurations with varying levels of computing power. You can choose the best one for your needs. Most larger hosts offer dedicated servers.

Dedicated hosting gives you total control over the server that you rent. You have full root and administrative access. You can install whatever software you want. Dedicated hosting also offers some of the best performance available because there are no other sites sharing your resources.

Of course, there are some drawbacks. Dedicated hosting is expensive. For this reason, it only makes sense for sites with high levels of traffic and solid earnings. Additionally, it takes quite a bit of technical knowledge to install the software that you need and manage a dedicated server. If you don’t know how to manage the system, you may need to spend some time learning some new skills or hire someone to do it for you.

Cloud Hosting

Cloud hosting uses a network of servers that all work together to host many websites. The networked servers are called a cluster. Essentially, the computing resources of the servers are combined. This way, you can use as many resources as you need when you need them. You aren’t limited by the resources of a single server. Cloud hosting works kind of like a water or electricity utility. You can use and pay for as much as you need.

There are several benefits to cloud hosting. First, it is easily scalable. As your site grows, you can continuously use more resources without having move or to change anything. If you happen to get a big surge in traffic, you simply pay more for the extra resources that you use. Cloud hosting is also more reliable. If one server goes down for some reason, the other servers in the network can pick up the slack. This is the future of hosting.

The main drawback to cloud hosting is that it is pretty expensive. It generally costs more than VPS hosting but less than dedicated hosting. For this reason, cloud hosting is best for high traffic sites. Cloud hosting is also a good choice for sites that are growing rapidly.

Some popular cloud hosting services include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. These work great for large websites and those who know how to manage and maintain a server. Managed cloud hosting is also available from companies like Cloudways, A2 hosting, Siteground, DreamHost, HostGator and more.

Cloud hosting is sometimes confused with VPS hosting. The two are distinctly different. With VPS hosting, your website’s data is stored on one server. With cloud hosting, your website’s data is hosted on a network of servers. If your site is hosted on the cloud, it doesn’t slow down if one server gets overloaded. Your site will just be served to the user from another server in the same network.

Managed Hosting

This isn’t really a type of hosting, rather a service that most hosts offer. With managed hosting, your host takes care of the technical aspects of hosting your website. For example, they set up and configure the software on the server including the operating system and content management system. They update software as needed and maintain the server. They also take care of security, monitoring the server for malware. Backups are often included as well. When a technical issue pops up, your host will help you sort it out.

Shared hosting, VPS, dedicated servers, and cloud hosting are all available in fully managed options. This way, you can operate a website with very little technical knowledge of servers and the software they run. The host takes care of it for you.

WordPress Hosting

This is a specific type of managed hosting. With WordPress hosting, the host installs WordPress on the server for you, optimizes the server for WordPress, and updates WordPress core so you’re always using the latest version. Generally, WordPress managed hosts take care of everything except updating your theme or plugins.

Many hosts also offer eCommerce hosting that works in a similar way. They install some type of eCommerce software for you, like WooCommerce, and keep it up to date.

4. Consider the Features that You Need

email

Some hosts just offer server space while others offer an entire platform with various features, freebies, tools, and add-ons to help you build and grow your site. A few useful features to look for when choosing a host include:

  • Email- Most web hosts include email the price of the hosing. This allows you to create domain-specific hosted email addresses like yourname@yourdomain.com for example. Hosts limit the number of emails you can send per hour, the number of accounts you can create, and the amount of storage space per account. Higher-level plans may offer more accounts and more functionality. If your host doesn’t offer email, you can buy hosted email from a third party like Rackspace, Microsoft 365, Google G Suite, Amazon Workmail, and others. You could also use a free email service like Gmail or Outlook.
  • SSL certificates- You need an SSL certificate to run your site on the HTTPS protocol. This is necessary for security purposes. The SSL certificate establishes an encrypted connection between the server where your site is hosted and your visitor’s browser. Having an SSL certificate installed also improves trust and SEO. Google flags sites that aren’t running on HTTPS. Pretty much every host offers free SSL certificates these days. If your host doesn’t, you can get a free one from Let’s Encrypt. Most hosts offer one-click SSL activation. Sometimes they do it for you during site migration. Sometimes it’s a bit more complicated.
  • Site migration- Most hosts will migrate your existing site(s) and hosted email accounts from another host to their servers for free as an incentive to use their service. Some hosts charge $100-$150 for this service. Before choosing a host, you’ll want to see what it will cost to migrate your site. Of course, if you know how to do this yourself, you can do it for free. If you’re starting a new site, you won’t need site migration service.
  • Domain names- Some hosts offer domain name registration in addition to hosting. They may offer discounted or free domain names as a perk if you host with them. After the free year, you’ll have to pay for your domain name annually. Domain names usually cost $10-$20 per year. Before you sign up, check how much domain name renewals cost. You can also register your domain name with a separate company than you host with. In fact, many people prefer this. I like Namecheap for domain name registration.
  • Site builders- Many hosts offer site building tools to help you to build a professional-looking site without any knowledge of HTML, CSS, or any other type of coding. Most site builders allow you to simply drag and drop or select settings from a menu to build your site. Not all hosts are compatible with all site builders. You’ll want to decide which site builder you’re going to use before selecting a host. A few popular site builders include Wix, Squarespace, Weebly, Duda, and of course, WordPress. Some site builders are free and some aren’t. Some are open source and some are closed source. WordPress offers the best compatibility and is free and open source. It is the most popular CMS.
  • CDN (content delivery network)- A CDN is a group of servers that are geographically distributed around the world. There may be dozens of servers in the network located on nearly every continent. Your site gets cached on these servers. When someone on the other side of the world visits your site, it loads faster because the data doesn’t have to travel as far because the server is located physically closer to them. This greatly increases your site speed. You’ll want to check the CDN situation before choosing a host. Some hosts offer their own custom CDN that is optimized for their servers. Some hosts integrate a third-party CDN, like Cloudflare’s free CDN. Other hosts offer a CDN service that you pay for monthly.
  • Server location- You want your site to be hosted as close as possible to your target audience. For example, if you run a small business in California, you should choose a host with a data center on the west coast. This way, the data has to travel less distance to your visitors so your site loads faster. A fast site reduces your bounce rate, increases conversions, and may even improve SEO. Most large hosts have at least 2 or 3 data centers located around the world that you can choose from. Smaller hosts often only have one datacenter.
  • Guarantee- To get the best deal on hosting, you often have to pay for an entire year of service in advance. Most hosts don’t offer their introductory rate or discounts on monthly payment plans. Some hosts don’t even offer monthly plans. Committing to a whole year without knowing whether or not you’ll like the service is risky. That’s why a guarantee is so important. Most hosts offer a 30 day money-back guarantee. This way, if your site is slow after moving or you encounter some unforeseen compatibility issue, you can cancel your service, get your money back, and move your site elsewhere.
  • cPanel– This is a graphical interfaced control panel for managing the backend of your website and all of your hosting services including your email, domain, databases, files, server settings, FTP, software installed on your server, subdomains, and more. cPanel is the most popular control panel and is the current industry standard. Some hosts use their own proprietary control panel instead. These vary in quality. The main benefit of using cPanel is that you don’t have to re-learn anything when you switch hosts if you already know how to use cPanel. cPanel is so popular that some users won’t choose a host that doesn’t use it. Before switching hosts, check which control panel they use. If it’s not cPanel, you may want to learn more about it to make sure that it will work for your purposes.
  • SSD storage- Most hosts these days have switched to SSD storage in their servers. These are much faster than servers with HDD storage. When choosing a web host, you’ll want to make sure they use SSD drives in their servers.
  • Staging area- This is an exact copy or clone of your website that is stored separately on the server. It is not available for your users to view. A staging area allows you to test changes or new features on your website before making them live. You can also use the staging area to find and fix bugs. Some hosts offer a staging area and others don’t. Sometimes a staging area costs extra. Sometimes it’s only included with certain plans. If you like to use a staging area, you’ll want to choose a host that offers that function.
  • 1-click installs- Some hosts offer simple installation of popular software like WordPress, WooCommerse, Drupal, etc. If you’re not very technically advanced, you may choose a host with easy software installation.

5. Consider Your Budget

Hosting prices vary widely. You could run a small site on a shared server for just a few dollars per month. A large website hosted on the cloud or dedicated servers could cost thousands of dollars per month to host.

Because competition is so high in the hosting industry, rates are pretty similar from host to host for comparable services. For example, you can buy basic shared hosting from dozens of different hosts for less than $10 per month. Premium managed hosting for a mid-sized site can be had for $20-$35 per month from a number of different hosts. Most hosts also offer deep discounts for new customers as an incentive to choose their service.

How much you need to budget for hosting depends on a number of factors including:

  • The size of your site- Larger sites with lots of visuals need more storage space, which costs more.
  • Your traffic- High traffic sites require more bandwidth, which costs more.
  • Your revenue- If you’re not monetizing your site, you’ll want to spend as little as possible on hosting. If your site is earning a decent income, you can afford to spend more on premium hosting and additional features if you choose.
  • Your technical knowledge- If you know how to set up and manage a server, you can save a significant amount of money by purchasing non-managed hosting. If your technical knowledge is limited, you’ll need to budget more for fully managed hosting.
  • The features you require- Features like email, site builders, a CDN, cPanel, SSD storage, site backup, security, etc. all add cost, even if they are included in the price of hosting. You can save money by choosing a more basic hosting plan if you don’t need some of these features

If you’re just starting a new site or if your site gets fewer than around 10,000 visitors per month, you can get away with basic shared hosting at a discount web host. If your site is already earning some money and brings in some decent traffic you can and should budget more. Hosting plays a major role in the speed of your site and uptime. Quality hosting is one of the best investments you could make in your website. Good hosting can pay for itself by improving SEO, conversion rates, and reducing your bounce rate. More on that later.

For a new site with managed hosting, expect to spend about $10-$15 per month on hosting. For a mid-sized site with managed hosting, expect to spend $25-$35 per month.

Hosting Payment Plan

Most hosts charge annually. You pay in full once per year. For a small website on a shared server, your bill will probably be in the $100-$180 range. For a medium-sized website with more premium hosting, your bill will be in the $250-$500 range. You’ll need to budget for this big bill once per year.

Some hosts offer monthly payment plans. These usually cost more but offer greater convenience for some people. A few hosts offer pay as you go plans where you only pay for the resources you use. This is a cost-effective option for some types of sites.

Money Saving Tip: Read the Fine Print and Watch out for Upsells

When shopping for hosting, make sure you read the fine print. Many hosts advertise low introductory rates for the first year to get you to sign up. When the time comes to renew, the rate increases substantially. Sometimes well over 100%. This trick is pretty standard in the hosting industry.

Siteground is particularly bad for this. For example, their GoGeek plan costs $14.99 per month or $179.88 in total for the first year. When it comes time to renew, you’ll get a bill for $479.88 because the price increases to $39.99 per month after your introductory period ends. That’s a shocking increase if you weren’t anticipating it.

You also have to watch out for upsells. Many hosts throw in freebies like site security or backup software when you first sign up. When it comes time to renew your hosting, the host might try to sneak in a couple of unexpected $2-$3 monthly charges. These charges add up fast. I find this practice pretty shady and dishonest.

Bluehost is particularly bad for this little trick. when I renewed my domain a couple of years ago, I saw about $30 in extra charges on top of my domain renewal fee. I had to contact their support to get the charges removed from my invoice. I couldn’t remove the products that I didn’t want manually.

6. Research Web Hosts and Read Reviews

star rating

At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of the type of hosting, support, resources, and features, that you need for your site. Now, it’s time to start researching individual hosts that offer plans that meet your criteria. You can also eliminate hosts that don’t offer the features, services, or quality that you need for your site.

After narrowing down your list to only hosts that meet your requirements, you’ll want to do some deeper research on each host. Start off by reading some reviews to see what other customers think of the service. Next, you’ll want to research the host’s performance and policies.

A Note About Web Host Reviews

The problem with many hosting reviews is that they are not honest or reliable. The reason is that many hosting reviews are written by affiliate marketers who are just trying to make a sale. These reviews focus on the positives and gloss over any negatives. They’re essentially sales pitches in review format.

Because pretty much every host has an affiliate program, it can be difficult to find unbiased and accurate reviews. Big web hosting companies like Bluehost, Siteground, Go Daddy, HostGator, etc. are particularly bad for this because they can afford to offer generous affiliate programs to their many affiliates. The internet is littered with positive reviews of hosting companies while honest or negative reviews are scarce.

When reading reviews, try to look for reviews from regular customers, not affiliate marketers or bloggers. If the review has affiliate links and is overly positive, move on. Also, be sure to read negative reviews as well as positive reviews. If you see a particular complaint popping up over and over again, it’s probably accurate. If you can’t find a single negative review for a particular host, that’s a red flag too.

For web hosting reviews, I like looking at trustpilot.com and hostadvice.com and digital.com. On these sites, you can read through thousands of reviews from actual users instead of affiliates. You can also look for reviews on Facebook and Google.

7. Consider Host Performance

The host that you choose plays a major role in the overall performance of your site. In this section, I’ll outline how to choose the fastest hosting with the best uptime.

Site Speed

These days, speed is possibly the most important factor to consider when choosing a host. If your servers are overloaded, poorly optimized, or use old hardware, your site speed will suffer. Having a slow site can cost you big time. You’ll rank lower in the SERPs, have a higher bounce rate, and make fewer conversions if your site is slow. Your business will also be more difficult and slower to grow.

A fast site loads in 1 second or less and has a TTFB (time to first byte) of less than 100ms. This should be your goal. A good site loads in less than 2 seconds with a TTFB between 200-500ms. This is far better than average.

Unfortunately, you can’t measure how fast a host is without buying hosting from them and testing it out yourself. You pretty much have to rely on the information you get from reviews. I found this host speed comparison from Matthew Woodward to be very helpful and well put together. He uses several different tools to tests the speed of the most popular web hosts and organizes them into a series of ranked lists. The testing found that WPX Hosting, Pantheon, and Kinsta performed best when it comes to site speed.

Site speed is crucial for 3 reasons:

  1. Having a slow site reduces your search engine rankings- According to Google, page loading speed is now a ranking factor. If your site is slow, it ranks lower in the SERPS and you’ll receive less organic traffic.
  2. Your bounce rate will increase- If your site takes too long to load, users will simply leave your site rather than waiting for it to load. For example, according to this interesting article from Google, 53% of users leave if your site takes longer than 3 seconds to load.
  3. A slow site reduces your conversion rate- Conversions are all about numbers. The more visitors you have, the more sales you’ll make. If your site is slow, you’ll receive less organic traffic because your rankings can suffer. Fewer users will stay on your site as well. This results in fewer clicks and sales.

Of course, your host isn’t the only factor that determines loading speed. Your site code needs to be optimized well. Your images need to be properly sized as well. A bulky, poorly coded theme or large images can really slow your site down. A caching plugin, optimization plugin, and CDN can greatly improve your site speed.

For more help improving site speed, check out this guide from MOZ.

Uptime

Uptime is the percentage of time that your server is up and running and your site is reachable. Obviously, you want your site to be up and reachable at all times. After all, anytime your site goes down, you’re missing out on visitors and potential sales and ad views.

Hosts can’t offer 100% uptime. Most sites go down for a few minutes or hours over the course of a month. The industry standard uptime is 99.9%. Anything below that is considered pretty poor. The best hosts offer 99.99% uptime, which means your site will be down for just 4 minutes over the course of a month.

Many hosts offer some kind of uptime guarantee. Usually between 99.9% and 99.99% uptime. If your uptime falls below the guaranteed amount, they’ll often offer you a discount or free month of hosting. You’ll need to read the fine print to see what the guarantee actually covers.

Unfortunatley, you can’t measure the uptime of a particular host without purchasing hosting from them and using uptime monitoring software to test the uptime yourself. When it comes to choosing a host, you’ll just have to rely on reviews and the uptime guarantee that the hosts offer.

If, while reading reviews, you see that people complain about their site being down too much, you should stay away from that host. If the host you’re considering doesn’t offer any kind of uptime guarantee, you might want to eliminate them and find a host that does.

When uptime is crucial to your business, you’ll need to get a SLA (service level agreement) between you and your host. This is a legal document. If the host doesn’t hold up their end of the deal, you can get out of the contract or get your money back. This is important if you’re running a large website.

8. Consider the Host Policies and Guidelines

After paying for hosting, you might assume that you can do whatever you want with your server space. Unfortunately, that really isn’t the case. Web hosts have guidelines and rules. Some are more strict than others. Before choosing a host, you’ll want to make sure that your site doesn’t break any of the rules.

Content Policy

Every host has a content policy that explains which types of content aren’t allowed on their servers. A few examples of content that is commonly banned include adult content including nudity, gambling related content, drug-related content, or the sale of weapons and ammunition. Many hosts ban these types of content even if they are perfectly legal in the jurisdiction where the server is located. Of courses, any content that is illegal where the servers are located will also be prohibited.

Some hosts have an additional policy that allows them to ban whatever content they deem to be abusive, obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, etc. These types of policies use very vague wording. This allows the host to disallow pretty much any content that they don’t like for whatever reason. In other words, they could use this policy to censor you if they don’t agree with your site’s content. This can be problematic if you run a website that covers controversial subjects.

Pretty much every host restricts content in some way. Some are more strict than others. If you violate the content policy, the host can take your site down and terminate your service. They will usually give you at least 24 hours to change your site so it follows the rules.

While choosing a web host, you’ll want to read through their content policies to make sure that your site doesn’t break any of the rules. If it does, you’ll want to look for a better host with a more lenient policy or change your content so it abides by the rules.

There are hosts that specialize in hosting controvercial or risky content. For example, if you’re looking to host an adult site, you’ll need to find an adult content friendly host. In this case, you’ll want to avoid the big-name web hosts. They usually have strict content policies.

Content policies exist to protect the hosts from litigation. If you post something illegal on the host’s servers, they could be held responsible. Generally, the content policy depends on where in the world the servers are located as well as how much risk the host wants to take on. Some hosts may censor certain types of content for ethical or political reasons as well.

Some types of content restrictions are good and necessary. For example, any content that breaks the law shouldn’t be allowed. Sites that operate various scams and crimes like phishing, identity theft, Ponzi schemes, distribution of viruses, etc. should be banned to keep the internet safe.

Software or Plugin Restrictions

Some hosts limit what software you can install on your server. Some WordPress hosts have a list of restricted or banned plugins. For example, check out this list of banned plugins from WP Engine.

These policies are put in place to prevent you from using too many resources and potentially introducing some kind of malware or virus to the server. They may also be banned because there are compatibility issues.

Before choosing a host, you’ll want to look for a list of banned software. Make sure that you don’t use or plan to use any software on the list. If you do, you’ll want to choose a host that doesn’t restrict what types of software or plugins you can use. Personally, I avoid hosts that ban software.

9. Check the Backup Policy

A good managed host will offer automatic daily backups that they store for around a month. You can restore your site from these backups if something goes wrong. A non-managed host may not offer automatic backups. If the host doesn’t make backups for you, you’ll have to make regular backups manually or with some kind of backup software.

You should also check to make sure that the host allows you to download your site files and databases to make a manual backup any time you want. This way, you can store backups of your site data on your personal computer, in the cloud, and wherever else you want.

It is crucial that you have your own backups in addition to the backups that your host makes. For example, imagine you have a billing dispute and your host shuts your site off or locks you out of your account. If you have a manual backup, you can upload your site files and databases to a new host, point your domain name there, and you’re site is back online with very little downtime.

10. Security Features

site security

Site security is crucial. If your host has poor security features and infrastructure, your site could get hacked or infected with malware. In both cases, you could lose all of your data. You could also fall victim to identity theft.

A few security features to look for in a web host include:

  • The latest software updates- Running out of date software makes your site less secure. The older a piece of software is, the more time hackers have to find flaws in it that they can exploit. Newer software also has newer and better security features. Make sure your host stays up to date with the latest version of whatever your site runs on. For example, many sites run WordPress on PHP. You want to make sure you’re running the newest version of both and always update when new versions are released.
  • Malware scanning- Many hosts offer software that can scan your site files for malware and remove any potentially harmful files. Some hosts offer automatic daily scans. This software may include additional security features as well. Some hosts offer third party malware scanning software as an add-on. You can also purchase these tools separately from your hosting. Some hosts include it. Managed hosts may perform the scan for you upon request. A few popular malware scanners for websites include SiteLock, Sucuri, and ScanTitan.
  • SSL certificates- These protect against man-in-the-middle attacks by encrypting the data sent between your server and visitors. Criminals can’t intercept the data and change or steal it. Most hosts offer free SSL certificates that you can install with one click.
  • Two-factor authentication (2FA)- This adds an extra layer of security to your account. If someone learns your username and password somehow, they still can’t log in if 2FA is enabled. With 2FA, you need two pieces of identification to log in to your hosting account. One is your password. The other is a one time code that you get through email, text message, or an authentication app like Google Authentication. Pretty much every host offers 2FA these days. If they don’t, their security is too lax.
  • Domain privacy (WHOIS privacy)- According to ICANN, all website owners must make their contact information publicly available. Domain privacy hides your contact information by replacing it with contact information from a forwarding service. This helps to protect you from spam, phishing attempts, potential identity theft, and various scams. Some hosts include domain privacy and others offer it for around $1 per month.
  • IP blacklists- You can use these to block traffic from potentially malicious sources. Some hosts offer IP blacklisting and some don’t.
  • Password protected directories- This allows you to set specific folders to require a password to open. This gives you extra security if you allow someone else to work on the backend of your site. Some hosts offer this and others don’t.

11. Consider the Future- Make Sure Your Site Isn’t Locked Into One Host

Times change. A good host could get acquired or change management and the service could decline. Technology can change and disrupt your hosting plans as well. When choosing a host, make sure you’re thinking about the future of your site. After all, you’re not getting married to your new host. You don’t want to lock yourself into one hosting service forever.

For example, if you use some proprietary software from your host to build your site, you could get locked in. The same could happen if you use some kind of closed source content management system. If the software gets abandoned or becomes obsolete in the future, you could be stuck with a big job if you want to change it.

Whatever the case, you want to make sure your site is portable and adaptable so you can move to another host at any time if something goes wrong. You don’t want to get stuck with a bad host or using obsolete technology.

Regardless of which host or software you use, you also need to make sure that you always have everything backed up. This includes your site’s files, databases, and all media. That way, you can move your site if you need to.

A Note About Content Management Systems (CMS)

The best way to future proof your site is to use an open source content management system or website builder. Running WordPress on PHP is the most popular because it and runs on pretty much any web hosting system and is completely open source. You can move your site from one host to another at any time. You can modify WordPress however you like. There is also a massive community of people who develop for WordPress. You’re not relying on one company.

If you choose a proprietary or closed source content management system, you limit your choice of hosts. If the owner of the proprietary software goes out of business or abandons the software, you’ll be stuck with an obsolete site and the big job of moving to another content management system. Examples of closed source content management systems include Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly.

When choosing a content management system, you should also make sure that it is complaint with current data privacy and protection laws such as GDPR. There should be an option so set up a pop up box that informs your users about your data collection policy, cookies, and security.

Most importantly, your content management system needs to be mobile friendly. Chances are, most of your traffic will come from mobile devices these days. Your site needs to be responsive. The CMS plays a major role in your mobile site speed and usability.

Server Operating System and other Software

Most hosts run a version of the Linux operating system on their servers. Some hosts offer Windows servers. Most web hosting software can work on both systems. Having said that, compatibility issues can arise. Before choosing a host, you should check the system requirements of the software you plan to run. For most websites, a Linux server is the most affordable option because the operating system is free and open-source. Linux is also very stable and reliable.

Probably the most common server configuration for websites is a LAMP stack. This acronym stands for Linux operating system, Apache HTTP Server software, MySQL database management system, and PHP programming language. This setup is free and open source. It also offers excellent compatibility and reliability. Additionally, most web back-end web developers are familiar with the system. If something breaks, you can find someone who can fix it pretty easily. There are also plenty of guides online to help you learn about all of this software if you want to manage your server by yourself.

Questions to Ask Potential Web Hosts

Before signing up for any hosting service, you should contact support and ask any questions that you haven’t been able to find the answer to. Even if you don’t have any questions, you should contact support to see how responsive they are and to test the depth of their knowledge.

A few questions to ask a potential host include:

  1. How are backups handled?- Ask what is backed up, how often your site will be backed up, and how long the backups are kept. You should also verify that you can make a manual backup anytime you want. Ask them to walk you through the process if you like. You need to be comfortable with backups. You don’t want to lose data in the event of a cyberattack or system failure.
  2. What security features do you offer?- If your hosting account gets hacked, you could lose your site. You want to find out how your host protects you from cyberattacks. Can they detect hacks and malware? How often do they scan for malware? What size of encryption keys do they use? 128-bit or 256-bit encryption? Also, make sure the host offers SSL certificates.
  3. Can I scale my hosting plan up and down as needed?- As your site grows, you’ll need more storage space and bandwidth. During a traffic spike, you’ll need more bandwidth temporarily. If your traffic decreases, you’ll need less bandwidth. Ideally, you want to be able to easily increase and decrease your server resources to suit your site’s needs. This way, you’re not paying for more resources than you need and you have more resources when you need them. You want to ask a potential host how easy it is to scale up and down and how much it costs. If you have to move your site to a different server pay a lot of money to change your hosting plan, you may want to avoid that host.
  4. What happens if my traffic spikes?- Does the host charge you for the extra bandwidth? Do they shut your site off? Will your site go down?
  5. Do they own their data centers or are they resellers?- Some hosts simply rent a large amount of server space from a bigger company then re-sell it as their own. They don’t own or maintain their own infrastructure. They’re basically just middlemen. For example, a host might just buy cloud hosting service from Amazon Web Services and resell it as their own. This has several drawbacks. First, your host has less control. If the owner of the servers increases their price, your host will have to increase their prices. You will also have to abide by the terms of the company that owns the servers in addition to your host’s terms. Try to avoid hosts that are just re-sellers.
  6. What kind of support is available?- You want to choose a host with a competent support staff that is available 24/7/365. Preferably via live chat, email, and phone. Ask what types of problems support can help you with. Will they help you identify and remove malware? Will they help you optimize your site for speed? Is there a higher level of support available if their regular support staff can’t identify an issue you’re having? What types of problems won’t they help you with? How fast do they respond?
  7. What technology and tools do you offer?- Do their servers run on Linux or Windows? Do they offer the latest version of popular web technologies such as PHP, MySQL, Apache etc? Is one-click WordPress installation available? Do they offer eCommerce tools? Ask about compatibility with any software that your site uses.
  8. Are there any hidden fees?- Ask about fees for setups and excessive bandwidth or storage usage. Also, ask about renewal fees. You don’t want to get surprised with a massive bill out of nowhere.
  9. What is your uptime?- Some hosts don’t offer an uptime guarantee or publish uptime statistics. If you can’t find any information about uptime, you should ask.

A Note About Domain Names

If you’re starting a new site, you want to make sure that you own your own domain name. This is a yearly recurring fee. Most domain name registrars charge $10-$20 per year for a standard .com domain. Make sure you renew your domain annually so you don’t lose it.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to register your domain with the same company that you host your site with. In fact, many people prefer to have their domain separate from their site. This way, if you have some kind of dispute with either your host or your domain registrar, they don’t have your entire site to hold hostage.

It’s often cheaper to register your domain name with a different company as well. I like Namecheap for domain name registration. They offer some of the best rates.

A Few Host Recommendations

There are hundreds of web hosts to choose from. For the most part, they are all pretty similar with a few minor differences. Below, I’ll outline a few of the more popular options.

  • Bluehost- This is one of the largest and oldest hosting companies in operation. Bluehost is a bargain web host that is recommended by WordPress. They are a popular choice for new websites due to their low introductory prices. Bluehost specializes in shared hosting but also offer VPS, dedicated servers, and managed WordPress hosting. In addition, they offer domain name registration, email, website building tools, as well as SEO and marketing tools. Bluehost is a one-stop-shop for blogs, websites, and online marketplaces. They are owned by the parent company Endurance International Group (EIG). For more info, check out my full Bluehost Review here.
  • WPX Hosting- This newer hosting company offers premium managed hosting on shared servers. They offer some of the best support in the business as well as a custom CDN with 26 locations around the world. In addition, they offer 99.95% uptime guaranteed, email, a staging area, daily malware scanning and removal, and 3 hosting location options. The prices are also reasonable.
  • Siteground- This large and popular hosting company offers basic web hosting as well as managed WordPress hosting, eCommerce hosting, and cloud hosting. In addition, they offer SSL, backups, free CDN, and email. This host is also known for their excellent support. Siteground is recommended by WordPress as well. One thing to watch out for with Siteground is the high renewal prices after the introductory rate ends. They are also known to take sites down during traffic spikes.
  • Cloudways- This is a managed cloud hosting service. Basically, Cloudways buys server space from cloud hosting companies and manages your server space for you. This way, you can take advantage of the speed and affordable pricing of cloud hosting without needing much technical knowledge. They offer cloud hosting from Digital Ocean, Linode, Vultr, AWS, and Google Cloud. Another benefit of this host is that they offer pay as you go pricing. They also offer SSL certificates, 24/7 online support, and free migration. The basic plan starts at $10 per month.
  • Kinsta- This premium hosting company specializes in fully managed WordPress hosting. They are a reseller. Kinsta uses Google Cloud. They offer some of the fastest site speeds and the strongest security in the industry. In addition, they offer excellent support, daily backups, the newest software technologies, a staging area, and more. The main drawback is that Kinsta is one of the pricier hosts out there.

My Experience Choosing a Host

In 2017, I started this site on Bluehost. I initially picked them because they were recommended by a few of my favorite bloggers. Of course, those recommendations were just affiliate ads. I fell for the marketing.

I ended up staying with Bluehost for 3 years, which was probably 2 years too long. Initially, I signed up for 1 year at the low introductory rate. When it came time to renew, I asked for a discount and was able to renew for 2 more years at the same low rate. During my 3 years with Bluehost, I found their support to be pretty poor. Site speed was also a problem. Their servers were slow. Uptime was okay.

Instead of renewing this year, I decided to switch hosts. I started researching a few months before my contract was going to expire. I poured over reviews and learned as much about hosting as I possibly could. It became apparent that I would have to make some compromises.

When shopping for a host, I decided to prioritize site speed and technical support. To me, those are the most important factors. Price wasn’t as important because my site earns enough to easily cover the cost of hosting. At the same time, I didn’t want to overpay for premium managed hosting.

I ended up narrowing my choice down to Cloudways, WPX Hosting, and Siteground. In the end, I went with WPX Hosting. They offer excellent speed with their included CDN. Support is also fantastic. I’ve only been with them for a few months at this point but I’m thrilled with the service so far. I’ll write a full review after I have a bit more experience with them.

Final Thoughts About Choosing a Web Host

As you can see, there is a lot to take into consideration when choosing a web host. In my experience, speed, uptime, support, and security are the four most important considerations. If your site is slow or goes down too often, your SEO and user experience suffers. Of course, you also need to choose a hosting plan that offers enough storage space and bandwidth for your needs. For newer sites that aren’t earning much money, pricing is important as well. Whichever host you go with, I hop this guide helps make the decision a bit easier.

Which host did you choose? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Disclosure: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, including links from the Amazon Serivices LLC Associates Program. At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase through these links. I only recommend products and services that I use and know. Thank you for reading!

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