If you own a business of any size, web hosting isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. An internet-connected world means that businesses must have websites, even if the pages simply detail locations, contact information, and hours of operation.
Word of mouth only gets you so far in the internet era, after all. People discover new businesses—even local business—via Bing, Google, and Yahoo. The days when they’d just look you up in the yellow pages are long gone. If you don’t have a sharable website address, your chances of building online word of mouth via social networking plummet, too. In other words, no website, no discoverability, no money. Of course, web hosting isn’t just for businesses. You may want to host a personal website or blog, too. Either way, the services here have you covered.
The first step in building your online presence is finding a web host, the company that stores your website’s files on its servers and deliver them to your readers’ and customers’ browsers. Bluehost, a PCMag Business Choice winner, is a reader-recommended option.
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 exactly what your company needs for online success is essential. Many of these companies also offer reseller hosting services, which let you go into business for yourself, offering hosting to your own customers without requiring you to spin up your own servers.
You should also familiarize yourself with the many web hosting tiers that are available. In your research, you’ll find shared, virtual private server (VPS), dedicated hosting, and WordPress hosting plans. Each tier offers different specs and features that you should take the time to analyze. We’ll break them down.
What Is Shared Web Hosting?
Shared hosting is web hosting in which the provider houses multiple sites on a single server. For example, Site A shares the same server with Site B, Site C, Site D, and Site E. The upside is that the multiple sites share the server cost, so shared web hosting is generally very inexpensive. It’s cheap web hosting. In fact, you can find an option for less than $10 per month.
You could think of the sites that share your server as your roommates; there’s really not that much separating you from them. Sure, you can close the bedroom door, but they can still cause nightmares for you in the kitchen and the bathroom. In web hosting terms, all the sites share a single server’s resources, so huge traffic spikes on Site A may impact the neighboring sites’ performances. It’s even possible that another site could take down the shared server altogether, if it crashed hard enough.
What Is VPS Web Hosting?
VPS hosting is similar to shared hosting in that multiple sites share the same server, but the similarities end there. In housing terms, VPS hosting is like renting your own apartment in a larger building. You’re much more isolated than in the roommate situation mentioned above; it’s still possible that a neighboring apartment could causes annoyance for you, but far less likely. In web hosting terms, Site A’s traffic surge won’t have nearly as much impact on Site B or Site C. As you’d expect, VPS hosting costs more than shared hosting. You’ll pay roughly $20 to $60 per month.
What Is Dedicated Web Hosting?
Dedicated hosting, on the other hand, is both powerful and pricey. It’s reserved for sites that require an incredible amount of server resources.
Unlike shared or VPS hosting, dedicated hosting makes your website the lone tenant on a server. To extend the housing metaphor, having a dedicated server is like owning your own home. The means that your website taps the server’s full power, and pays for the privilege. If you’re looking for a high-powered site—an online mansion for your business—dedicated hosting is the way to go. That said, many dedicated web hosting services task you with handling backend, technical issues, much as homeowners have manage maintenance that renters generally leave to their landlords.
On the topic of dedicated hosting, many web hosting services also offer managed hosting. This type of hosting sees the web host act as your IT department, handling a server’s maintenance and upkeep. This hosting option is something that you’d typically find with dedicated servers, so it’s a business-centric addition. Naturally, it adds a few bucks to the hosting cost, but nothing that should break the bank if you have the resources for a dedicated server.
What Is WordPress Web Hosting?
WordPress hosting is for people who want to build their sites on the back of the popular WordPress content management system (CMS) from WordPress.org. There are multiple ways to set up shop using this free, open-source blogging and site-building platform.
You gain the most web-building functionality if you create a self-hosted site. This typically involves transferring the free WordPress CMS to server or signing up for a web host’s optimized WordPress plan. With an optimized plan, the host automatically handles backend stuff, so you don’t have to worry about updating the plug-ins and CMS, and enabling automatic backups. In these instances, the WordPress environment typically comes pre-installed on the server.
You can also host your website on WordPress.com, but that’s different from the kind of hosting mentioned above. WordPress.com uses the same code from WordPress.org, but it hides the server code and handles the hosting for you. In that sense, it resembles entries in our online site builder roundup. It’s a simpler but less flexible and customizable way to approach WordPress hosting. It’s definitely easier, but if you want to tinker and adjust and optimize every aspect of your site, it might not be for you.
When it’s time to set up shop, look for a web host that offers the aforementioned dedicated servers, as well as advanced cloud server platforms (such as Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud), custom server builds should you need it, and 24/7 customer support. Depending on your business’ focus, you may need a web host that can handle pageviews or visitors that rank in the high thousands or millions. Many busy hosting plans offer an onboarding specialist that can help you get started, too.
If you’re planning on selling a product, look for a web host that offers a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate, because it encrypts the data between the customer’s browser and web host to safeguard purchasing information. You’re probably familiar with SSL; it’s the green padlock that appears in your web browser’s address bar as you visit an online financial institution or retail outlet. A few companies toss in a SSL certificate free of charge; others may charge you roughly $100 per year for that extra security layer.
Extra Web Hosting Info
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 your 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.
The Web Hosting Features You Need
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 Server 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.
If you aim to have a web presence, you must have email. It’s a convenient way for potential customers and clients to send you a message, Word document, or other files. Thankfully, most web hosts include email in their hosting plans. Some web hosts offer unlimited email account creation (which is great for future growth), while others offer a finite amount. You, naturally, should want unlimited email.
That said, not all web hosts offer email. WP Engine, for example, does not. In such instances, you must sign up for email accounts from a company other than your web host. GoDaddy, for instance, sells email packages starting at $5.99 per user, per month. That might sound like a hassle, and just one more thing to keep track of, but there are actually some webmasters who feel that separating your email hosting and web hosting services is smart. That way, one provider going offline won’t completely bork your business.
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.
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.
Ecommerce and Marketing
One thing we learned in reviewing the services listed here (and many more) is that even though the packages are similar, they are not identical. Some are more security-focused than others, offering anti-spam and anti-malware tools at every price tier. 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 e-commerce platform, such as our Editors’ Choice picks, Shopify and Wix Stores.
If you’re ready to select a great web hosting service, check out the chart below 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.
If you’re just getting started in the web hosting game, make sure to check out our primers, How to Build a Website and How to Register a Domain Name for Your Website. The Best Courses for Learning How to Build Websites is an excellent start, too.