How to Choose a Good Web Hosting Provider

With so many and so diverse Web hosting offers to choose from, the most difficult part is to decide what exactly you need in any case, what you can do without and what would be nice to have but can be sacrificed if necessary. After you have the idea what you are after, it is almost certain that you will manage to find the solution in no time at all. And if you don’t find the ideal solution the first time you try, you can always consider another hosting provider and move your site there.
While it is true that moving a site is generally not as painful as moving house, for example, starting your search for Web hosting with the idea that if you don’t like what you are offered, you can always go to a different provider is not the best strategy. Why? Because changing the home of your site usually leads to downtime for you, wastes your time and generally you lose money while migrating from host to host. So maybe the wisest you can do is to search for an offer that is good enough for what you need.

Types of Hosting Services

The first step is choosing Web hosting is deciding what type of hosting you need – free or paid. If you are looking for free hosting only, there are plenty of offers but generally your choice is very limited in terms of bandwidth, traffic and disk space. And as a rule free hosting has its price – advertisements, advertisements, advertisements! Besides, you’d better forget about “extras” like your own domain name and security options. But for a small personal site without much expected traffic, free hosting can be the optimal solution. Why pay tons of money when a personal site does not get millions of hits daily?

If you have passed the stage when free hosting was all you needed and you have made your mind that with monthly hosting fees in the single digits, you can afford to pay some bucks, then welcome to the paid hosting world. If you are still on the cheap side (like the majority of site owners), then shared (virtual) hosting is right for you. Your monthly payments still might be less than a hamburger costs but you will have your own domain name and generally higher traffic allowance is included in the package. Most likely the offer will include e-mail accounts as well. Your site will enjoy the company of the other 100 or more sites on the same server and still you have no control over the server’s security settings but basically shared hosting is just the perfect solution for a small business site.

Dedicated hosting is the next possible paid choice. If your site is attracting tens of thousands of visitors daily and they generate a lot of traffic, then cheap shared hosting might already be wrong for you and you’d opted for a dedicated server to host your site. While dedicated hosting is considerably more expensive than shared hosting, if you use your site for business and it is likely that you will attract more and more visitors, then consider this option. With dedicated hosting you have greater freedom – starting from multiple domain names and email-addresses, to managing server security. If you are not an expert in administering a site, then you can resort to managed dedicated hosting, where the hosting provider will do the administration for you. And if you prefer to host your site on a machine of yours but physically located in the premises of the hosting company, then you can start looking for collocation offers.

Price, Bandwidth, Traffic Restrictions, Disk Space

Unless you go for dedicated hosting, price will hardly be your biggest concern. Good Web hosting with decent bandwidth and monthly traffic allowance is affordable and it is certain that price alone shouldn’t be your guiding light. Bandwidth is also becoming less of a concern because now providers generally offer high access speeds (although occasional dropdowns in speed are inevitable but you can hardly know this in advance). When you contact your would-be hosting provider, you may want to ask them if they offer a minimal guaranteed speed because this might turn more important for users that occasional cosmic speed.

Traffic restrictions and disk space are the two most important considerations. Unfortunately, for neither of them there is a universal prescription. For a small site, which consists mainly of static HTML pages and optimized GIFs even 50-100 MB of storage is enough but for larger, database-driven sites 200-250MB of disk space might prove the absolute minimum or even be completely insufficient. So it is up to you to decide if you need 50MB or not less than 15GB. The same applies to traffic – if you have a small site, do not have many visitors and big files for download, then your monthly data transfer could be well under 2-3 GB. There is no direct correlation between the size of a site in MBs and the GBs of monthly traffic to it – for instance it is pretty common to have a site under 100MB and daily traffic over 1GB. So if you expect that traffic will increase and you will need more GBs for data transfer, you’d better select a plan that provides enough data transfer – otherwise you might have to pay charges for exceeding the transfer limit and typically these charges are pretty high. To avoid unpleasant surprises later, check these charges in advance.

Security, Reliability and Service

Security, reliability and service can turn to be very important, if you are unlucky enough to select a hosting company that compromises security measures or that cannot cope with the constant downtime of their servers. I wish I could say that such cases are rare but they aren’t. And while price, bandwidth, disk storage and transfer allowance are easier to measure, security, reliability and service aren’t. And sometimes when you ask the provider about the security measures they implement, you will hardly get a more meaningful answer that they are “state-of-the-art”, “hacker-proofed”, etc. Needless to say that you just skip such a provider and move to the next in the list.

The level of security you will require varies heavily on the type of applications you plan to deploy on your site. In any case it is not pleasant to have one’s site hacked but the damage is different if it is a small personal site and you can always re-upload it again and if it is an online shop, which has transactions for thousands of dollars daily. There are hosting offers that are aimed especially at eCommerce, so if you need them, you may want to have a look at them.

Reliability is also a tricky issue. There is no hosting solution that can offer 100% uptime, even 99.999% is expensive and difficult to achieve, but if you experience constant downtimes and when you call the support guys it takes long hours or even days for them to fix the problem, then you should really think about finding another provider.

Service is not limited to competent and timely technical support, although this is vital. When considering a hosting provider’s service, check if they offer additional services (for instance Web design or search optimization) that you would like to use when necessary. Also, check if you can install PHP and CGI scripts, if you can use a database server, if you will have access to log files, how frequent are backups (once a day is OK, even once a week can be OK for a small site), etc. Sometimes the type of server (Apache, IIS or other) and the operating system (Linux, Windows, FreeBSD, etc.) that the host is running are also very important factors in choosing a hosting provider.

Where to Look for Offers

The only complaint one can’t have in choosing Web hosting is lack of offers. The first suggestion is to search Google. Even a simple search on Google will bury you with so many offers that you will need days to browse through. You can also browse through directory listings of Web hosting services, for instance try searching Google directories or sites like Webhostdir. You can also read the discussions on http://webhostingtalk.com and see what other users have experienced but have in mind that it is a professional forum and if you are a newbie, you might need assistance in understanding the terminology. Another place where you can ask about other people’s experience with hosting providers is http://forum.pcmech.com/showthread.php?t=143762.

If you are looking for free or budget hosting, check this site. The same site offers many other interesting resources and a classification of available hosts based on different criteria. If you have clear vision about traffic allowance, disk space, e-mail accounts, etc., http://www.findmyhosting.com can show you hundreds of offers that match your criteria.

Another way to find a Web host is word of mouth from friends or colleagues. Ask them about their experience with Web hosting companies and their honest opinion about what they have tried, what they are pleased with and what is disappointing. Also, you might need not go even that further, if your ISP provides hosting and their terms are acceptable for you. Anyway, if necessary, you can always change your hosting provider, if you are really dissatisfied with them!

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