The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Hosting Provider
This article is part of a series created in partnership with SiteGround. Thank you for supporting the partners who make SitePoint possible.
You need a website. You have a clear idea of what you want, and have carefully considered the type of hosting you need. Now, with credit card in hand, it’s time to decide which company to sign up with.
Choosing a hosting provider is one of the most crucial decisions you’ll make. The future of your website depends on it.
If you were looking for a babysitting service for your children, you wouldn’t just pick the cheapest option that came along. “Leave your kids with us for just 50c a day. Pick them up whenever.” Your kids mean more to you than that. You’d want to make sure they were safe, and being looked after by people who know what they’re doing. Saving money isn’t your priority; investing in their well-being is.
Invest some time up front in the future well-being of your website. Who should you pay to host your website? What are the qualities you need in a hosting company?
Here are six key criteria to consider when weighing up the options.
1. Speed & Performance
Do you remember the last time you bought a new laptop? You immediately noticed the improvement in performance, and the old one suddenly felt surprisingly slow. Fast is good. You want a hosting company with the equivalent of a new laptop.
First impressions are everything. You don’t want new visitors to your site to leave before your home page loads. How committed is the hosting company to performance? It requires an ongoing investment in both hardware and software.
Work through this Performance Checklist when evaluating a hosting provider:
Servers on multiple continents. A closer connection is faster. If your site has visitors from around the world, servers on multiple continents will ensure the fastest connection time for everyone.
A CDN (content delivery network) is designed to decrease latency by having a network of proxy servers around the world. Many companies provide paid CDNs, and some offer them for no additional charge.
Servers with SSDs rather than spinning hard drives will load your website faster.
HTTP/2 is the future of the internet, and is here now. It’s around ten times faster than the original HTTP. Make sure it is supported by your host, and learn more about it in Craig Buckler’s article.
Caching options can speed up high-traffic WordPress sites dramatically – making them potentially hundreds of times faster. Look out for options like PHP 7 opcode caching, Memcached/Redis object caching, Nginx/Varnish full page caching, CDN, and ElasticSearch/Solr full text searching.
It’s not always easy to tell how often a company upgrades its hardware, or how much money they invest in it. Here are some ways you might find out:
Review the company’s blog for hardware and software upgrade announcements.
Use services like Load Impact and WAPT to load test websites and see how they perform.
Or be direct – phone their customer service people and ask.
2. Security, Reliability & Uptime
When your website is down, it reflects badly on your business, and you may lose money. If hackers gain access to your site and install malware, not only will you infect your visitor’s computers, but Google will display an embarrassing message warning of the threat.
How committed is the company to maintaining your website’s stability and reliability? In today’s climate of hacking, what is the company doing to keep your site secure?
Hackers can gain access by taking advantage of security vulnerabilities in the software you are using. So you need a web host who proactively keep their software up to date so these vulnerabilities are patched. The company should also take additional steps to ensure the security of your website.
Work through this Security Checklist when evaluating a hosting provider:
- Server software updates. Is the company running the latest server software (PHP, Apache, MySQL)?
- Vulnerabilities handling. Is the company proactively patching on the server level?
- Automatic CMS updates. Does the company provide automatic updates of your content management software (e.g. WordPress)? Do they allow you to choose when the updates occur? You don’t want WordPress updating in the middle of an important marketing campaign.
- Does the company employ brute-force detection and prevention systems? These systems monitor and analyze all the traffic to the server where your site will be hosted and stop the fraudulent ones—for example someone attempting to hack into your WordPress admin dashboard by trying to guess your password.
- Does the company have a Web Application Firewall (WAF)? How often are rules updated? How often are rules created for new vulnerabilities? Ideally, the host is proactive and every time there is a vulnerability, they will add a WAF rule to protect you.
Bad things happen to websites. Like anything else on a computer, backups are essential. They make disasters less disastrous.
Work through this Backup Checklist when evaluating a hosting provider:
- Does the company do any backups? Some hosts leave the responsibility with the end user. Ideally, you want a company that will do regular backups for you.
- How does the company actually perform the backups, and how often? Ideally, you should be looking for regular daily backups, with copies saved for at least 30 days. The more copies and the longer they are kept for you, the better.
- How quickly can you restore when necessary? Ideally, the host provides an easy one-click restore process.
- How much do they charge for a restore? Restoring a backup may not be cheap—you can pay as much as $150 for a single restore.
Web servers are like any other computer. Programs crash, things go wrong, and you need to restart. On a web server this will take your website down. You need a hosting company that can minimize the impact.
Here’s what normally happens when something goes wrong with a web server:
- A server admin is notified and if possible logs onto the server.
- They troubleshoot, fix the problem, and sometimes restart the machine.
- The restart causes downtime.
Companies can minimize downtime by having an excellent monitoring system—one that proactively checks the server status as often as possible and automatically fixes problems instead of waiting for system administrators to do it.
How can you find out about the effectiveness of a hosting company’s monitoring system? Check their website and blog, or ask their pre-sales reps. Hosts with good monitoring systems don’t hesitate to share how they do it.
3. Customer Service & Support
You’re caught up in building your website. Time has stopped, and you’re absorbed in the creative process. Everything is coming together… until you hit a roadblock. Something has gone wrong, or you’re not sure how to take the next step. It’s almost midnight. What do you do? Who do you turn to?
It’s common for people to work on websites outside of normal 9-5 business hours. You need help when you need help, whatever the time. You need someone who will listen to your problem, know what to do about it, and be able to communicate with you in a friendly, understandable, and human way. You need excellent support.
Work through this Support Checklist when evaluating a hosting provider:
- When is support available? Ideally it should be 24/7—you don’t always work on your website during office hours.
- What support channels are available? Phone? Chat? Tickets? Which are available 24/7? Can you pay more for priority support? The more options the better, but ticketing is always better for complex issues.
- How friendly is the support team? Is it in-house or outsourced? Do you see staff profiles in their chat and ticketing systems so you can easily see there’s a real human being on the other side.
- What’s the company’s response time for resolving issues? You don’t want to wait three days to get your question answered. On chat and phone, how long do you have to wait to get to an operator?
- What type of issues can be resolved through the support channels? Many hosts help with server-related issues only. Try to find out what are the limits and what issues are considered to be “beyond the hosting support”.
- Look for the availability of documentation and self-help—tutorials, a knowledge base.
- Is support available in your language?
4. Features & Limitations
A hosting company must provide the software and infrastructure necessary to run your website and content management system. They should also offer features that support the way you prefer to work, whether that is geeky or down-to-earth. And any limits they place on your hosting plan must not be too constrictive for what you want to achieve with your website.
Work through this Features Checklist when evaluating a hosting provider:
- Do they provide all of the system software and services you’ll need to run and manage your website? CMS, operating system, database, web server, programing languages? Refer to the system requirements of your content management system, and make your own checklist of required software.
- Besides web hosting, does the company provide the other online services you require? This may include domain registration and transfers, email hosting, and database management. It’s convenient to have everything in one place.
- If you value ease-of-use, do they provide a control panel like cPanel, and easy installation of popular content management systems like WordPress?
- Moving your website to a new hosting provider can be tricky. Do they provide website migrations? Are they free or paid? What are the terms? Ultimately, you want to find a host that will do the migration for free for you.
- If you are geeky, do they provide your tools of choice? SSL? Let’s Encrypt? Staging? FTP? SSH?
- Do they blacklist WordPress plugins? Many WordPress hosting companies don’t allow you to install some plugins.
- What are the actual limits placed on storage and bandwidth? Companies that use the word “unlimited” still have limits on what they consider too much storage and bandwidth. Check those limits in their Terms of Service and Fair Use documents. Every computer system has limits; how transparent the company is about theirs is what matters.
5. Philosophy, Culture & Reputation
You need a company you can trust. One that cares about your needs, and aren’t in it just for the money. A helpful company that’s easy to deal with, not one that’s trying to sell you something at every turn. A company that is open and transparent, and not trying to trick you. A company that won’t leave you with regrets.
Work through this Reputation Checklist when evaluating a hosting provider:
- How human is the company? What’s on their About Us page? What are their values and philosophy? What is their story?
- Check their social media channels. Are they real people committed to what they do? How do they respond to complaints and negative feedback on social media? Negative reviews on blogs?
- How do they treat their employees? What do their offices look like? Do they organize company retreats? Companies who genuinely care about their employees care about their clients too.
- Is their website clear and easy to follow, or frustrating, confusing and misleading? Do you get the feeling they are open and transparent, or trying to trick you?
- Who writes their blog and what do they write about? Is it mainly guest writers creating link bait, or company staff openly sharing how they run the business?
- Are they environmentally responsible? Data centers use a lot of electricity. Do they use renewable energy? How do they offset their carbon footprint?
- How stable is the company? Are they a large corporation running a network of hosting companies, an unsustainably small company that is hoping to be bought out, or a growing company with a solid business plan, committed to being around for the long haul?
- Hosting providers profit from open source software. Do they contribute back to the community? Do they donate cash or programming time back into open source projects? Do they organize or sponsor events like WordCamp?
Saving a few bucks a month should not be your priority when choosing a web hosting company. By all means shop around, but look for the best value for money, not the cheapest price. And do your homework so you’re not fooled by unclear or misleading advertising.
Providing fast, reliable, secure hosting costs money. Paying a reasonable price is an investment in your own website by strengthening the company who is hosting it. Paying for a premium product can even feel good!
Work through this Pricing Checklist when evaluating a hosting provider:
- Don’t be fooled by the lead price, and check what it provides. Many companies will try to grab your attention with their cheapest price, while the hosting plan is extremely limiting even for the most basic needs.
- Some companies advertise a low price for sign up, but charge a higher price at renewal. Check the ongoing costs—you’ll be paying them for years.
- Check the subscription periods. How much in advance do you need to pay to get a good price? Many companies offer their lead price for the longest billing cycle (say 3 years), while monthly and yearly subscriptions cost more.
- Does the company offer a trial period? What is their refund policy.
This article is a bit like a dating service. We’re trying to hook you up with a suitable partner who’s compatible with your needs in the long term. Take your time when working through the checklists. Identify the criteria that are most important to you, then carefully research your shortlist of hosting companies to come to a decision.
I manage several personal websites, and I’ve been through the process of choosing a hosting provider several times over the years. I decided to give SiteGround a try after learning of the SiteGround-SitePoint partnership. I’m happy to report that they check a good number of items on the lists above, and I’m currently moving a couple of projects over to them. Stay tuned for an article about my migration experience soon.
Which criteria are most important to you when choosing a web hosting company? Let us know in the comments, along with anything we may have missed. Happy hunting!