Last updated: February 14, 2018
Choosing from among the dozens of web hosting providers on the market today can seem a bit overwhelming, especially for someone looking to set up their first website. This page is intended as a general guide for you, the prospective web hosting customer, to help evaluate which host is the best for your needs.
The cost of service is understandably a major deciding factor for prospective customers choosing a web hosting provider. The difference between $5, $15, and $50 per month can mean the difference between choosing one company over another. However, it’s important to try not to make your decision based upon price alone, especially if your website is or will be business critical. In the web hosting industry, as elsewhere, you often get what you pay for. The costs of running a web hosting company are high, and to stay competitive many providers offer several affordable hosting packages. Unfortunately, that can easily translate to poor service in certain areas. The most common problem is having to deal with understaffed, undertrained, and underpaid technical support. The lesson here is always the same: if it is vitally important for your website to be online at all times, and for you to receive quality and timely support when you need it, then you should seriously consider spending a little more for your web hosting service.
Pro Tip: Read the fine print. Don’t just look at the advertised monthly price of service that can be found in big letters on a hosting company’s website. Make sure you also look for the renewal price, which you will be charged once your first period of service has finished.
Web technology has advanced a tremendously over the past 15 years. It is now much easier to deploy and maintain web servers and services than ever before, and customers have a much richer set of user-friendly tools at their disposal. These tools include the control panel cPanel, the payment platform WHMCS, and a one-click installation system for software like WordPress. Virtually all hosting providers today, especially those offering shared packages, provide these tools to their customers either for free or for a small fee. What prospective customers should look for are any backup and security services offered by the provider. Some hosts provide in-house, for-pay solutions, while others often partner with another company such as CodeGuard or SiteLock to provide such services. If you need to be able to host something more specialized, such as Laravel, you can usually find whether a host supports it by looking in their knowledge base or asking customer support.
By reliability, I mean the uptime and consistent functionality of services. Uptime is how long something has been on, whether it’s the operating system itself, or an individual service such as Apache for your website or Exim for your email. Consistent functionality has to do with whether something behaves the same on a day-to-day basis. These days it seems all hosting providers offer a 99% (or sometimes 99.9%) uptime guarantee, but it’s worth reading in the fine print exactly what that means (and doesn’t mean). You also might be surprised to learn that your site could be offline for several hours each month and still fall within the 99% uptime guarantee. Hosts with frequently low uptimes should be avoided. So should hosts with an inconsistent functionality of services, such as if your email sometimes gets caught in the recipient’s spam box even though you are not sending spam. (The usual cause of this is that someone else on your server is spamming, and your server’s IP has been added to an email blacklist.) It is generally not that straightforward to discover these sort of facts on your own, which is why it’s always important to read web hosting reviews before making your decision.
Performance, in this case, is the resources of the server (and specifically what your account is allowed to use), as well as the quality of its connection to the internet. Server resources that bear on performance are its processing power, which is handled by its CPUs, and its amount of memory, or RAM. On shared hosting plans, the amount of CPU and RAM usage allotted to your account is much smaller than the server total, thus ensuring that all of the other accounts sharing that server have access to resources and at the same time don’t impede the resource needs of others. Websites that require a high amount of resources (such as one that makes very busy use of a MySQL database, for example) should make sure that their hosting plan can handle it; sometimes a VPS or a dedicated server would be a better choice in such cases.
Performance in terms of a quality, fast connection is determined by the network that your server sits on. Most hosting companies lease space from data centers, though a small handful of companies such as GoDaddy have one or more of their own. These data centers themselves maintain connectivity to the rest of the internet by way of high-performance, fiber-optic backbones. Issues that can affect a data center include DDoS attacks, which is when a malicious actor directs an overwhelmingly high amount of traffic to the network in order to slow or entirely shut down service, and infrastructure issues that result in hardware problems, which is something that happened to several EIG-owned brands such as Bluehost and HostGator back in 2013.
As with reliability, questions of performance are not easy to determine on your own. This is another reason to read web hosting reviews before choosing a hosting company.
A lot of prospective customers think about customer support only after they have already signed up for service, or assume that the quality of customer support will be more or less the same no matter which company is chosen. This is a mistake. The quality of a given hosting company’s customer support is oftentimes its most visible aspect among reviews found online. It is also indicative of what the company itself views as important. As a general rule of thumb, good customer service means that the company is actually focused on the needs of its customers, and is willing to invest significant resources in ensuring that that is the case. Poor customer service indicates the opposite. A company with poor customer service is cutting costs, which will be indicative of poor service, generally.