What features to look for in a web hosting provider

Finding your perfect IT relationshipI have heard it said that your relationship with your web host can be a bit like starting a romantic relationship. There are lots of promises and potential to start with but you never really know someone until you have spent some time together. Until you have a chance to find out each others strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully you will find that your host supports you in a great partnership

What are you looking for in this relationship depends on what you plan to do with your website. There are a lot of completely valid types of website and the right one for you depends on your business, and could change or develop over time (as will your business). Start by thinking about how your website fits into your business and then looking at the features that you web host provides.

Which features are the important ones for my website?

Which of these web hosting features are the most important for you depends on what you want to achieve with your website. One of the most important things you can do is to think through what you want to achieve from your website and how it might change over time.

Are you starting with a basic web presence to ‘get your feet wet’ and learn about the world of websites? Are you an experienced internet business person who has a strategy in place for on-line sales and marketing?

Hosting is usually fairly inexpensive so don’t be afraid that you are locking yourself in forever. You can always change providers in the future even though it can be a little painful. The bigger players in the market offer good price with reasonable service if you are just getting started. Remember, you get what you pay for so don’t go for a rock bottom price and then expect gold class features and support.

Typical features of a web host provider

Here are some typical features that I think are important and why – you can use this to work out if they are important to you based on how you will use your website.

Length of contract – often you will see prices advertised as ‘from $$$’ and when you sign up you will find that you only get the lowest price if you sign up for a long period. This is great if you know what you want but not so great if you are just getting your feet wet. Think about the differences in price. Look at the refund and upgrade policy if you change your mind. Also keep some perspective – most web hosting is relatively inexpensive so while it might be an awful thought to have to forfeit some time on a contract, it will not usually break the bank.

Disk Storage – Disk storage is how much space on the server you have for your files. Unlimited is quite common and the most flexible. If you find a cheaper plan with limited storage then make sure you don’t cut yourself short. Many people don’t really need much but if you have lots of video, audio or images then you may want to think carefully about how much space you need.

Bandwidth – this equates to how many people can look at your site each month (and may include the size of getting your backups, emails and changing your site). So be careful if you select smaller numbers here. Unlimited is quite common for bandwidth too.

Domains – How many domains can you have in one account. Can you have parked domains, subdomains and addon domains. Parked are when you send more than one domain name to the same website, usually the other TLD’s if you purchased the net/biz/com/co.uk endings they you probably want them all going to the same place. Subdomains are are additional domains that end with the same name as your main domain – a common one is blog.your-domain.com. Addon domains are completely separate domains from the outside but they use a sub-directory in your account. This means you can run completely different websites from the one hosting account which is very handy for web marketers or running a shop or membership site as well as your main site.

Email – Make sure it is incoming (POP/IMAP) as well as outgoing (SMTP) and make sure you have an option for secure mail. That is, make sure that the POP/IMAP/SMTP can be used over SSL to protect your information and your passwords. Make sure you have enough accounts – you will probably want an admin, webmaster and backups email account on top of any personal ones.

Databases – The most common to find supplied is MySQL. It is simpler to use a different database for each website so check how many you can have. It is possible to share one database but this is more complicated and means that if one database is damaged then all your websites are impacted. If you are going to be running any special software on your site then make sure the versions are right.

Secure Shell (SSH) Access – This is a more technical one but may make your administrator’s life a lot easier. It is essentially the ability to log onto the server with a command line. It allows much greater control of all the functions available on your server. Not all hosts offer this (and many people live their whole life and never use it – I use mine all the time)

Secure FTP – Many web hosts still only provide basic FTP for you to be able to move your website onto the server or download backups etc. This may not seem like much of a big deal but FTP lets people on the Internet see your password (if you only have FTP then never use the same password for this and anything else!!!).

Other Secure File Transfer – I’ll lump this under a general heading as the space is evolving. Hosting providers are starting to lift their game and give you a secure and safe way to access the back end of your site – if in doubt ask them, you will find things like Web Disks, WebDav or SFTP. The main thing to make sure is that your password is protected from theft as you log on. A good idea is to look under the ‘Help’ or ‘Support’ page for your prospective provider and search for some of these terms – if there is good help available then that is a good sign.

Technical Support – I hinted at the need for good technical support earlier, you should have a look at the ‘Help’ or ‘Support’ section of the providers website. Search for some terms like SSH, SFTP, or other terms specific to your needs to see if they provide a range of articles and tutorials on how to get the best out of your site. If you don’t know much about the supplier then make sure you read a couple of reviews – google ‘company-name review’ and make sure the review site is not provided by the company itself.

Installable Software – this may be called ‘simple scripts’ or some other name but refers to the ability to install other packages like WordPress for creating websites, Mailing list programs, Discussion Forums. You don’t have to use these scripts but it lets you know that you can use this software if you need to.

SSL Certificates – Almost all providers will be allow you to have an SSL certificate which is important if you want to do eCommerce on your site. There are options where you use another service like PayPal to do the actual financial transaction and in this case you my not need SSL. Having SSL on your site can give your customers more confidence in your site.

Software and Scripts – If you are thinking of installing WordPress or a number of other free services on your website then make sure you have the right software included. eg, PHP5, support for custom PHP.INI Files,  Perl, Ruby/Ruby on rails. If you are in doubt then discuss this with your web designer or technical support (or me).

Have a look at these two host providers as recommended examples

Bluehost have a fantastic feature set at an overall low cost for a US based provider. This is the one that I use myself so feel free to click on the banner below to visit the site and look at the features list.

Hostgator have a very good name in the internet marketing community and offer three different packages so you can balance cost against features. Click the banner below and then click on the link to compare packages.

If I you need help or have questions before making that final choice then let me know,

your ‘Peoples Geek’