To make a website you need three things: a domain name, web hosting and software for doing all the heavy lifting (ie building the website).
I know the process sounds quite scary, but believe me, it isn’t as confusing or difficult as you might think.
The reason? Tools!
There are lots of website builders and content management systems out there, and hosting companies typically bundle them in with the hosting. Making it easy for you to install and use them on your server.
Website hosting is confusing for newbies
This part of the process is usually the most confusing for beginners. There is a lot of choice and a lot of new words and phrases to get your head around.
There’s added financial stress too – you don’t want to make the wrong decision and pay over the odds for hosting you don’t need or get tied into a long contract you can’t get away from.
Before we get going, let me say you two things:
- Always avoid free or crazy-cheap hosting because you’ll almost certainly receive poor service.
- Cheap shared hosting (in the $2-$5 per month range) isn’t always bad. Especially if you’re setting up your first website.
What is web hosting?
Web hosting is a service provided by a person or company that allows you to upload a website to the internet which anyone can view. If you so choose, you can set up a website that only you, or somebody with a username and password can view. Usually, though, websites are made available for anyone to see.
Websites are stored on special computers known as servers. A server can hold one or thousands of websites depending on its configuration and specifications.
Servers act in very much the same way as a computer or laptop. They hold files, bits of data and information that can be called and viewed upon request. When somebody requests a page from your website after typing the URL into a browser, clicking on a link on another web page or the results in Google, the server recognises the command and sends a copy of the requested page to the person’s browser.
Servers are located in data centres dotted around the world. Websites stored on servers physically located closer to you tend to load faster that ones located on the opposite side of the world. I say ‘typically’ because there are many other factors that determine the download speed of a web page.
You only need one server to run your website. In fact, for small sites you only need one tiny section of a server. Larger sites might get by using one server, whereas huge sites need hundreds, thousands or even millions.
Let’s look at Google, for example. Google is a huge company providing many services to people and businesses everywhere. Can you imagine how appalling it’s service would be if it only used a small section of one server?
There are no exact figures easily discoverable online, but according to this article Google runs around 2.5 million servers to keep everybody happy. It could be a higher figure now, as the report comes from 2016.
Video: Inside a Google data center
Credit: G Suite
Why do I need web hosting?
Unless you’re already a technical ninja or you want to try setting up a home server, you won’t be able to run a website without buying hosting from somewhere. Imagine driving a car without wheels. It just wouldn’t get you anywhere. So, like it not, you will need to go through the process of looking for a reliable and affordable web host if you want to set up your own website or blog.
Stick with it – I’m getting into the details.
What are the different types of web hosting?
Not all web hosts are created equal, and in this area, you do generally get what you pay for.
You generally find the following types of hosting:
Nowadays, there are also a lot of companies providing specialist WordPress hosting. For example:
- WPX Hosting
- WP Engine
Prices across these companies varies depending upon the level of service you need.
What to look for in a web hosting service
Now you know what a web hosting service is, what does it does and how does it, let’s consider what you should be looking for when doing your research.
We all have different priorities. You may see price as a significant deciding factor, whereas another person may give more importance to customer service, speed or reliability.
If you’re starting your first website or blog you should definitely stick with cheap, shared hosting. You don’t need anything more at the newbie stage. Once your site gains traction, you can upgrade to a VPS (virtual private server), dedicated hosting or a better shared hosting provider.
On the other hand, if you’re an e-Commerce startup planning on using AdWords and Facebook ads to drive traffic, you’ll need a much more reliable platform.
Typically, when looking for a web hosting service, you’ll notice they market themselves on a number of points:
- Monthly price
- Monthly bandwidth allowance
- Allocated disk space
- Number of add-on domains
- Free domain name
- 24/7 technical support service
- Migration from another hosting company
- Building a new website
- Money back guarantee
- Signup versus renewal fees
Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these.
Don’t be fooled by the low monthly prices hosting companies use to market their services.
In the above screenshot, taken from HostGator, notice how the ad says prices start at $3.95/mo?
It’s not a lie, they do start at $3.95 per month – but only if you pay for three years in advance.
If you want commit to a 12 month term, the price increases by a couple of dollars per month.
Also, notice the renewal price after the initial term expires.
This is a common tactic used by a lot of hosting companies, so be aware of it when you’re looking around.
Should you pay monthly?
I don’t see why not. If you want to avoid the monthly option, I probably wouldn’t pay for more than twelve months in advance to any hosting company.
For anyone needing a bit more bang for their buck, here’s the monthly pricing for WPEngine.
It’s quite a difference.
$29 per month for one year is $348.
If you choose HostGator’s highest rate of $7.16 per month, you’d save $262.08 a year.
It’s an unfair comparison really, as WPEngine and HostGator provide entirely different services.
Monthly bandwidth allowance
A lot of web hosting services offer an unlimited bandwidth allowance knowing most sites will never consume more than a few gigabytes, if that.
It’s a sweetener to entice you to sign up.
What is bandwidth? In simple terms, it’s the amount of data the server uses to deliver your web pages to people on the internet.
You will use more bandwidth if you:
- Use large images in your posts
- Store videos on your own pages instead of YouTube or Vimeo
- Allow people to download PDFs, files or software
Any action on your site using data from the server consumes bandwidth.
Allocated disk space
Web hosting companies offer unlimited disk space as a sweetener.
Here’s a screenshot from Vidahost, which avoids the ‘unlimited’ bandwagon and offers different amounts of server space depending upon the hosting package their customer’s choose.
The allocated disk space refers to the amount of space you have for all your website’s files.
In the example above, 2GB is the minimum amount of space allowed. If you look further down the column, you’ll notice the package has the ability to run up to six websites.
So, that 2GB of storage space is spread across six sites.
It’s a lot of space for the average business blog. And you won’t need any more than that at the start (unless you have hundreds of high-resolution images or other files to upload).
As your site grows you may find you need more disk space. This is easy to add onto your account. Just look for the ‘upgrade’ option with the admin area or contact the hosting company’s support team.
There’s no interruption to your site, so you don’t have to worry about downtime.
Number of add-on domains
This feature determines how many sites you can host within your hosting account.
Here’s a screenshot from Bluehost, which allows unlimited (there’s that word again) domain hosting.
Free domain name
It’s another sweetener to get you to sign up, but it’s one worth taking advantage of if you’re setting up your first website.
During the setup process, you’re given the opportunity to register a new domain or use one you already own. When I first started building websites at the start of the noughties, I used this option.
It’s worth bearing in mind that most US hosting companies will register a .com or a .net domain, but only some register .co.uk (or other country specific) domains.
24/7 technical support service
If customer support is important to you, you might want to give it a try before deciding which hosting company to go with.
Most offer an online chat facility, which you can use before you become a customer. Just go to the website, find the chat facility and ask a few questions.
Perhaps a better indication of support is the time it takes for the help-desk to reply to emails or answer the phone.
Another factor to consider is time-zone.
Some hosting companies have lower staffing levels overnight. If you’re in the UK and typically work during the daytime, you may be better signing up with a UK based company if you think you might often need the help of the support team.
When it happens, you need to know your site is safe and secure.
To this end, it’s wise to ask your potential hosting company about its backup and restore policy.
Some of the questions to ask include:
- Do you provide a backup service?
- How often do you backup my site? (hourly/daily/weekly)
- What’s the procedure if I want to restore my site?
- How long does it take to perform a typical restore?
- How much does it cost?
If you prefer to take more control over your backups and you’re using WordPress, you could use a plugin/service such as VaultPress or BackUpBuddy.
Migration from another hosting company
One of the main reasons people stay with a hosting company they’re unhappy with is the fear of moving a site from one server to another.
I get that.
It’s unknown territory and there’s a justifiable fear of something going terribly wrong.
But, it won’t.
Or at least, it shouldn’t.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve successfully moved a WordPress website from one server to another, and I’m not an expert.
The guys at your hosting company are experts because they do this kind of thing every day. Some have specialist departments who only deal with migrations.
What I’m saying is don’t stay with a crap host because you’re afraid of moving your site to another one. As long as somebody who knows what they’re doing helps you, your nightmare should be over in a couple of days.
There is a caveat to this. Some hosting companies only migrate sites if the same platform is being used on both hosting accounts.
Something like cPanel for instance.
They’ll make a copy of the entire setup (including emails) and move it across to the new server. All you have to do is wait for the email from your hosting company saying everything’s ready.
Once you get that email, you’ll be advised to update your domain’s nameservers to point to the new host.
Once again, this sounds way more complicated than it is. You typically change two settings on your domain name and wait for anything up 72 hours for the domain to point at the new server.
Most web companies tell you to wait up to 72 hours for the domain to propagate around the web. Only once in 15 years or more of tinkering with websites have I had to wait this long for a domain switch to fully complete.
It usually happens much more quickly. Somewhere between 12 to 24 hours is the average time, in my experience.
While you’re waiting for the web to acknowledge your changes, if your site’s old hosting remains in place, your website will carry on working so people visiting it won’t experience pages not working or the site not loading.
It’s a great way for companies to get new business and it removes all the stress out of switching hosts.
Website building software
Some hosting companies, like GoDaddy, have proprietary software for building websites. Essentially providing you with everything you need to build a website: domain, hosting and website building software – all in one place. What’s not to like about that? It takes all the hassle out of getting a website online and is the perfect solution for many people.
How good is the GoDaddy website building software? In all honesty, I have no idea as I haven’t used it. According to this review on Website Builder Expert, it’s pretty good for standard sites but it doesn’t offer any eCommerce tools. Also, if you change the template (theme/design) you must re-enter your content.
- Money back guarantee