This guide is focused on non-commercial shared hosting accounts. If your website will target a business audience, then please refer to our guide for Ecommerce Web Hosting.
The Most Important Step – Are They Reliable?
Ensuring that you choose a reliable hosting provider should be your #1 priority when evaluating web hosts. Since almost any computer can be turned into a web server and anyone with an Internet connection can claim to be a web host, the consumer should be wary of picking a provider based only on their features and monthly price. You should closely examine the technical capabilities of any prospective web host.
The five primary components of a reliable host are:
- Equipment – What are their hardware specifications? How much RAM is on each machine? What is the processor speed? How many accounts per server? — For example, 300 accounts sharing a 700 MHz server with 256 MB RAM compared to 80 accounts sharing a 2.0 GHz server with 1 GB of DDR RAM – which server would you want your website to be hosted on?
- Connection – What Internet connection does their data center have? High-speed? Redundant? Monitored? Secure? – Make sure the hosting provider clearly states what Internet backbone they use, such as UUNet, and the amount of bandwidth they have through them. For a fuller explanation of bandwidth and backbone connections, read Bandwidth Explained.
- Uptime – What is the provider’s uptime guarantee? 99% or higher? Not stated at all? – This is the amount of time that the hosting provider’s web servers will be operating successfully, including your website. Picking a provider that has a guaranteed uptime helps ensure your site isn’t down too often.
- Support – What type of technical support is offered? Email and web-based only? Toll-free phone support? 24/7 availability? – For web-savvy site owners, email support alone is good enough as long as there is an option to call. If your are brand new to hosting, its best to be sure that your provider has toll-free phone support, even if its just M-F during business hours.
- Guarantee – What is the duration and conditions for a refund? 30 days? Is the setup fee refunded? Do they have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) that you can read online and print out? – These types of guarantees say a lot about the web hosting company’s professionalism and confidence in their service.
Providers that don’t offer the above information should generally be avoided.
Disk Storage Space & Data Transfer Limits
To get a general estimation of how much disk storage and bandwidth your website will require, you can do some simple calculations first. As an example, say that each page of your website is 25 to 50 Kilobytes (KB) in size, counting graphics and HTML combined. At that size, around 20 to 40 pages can be stored on a single MB of storage space (1000 KB = 1 MB). Its easy to see that you don’t really need that many MB of disk space to host the average website.
The truth is that around 95% of all websites never use more than 5 MB of storage space. However, very large websites (100’s of pages), sites with lots of picture files, or websites with very large database files will often need quite a bit more. We recommend a minimum of 100 MB of space for room to expand.
As for transfer, each page that a visitor views on your site will use up 25 KB to 50 KB of bandwidth. If a single visitor came to your site and viewed 10 pages before he left, that visitor alone will have used 250 to 500 KB of your monthly bandwidth allocation. Now imagine around 50 visitors per day over the course of a month. At that rate, you will have used around 375 to 750 MB of data transfer. The vast majority of websites out there use less than 1 GB of data transfer in a month.
Since few site owners can guarantee how big their sites will grow or how much traffic they will actually use, you should always seek the highest bandwidth allotment for your money. Also, read the host’s policy on how much you would have to pay per GB for exceeding that limit.
Note: Every website has different file sizes, uses different numbers of graphic files, and has a varying number of visitors per day. You should make disk space and data transfer estimates from your own approximate page sizes and web traffic predictions.
What Special Features Do You Intend To Use?
Everyone needs storage space and data transfer, but hosting accounts include many more features that customers may or may not ever use. It depends on what you need from your website:
- POP3 Email Accounts – Each hosting account gives you a number of email addresses, such email@example.com. Also check to see if the host includes extra email functions that you might want, such as web-based email access, mailing lists, email forwarding or email autoresponders.
- Subdomains – Such as subtopic.yourdomain.com.
- SSI Files – Server Side Include files, for inserting repeated content.
- FrontPage Extensions – If you use FrontPage to publish your websites, manage include files, run a contact form, etc., then FrontPage Extensions are required.
- Shared SSL Server – If you want to run a form that gathers user data, you’ll probably want the option to do that securely. For that, you’ll need SSL.
- Scripting Language – There are basically five major scripting languages used today: CGI (written in Perl, Python or C++), ASP, Coldfusion, PHP and JSP. CGI scripts are the most common and almost any host gives you a cgi-bin to operate them in. The other four simply depend on which you prefer to use. If you use any of them to create dynamic pages, then make sure your host supports them.
- Databases – Typically either MySQL or the Microsoft SQL Server.
- Web Statistics – For monitoring the amount of traffic your site gets.
Not every provider offers all of these different features. Others charge extra to include them. If the features you need aren’t including in the account package you want, see if the provider has a list of prices for adding these special features.
Conclusion – There Is No Universally Perfect Host
Ultimately, selecting the right hosting provider for you depends on your individual needs. A hosting account that is perfect for one customer may not serve the needs of another. There is no one host that offers ever feature imaginable, with tons of storage space and bandwidth, for one low price. There are thousands of providers and each company offers different accounts with varying features.