The best deal isn't always the cheapest. Shopping for the best website hosting can be an easier experience if you think about what kind of resources your website will actually need.
Shopping for website hosting can quickly turn from a careful, measured affair to a frenzied "how low can you go" price hunt. Recent years have seen the concept of a "budget hosting" sphere melt away as many large hosts bring prices down to compete. This does benefit the consumer, as they are more likely to get better service for their dollar. This article will discuss one of perhaps many sets of considerations to make in choosing a website hosting company. To those very serious about their hosting needs, "price" will not be a major factor.
Determine Your Needs
This is the first and most important step. Judging what you need will determine where to look for hosting services and give you a baseline idea of how much you should be willing to pay. This very basic step is where the process will break down if your first instinct is to simply jump online and hunt for the "best bargain". There are more than enough sites out there that seek to accommodate the bargain hunters. Perhaps your site is suited to a bargain host, perhaps not. Knowing the difference is important.
Start with the 2 core attributes of website hosting, space and transfer. Simply, how large do you expect your site to be and how many people will visit it over a monthly period. If you're completely new to hosting, you may not be able to accurately gauge either. That's where you might want to consider actually creating the site, or as much of it as you can, prior to shopping for hosting. Knowing the size of the files you plan to upload will give you a basic idea of the amount of space you need. This will vary wildly depending on the nature of the site. Small, "hobby" sites won't need a lot of space, sometimes they may not even use 10 or 20 megs of space. Online stores and sites hosting downloads or media files will require much more space.
"Transfer", or "Traffic", or sometimes "Bandwidth" on some sites, all generally equates to the amount of information transmitted to the unique individuals who view your site over, usually, a monthly period. Some hosts are moving a daily meter, but most still use a monthly figure. In order to estimate your transfer, a very simple method is to take the total size of your site files in kilobytes or megabytes and multiply by the number of visitors you expect. For a number of reasons, this is not going to be highly accurate, and in many cases will provide a higher number than your traffic in practice will turn out to be. Overestimating traffic is always better than underestimating, since you will always need room to grow with whatever website hosting plan you choose.
What if you have absolutely no idea what size your site will be or how many people will visit? Well, then start small. Though your dreams of domination the web might be strong, you will probably not do so immediately. Popularity and traffic that come with it generally occur over time. Choose a host with a clear upgrade path, and start with a small plan. You can always upgrade as you get a better idea of monthly traffic. Pretty much all webmasters hope their traffic will grow, and a host with a variety of increasingly larger plans is best suited to handle such growth.
Determine Required Features
Though space and transfer are your core attributes, assessing what kind of features you need is also important. This may vary with your familiarity with the web and websites in general. Those who only wish to publish static web pages with content they intend to update personally do not need any kind of exceptionally complex feature set. At its most basic level, the WWW is composed of "HTML" pages, which work on any browser on any kind of computer, be it a "PC", "Mac", or run by a different operating system. Novices out there can be assured that HTML pages they create on a PC can be read by someone browsing the web using a Mac.
If your site goes beyond rudimentary HTML, then you will need to pay attention to a host's feature set. Sites requiring databases and active scripting have to be coded using languages your prospective hosting company's servers understand. There is a variety of options out there, and it is beyond the scope of this article to go into them, simply be aware of what kind of active scripting you plan to use and make sure your host supports it. Common alternatives are PHP, ASP.net, and ColdFusion. Some of the options will vary depending on the type of server your host uses, most commonly Linux or Windows.
Additional features may also be required. Mailing lists, forum software, and ecommerce software are common features most hosts support. If you plan on setting up an online store, find out what kind of shopping cart, if any, a host provides and be prepared to learn how to use it. Advanced statistics packages like Urchin are also valuable for ecommerce sites. Map out the kind of features you plan to deploy with your site and make sure your choice in host makes them easily available to you.
This final component is important, because it is usually the dividing line between quality hosting and less reputable options. One of the first causalities of cut-rate hosting is support. Poor support means that low cost you pay each month isn't worth much because your site is rarely up. Always check your prospective web host's site support options. Ideally, they will have phone hours where you can call up and speak directly to first level support. Another "direct contact" option that is popular these days is "chat." This still allows direct contact with a live person, only through a chat window on your home computer. Ideally a combination of both is one sign a host has invested some money in support.
Bare minimum support options should always include a "help desk" or support ticketing system. This allows customers to send information about their issue and have that issue, and all the responses to it, tracked in a central location, so your support history is always available. Beware any host that only offers an untracked "email" support. Having all 3, phone, chat, and helpdesk, is a reasonably good sign a host pays attention to customer support. You can always "test" these systems prior to signing up by calling or chatting, but, in the interest of a host's current customers, please keep any conversation brief, as the intent of a support staff is not, directly, to answer sales questions. Your test, however brief, has delayed the technician from handling a request from an existing customer.
Choosing a host is not something to enter into lightly. We've reviewed 3 key concepts that should be addressed when looking for a web host. "Price" was not one of them, and, though certainly important for a number of reasons, should never be the final deciding factor. If your website is important to you, or mission critical to your business, you want to find a host with an excellent reputation and high-uptime. Cut-rate or budget hosts rarely obtain either one of these things. Today, even highly reputable hosts will have "budget offerings" that can provide stable hosting at reasonable rates. Do your homework and don't rush to the first "unbelievable deal" you come across. You'll be happier with your service in the long run.
About the Author:
Mr. Lester has served for 4 years as the webmaster for ApolloHosting.com and previously worked in the IT industry an additional 5 years, acquiring knowledge of hosting, design, and search engine optimization.