A web host is a type of service provider. Like an internet landlord, your host provides a place for your website to live, in exchange for a monthly or annual fee.
The problem with web hosting is that it’s an almost completely unregulated industry. Web hosts can charge basically whatever they want for their services, and they aren’t obligated to make any promises regarding the quality of service they provide. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs sometimes take advantage of this by setting up hosting companies very cheaply, trying to turn a profit by signing up a lot of websites and providing little support.
Of course, there are also many great web hosting providers that offer comprehensive support and services. Before you make a decision about where to host your website, there are a few key factors that you should consider. After all, signing up with a reliable, knowledgeable web host can make all the difference when it comes to creating a positive experience for your users.
Web Host Must-Haves
Before you jump into an agreement with a web host, take a thorough look at what they’re offering. Any web host worth their salt will have all sorts of metrics available on their site, so take some time to read the fine print. Here are a few key questions you can ask yourself about a potential web host.
How are Server Resources Allocated?
When you think about server resources, you’re thinking about how much power and space a host has available, and how much of that power and space your website has to work with.
A hosting provider has a finite amount of disk space — that is, data storage space — on their servers. Most servers can accommodate a large number of individual websites, but hosts still have to place limits on how much space is allotted to each customer.
Some low-end web hosts try to pack in users like sardines — they stuff their servers with small, low-quality websites, allocating a very small amount of space and processing power to each one. Low-end servers like this are like college dorms. It’s enough space and power for the basic necessities, but it’s a bit cramped and uncomfortable.
A better host will be able to offer sufficient space and bandwidth for your website to grow. Unless you are on a dedicated server, you’ll still be sharing resources in some fashion, but your space on a high-end host server is more like a luxury condo or a townhouse. Your website has the resources it needs to function at an optimal level, and you have the space to redecorate or branch out as your business develops.
Bandwidth is another important resource to consider — your bandwidth determines how much traffic your website can handle at a given time. As with disk space, when considering your bandwidth needs, it’s important to think in terms of your future plans for your website. You want your website hosted on a server that can handle the amount of traffic you hope to be getting — not necessarily just the amount you’re getting today.
What Security Features Does Your Host Offer?
Keeping your website secure starts with a hosting provider that utilizes good security practices on their end. You’ll see a lot of marketing and “fluff” around security that many web hosts try to sell. We have nothing against regular malware scans, reputation monitoring, blacklist monitoring, and the like. But the majority of these services are superficial cash grabs that don’t actually do much to secure your site. Like the canary in the mine, they just tell you when something has gone wrong.
The number one thing to look for here is whether your host provides SSL certificates (preferably free through a reputable partner). An SSL certificate is a little package of data that encrypts any communication happening between a user’s device and the web server. SSL certificates are so commonplace nowadays that most browsers will give you a security warning if you run into a site that doesn’t have one. Good hosts understand that SSL is a basic building block of web security, and will include the certificates in any given hosting package. If your host charges for SSL certificates, this might be a sign that they are a sub-par host putting profit over customer satisfaction.
Another great feature to look for is whether the host allows two-factor or two-step verification for logins to their admin interface. (Look for 2FA or 2FV in a host’s list of features.) 2FA does double duty — it protects against brute force server attacks, and it also gives you an easy way to recover logins if and when they inevitably go missing. Because of this, we strongly recommend 2FA on all key assets in a business. Don’t even get us started on bank logins.
When you combine 2FA with a password storage solution like LastPass, you’ll be adding yet another layer of security to your site, preventing anyone who needs to access your server from seeing the actual login credentials.
Firewalls and backups are also an integral part of security but are better handled outside of the web hosting environment by using a CDN and having multiple backups of the site stored elsewhere.
Are the Servers Well Maintained?
The majority of WordPress websites are hosted on servers that run on four key open-source softwares: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. This is called the LAMP stack. Besides offering security solutions for the sites they host, a good hosting provider will also make sure that their own platform is running on the most up-to-date version of each of these technologies.
Historically, some of the most significant internet security breaches have occurred when malicious hackers exploited vulnerabilities in one of the above four softwares. Highly professional web hosting providers constantly monitor for updates, patches, and potential issues, and in many cases will have patched up any holes before hackers can get in.
Does the Host Offer Staging Site Functionality?
Websites are complex organisms that rely on inputs from many different programs and plugins to function. Sometimes, a necessary update to one program or plugin can cause a conflict with another existing piece of code, “breaking” the site. Once something like this happens, it can be a significant undertaking to isolate and fix the problem.
This is why most web experts and designers today use staging sites. A staging site is a cloned version of your website that is only visible to you, or others to whom you choose to grant access. If you implement planned changes on a staging site first and they happen to break your site, you can simply discard the changes and try again without causing any downtime for your main site. A staging site gives you the freedom to test out new themes, plugins, and configurations, allowing you to find the optimal state for your website without risking your existing data.
What Kind of Support is Available?
If something does go wrong with your website, it’s important that you can access help immediately. When you’re scanning a host’s marketing materials, look for 24/7 support, across a variety of different channels, such as phone, email, and chat. With a few different options, you can select a mode of communication that works for you, and that suits the level of urgency required for the problem you’re dealing with.
A really good web host takes care of their infrastructure and provides excellent support, and choosing a host like this will put you in your web security expert’s good books. Nobody wants to find out their site is down only to have to wait a week for a response from the host. Malicious hackers don’t usually wait for regular business hours to launch attacks. A web security expert needs to know that someone is going to be available at 4am, answering tickets, in the event of any issue.
Keep in mind that no website can have 100 percent uptime. Even the giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon all occasionally experience a moment or two of downtime. Check your host’s service-level agreement for the amount of uptime they promise. 99.99 percent is the current industry standard, and the best websites are still only up 99.999 percent of the time. If your host promises 100 percent uptime, that might be a sign that they’re not being 100 percent honest about their services.
Are the Pricing Schemes Clear?
Setting up your website is complicated enough without you having to do calculus to determine the monthly payments and setup fees. A high-quality web host should provide clear, up-front information about their pricing plans, and the services included in different payment tiers.
If you have to search high and low for pricing information on a host’s site, or if you discover mysterious, unexpected fees on your invoice after sign-up, this is a good sign that your host might be more interested in your wallet than in keeping your site running smoothly.
Other Things to Look For
While the above factors are the must-haves, there are also plenty of great features offered by the top web hosts that can benefit your website and make your life easier in the long run.
If your website runs on WordPress, look for a host that provides WordPress-specific features to better manage site updates, themes, and plugins.
What about migrations? If you have an existing website and you’re switching from one host to another, find out whether the receiving host is able to offer assistance with the process. Some of the better providers can offer complete migration services, saving your web expert or IT person a lot of time and effort.
Before you sign up with a web hosting provider, it’s also a great idea to check their social media feeds. Are they active on networks like LinkedIn? If their website includes a blog, is it regularly updated? Even looking at the content of a prospective host’s website can tell you a lot about how active they are in the industry, and how knowledgeable they are about a variety of hosting topics. The best web hosting providers are also knowledge leaders in their field.
Ultimately, the most important thing to know about a potential web hosting provider is that they’re going to be reliable. Will you be able to relax, knowing your website is in good hands? If your answer isn’t a resounding “yes”, then it might be time to look into switching hosting providers.