Choosing a website hosting service: A 5 point guide

Why should you pay $100 or more per month for a web hosting service you can get for $12/month, $5/month, or even for free? The answer is simple: you get what you pay for.

Those of us out there providing quality hosting aren’t shy about charging more than the cheap sites. Often called “business hosting,” quality hosting is less about giving you cheap server space and crappy customer service and more about site management – making sure your site is running at peak performance 100% of the time.

Most people don’t fully understand the technical differences between the budget hosting services and the more expensive web hosts, often until it’s too late. Understanding your own website, as well as understanding how web hosting can affect your site’s performance, will help you make better decisions when choosing a hosting service.

Cheap and free hosting has its place

It’s not that cheap or free hosting is always a bad idea. In fact, I often recommend WordPress.com’s free hosting service to clients and associates. The reason I can comfortably recommend WordPress’ free service is because I understand the strengths and shortcomings of the service, and it can meet the needs of certain clients. This hosted service means you don’t have to worry about maintaining a server or software: you are only responsible for content.  Moreover, there’s an upgrade path to a more robust self-hosted (deployed) solution with WordPress.org.

However, most people don’t understand the full technical aspects of web hosting services, or even the technical aspects of their own websites, enough to understand how to decide between a hosted service like WordPress.com, a cheap self-hosted service such as Bluehost or GoDaddy, and a more expensive web hosting service.

Here are the technical elements to consider when making your decision between cheap, free, or fee:

Avoid marketing trickery

Cheap hosting companies often bundle services, trying to lure customers into being tied into multiple products. For example, Bluehost generally charges a lower rate for domain registration in hopes that they can also tie you into their hosting service.

Recently, when I tried to change DNS for a client’s domains at Bluehost to a non-Bluehost server (a fairly common task used to redirect URLs to different web pages), I had to slog through 30 minutes of Bluehost live-chat to get it done. What a waste of time!

Most domain registrars provide self-help tools to easily allow DNS changes—meaning you can redirect your URL to a website hosted by anyone—but Bluehost makes the process unnecessarily painful. I suppose they’re hoping the user will give up on trying to use a different provider and turn back to Bluehost hosting. In my opinion, this is a marketing ploy working to limit customer choice. A robust DNS provider would only cost $3-4 per year more.

There is big money in cheap hosting, and this dirty marketing is the reason why we don’t waste our time trying to directly sell hosting. We can’t compete with the $5/month hosting services, nor do we want to. We offer hosting only to our own clients because we believe it is an integral part of the entire web package and we can deliver superior service.

When deciding on a host, don’t fall for the bundled deals or all-in-one providers unless you’ve done some research.

Customer service, or lack thereof

Another hosting provider, (mt) Media Temple, is well respected in the field and not cheap. A different client of mine signed up for their $50/month hosting plan. He has a WordPress site and was having trouble with server speed. I called (mt) to discuss the problem with them on behalf of my client.  Despite (mt)’s reputation and alleged commitment to support, I proceeded to sit on hold for 45 minutes.

By contrast, I can go on live chat with Webair, a provider I often use, and be online talking to a professional within minutes. The guy (or gal) on the other end often knows more about my systems than I do, and that’s saying a lot. Some of the people I’ve chatted with are the same people I’ve talked with over the past 2-3 years.

When I work with Webair and with WP Engine, another great mid-range hosting company, they know how I work, they’re technically savvy, and they help me resolve issues quickly. Of course their services may cost a little more, but the time I save not sitting on hold with or slogging through a pointless live-chat can offset some of the dollar cost.

As I’ve mentioned before, we provide hosting services as an add-on to our clients. We do this because we know their websites, we built them after all, and we also know that we can provide superior customer service once the site is live on our servers. We monitor for availability and performance, handle all server administration, fix server problems when they happen, backup our servers, and upgrade them before they need it.

Here’s an idea: Call the customer service line of a hosting provider before you sign up just to see how long it takes before you talk to a real person.

Security

Very few people think of system security and administration until they have to. In April 2010, a number of WordPress sites being hosted by Network Solutions got “mass hacked,” learning first hand what cheap hosting delivers: cheap security. You can (should) read my thoughts on this here . Cheap hosting does not provide system administration, it just offers a heap of server space and cheap tools.

Unlike hosted services like WPEngine and WordPress.com, “cheaphosts” give you server space which you have to maintain.  If you’re not experienced with system administration, you should steer clear.

Tools

I have been administrating servers for over 15 years. I type, I don’t click. When I need to do things to the database I don’t go through some online interface: I log into the database and make changes directly to areas of my choosing.  A database backup is a string of commands.

This process is too technical even for most professionals who do what we do. But my experience and knowledge allows me to be both better and more efficient using the “traditional” tools. In addition, our hosting service also provides (gratis) a code revision control repository and often includes a development instance along with the production instance.

If you don’t know what this means, you’re not alone. I would bet that many  of the “cheaphost” help-desk people and lower-level system administrators don’t know either. They’re trained to troubleshoot using an interface into the server because they don’t speak the server’s language.

When you’re looking for a web host, look for someone with experience. You might pay more to get the technical expertise at your first point of contact, but you’ll get things done right for your website. Hardware is cheap, and knowledges is expensive.

Specs

Cheap hosting providers pile on extra specs for things you’re never going to use: all the disk space you want (disk space is cheap after all), lots of transfer (which you’re never going to use), and lots of meaningless checkboxes. The stuff you will actually use is limited or shared, and the cheap host sites have no commit rates

Remember the guy at MediaTemple, the not-cheap host? His server was running out of memory which was slowing down the performance of my client’s website. Our hosting service, and the ones we often use, guarantee a certain performance level—and when we see that your site has grown enough to require more resources we don’t ignore it: we give you a call to work out a new solution.

Those of us out there providing quality hosting aren’t shy about charging more than the cheap sites. Often called “business hosting,” quality hosting is less about giving you cheap server space and crappy customer service and more about site management – making sure your site is running at peak performance 100% of the time.

At Infamia, we don’t see hosting as a service at all. It is just part of the overall commitment to making sure your site works and works well. Many other hosting providers don’t care about your actual site at all, as long your bill is paid and as their server is up (site performance and customer service be damned).

The bottom line

You are of course welcome to use Bluehost for your domain name and hosting. Better yet, try free hosting from WordPress.com. We can even build your site and give you all of the files and database elements you need to get set up on your own! These cheaper services may be sufficient.

However, as the traffic and complexity of your site grow, the need for website reliability, consistent performance, top-notch security, and the ability to make changes and speak to real people to quickly resolve issues also grow. When deciding on a hosting service, weigh the importance of these elements:

  • How much money will you lose if your site is down unexpectedly for 24 hours?
  • Will your clientele jump ship if you have regular security issues?
  • How much can you afford to pay to have your web development team sitting on hold with your “cheaphost” a couple of times times a year trying to resolve emergency server issues at $205/hour while your site is down?

In the long run, it might be a better choice to invest in a high-quality hosting provider.

What has your experience been with cheap hosting services? Share your comments.

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