Published on April 12, 2017 in Web Design.
Clarify the most important web hosting features. Before you can launch your online business, you'll need to set yourself up with some solid web hosting. And before you can set yourself up with solid web hosting that will fit your business needs and requirements, you'll need to know what to look for, what's important, what you can safely ignore, and so on. That's what this tutorial is all about.
What we'll do is start of by talking about what's most important to you for your online business. This will give you plenty of clarity in terms of what to look for. What we'll then do is establish three categories for all the different web hosting features and add-ons we'll see as we begin comparing web hosts. We'll have what I'll call Critical Web Hosting Features, Nice Additions, and Completely Useless Extras.
How does that sound?
After this, we'll take a quick detour and talk about the word "unlimited," as it relates to web hosting. You're sure to run into this word over and over as you begin looking at hosting plans—unlimited storage, unlimited, bandwidth, and so on. I think you'll enjoy that conversation.
Then, it's on to the good stuff: We'll address each of the categories we established above, and sort all of the various extras and features that hosts provide under each. This way, you'll have a very clear idea of what features are critical, what features are nice to have, and what can safely be ignored.
Okay, now first let's take a look at how we can determine what's best for you and your business website.
What do you think is most important when it comes to web hosting? Site speed and performance? Storage space? Whether the site comes with a free domain or not? What about security and data backups?
With so many options and features available from so many different web hosting companies, it can feel like an overwhelming task to sort through it all. So let's begin with a quick analogy: If you were renting an apartment in a new city, what would be most important to you? What factors would you give priority to? When renting a new place to live, your top concerns would probably be things like cost, location, suitable living space, and being able to reach the landlord (should anything come up).
So, how much is this place going to cost me, will it suit my needs and lifestyle, and is the property manager or landlord service-oriented? Anything beyond these three primary concerns would be added bonuses, or perks, but not necessarily deal makers or deal breakers. Things like a walk-out, extra storage space, or on-site laundry, are all nice, but if the apartment's located on a remote ridge in Northern Canada, then it's safe to agree that we don't care about the nice the view or the low the rent!
And you'd get sick of eating pine needles and tree bark all day!
When shopping for a company to host your business website, many of the same sorts of concerns come up. But because there's so much technical jargon, packages, and options, it's difficult to get really clear on what matters most. It's almost as if the marketing intentionally complicates and confuses what should otherwise be a simple purchase. For example, when you start comparing web hosting companies, you'll see hosts boasting unlimited storage, free domain names, web site builders, advertising credits, SEO site optimization, and on and on. What does all this really mean? And what matters most here?
So we're going to get clarity on all this stuff. This'll help you determine the best hosting options for your business venture.
And bear in mind that because I don't know your specific situation, there will be a bit of generalization happening here. Maybe you have unique business needs, or maybe there's a specific hosting feature you're after. Use everything we're about to discuss as a general guideline to help you determine what's most important, and which web hosting features really don't matter.
But before we get to all that, let's tackle this word, "unlimited." As you begin looking at different hosting companies and comparing the plans they offer, you'll see the word "unlimited" being used over and over. But what does this mean? Can they really offer unlimited services? How is that even possible? Let's dig deeper...
Okay so, "unlimited." What do web hosts mean when they boast unlimited bandwidth, unlimited storage, unlimited email accounts, unlimited site installs, and on and on? Do we get unlimited refills, too?!
Are these companies actually offering all this stuff with no limitations?
As you might guess, the answer is...no. But that's okay, because we really don't need unlimited services. Let me explain.
The whole idea of "unlimited" is somewhat of a gimmick to entice sales. Web hosting is a very competitive market, especially among shared hosting companies. Shared hosting in particular is so cheap, and so readily available from so many vendors, that hosting companies have to say almost anything to get new business, including "unlimited everything!" So as you start researching web hosting companies and comparing what they're offering, you'll see all sorts of unlimited offers.
So this notion of "unlimited everything" is a way to attract customers, particularly novice customers who don't really understand what they'll need in terms of bandwidth, disk space, or anything else. To newcomers, "unlimited" sounds amazing!
And it isn't necessarily the web hosting company's fault—remember, the competition is fierce. So if one hosting company starts advertising "unlimited everything," then to compete, other hosts have to as well. It's sorta like Domino's Pizza offering it's "30 minutes or it's free" guarantee, which forced every other pizza delivery service to match their offer or risk losing customers.
So, you'll see the word "unlimited" all over the place when you start hunting for web hosting. And while it sounds very attractive, it's not actually possible for a hosting provider, from a technical standpoint.
As with lifetime free oil changes, unlimited drink refills with every meal, and any other concoction that marketers have come up with, we need to read the fine print. So if you really want to know what a particular web hosting company's actual limits are, they list them in their Terms Of Service (TOS).
But here's the good news: The bandwidth, storage, and other limits most web hosts impose, are usually so high that folks like you and I running smaller business websites would never exceed them. So that's why we don't really need to be concerned with "unlimited."
So when a web hosting company says something's unlimited, what they really mean is, "a whole heck of a lot," or "way more than you'd ever need, so don't worry about it."
Alright, I hope that clears things up! Now, on to the three categories we established earlier, Critical Web Hosting Features, Nice Additions, and Completely Useless Extras. I've taken all the various features that web hosts are offering, and sorted them into each of these buckets. So let's get started, first with Critical Web Hosting Features.
So let's get started with our Critical Web Hosting Features. I actually wrote a detailed tutorial on this exact topic called The 3 Critical Web Hosting Features Every Small Business Needs. I go into much more detail there, but I'll summarize some of those ideas here.
The gist is, there are just three big factors that determine whether a host is worth investigating further or not for our business's website: Cost, reliability, and customer service. That's it. That's really all we need from a web hosting company. I'm not too terribly concerned with anything else a host is offering beyond these three key features.
To me, finding a great web host means finding one that balances these three factors. If a potential web hosting company can meet these three requirements, and balance them, then I move to the next category of hosting features, below, Nice Additions.
Notice I didn't say anything about storage space, or bandwidth, or if the website comes with a free domain name, or any of that other confusing stuff. At this point, we're only interested in cost, reliability, and customer service.
So let's talk about these three big factors—cost, reliability, and customer service—just a bit...
For most of us, the cost of running our online business is our number one concern. But bear in mind that going with the cheapest option isn't the only factor to consider—and going with a cheap host can lead to huge headaches.
Realistically, starter plans range in cost anywhere from about $5/month up to around $30/month, depending on the type of service you choose. There are actually six different kinds of web hosting, and choosing the right kind of hosting for your website is very important.
Now I imagine that you want to keep your costs low, especially at first. This makes low-cost shared hosting a great choice. If you have a bigger budget with a larger project in mind, perhaps an online store or something similar, you may want to forego the technical side of web hosting and jump right into managed WordPress hosting, which as you might guess comes with increased cost.
These are some of the factors you'll have to weigh as you begin researching potential web hosts.
Now let's look at reliability and security.
The next big issue is reliability. As you start comparing hosting companies and seeing what's out there, you'll come across promises of "guaranteed 99.9% uptime." As I detailed in my The 3 Critical Web Hosting Features Every Small Business Needs tutorial, it's impossible to have 100% reliability, especially with anything technology-based.
But, we can expect that our website will be fully functional most of the time. That's the best we can hope for. It's the best we can hope for with space probes, fountain pens...and yes, web servers too. Thankfully, reputable web hosts have several layers of redundancy built in place, which makes server downtime a very rare occurrence. Obviously, when you're running a business online, reliability is a key issue.
Moving on, other factors that play into reliability are your site's performance and it's security. To me, a fast-running site that's safe and secure are important issues. If you're running any kind of online store, having an SSL certificate installed on the server is a must. An SSL certificate keeps customer's confidential information secure. Even if you aren't running an e-commerce site, an SSL is still a good idea. If a hosting company is unable to support SSL, then I wouldn't even consider them as an option.
Other security and performance issues, like login and IP blocking for example, can be handled by solid web hosting.
Here's something else: Look to see if the web hosting service you're considering uses solid state hard drives. Solid state drives perform much faster than traditional hard drives. Also, see if the host has any bandwidth (also known as data transfer) limitations. Bandwidth is simply a measurement of how much traffic your website can handle. Many shared hosting companies feature "unlimited bandwidth," as a part of their hosting plans, but we already talked about what "unlimited" really means earlier.
Further, see if they have any caching options. Caching is something that'll help your website run even faster.
If you're really concerned about speed, see if the hosting companies you're comparing offer a Content Delivery Network (CDN). In short, a CDN is a network of web servers located across the globe that are optimized to deliver your site content faster. For most small and medium-sized sites, a CDN is nice, but not completely necessary.
So, there's quite a bit for you to look for in terms of site security and reliability. Now let's look at our third and final critical hosting feature, customer service.
Here's our third critical web hosting feature, customer service. I should have put this one first, because customer service is, I'd say, the number one factor when determining whether to go with a web host or not. I've dropped otherwise great hosting companies who offered everything I needed because their customer service was terrible. Great web hosting options, with fantastic customer service are so readily available that there's no reason to stick with bad web hosting.
Great hosting companies will offer a variety of ways for you to get support, including support tickets, email, live chat, and telephone. The best of the best offer 24/7 support.
Kind of like our discussion on reliability, above, I expect that I won't need customer support very often. But if something goes wrong or I need a hand with a question, I want to be able to get knowledgeable, friendly service quickly. My preferred customer service method is live chat. I like to be able to hop onto a chat, and within a few minutes have my issue being addressed. This could be at 2pm or 4am—so 24/7 support, I think, is important.
Another issue related to customer service is some kind of a money-back guarantee. A money-back guarantee gives you that extra peace of mind to make you feel more comfortable. Just knowing that if things don't work out as expected, cancelling the service and receiving a full refund is often enough to seal the deal.
To help you out, all of the hosting companies I'm recommending on Ten Ton have already been pre-vetted—they all offer excellent customer service, good value for what they charge, and provide superior reliability and security. And, they all offer a money-back guarantee of one kind or another.
If you have other hosts in mind that you're investigating, make sure to take a close look at their packages and terms of service before moving ahead.
Okay but what about all the other hosting features, like data backups, shopping carts, staging servers, and more? How do they weigh in? Well, beyond cost, reliability, and customer service, we can now categorize many of these remaining features into our two remaining categories. Let's take a look at Nice Additions first.
Truthfully, I didn't know what to call this category! Nice additions sounds like something your neighbours would add to the back of their house! Anyway, this is just extra stuff that, if included, is great. But if any of these aren't included, then it isn't a deal-breaker, either. Consider these the sugar on top—they make a great web hosting package even more attractive.
There's a whole bunch of Nice Additions, so let's dig in...
A lot of web design newcomers think storage space is an important consideration, but honestly it's not really all that important. It's nice to have a decent amount of space to work with, but websites are often pretty small, and many use less than 10% of their allotted storage space.
To give you an idea, Ten Ton's site, not including the video content (some of which is hosted on YouTube and elsewhere) is around 3gb. Another site I run weighs in at less than 2gb. For many sites, 5gb of space is more than enough.
If you have big files that you want to host, like large video files, PDFs and so on, you can always make use of a cloud storage solution like Amazon S3 or DropBox. And of course, we know that hosts offering "unlimited" storage space aren't really offering unlimited storage space, anyway.
So, extra storage is nice...but don't make it a deciding factor. I think you'll find that you won't use a whole lot of it.
Another common concern with those new to web design is bandwidth. Bandwidth is the amount of traffic your website can handle. And, like storage space, most sites won't come close to going over their allotted limits—unless they experience a big surge in traffic after being featured on a popular social media site or news outlet.
Once again, just like storage space, many hosting companies boast "unlimited" bandwidth as a way to entice new sales...and we already know about that game!
A host that offers regular automated backups, and the ability to restore your site from any backup point is really nice. For you and your business, this is huge peace of mind. You won't have to remember to run backups, and you'll know that if something horrible goes wrong with your website, you can simply restore everything from the last backup point—which is typically from the previous day.
Now, if a host doesn't offer automated backups, it isn't a deal-breaker. We can easily setup automated backups ourselves.
This is maybe a personal preference, but I've been using this the cPanel web hosting interface for many, many years. I know it pretty well and it just makes getting around inside my hosting account that much easier.
CPanel makes it a breeze to configure databases, manage subdomains, install software with just a few clicks, and tons and tons more. Not all of the hosting companies I'm recommending use cPanel (opting instead for their own proprietary control panel), so it isn't a deal breaker for me if cPanel isn't included, it's just really nice to have.
CPanel also comes with Softaculous. Softaculous is a library that provides simple one-click installations of many popular software applications, including WordPress. This is super-handy, especially if you're new to WordPress and web design. Here's where I use this: I find myself setting up temporary installations of WordPress, usually just to run a few tests. One-click installers like the ones provided by Softaculous make this process a snap. And when my tests are complete, I can just as easily uninstall WordPress.
So, if a host is offering to include cPanel and Softaculous, I consider it a very nice bonus.
Site migration is a fancy way of saying moving your website from one web host to another. When you have a website that's currently hosted with one web hosting company, and you want to move it to a new hosting company, that's called a site migration.
Many web hosts, like SiteGround, offer free site migration. Others will charge a nominal fee. Site migration isn't something you'll need all the time—it's more of a one-time thing— but holy geeze does it ever come in handy under certain scenarios. Imagine a situation where you get fed up with your current web host's bad customer service and want to move your business to a more reputable web host. If the new web host offers to handle it for you at a low (or no) cost, then that's gonna save you time, headaches and hassles.
You essentially say to the new host, "Hey, can you move my site for me?" And they say, "Yeah sure, no problem." Then an hour later, while you were organizing your sock drawer, you get an email letting you know that your site's been moved. Pretty slick!
But don't forget, free site migration is a nice addition. Moving your website yourself is most certainly possible. But, if a host is offering to do all the heavy lifting for you, then that's a nice perk.
Another nice bonus is the ability to run multiple websites from a single hosting plan. Think of this as having multiple hosting accounts, all under a single hosting package. This is great if you want to run multiple businesses, run several web projects, or even just have a testing area for learning and experimenting on your own.
The ability to run multiple websites from a single account is usually called running add-on domains. Having a hosting plan that allows you to do this saves you the extra expense of signing up for additional hosting accounts, and makes managing several websites easy, because they're all stored in one spot.
Now, it's easy to confuse add-on domains with subdomains and parked domains. If you're interested in the difference between each of these, I'll run through them very quickly:
Subdomains are domain prefixes used to organize websites by category, or for marketing purposes. URLs like
sale.yourcompany.com are examples of subdomains.
Parked domains allow you to point multiple domains to a single website, like yourcompany.us and yourcompany.online. I've never really had a use for subdomains or parked domains, so for me, they'd actually be tossed under the Completely Useless Extras category below, but you might find them useful.
Not all web hosts allow you to run multiple sites via add-on domains, but if they do, consider it a very attractive extra. Even if you only plan on running one site, you never know how your needs might change down the road. And, I say this over and over, running online businesses is addictive! So having the ability to start up new projects whenever you want is very nice.
Tied into running multiple websites is the ability to set up multiple MySQL databases. Don't be intimidated by the techie jargon—WordPress runs on PHP and MySQL, so being able to create multiple MySQL databases just means you can run multiple installations of WordPress, all from a single hosting plan.
As you might guess, I really like the idea of being able to run several installations of WordPress under a single hosting account. This gives us lots of flexibility—we can test things, run multiple projects, set up an area for freelance work, and so on.
Some web hosts provide a staging area to allow you to work in a private, secure environment on a non-publicly accessible website. This is nice for testing, or when you're running the odd experiment.
But staging areas really come in handy for freelance designers and developers who are working on client sites. This isn't something that I'd make much use of these days (my freelancing days are behind me...I murdered all my clients!), but if freelancing is something you'd like to do, having a host that provides a staging area is a very attractive add-on.
So there's our Nice Additions category. There was a lot in there, and I'm sure you learned a lot. But, we still have the Completely Useless Extras category, so let's keep going...
So, we've covered our Critical Web Hosting Features (remember, price, service, and reliability), and we talked about some nice "cherry on top" features in the Nice Additions category that sweeten an already good looking potential host. Now let's discuss web hosting features that are, quite frankly, totally useless.
I want to talk about these because it's often these features that web hosting companies highlight most prominently as a way to entice customers who don't know otherwise. We'll tackle each, and uncover just why they really won't do much to help us.
As an extra incentive for getting people to sign up with them, many web hosts will offer a free domain name upon registration. This might seem nice, and even convenient, but it's not saving you much money. Worse, it actually locks you into that web host, making it much more difficult to switch hosts and migrate your business to a new host should you ever want to leave.
I always suggest keeping your domain registration separate from your hosting. That way, you're free to move your site to a better service, and simply point your domain where it needs to go. In this tutorial series, I discuss keeping your three essential business services (domain registration, web hosting, and your email) completely separate—and I make a strong case for protecting your business's number one most valuable web asset, your domain name. Be sure to give it a look.
Believe it or not, but your business domain name is even more important than your actual website. I don't know about you, but I want complete control over my business's assets. This means that registering a domain with a web hosting company and locking into their service is definitely useless.
Here's another "feature" that really has no use—free, built-in website builders. The appeal here is obviously for beginners, who really don't know much about building their own website. But of course, learning how to build and run your own website is exactly what Ten Ton's all about, right? This means that you're not reliant on outside designers or services. You can instead do everything yourself.
So even if my web hosting came with a free website builder feature, I wouldn't even look at it. I'd much rather make use of the power of WordPress, and maybe some HTML and CSS to build and customize my site.
To me, getting a free website builder with my web hosting is like a used car dealership offering me cold coffee. I know they're just trying to be nice, but it tastes like feet. I'll pass, thanks.
Often, shared hosting companies will highlight the fact that you can set up free email accounts—even unlimited email accounts. That's fine, but tangling your business's email service up with your web hosting is not really a good idea.
Why? Here's just a quick example of why using your web host's free email could lead to disaster: What if your website goes down? What if it goes down for a few hours? Or days? Any guesses as to what happens to your email? It goes down too! By keeping your email separate from your web hosting, one service isn't going to impact the other.
It's much more preferable to go with a dedicated, professional email service, like Google G Suite or Microsoft Office 365. Again, I talk about all this in this tutorial series. Definitely check it out if you want more detail on why using your host's email is a bad idea.
Kind of like the website builder above, I'm not too interested in any kind of free shopping cart that a web host would be touting as a "bonus extra." If you're interested in having your own shopping cart and running your own online store, you can do it all through WordPress. So, there's no need to involve any freebie shopping cart scripts or anything like that. We can keep things easy and simple to run in WordPress.
Some hosts will boast that they support advanced programming languages like Perl and Python. I'm not a back-end developer, so I'm not interested in this stuff. The only time this might be of interest is if I hire a developer to build some kind of custom application, and my web server needs to be able to support this sort of thing. But, in all my years of doing this stuff, this has come up exactly zero times. So I'm not too concerned about it.
Some hosts might highlight free FTP accounts. Maybe they're even featuring unlimited FTP accounts. That's fine, but we're not likely to use it.
FTP accounts allow us to set up private, secure locations where we can share files with others. This was great back in the day when we need to share content with co-workers, developers, and freelancers, but now we have services like DropBox and Google Drive that makes this sorta thing much easier.
And, don't confuse FTP accounts with connecting to your website via FTP. That's a bit different.
There's a mishmash of other features, value add-ons, and extras that I know you'll come across when researching and comparing web hosts. You'll see stuff like free domain transfers (don't confuse this with free website transfers), advertising credits, custom error pages, and on and on.
I have no idea what most of this stuff is because I've never used any of it...and I've never used them because they're entirely useless! That's why they're at the bottom of the useless pile in this tutorial!
I mean, "advertising credits?" When was the last time an ad was actually successful? So then why put your resources into advertising? Useless! Custom error pages? We can build those in a few seconds ourselves. Useless again! None of these things are needed, nor are they particularly interesting.
You can safely ignore all this miscellaneous junk, and focus instead on much more important features and extras that we've already discussed.
Alright, how did you like that?! That was a ton of information, and I know this tutorial was very information-dense, but I wanted to collect everything into one spot so that you can keep coming back to if you need to.
To recap, first we determined what was most important for you in regards to web hosting, and we came up with our three web hosting feature categories—Critical Web Hosting Features, Nice Additions, Completely Useless Extras. Then, we took a quick detour and talked about how the word unlimited is used in web hosting marketing, and what it really means.
After that, we got into the bulk of this tutorial. We took a look at each of our feature categories, starting off with Critical Web Hosting Features. There, we learned that cost, reliability, and customer service are our biggest concerns for our business's website. After that, we got into the Nice Additions category, where we talked about things like add-on domains, storage space, bandwidth, the cPanel control interface, and other handy features. Finally, we learned about web hosting features that won't help us in the Completely Useless Extras category. We talked about free domain names, website builders, shopping carts, and other add-ons that, while they might sound great, don't do us much good.
I hope this tutorial has been very helpful in demystifying a lot of the jargon and features that you'll come across as you begin researching and comparing web hosting companies. Once again, in organizing a lot of this information, I had to make some generalizations. Be sure to prioritize for yourself which features and options are most important for you and your online business venture.
By figuring all of this out, you can then purchase the right hosting plan for your project, intelligently. And this leads us right into another highly informative tutorial I've put together that covers the six different kinds of web hosting. Now that you know exactly what features you're after, you can narrow things down and determine exactly the kind of hosting is best for your business.
I'll see you over there!