By Christian Cawley
This post was made possible by DreamHost. The actual contents and opinions are the sole views of the author, who maintains editorial independence, even when a post is sponsored. For more details, please read our disclaimer.
Whether you’re creating a new website or migrating an old one, you need to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible from your chosen web host.
But with literally thousands of choices, how can you make sure that the one you choose offers the service that you need?
We’re here to help you understand what you should be looking for so you can make the right decision.
What Will You Be Hosting?
Too many people and businesses select web hosting that is grossly unsuitable for their purposes. For instance, you don’t need VPS or dedicated hosting if you’re only starting to blog. And you certainly shouldn’t pick shared web hosting if you’re an established business with lots of traffic.
Before you choose a web host, you’ll first need to figure out what type of content you want to create. For example, if you’re only thinking of starting a blog, picking a web host that offers managed WordPress hosting is probably the best choice both in terms of ease of setup and pricing.
Find a Reliable Web Host With a Good Reputation
It’s very likely your website will contribute to your livelihood. In terms of blogging, you will lose ad revenue every minute your website is offline. If you run an online store, downtime results in loss of sales. So selecting a reputable web host is essential in protecting your revenue stream.
A reputable web hosting company should offer two things: minimal or almost zero server downtime, and great customer support.
Web hosts can promise almost perfect uptime if they maintain good quality server hardware that is capable of handling traffic spikes to your website. Good ones are often proud of their server hardware and will openly share their setup’s specifications.
If your website ever goes down, or if you just need some help with your account, that’s when you’ll appreciate great customer support that will be happy to make your experience with them as pleasing and effortless as possible.
A reputable web host like Dreamhost offers 24/7 customer support. They promise around-the-clock access to their support team via email, or Twitter.
Adding Your Domain Should Be a Cinch
Once you’ve identified your preferred host and signed up, you’ll need to wait for the welcome email. These are usually sent quickly, and feature the links you need to get started, such as access to the control panel software (CPanel, Plesk, Webmin, and others — some hosts, such as DreamHost, offer a customized, branded experience). This is a browser-based interface that affords control of various aspects of your website, for instance what web apps are installed, backups, and adding domains. Setting up your domain — that is, ensuring your website’s domain name or URL is associated with the new host — should be a simple task. If not, you’ve got problems.
At this stage, you shouldn’t require support from the web host’s technical team, but as most hosts offer instructions and troubleshooting guides in a searchable knowledge base, it is worth checking this first.
In short, there should be an “add domain” button in the control panel, into which you enter the URL and a new directory is created in the website file structure. You should then be informed of the web hosts nameserver addresses; these need to be entered into the domain administration screen of your domain’s registrar.
However, if you are registering your domain with your web host, this side of things will be automated.
Web Software Should Be One-Click Install
With things like WordPress-only hosting — a phenomenon that addresses the common requirement for self-hosted WordPress blogs — you don’t need to install any software. It’s all done for you as part of the account setup.
But for more web software options — things like wikis, e-stores, customer relationship management tools, knowledge bases, forums, and alternative content management systems beyond WordPress — you shouldn’t have to do much more than click your mouse.
While FTP (and SFTP) should be options for connecting to your hosting space and uploading web software, your host should make it as easy as possible. This means simply finding the software you wish to use to run your website and clicking your mouse to install or set it up. A few clicks and keyboard entries later (perhaps entering a name for a new databas, along with username and password), and your website will be ready.
Does your prospective host offer this? Look for specific links to “one click install” in the control panel menu. DreamHost, for example, has the One-Click Installs button. If they don’t, then you’ll be left with the often-arduous task of manually installing your forum or CMS software.
Do You Need Email?
You might be happy with your standard webmail account (such as Outlook.com, or Gmail), but for that professional look, you should really employ the email facility on offer from your web host. If they don’t have one, and you’re looking elsewhere, then this should be high on your list of requirements.
Web hosts such as DreamHost typically offer POP3 and IMAP, along with SSL or TLS encryption. This means that messages can be collected (POP3) by your email client, or synced (IMAP). The latter is often used by those who wish to retain a copy of emails on the mail server, perhaps when using multiple devices for email collection.
After adding your domain to the web host, you’ll have the option to create an email address using that domain (such as “email@example.com”). You can then access the message via the webmail tool offered by the host, or use the provided details (such as the mail server names, port numbers, and the username and password for the email address) to set up the email account in your email client.
If this seems to complicated, you can use Gmail to collect your emails. Simply sign into your existing Gmail account, then go to Settings > Accounts and find Check mail from other accounts. Click Add a mail account, then input the details of your newly created email account. Once done, Gmail will collect the messages from that account, and allow you to send through it as well!
Full Database Management and .htaccess
Databases make the web go around. While early sites were static HTML, these days, content is served from a database with server side scripting (such as PHP and ASP). Forums, customer relationship consoles, online stores, blogs, you name it — there’s a database in the background.
The articles you read on most websites are stored in a database. If you visit an image repository like Flickr, links to the images are stored in a database. WordPress blogs store their post content, tags, and author details in a database.
So, does the host you’re considering provide full access to the MySQL, or whatever database technology your web software requires? Can you create, query, edit, and back up or download your database?
This is an important element of choice for a new web host. Sometimes, low cost hosts block or limit access to the database. It’s important to steer well clear of these.
Similarly, and if you’re using a Linux hosting solution — such as that provided by DreamHost — you are likely to need access to your server’s .htaccess file at some point. Not having access to this can mean a long wait while you log a support ticket; having access means being able to quickly sort out problems like memory limits on WordPress image uploads. If you need access to .htaccess — and as it’s such an important file, this decision shouldn’t be taken lightly — then look for a host that makes it available.
Are Regular, Useful Backups Made?
This is a tricky one. It’s safe to say that ALL web hosts offer the facility to take backups of your data. But do they offer a free data restore? And is the data that they backup what you need?
What you need from a web host is the ability to either schedule meaningful, incremental backups that accurately reflect the state of your site, or the flexibility to install your own backup solution.
All too often, sites administered with weekly backups run into problems, only to find that their only recourse is to restore a backup from almost a week before.
So, when looking for a web host, find out more about the backups they offer. How regular are they? Can you restore the backups, or must you rely on your host? If the latter, what is the turnaround for restoring them?
And, perhaps more importantly, can backups of your database and website directory be downloaded to your PC?
Server Upgrades Should Be Flexible
Picture this: you start with a small site, with a modest visitor rate. Over time, your hard work pays off, and the site becomes more successful. More visitors place a greater load on the server. Basically, it’s like owning a shop that’s too small for the number of customers trying to get in.
You need to move to bigger premises; you need to upgrade your hosting.
With a good web host, this should not be a problem, even if you’ve already entered a pre-pay 12-month (or longer) deal. Your host should be able to offer a couple of things here that will help.
First, the option to install plugins (if using WordPress hosting) or make the necessary alterations to your site’s configuration to enable it to make full use of the server’s resources without causing performance issues to your site (or in the case of shared hosting, other sites).
Second, your host should give you a flexible upgrade path, enabling you to gain superior hosting without having to switch to a new host. It will cost more, but should enable your site to run without performance issues.
It’s also important to note that when upgrading your hosting from standard shared hosting to VPS, your host should have the time to either optimize the new environment, or ensure that you have the tools to do so yourself. This might mean paying extra for that additional support, but long-term you’ll have a site that is ready for more visitors.
In general, you’ll find three or four different types of hosting package.
- WordPress hosting – simple, optimized hosting intended for WordPress blogs
- Shared hosting – the most common type of affordable hosting, with many sites (blogs, portfolios, etc.) sharing the same server hardware.
- Virtual Private Servers – this is a more scalable option, ideal for websites, stores and blogs that have outgrown shared hosting.
- Dedicated servers – for the big time. Big businesses, hugely successful websites, and perhaps even app developers would use this option.
WordPress, shared, VPS and dedicated server packages are available from DreamHost.
Technical Support on Tap
Running a website could be tough, even if you have technical skills. I managed a website for ten years, guiding it through increasing popularity and server upgrades. At first, I had the time and patience to handle the technical stuff (I was running an intranet in my day job) so this wasn’t a big problem.
But as the site grew, tech support was out of my hands. Editing content, selling goods and herding contributors took too much time. This is where the technical support from the web host came into its own.
There is, after all, only so much you can do as a remote web master. Administration takes place fully (or largely) within the auspices of the server space you’ve purchased. Anything that demands close attention on site — such as a hardware issue — needs a recognized support agent to deal with it. While the issue might be delegated to a server specialist (as opposed to the person at the end of the phone or email), the fact is that this is out of your hands.
So, when shopping around for a web host, make sure you take the time to run a few searches on the quality of their technical support, and base your decision on how this is received by its existing (or past) customers.
Account Management Should Be Simple
It’s not just technical support that should be easy with a modern, dynamic web host. Account management should be almost effortless, with payment options aplenty and the ability to add new sites to your account whenever you want. It’s particularly simple with DreamHost.
Low-cost hosts, and those that have never bothered to upgrade their services over the years, are more likely to demand requests for many such changes. As long as an effective account management console is provided, however, then your contact with the hosting company should be minimal, give or take a couple of confirmation emails.
After all, you’ve taken the time to find the best web hosting solution out there.
What Do YOU Look for in a Web Host?
Everyone looking for web space should have a preconceived idea of what a host offers. At its most basic, this idea will be limited to simple hosting, perhaps with email. But a site with these two features isn’t going anywhere. More worryingly, if these features are available, it betrays a low-spec, virtually irrelevant web host that you should not be wasting money on.
With an affordable deal, offering easy domain setup and transfers, one-click installation of web software (which might be anything from a blog to a wiki, a forum to a knowledge base, or a fully featured online magazine) and flexible server upgrades, you should be on the right path. Throw in email, technical support and effortless account management, your search for a web host will be almost complete. It’s just a case of making the all-important final decision with confidence.
What qualities attract YOU to a web host?