There are many website hosting companies, and while they're mostly going to be selling the same options, what they call those options may vary from one company to another. For example, when you're looking to buy a car, some dealers will call the hinged door at the rear of a van a fifth door, while others will call it a tailgate. It can get confusing to try to compare options, but once you know that a fifth door is also called a tailgate, you're better able to make your comparisons.
In this section, we'll go over the main categories of choices to be made when choosing website hosting services, giving you the alternate ways of describing these options, so soon you'll be able to make your comparisons just like you would in a fifth door/tailgate situation.
For The Basics, the key things to look for with a website hosting company
fall into these areas:
2. Technical support
3. Storage space limitations
4. Data transfer limitations
5. Email services
6. Server operating system
7. Tracking and statistics
Once you publish your website so that it's available on the Internet, that's how you want it to stay--available. Most website hosting companies offer minimum uptimes of 99.5%. But nobody monitors a hosting company's claims of uptime so there is really no way to verify this. You can always sign up with a service that monitors your website's response time (for instance, showing how fast it takes for a page to be displayed when visitors request to see it through their Web browser) and uptime (which is another way of determining the opposite factor--how often the website is completely down and unavailable to visitors).
Many website hosting companies will offer refunds if their guaranteed uptimes are not met (usually prorated refunds based on how long the website is down and how much you actually paid for that amount of time with your website hosting fees), but this kind of an offer doesn't mean much once you do the math to figure out that if your site is down for two days you might get something like a $1 credit and only if you ask for it (most likely by calling their customer support number and wasting your time on the telephone pursuing the issue).
Once you publish your website, if you visit your website and it's not available, or you hear from other people that it's not available, you'll want to follow up with the hosting company's customer support department to see what's going on and why, and how to get it fixed as soon as possible.
The level of reliability you might be able to expect is also often related to the cost of the website hosting services. For instance, a company that charges $1 per month for website hosting services is very possibly overloading one website server with more accounts than should be hosted on that particular computer. A company that offers website hosting services for varying rates, for instance $1 per month, $5 per month, and $30 per month is very possibly overloading all of the different accounts on the same website server, but just collecting differing dollar amounts from each customer. There is little point in asking the website hosting company about this because you will always get an answer that sounds like the right answer. Our general recommendation is to stay away from website hosting service companies that offer extremely low prices, since it's very likely that these companies are taking on as many clients as they can and reliability will most likely suffer.
2. Technical support
When you're in the process of publishing your website, or once you've published it and you have questions, concerns, or problems with the service, you want to be sure that the website hosting company will have someone there to help you out.
The support options vary from company to company, usually including telephone, email, and/or online chat. Some companies offer 24-hour-a-day/7-days-a-week/365-days-a-year service--others less than that in varying combinations. In order to keep costs down, some companies provide email-only technical support, and/or non-toll-free phone numbers, and/or charge a fee for each support request you want to make.
When you're evaluating website hosting companies, you'll want to see what support options are included with your hosting fees. Go for a company that offers the most available support time with the least delay in getting that help, preferably without any additional fees involved.
There may be a balance between how much you're paying for the hosting services and how much it costs for support (for instance, you might find really cheap hosting services with a support fee, or you might find hosting services that costs a little more but the support is available at no additional charge). You'll have to determine which is the best option for you based on your budget and how often you think you'll need that support, but the ideal situation would be to get prompt customer service at no fee per request, with monthly hosting fees at a reasonable rate.
If the available support is by email only, you'll want to see what the company says is their average/guaranteed response time. You don't want to have to wait days in order to get that support--whether it's free or not.
You'll want to make sure that the technical support representatives know what they're talking about, and actually have the expertise to be able to help you if you should have problems in the future. Before you commit to a particular website hosting company, test out their technical support. Call the support line and see who answers the call, how long you have to wait, if the responses are automated or if you get to talk to a real person. When you call, ask some questions. Ideally, you should ask them some questions that you know the answers to (to see if their answers match what you know), as well as some questions that you don't know the answers to, to see if their explanations are clear and helpful. Do the same sort of investigation via email. Send a message and see how long it takes to get a response and if the response is an automated response or if an individual answers your specific question. Are you able to reply and get further assistance? If responses are automated, or signed with a message like "Thank you from Tech Support" and seemingly no accountability, you should look for another company.
3. Storage space limitations
Think of your website hosting account as a file cabinet. The website hosting company will give you a certain size file cabinet depending how much money you pay them for the account. The size cabinet you need will be determined by how much space is needed to hold the files that make up your website (including text, graphics, audio, video, PDF files, and other files available for viewing or download on your website). In addition to the files that are viewed/downloaded by visitors, behind-the-scenes log files (that keep track of activity on your website) and files associated with your email accounts (messages you send and receive) may be included in the calculation to see how much storage space your website is using.
When looking at the website files themselves (not the log files or email files or other behind-the-scenes files), most individual and small business websites made up of 5 or 10 pages often use less than 1 MB of storage space. You can see how much space is used by your website by checking the properties of the folder that contains all of your website files.
Often, website hosting companies will advertise that their website hosting accounts provide a very large storage space for your website as if this is a benefit--but if you don't need the space, it's really not.
To start out, you can go with a lower storage limit, and upgrade down the road as needed. Before you commit to a particular package, make sure the company will notify you if you're about to exceed your storage quota--BEFORE you incur a penalty fee.
If you'll have a more advanced website (not just an online informational brochure), your storage needs may be even higher. See the Advanced Options section for more details.
4. Data transfer limitations
Pretend your website is a drive-through window for your business. Think of each visitor to your website as a car passing through the drive-through. Each car (i.e. visitor) counts as traffic to your website. Each page of your website has a total amount of information to transfer to each visitor when it is viewed. If the page that is viewed has just a little bit of information (some text and a few graphics) the transfer size is relatively small. If there are higher-quality graphics, audio files, and/or video files to be viewed on a page, or if there files available on a page that are downloaded by visitors to that page, the amount of information transferred is larger, and the impact of the traffic goes up.
In the list of features available with a particular website hosting package, you will probably see something like "20 GB Transfer" or "250 GB Bandwidth" or "1000 GB Data Transfer"--all of these options are talking about how much information can be transferred to and from your visitors in a certain time frame (usually one month) before you incur an additional fee and/or have to upgrade your account to the next level of service. This includes the information transferred by page views on your website, by visitors uploading and downloading information to your website, and information transferred to and from your domain by email.
If you want to calculate an estimate of how what level of data transfer might be appropriate for your website, you can multiply the average page size in your site by the estimated number of page views per month. So, for instance, if your page is 10K (.01MB) and you figure you'll have 15,000 views of that page, that would be .01MB x 15,000 = .15GB.
But for most people, until your website has been up and running for awhile, it may be difficult to estimate the number of visitors to your website, which pages will be viewed, and how many times each page will be viewed. In general, most small or medium websites use approximately 1 to 5 GB of data transfer a month.
Often, website hosting companies will advertise that their website hosting accounts provide a very high data transfer allowance for your website as if this is a benefit--but if you won't have as much traffic as they're allowing for, it's really not a benefit.
To start out, you can go with a lower transfer limit, and upgrade down the road as needed. Before you commit to a particular package, make sure the company will notify you if you're about to exceed the data transfer limit-- BEFORE you incur a penalty fee.
5. Email services
Most website hosting companies offer at least one (if not more) email accounts with every hosting service package they sell. This address will give you an email address with your domain name--something like email@example.com. Many companies allow more than one email account (each with its own login information, inbox, and associated storage areas). Depending on your particular needs, you should choose a service package that provides the appropriate quantity of email accounts.
Some website hosting companies will indicate that you get POP email accounts. POP stands for Post Office Protocol, and is a format for delivery of email messages across the Internet. POP3 is the most recent version of this format. Usually, to send and receive POP3 email you either use an email program on your computer like Microsoft Outlook Express and/or go through a Web page provided by the website hosting company that allows you to sign in and read and send email.
Some website hosting companies will provide email aliases--these are not real email accounts. Email aliases allow you to set up an email address that looks like any other email address (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) but any messages sent to that email alias are actually forwarded to another email address (either another address in your domain that you have already set up, or an email address outside of your domain). Email aliases are useful when you only have one (or a few) email accounts but you need many email addresses (for marketing reasons or other purposes).
Some website hosting companies will allow you to set up a "catch-all" email account. This address is set to receive all email messages that are addressed to an incorrect email address for a name. For instance, if someone sends a message to email@example.com but the email account is actually firstname.lastname@example.org, the email message will still get through to you (but it will go to the catch-all account since the "sale" account doesn't exist). We do NOT recommend the use of a "catch-all" account, because what usually happens is spammers send email messages by making up email addresses with different names (like email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com), hoping that there will be a catch-all account set up. Most likely, people trying to reach you will either know your email address or visit your website and find your address there, so a catch-all is not necessary. If they address the message incorrectly, it will be returned to them and they will be able to try again (either realizing their mistake, or visiting your website to find out the correct address).
Some website hosting companies place limits on the number of email messages that can be sent per mailbox per day. There are often also limits to the size of the message (including attachments) that can be sent. For both of these options, choose according to your particular needs.
6. Server operating system
One decision you will have to make with many website hosting companies is what server operating system you want. The big question is usually "Windows or Linux?"
This decision can be made based on a few factors. First, how was the website developed? If your website developer determined that due to the requirements for your website, a technology called ASP or a technology called ASP.NET was needed, you'll need a website hosting account that has a server using Windows. Just ask your website developer. If you created your site yourself, you will know if you used ASP or ASP.NET.
If your website developer created your website using a programming language called PHP or if your website was developed to use a program called CGI, you will want to choose a website hosting account that has a server using Linux.
Another thing to consider is what additional (often free) software options does the website hosting company make available to you with one or the other operating system? Are there any options that you think you will want to use? Some examples of the type of software that will be available to you include: software to allow you to set up and maintain an online journal (often called a Web log or a blog), software to give you a way to set up an online photo gallery, software to allow you to offer a chat room on your website, software to provide your website visitors with an online guestbook to sign when they visit your website, software to allow you to set up online surveys to poll your website visitors, and software to allow you to set up online message forums where you and site visitors can post and read messages.
7. Tracking and statistics
Once you have your website up and running, you can either cross your fingers and hope that people are visiting the site, or use tracking and statistics information provided by your website hosting company to help you know for sure that there have been visitors (as well as a lot of other information about the visitors and their visits).
Some companies will include this type of information at a basic level, including things like how many visitors have come to each particular page in any given hour/day/month. Sometimes, more advanced options are available within the basic package, or you might need to purchase an upgraded package to find out information like where visitors came from (what website they were on when they clicked a link to go to your site) or to get more detailed reports including charts and graphs to help analyze this data.