Large or small, every business needs a website. A company without a Web presence leaves many opportunities on the table, as a well-designed website is a factor to attracting clients or customers. And those visitors can translate into big money. You don’t want to miss out on the money, so choosing a Web hosting service and setting up your website is essential. Fortunately, with the right service, the process can be relatively simple and reasonably affordable.
The first step is to find a Web host, the company that will store your website’s files on its servers and deliver them to your readers’ and customers’ browsers. Web hosting services offer varying amounts of monthly data transfers, storage, email, and other features. Even how you pay (month-to-month payments vs. annual payments) can be radically different, too, so taking the time to plot out exactly what your company needs for online success is essential.
Web hosting services also offer different types of hosting, including shared, virtual private server (VPS), dedicated hosting, and managed WordPress hosting plans. Shared hosting is good for users who don’t want to spend a lot of money on hosting packages and don’t mind some of its traffic and data transfer limitations. VPS hosting is great for small businesses that want more power than shared hosting, but don’t want to deal with dedicated hosting’s prices. Dedicated hosting, on the other hand, is both powerful and pricey; it’s reserved for sites that experience incredibly high levels of traffic per day. Managed WordPress hosting is for those who want to build their sites on the back of the popular WordPress content management system (CMS), but don’t want to bother with a lot of the backend stuff (such as updating the apps and CMS, and enabling automatic backups).
If you’re not sure of the type of hosting your business needs, you might want to start small, with shared Web hosting. You can always graduate to a more robust, feature-rich package of, say, VPS hosting or even dedicated hosting in the future. Unfortunately, some hosts don’t offer all hosting types. Consider how much you expect to grow your website, and how soon, before you commit to anything longer than a one-year plan. It’s worth spending the time up front to make sure that the host you select with is able to provide the growth you envision for your site, as switching Web hosting providers midstream is not a trivial undertaking.
Once you decide you price range, you need to consider how long you’ll need Web hosting. If it’s a short-term project—say, less than a month or two—you can typically receive a refund should you cancel your hosting within 60 days. Some companies offer 30-day money-back guarantees, others offer 90-day money-back guarantees. Once again, it’s beneficial to do your homework.
Many Web hosts offer limited features in their starter packages and then expand the offerings (sometimes tremendously) for higher-tier plans. Read the small print to make sure the plan you are selecting offers what you need. If you need a site builder application to design your website, make sure that the low-cost Web host you are picking actually comes with a site builder. Many of them require you to pay for the builder as a separate add-on. Website builders usually don’t cost a lot of money, but if you can find a Web host that includes one for free, that’s money in your pocket. And, if it’s integrated with your hosting service, you’re more likely to have a smooth, supported experience.
You also want a Web host with 24/7 customer support—if not by phone, then at least by chat. Forums, knowledge bases, and help tickets are all well and good, but sometimes you just need to communicate with another human to get things ironed out as quickly as possible. That said, not all 24/7 customer support teams are equal. Companies like GoDaddy and Liquid Web boast incredibly knowledgeable and helpful customer support squads—a fact that we confirmed in our in-depth reviews of those Web hosting services.
When it comes to server operating systems, Linux is typically the default option. Still, some services offer a choice of Linux or Windows hosting. If you have specific server-side applications that require Windows, such as SQL Server or a custom application written in .NET, then you need to make sure your Web host has Windows hosting. But don’t let the idea of a Linux host intimidate you. Nowadays, most Web hosts offer a graphical interface or a control panel to simplify server administration and website management. Instead of typing at the command line, you’ll click easily identifiable icons.
Windows hosting is often more expensive than Linux hosting, especially in the dedicated server area. That’s not always the case, but it’s something you should be aware of as you shop around.
Uptime, Uptime, Uptime!
The aforementioned features are valuable to the Web hosting experience, but none matches the importance of site uptime. If your site is down, clients or customers will be unable to find you or access your products or services.
Recently, we’ve added uptime monitoring to our review process, and the results show that most Web hosts do an excellent job of keeping sites up and running. Web hosts with uptime issues are heavily penalized during the review process and are unable to qualify for top ratings.
Some Additional Information
One thing we learned in reviewing the services listed here (and many more) is that even though the packages are very similar, they are not identical. Some are more security-focused than others, offering anti-spam and anti-malware tools. Others offer a variety of email marketing tools. While most of the hosts we’ve reviewed have built-in e-commerce, you may want to consider using a more-robust third-party online shopping cart application like Shopify instead.
If you’re ready to select a great Web hosting service, check out the chart above to see PCMag’s top picks in the space. When you’re done with that, click the links below to read our in-depth, tested reviews of the biggest and best names in Web hosting.