Designing and developing websites is becoming increasingly easier and more accessible thanks to an expanding array of web development tools and a growing demand for businesses and organizations to have an online presence.
But finding the right place to host your website can be a daunting task, especially as there are a number of reputable services, each with their own benefits and tradeoffs. You might end up paying too much for things you don’t need or missing out on things that are vital to your business.
Here are five questions that will help you evaluate the services of web hosting platforms and find one that fits your needs.
Which content management systems are supported?
One of the key things you should know before signing up with a web hosting company is the content management systems (CMS) they support. Depending on your purpose and available assets, you might want to set up a WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal website. But your needs might shift in the future and you will need to transition to another CMS.
“A good web hosting platform should allow you to set up any number of sites with the CMS of your choice in an easy-to-use interface like a step-by-step wizard,” says David Foster, a software engineer at web hosting company HostGator. “Ideally, it should have extra tools to help tailor your website’s structure to your specific needs—such as an ecommerce website or a discussion forum—and customize it for your company with minimal effort, such as adding links to social, ads, RSS, polls, etc.”
HostGator supports Softaculous, an application that provides easy installation of more than 190 CMS platforms and scripts, including WordPress, AbanteCart, PrestaShop, Joomla, phpBB, Open Real Estate, and many more.
An important component of any hosting service is support for migration. Does it support transferring your website from another service? Can it help you transition from one CMS to another?
“While automated migration tools are a basic necessity, they’re rarely enough, especially if your website has been around for several years and contains legacy code and assets,” Foster says, adding that a good hosting platform should have support teams that can help smooth the migration process.
How much customization do you get?
The granularity of access you get to website and server configuration can be crucial when choosing a hosting service. Some companies provide basic site-level administration only, such as wp-admin access to WordPress websites. While this can be suitable for very basic use cases, it will become a limitation when you want to expand the capabilities of your website according to your organization’s needs.
“Good hosting platforms should provide a host of access and customization levels to fit your needs,” Foster says.
For instance, HostGator’s cPanel includes File Manager, and FTP access to the backend of your website. “These options make sure that you have all bases covered from simple to advanced,” Foster says.
Foster also suggests looking out for more advanced features such as DNS, SSL/TLS certificate, and email hosting support to go with your domain. “This will give you a central hub to manage everything that is related to your website,” he says. “If you’re setting up a new website for an established business, the hosting service should be able to integrate certificates and DNS record management with what you already have in place.”
What is the uptime agreement?
If you’re deciding to make your website the main medium for your business, then uptime will be a major factor in choosing a hosting platform.
“Say a hosting service states in its contract that it will provide 99% server uptime guarantee in their contract. This might sound like a fair deal, but what it means is that, in a year, they can get away with 1% downtime without any obligations toward you; that’s ~87 hours—or nearly three days—of your website being inaccessible to your visitors!” Foster says.
Otherwise said, if you have an average of 50 visitors per hour, that’s 4,350 lost visitors, and if you have a 1% conversion rate, that is 43 lost customers. And calculating other types of damages such as search engine penalties and customer churn due to server inaccessibility are harder to calculate.
At face value, a 99.9% uptime guarantee might not look like a big improvement. But in effect, it means that the downtime is cut down to a tenth, which can make a big difference for a high-traffic website.
“First, make sure that your hosting provider has a clause where it explicitly states its uptime commitment. And second, while nothing replaces an inaccessible website, something else to look for is the reparations your hosting service provides in exchange for downtime that goes beyond the contractual agreement,” Foster says. “If a hosting service provides hosting credits or free hosting in exchange for downtime, it shows their sincerity in making sure they remain true to their promise.”
What is the level of support?
No website is a one-man effort, so regardless of how good you are at your craft, you’ll need help from your web hosting company at some point. The question is, how ready are they to support you?
“Make sure your hosting service has live customer support and doesn’t direct you to a hard-to-navigate FAQ page,” Foster says. “Also verify that the plan you purchase includes live customer support (some companies don’t provide this service to basic plans).”
Also relevant is responsiveness. How fast is the hosting company’s support team in responding to customer queries? How qualified is the staff in answering technical questions? What level of support do they provide (server configurations, site-level customizations, coding support, etc.)?
“Obviously, you can’t expect a support staffer to be able to answer every question you have, but a good support team should be able to respond quickly on general queries and have a workflow to get back to you on more technical issues,” says Foster.
“One of the hallmarks of good hosting support is an extensive knowledge base,” he adds. “The support staff should at the very least help you navigate and find the answer you need in their knowledge base.”
Will you be protected?
No web hosting plan would be complete without a measure of defense against common cyber threats. To be clear, at the end of the day, you are responsible for the security of your digital assets. And if you get hacked, the damage done to your digital assets, your customers, your reputation might not be recoverable through financial reimbursement.
That said, it’s good to know what kind of help you get from your hosting service.
“At a minimum, a good hosting service should provide automatic updates for major CMS platforms such as WordPress. At a deeper level it should also make sure the underlying services such as Apache, MySQL, and PHP are secure are patched for known vulnerabilities,” Foster says. “In most cases, updates are the first line of defense against most web attacks, such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS).”
Foster points out, however, that there are some things that no hosting service can protect you against, such as vulnerabilities in custom themes written with poorly written code, or themes with intentionally implanted vulnerabilities downloaded from illegal websites. “I can’t tell you how many times I talked with someone who had installed a custom theme they had downloaded (torrented more often than not) and had inadvertently installed a backdoor into their account as a result,” he says.
Some of the better hosting services have specialized features that scan the source code of your web applications for known vulnerable coding patterns and malware. HostGator plans include SiteLock, a web security technology that includes a web application firewall and protects websites against outdated vulnerable code, SQL injection, and other harms.
A bonus would be to have a measure of defense against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, in which malicious botnets attack and flood your website with bogus traffic to prevent others from accessing it. Not all websites become the target of DDoS attacks, but if you have reason to fear you might become a target, check with your hosting service to see if they DDoS mitigation plan or if they have partners that can support you.
What are the available plans?
Not every website has the same resource requirements. Some might end up attracting millions of visitors each month while others will become more specialized in their field and get less traffic. Some organizations might require dedicated servers due to their regulatory needs, while others might be content with sharing resources with other websites to cut down costs.
“A good hosting service should have a flexible pricing plan that responds to the needs of every type of customer,” Foster says. “Pricing plans should provide discounts for users who make long-term purchases. The hosting service should also be transparent about what they charge you for, what their plan doesn’t include.”
Equally important is a support team that can guide you toward the best pricing plan that suits your needs, not the most expensive one.
Think deeply before firing up the browser
The best way to begin your search for a good web hosting company is to pause on these questions. Determine your current needs and try to draw a rough outline of how those needs may evolve in the future. A good hosting company should be able to support you as your online presence expands.
With that in mind, vetting each hosting service shouldn’t be a problem.