Buying a web hosting service? Check these 10 tips

Buying a web hosting service? Check these 9 tips
(Image credit: Panumas Nikhomkhai / Pexels)

When shopping for the perfect web hosting for you (not the best web hosting for everybody else), you will be bombarded with terms and features that you will have seldom encountered in your everyday life. 

From FTP to backup, we will explain to you the jargon used and what to look for when you are in the process of acquiring a new web hosting package. Bear in mind though that web hosting - as a technology - has been evolving for over 30 years, ever since the inception of the World Wide Web.

1. Website builder

These days, hosting providers offer the tools you need to create a great website, whether you’re a coding guru or a total beginner. Modern website builders - such as Boldgrid - offer templates with a drag-and-drop function, to allow you to create a slick-looking professional website without the need to hire a web designer.

Bear in mind though that a lot of popular website builders such as Wix or Weebly, are proprietary in nature. They are not, strictly speaking, web hosting entities in the traditional sense. You will be limited in what you can do and that lack of flexibility can be detrimental if you want a bit more pizzazz.

2. Solid state drives

Although SSDs are more expensive than standard HDDs, this is for a good reason; they are much faster than the traditional spinning disk drives, are more reliable and consume less power. Depending on the technology used, the transfer rate is an order of magnitude or more compared to their mechanical cousins.

SSDs don’t come with any moving parts and so they run reliably, silently and make for a durable and energy efficient option for data storage.  Expect hard disk drives to remain popular for a long time though especially in the value part of the market where “free” and “unlimited” still rule the roost.

3.  Bandwidth

Bandwidth describes the quality and level of traffic and data allowed to travel and transfer between your site, users and the internet. Each hosting company will offer different levels of bandwidth. This can be an indication of which hosting company has the best networks, connections and system.

If you have a small business with 5,000 or less visitors per month, you don’t need to worry too much about bandwidth. Most major hosting companies will provide all the bandwidth you require on their cheapest hosting account, from as little as $1/month. 

4. Storage

Most hosting plans will offer “unlimited” storage capacity, but that is bound to come with restrictions. However, for most small business websites, a low-cost shared hosting plan will serve all of your storage needs. It is unlikely you will need more than 1GB of space, unless you have lots of videos or music files on your website.

Most web hosting companies will not accept that users use them only as a file server service. For that you can use online services like Dropbox or even Google Drive (we’ve got a list of the best cloud storage services) where your files will be hosted usually for far less than you’d expect.

5. Scalability

The importance of scalability is two-fold: Firstly, you need your website to be able to handle huge spikes in visitor numbers. Secondly: You need a hosting provider you can organically grow with, as your business and subsequent web traffic increases. When you’re choosing a hosting provider, look at how easy it will be to upgrade should you need to.

Can your web host move you from an entry-level shared hosting plan to an intermediate VPS when traffic reaches a certain level, without any down time for your website? It may be that your business experiences seasonal fluctuations in web traffic. That needs to be supported seamlessly.

For example, a Christmas Tree retailer is likely to experience a substantial influx of web traffic in December. Scalability from a hosting provider will enable the website to handle the traffic fluctuations without failing.

It’s important for yourwebsite to be able to handle growth and any sharp spikes in visitor numbers. Ensure you choose a host that offers the opportunity to upgrade to VPS.

6.  Access

When you sign up for hosting, you will be provided with a control panel for managing your hosting account. You’ll also need FTP (File Transfer Protocol) access to your files. FTP is the most common method used to transfer your web pages and other files from your computer to the web host’s computer to be hosted.

Look at the maximum file size as this may restrict your ability to upload media files. Many providers will also offer an online file manager which is useful if you are away from your usual workstation and have to do a quick update to your website, even from your smartphone.

7. Security

Irrespective of how you want to use the web host you’ll need to make sure the web host equips you with adequate security features. The good hosting providers usually roll in a wide variety of security features and you’ll need to decide which ones are important for you depending on the type of website you plan to roll out. Needless to say, the requirements of a personal blog are significantly different from that of an eCommerce portal.

At a bare minimum you’ll need to make sure you have access to some sort of spam prevention tools. There are lots to choose from including SpamAssassin, Spam Experts, Spam Hammer and more. SSL certificates are also considered an essential these days, and help increase the trust score of your website. Best of all you can get one for free with Let’s Encrypt project that also provides tools to help add a certificate to your website as well. 

Finally, if you plan to conduct financial transactions on your website, you’ll have to look for solutions to help mitigate distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks as well. Solutions such as SiteLock and CloudFlare are popularly used to extend this protection and also offer several other useful features as well.

8.  Support

When technical difficulties arise, you’ll need swift backup support. Good hosting providers will offer 24/7 support, so that you can get your business back online if something goes wrong. There are various methods of support available including, email, telephone, live chat.

Check your service level agreement (SLA) for details of the support you can expect to receive. Some providers will also stipulate the expected uptime in their SLA. A 99% uptime means that the site can be expected to be down for 3.5 days a year.

That’s down to less than one hour on a 99.99% uptime agreement. All but the most expensive web hosting packages will promise five nines (99.999%) where the maximum agreed downtime is just over five minutes.

9. Location

The closer a data centre is to your visitors, the faster the page loading will usually be. If it is likely all of your visitors will come from one area, choose a hosting provider with a data centre nearby.  Even if that’s not the case, you can always buy a web hosting package that includes the option of a CDN (Content Delivery Network).

A CDN will host a copy of the page and the static content of your website when it is accessed from a territory. Caching, as it is known, means that visitors to your website will always get the data from the closest server to their location.

10. Backup

Last, but certainly not least, backups are a critical service you should receive from a hosting provider. Not all hosting companies offer this service as part of your bundle , so make sure you ask. Backups will usually be taken off your website daily automatically and kept for seven days, enabling you to restore your website at any point if needed.

Backups usually include both the website files (static) and the database (dynamic). Reasons you may need a backup of your website include: fire at data center, hacking, human error and component failure. You may also decide to backup your files to a third party (like Google Drive) or locally on your computer.

  • This is an adapted excerpt from an eBook called "The ultimate guide to web hosting", published by TechRadar Pro in association with Planet Hippo
Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.

With contributions from