Web hosting drives all online businesses, and behind every good website is a good web host. Whether your website is big or small, you will need somewhere to host it, and there are hundreds of companies offering a vast range of plans to suit every imaginable hosting need. In fact, so great is this number of options, and so varied the differences between plans, that it can be a difficult job even getting started. So as well as giving you our list of the best web hosting companies on the web, this guide should show you where to start when you are comparing them for yourself. There are several different types of web hosting, and companies may offer one or all of these.
Which type you choose will depend on how many websites you have, what the nature of these sites is, and the volume of traffic to your site. The first aim of this guide is therefore to give you an idea of what sort of hosting you might need. However, even within these basic categories, web hosting can vary greatly. Plans may excel in a particular relevant area; for instance, some are specifically tailored towards the needs of small businesses, whilst others may provide specific tools for designers. The second central issue that this guide will deal with is therefore what you can expect from your hosting, and what to look out for specifically.
Shared hosting plans are the most basic available, and because they are generally the cheapest, are most suited to individuals setting up small personal sites or small businesses looking to develop a modest internet presence. (If you do not know what type of hosting you are looking for, the chances are you will want to go for a shared plan.)
On a shared plan, your websites share a server with those of many other customers. This effectively means that you share the cost, and shared plans can therefore be very cheap or even free. However, it also means that you share the resources, such as bandwidth, disk space and memory, with other customers. For this reason, shared hosting cannot support sites with very high amounts of content and high visitor traffic, or those that require intensive server resources.
The primary concerns of those looking for shared hosting should be specifications and functionality. Figures such as disk space and bandwidth usage will have a very real impact on the potential size your site may grow to and the visitor numbers it can handle, and so this should be a consideration for all customers of these hosting plans. However, without the ability to build and manage an effective website, any hosting plan is as good as useless.
If you have no previous design experience, you may want to go for a web host that offers an in-build website design tool. If you are more confident in this area, you be will prioritizing the plan’s script support, database provision and FTP access, giving you options and flexibility when it comes to developing a site. And, of course, an effective control panel, from which to manage your website, is crucial. The generally-favored control panel is cPanel, and many web hosts provide this as standard, but not all, so it is worth checking.
On top of these basics, many shared hosting plans provide extra features to help them stand out from the vast number of similar packages on the market. Knowing that their primary customers are small businesses, some companies offer marketing tools, such as free ad credits and search engine optimization. Others may be set up for retail businesses, with specialized e-commerce features, and these are a must for anyone looking to use their website in this way. Whilst it is important to make sure that companies cover all the basics you need to get your website off the ground, it can be useful to make the most of what else is on offer, and what you choose is likely to depend on what you want from your hosting.
Virtual Private Servers
Those who need more power, resources and functionality than a shared hosting plan can provide may wish to go for a virtual private server (VPS). Unlike a dedicated server, which is rented entirely by one user, a virtual private server is merely a partitioned segment of a server, with other partitions run by other webmasters. Costs tend to be more than with shared plans, and considerably less than dedicated servers, although this will depend on the size and features of the plan in question.
Buying a virtual private server is somewhere between the experience of buying shared hosting and of buying a dedicated server. Specifications such as bandwidth and disk space are again important considerations; however, those investing in a VPS plan are likely to also be after improved performance and so the quality of the hardware itself may also be a priority.
One of the benefits of virtual private servers over other types of hosting is that these plans are often entirely customizable. Users may choose such features as bandwidth allowance, disk space and RAM, thereby only paying for the resources they intend to use, and developing hosting that is particularly suited to high-content or high-traffic sites.
However, it is not just the specifications that are customizable with a VPS plan. As with a dedicated server, webmasters can choose their operating system and control panel, make modifications to any of the server software, and restart Apache. This level of control is not possible on a shared plan. If it is important to you, however, it is important to ascertain which companies offer it, as they can vary greatly in the degree of flexibility and control on offer.
Dedicated servers provide the height of conventional hosting potential. With a dedicated server, you have complete control over your hosting. Just as with a virtual private server, you can install your chosen software on your server; however, further to control of the server’s software, many web hosts allow their customers to have a level of control over its hardware, by installing hardware firewalls, for example. This level of access is what makes dedicated servers essential for anyone who requires complete ownership of their hosting.
The basic specifications of dedicated servers are sometimes less customizable than on VPS plans, as the servers are often pre-built. However, the best and most specialized dedicated server providers do still allow a high degree of personalization in the form of a build-it-yourself service, or a consultation followed by a suggested setup. One of the greatest benefits of a dedicated server, however, is its performance. Depending on how much you are willing to pay – and this can be upwards of $1000 per month on the most expensive plans – you can get hold of some truly remarkable hardware.
Cloud hosting is the latest innovation in the web hosting world. Rather than being located on a single server, your data is simultaneously hosted in different locations around the world, putting it closer to your visitors and thereby improving performance. Being hosted on multiple sites can also improve the reliability of your hosting and cloud hosting should very rarely, if ever, experience major downtime as a result of this. Customer priorities with cloud hosting are much like those with other high-end plans, and specifications need to be adequate to the needs of your websites. There is also a strong emphasis on technology, which, as this is still very much in development, can vary greatly between companies.
Reseller hosting refers to the practice of selling hosting on behalf of another hosting company. Many web hosts offer this service to their customers and, if done well, it can be particularly lucrative, though anyone looking to get into reseller hosting should take the time to learn about the business. Reseller plans are often broadly similar, though they vary both in terms of what they offer the resellers themselves, and what can be available for the customers of these resellers.
For many webmasters, technical support is the most important aspect of a hosting plan. For this reason, we often deal with it separately in these reviews, so you know exactly what you are getting in the way of support. Such support can usually be divided into two categories. The first is the online support, which should include guides and frequently asked questions so that customers can deal with the most basic problems themselves. This is the web host’s first opportunity to shine. Good online help centers are well-organized, searchable and content-rich, so that you can find useful information quickly. They may also include video guides for added usability, and many now feature user forums and community pages. These enable webmasters to discuss hosting issues with each other and share their solutions.
The second major part of a company’s support system, and in many ways the most important aspect, is the direct contact provision. Most hosting companies provide a variety of options for contacting technical support, and these may include a ticket system, telephone, email and live chat. It goes without saying that live chat and telephone are both important if you want to contact support urgently, and companies that provide neither of these are severely limiting themselves.
Likewise, the best providers also offer response time guarantees on support tickets and emails, though these can range from one hour to a day. However, it is not just the method of support and its speed that is important, but also its quality. Whereas many companies merely employ ‘support droids’ who copy and paste standard answers to questions, others have dedicated and expert support teams who have years of experience in the industry.
The Bottom Line
The most important thing for customers of web hosting to bear in mind as that they should have a good idea of what they are looking for before they purchase a plan. Changing plans at a later date can be costly and inconvenient, so whilst it may be tempting to rush into things, taking the time to compare the various packages and their merits is certainly worthwhile. Choosing your perfect hosting company can be a long and difficult process, but with the right information it need not be frustrating. Indeed, with a little bit of effort, knowing that you have finally found reliable, safe and powerful hosting can be incredibly satisfying.
Glossary For Web Hosting