How I Choose a Web Host

There are several important considerations to help you choose which web host to go with, out of the hundreds available. First, don’t simply sign up for the web host that is promoted by the company where you bought your domain. Often these big companies offer the worst customer support and dodgiest practices (in fact hundreds of the best-known web hosts are owned by the same corporation, EIG). This doesn’t mean that a web host recommended by a domain seller is inherently bad, but don’t simply trust that their recommendation is “good enough.” Moreover, sometimes when a company runs both the domain and acts as the web host, they make it harder to move to a new host.

Below are the factors that are truly important when choosing your host.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Web Host

If you prefer to skip this research, see Web hosts I recommend.

How is The Web Host’s Customer Support?

I didn’t understand how important this is until I saw how bad support is at some of these big companies. I’ve contacted support for a big-name web host and gotten people who barely speak English reading from a script. In three instances I spent over an hour failing to get information that a better host might have given me in five minutes. They were only there to answer questions that I could have answered myself in a Google search.

For example, I needed to migrate an existing site to a client’s new site with Yahoo! web hosting, so I asked in Yahoo ‘s web hosting chat how they recommend I work on the new Yahoo site locally before I make the switch. Usually this is done by getting an IP address from the web host that I can trick my computer into going to, so I can see the new, unfinished site while everyone else goes to the old/existing website. Yahoo support had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently their support had never dealt with a person who already had a website and wanted to build a new one on Yahoo! That is not a rare scenario, that is something any web host should be familiar with. Ultimately, they suggested I build the site elsewhere and then move it to Yahoo…um, if I’m going to have someone else host it while I build, why wouldn’t I just keep it there?

If all this is more technical details than you care to ponder, just remember that if you or I have to contact your web host you want us to be dealing with someone who understands these technical details.

When researching web hosts, I look not to their website but to people talking about their company on other sites. When you run a search for their name and “customer support” are the search results filled with reasonable people making complaints? Or conversely are they filled with people saying nice things, or timely, helpful posts from the support staff itself (e.g. Twitter updates answering questions that have come in through Twitter)?

What is the Web Host’s Policy When You Exceed Your Allotted Bandwidth?

When you exceed your allotted bandwidth (that is, the amount of traffic you are paying for), most companies will take your site down or throttle it (see below). Usually this happens when your site has become super-popular for some reason, such as the Colbert Bump, the Slashdot effect or landing on page one of Reddit.

It would be unfortunate if your site ceased to exist at the moment it was most popular!  At a giant web host you are just a number and no one will notice if your site goes down in a traffic surge. Some cool web hosts will send you an email if they notice your bandwidth spiking, so you can prevent your site from going down.

Do They Give You Unfettered Access to FTP?

When I build your WordPress site, you won’t need to mess with FTP (though it can be convenient to stash your stuff in your own personal cloud). You will login to WordPress and use that interface. But if anything were to ever go wrong with your WordPress site, or if we just needed to upload a big file, or if you want me to create a script or page that doesn’t use WordPress (such as my Random Plot Generator)…OK there are many situations where we may need to access your site’s content directly. Though it may be rare, if your site were to get hacked or you needed to revert to a backup, you’d want to be sure you have full and easy access to your website files!

Some web hosts have their own internal set up for accessing FTP through their site. Using this web-based FTP makes users depend on their web host, in that inexperienced users become accustomed to their web host’s interface and never learn to use FTP outside of the web host’s site. I’ve even heard of some web hosts that only allow you to use their web-based FTP program (to me this is a deal-breaker!). It’s not like these web-based versions of FTP are easier to use, in fact the ones I’ve used have been cumbersome and awkwardly designed. So there’s really no reason to use one, when free FTP programs like WinSCP and Filezilla are ubiquitous.

The same goes for the other fancy features provided by the web host: website builders, shopping carts, customizable error pages, etc. Your site will be built with WordPress and the WordPress options for all of these features will be better than what the web host is offering. Even if the feature they provide is designed well, becoming dependent on it can make it hard to switch web hosts in the future.

Downtime

Do people complain that their web host goes down often? You would think that the big companies with thousands of servers would never suffer from downtime, but it happens because they oversell. Essentially, knowing that most sites seldom use all their bandwidth, they overbook, just like airlines overbook flights knowing a few people will miss theirs. Avoid web hosts that have a reputation for sites going down too often. After all, keeping your site running all the time is their primary job.

Read the TOS

Sure, it’s no fun to read the terms of service, but the web host’s terms of service may provide important information. One web host I considered will take down any site that doesn’t meet their moral guidelines, even going so far as taking a whole site down just for using the word “poker.” If your web host is going to take down your site for use of a cursory curse word or a blog post about a trip to Vegas, that is something you need to know.

Be Cautious About “Unlimited” Plans

They Will Throttle Your Traffic

There are no true web hosts offering unlimited bandwidth. Bandwidth is expensive, and web hosts can’t afford to run a business on that model. When companies say they offer unlimited bandwidth, this means that rather than shutting your site down when you go over, they make site users wait in turn to access your site. If you’re getting too much traffic, these unlimited plans lead to a virtual traffic jam, where users wait and wait as your page takes forever to load. This process is called throttling.

This doesn’t mean that an unlimited plan is bad, but it is an example of something that’s a little too good to be true. If a page takes twenty minutes to load, it may as well be down because the browser will give up before it loads.

Pricing

At the end of the day, this is the primary concern for most people. And because your web host is a monthly payment, the cost difference does add up. But it can be tricky, as each web host is offering a different amount of bandwidth for the price. And it’s difficult to guess how much bandwidth your site will use. Moreover, as the site grows more popular your bandwidth usage will increase, so you can’t even use the first month’s bandwidth usage as an indicator of your usage down the line.

According to the forum WebHostingTalk, most websites use under 100 MB a month, so the minimum shared hosting plan is usually sufficient for most of my clients needs.

The web hosts I recommend are all very affordable. To give you a general price range, I have never set up a website for a client that cost more than $5 a month in hosting fees.

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