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Free hosting vs paid hosting
It is worth spending a minute or two looking at free web hosting before looking at commercial services. Web hosting need not cost you any money and it can be obtained for free. Among the best known free services are WordPress (.com), Tumblr, Blogger and Medium, but there are many more.
It can be tempting to sign up with a free web hosting service and there are some advantages. For example, they are simpler than commercial hosting services and require very little knowledge to get started. The admin side of web hosting is someone else’s responsibility and you can leave it in the hands of experts while you focus on creating content.
There is a downside to free hosting and you may find that adverts appear on your website that you have no control over, and what’s more, you don’t earn any money from them. That goes to the web hosting company.
There are limitations with free hosting and they vary from host to host. For example, you may find that there are rules that prevent you from selling stuff, such as your own products or services, creating membership sites, displaying and getting paid for adverts, and more. There are often technical limitations, such as no add-ons and plugins to extend the website and add extra features.
Free web hosting is OK for people with simple requirements, but most people outgrow it and then they are faced with either paying for an upgrade or paying someone to move your site to a paid hosting service without the limitations.
If you have never built a website before, I suggest you spend a week or so playing around with a free WordPress website on wordpress.com (here is a guide to building your first a website).
WordPress.com is a useful playground where you can learn how WordPress works in a safe and free environment. If you need help, there is an excellent WordPress starter guide here.
What to look for in commercial web hosting
If you are serious about building a website you must find a good web hosting company and get a hosting plan that suits your needs. There are many web hosting companies and hundreds of different plans available. So what do you need to consider when looking for the best web hosting deal?
1 Get a domain name that's unique and memorable
When you sign up for a web hosting plan you usually get a domain name, like mywebsite.com, at the same time. You don’t have to, but it simplifies the process if you do.
Domain names can be bought, sold and transferred, but if you are not familiar with such things it is best avoided.
Choose a web host that includes a domain name
Think of a good URL for your website that is easy to remember and which describes the content you plan to create. It is easy to say, but difficult to do!
There are millions of websites, so coming up with a unique domain name that is easy to remember and also descriptive is not easy and it can take some time.
Try typing the domain name into a browser to see if it is currently being used by someone else. If the website cannot be reached then the name you entered is almost certainly not registered.
2 How will you build your site?
It is possible to create a website on your computer using nothing more than a text editor and an image editor.
Few people choose this method because it is hard and a lot of work for anything other than a dozen or so web pages. A lot of technical knowledge is required, which many people don’t have. You will also miss out on extensions and plugins.
Website design software is available for the computer and with these creating websites is no more difficult than creating a newsletter in a word processor. The pages can be saved to disk and then uploaded to the web space at your web hosting company. They are OK for small and simple sites, but not large ones or complex ones.
FTP is a way to upload files from a computer's disk to a website and to download them. It is not something you will use very often, but when you need it, it is very useful.
Choose a web hosting plan that includes FTP access.
Many websites are built using a CMS (content management system) and WordPress is the most common. There are others like Drupal and Joomla, but the popularity of WordPress means that most web hosting companies support it.
Choose a web hosting plan that allows WordPress to be used.
Look for a web host that provides easy install options, sometimes called one-click installs. You have to fill in a form with a few basic details, like the site name and your username and password, but little else is required. Click a button and your WordPress website is up and running within a minute or two.
Here is cpanel at my web host, Bluehost. Notice the Install WordPress icon and One-Click Installs. Creating a website is easy with these.
Every web hosting company supports WordPress, but if you choose the absolute cheapest web hosting plan, check that it has easy WordPress setup. Super cheap budget hosting might only come with web space for you to upload your own HTML files and images. Avoid it.
3 How many websites do you need?
You might think that you only need one, but having the option to host more sites can be useful in the future if you plan to expand.
The cheapest web hosting often only allows one website. However, if a web hosting plan allows subdomains then you can create extra sites.
For example, you might have a main website, a blog, a store, and forums. That is three websites. The main one would be mywebsite.com, the blog could be at blog.mywebsite.com, the store at shop.mywebsite.com and the forum at forum.mywebsite.com. That is three sites.
Related to this is databases. Each website and website on a subdomain, requires a database in which to store the content. super cheap web hosting might allow only one database. Avoid such plans.
Choose a web hosting plan that allows multiple sites or subdomains.
If you have both of these then multiple databases are implied. Beware of deals that offer only one site, domain and database because you will outgrow it.
4 Get email accounts
Email accounts that are linked to your website domain are useful because they give you a professional appearance.
Email accounts like [email protected]/yahoo/outlook just aren’t professional because they are free accounts that anyone can get. In fact, some web services won’t accept them when signing up and you need a personal email like firstname.lastname@example.org.
Choose a hosting plan with email accounts.
It is useful to have several, so avoid plans that give none or just one. Many plans offer unlimited email.
Also check the amount of space you get for email. If you send and receive a lot of emails with images and attachments you need 1GB or more of space. The best email accounts are unlimited, but you will be OK providing there is plenty of space.
5 Be aware of storage space requirements
A website requires disk space on a web server, but how much will you need? Limits on space are common with the cheapest web hosting deals, so check how much you get.
At the budget end of the web hosting market you might get just a few gigabytes of disk space, however, websites don’t take up space and you can build quite a large site in just 1GB.
If you plan to store video and audio, you need a lot more space than this, but text and images require very little.
Pay a little more than the minimum for your hosting plan and you get a lot more disk space. In fact, it might be unlimited and this enables you to grow your site without restriction.
Choose a hosting plan that offers at least 10GB of space.
You won't need more to start with, but you might if you intend to create a large site.
Pay a lot more for your hosting and the disk space actually comes down. This is because premium web hosting often uses SSDs - solid state disks. As with desktop and laptop computers, SSDs in web hosting are much faster than old style mechanical disk drives and they boost the performance.
The downside is, as you probably know from your own computer, SSDs are expensive and their capacity is low compared to mechanical disk drives, so you don’t get so much space.
6 How much bandwidth do you get?
When people access your website and web pages are viewed, bandwidth is used. This is like the data allowance on your mobile phone and there might be a limit.
The bandwidth (data transferred), may be limited with rock bottom cheap web hosting, but step up from the cheapest plan and it is often unmetered or unlimited.
Choose a hosting plan with a high bandwidth limit or unlimited.
Unlimited does not mean you can use crazy amounts of bandwidth! Your website might be restricted if it uses too much because most websites share a computer with other websites. All of them have to get along nicely and not use too much resources.
7 Plan for the worst, check the backup options
Websites occasionally develop problems and bad stuff sometimes happens. Files might go missing or become corrupted, hackers might gain access and change the content, and so on. Backups are essential and they enable you to recover from most serious problems.
Are backups included in the web hosting plan? How often do they take place?
At a bare minimum you should have weekly backups. This will be fine for most people, but for websites that are updated every day you might want daily backups. Daily backups might require a monthly or annual subscription of a few dollars, whereas weekly backups might be free.
Get a hosting plan that includes at least basic backups.
Check what backup options are available, and if they increase the web hosting cost. It may be an optional extra on budget accounts, but included in the price of the premium hosting services.
8 Consider the website security
Security is a broad subject and there are many areas that you need to consider. There are ways to protect your website, such as by using special security plugins for WordPress or whatever content management you are using. You can prevent people from signing up, attempting to log in, accessing things they shouldn’t and so on.
There is also the security required when dealing with transactions involving money, such as when running an online store or membership site. For this you need an SSL certificate to enable a secure https browser connections.
Choose a web host that offers website security. Here are some of Bluehost's security features.
People will not trust your website and buy products or services unless they see the https and padlock icon in the address box, nor should they.
Is an SSL certificate included in the price for hosting or is it an extra? How much does it cost? There may be a monthly or an annual fee.
Does the web host monitor your website for security problems? Hackers sometimes break into websites and change things, either to post messages on your home page or to redirect people elsewhere, such as to another site they own. Sitelock and other services may be included or offered as an extra.
9 Check your upgrade options
Most people start out with a small website with just a few visitors and almost any hosting plan will be sufficient. However, you no doubt hope to grow your site and the visitor numbers, so sooner or later you will need a better hosting plan.
If you choose the cheapest deal you might run out of storage space because the site has too many files, you can use too much bandwidth because there are too many visitors to handle, the server might run out of memory or processing power, and so on.
It is OK to start small and go with a cheap hosting plan provided it is easy to upgrade and increase the performance, storage and bandwidth of your site.
Choose a web hosting plan that can be upgraded.
This website has been upgraded several times as visitor numbers have increased.
It is a good idea to sign up for a slightly better hosting plan than you think you will need to allow for expansion and growth. Don’t get the absolute cheapest deal, unless you are seriously short of money, when you can pay a few dollars more and get much better hosting that will let you grow.
Web hosting companies really want to hang on to customers, so usually there are better plans on offer and usually they will switch you without charge or effort on your part. Upgrading isn’t usually a problem, but check anyway.
Suppose your website is at one web host and you want to move to another. Many web hosting companies provide a service to handle all the hard work for you. It won’t be free, because there is technical work involved in the transfer, so if you need to switch hosting companies, ask about the cost.
10 Choose the hosting type
There are different ways to host websites and the technical differences are important because they affect your site and its performance.
Shared web hosting pros and cons
This is the most common type because it is cheap and good enough for most people’s websites. It is a OK for individuals and small businesses to start with this.
With shared web hosting, many websites are installed on a server and you share it with dozens or even hundreds of other websites. You cannot see them, access them (except through a browser in the usual way), and you won’t know they are there.
Running lots of websites on a server is like running lots of programs on your computer. The more you run the slower it gets. If one website (or program on your computer), uses all the processing power or memory there will be little left for the others and they will run slowly or even stop.
As a general rule of thumb, with cheap web hosting you share the server with a lot of other people. The hardware can struggle to run your site smoothly at peak times of the day when everyone’s website is busy.
Paying more for shared hosting usually means you share the hardware with fewer people. That means your site is faster, more responsive and less likely to be affected by other websites sharing the hardware. It is one of the benefits of a higher cost plan.
If your website is slow, consider upgrading your hosting plan. This will reduce the number of sites you share the hardware with and your own website will run faster.
Cloud or VPS hosting options
Have you ever run a virtual machine in VirtualBox, Parallels, or VMware? Cloud or VPS hosting is a bit like that. Imagine your website running in a virtual machine and that’s basically what happens.
It usually costs a bit more than shared hosting, but there are usually fewer sites using the same hardware, so the performance of your site is better and it is less affected by others. It is good for individuals and small companies.
A nice feature of cloud or VPS (virtual private server) hosting is that just as with running a virtual machine on your computer, you can tweak the settings and allocate more memory or more processors.
Your plan might offer 2 CPUs and 2GB of memory for your website, but as the site grows and more people visit it, you can easily increase the CPUs to 4, 6 or 8, and increase the memory to 4GB, 6GB or 8GB to boost the performance. With each upgrade you site will run faster and can handle more visitors.
Upgrading to more CPUs or more memory is just a point and click process. You can also downgrade as easily too.
Dedicated hosting is the ultimate
With dedicated hosting you get your own hardware. It is like having a dedicated computer that runs only your website and no others. It costs a lot, but it is worth it for the biggest and busiest sites on the web.
The cost of a dedicated server is around 10 times more than for shared hosting. You get to choose the CPUs, RAM and storage, and there are usually several options and plans at a range of prices.
You probably don’t need dedicated hosting, at least not yet. Large companies running large websites, often with online stores, choose dedicated hosting because it is the best.
11 Check the support availability
You might need to contact the hosting company's technical support if there is a problem with your website. It is worth checking out the support options the web hosting company provides. Is it 24/7? Can you call them? Can you email them? Is there a live chat facility?
That last option is often very useful and instead of hanging on a telephone waiting for someone to talk to or calling country to country, which is expensive, a live chat window can be opened in a browser and you can chat using instant messaging to a tech support person.
Check what support is available from the web hosting company.
This website has had one or two glitches over the the years. Using the live chat facility via the Bluehost website, a tech support person was available in 15 to 20 minutes. The site was then fixed in around 5 minutes. That's pretty good considering I'm in a different time zone and it is usually the middle of the night where Bluehost is located.
This article is part of a RAW Guides course. It continues with easy lessons showing how to set up a WordPress site with a view to making money. Go to RAW Guides