Website hosting is often a confusing topic. What is it? Do you need it? Where do you buy it? How much should it cost? Not to worry, I’ve got the answers you need!
What is web hosting exactly?
A website is created by a variety of file types that all work together to present your website to the world. For example, a typical WordPress website is composed of thousands of files. The larger the website and the more functionality it has, the more files are needed to create it. There are files that create the admin or back-end of a site, image files, files that create the portion of the website you see, files that add different functionality like an email subscription button or an events calendar. So once you have all of these files that create the website, there needs to be a way for the rest of the world to see what you’ve got. You can’t just have all the files live on your computer and allow people to access them that way. You wouldn’t want strangers having any kind of access to your computer to see the website – and your computer really isn’t set-up to handle that kind of traffic. Instead, we use what is called a server to hold all of those files. A server is just a computer that is optimized and setup for websites to live on them. Their sole purpose is to hold those files so that people can come and visit your website. You can compare your server to your house. It holds all of your stuff, it’s where everything lives. People can go to your house and visit, similar to how they can go to your website and visit.
There are two types of hosting services: shared hosting and dedicated hosting.
Shared hosting means that you share a server with many other websites. The benefit of this is that you can get much more affordable hosting for your website. Hosting companies such as GoDaddy, HostGator, and BlueHost are able to offer such cheap plans (ranging from $5-$20 per month) because the server is optimized in a way that they can stack a bunch of sites on one server to pay the full price it costs to run the server (and then some). The negative of shared hosting, or cheap hosting, is that when you have a large variety of websites on one server, if one gets hacked chances are many of them will get hacked. You are trusting that all of the websites on the server are coded properly, are secure, and have a good quality setup. This is definitely not the case. I have spent many hours fixing websites (on GoDaddy and BlueHost in particular) – that have been decimated by hack attacks. I have had clients purchase GoDaddy’s extra security protection for several hundred dollars, only to have it not work. In these cases, clients think they are saving money, but in the long run are paying far more in fixes than a better host would have cost. This is not to say all shared hosting is bad, it is to say that all shared hosting is not created equal. Going back to the house example, shared hosting is like living in an apartment complex. Everyone has their own little spot in a larger building. Some apartment complexes may be beautiful and kept in great shape, while others may be falling apart, needing a new roof and paint job.
Dedicated hosting means that you and your website own the entire server. There are no other websites from other companies living on your server. The benefit of this is that the server is totally optimized for your website needs and can be configured the way that you want or need it to be so that your content is safe and secure. The negative of dedicated hosting is easily the price. Dedicated hosting is typically at a minimum of $500 per month and can go up into the thousands depending on how large the website is, and the amount of traffic it has. With our house example again, we can compare dedicated hosting to having a mansion on a hill. It’s big, it’s expensive, and there aren’t any neighbors on your land.
Okay, so let’s say you have a small-to-medium sized business with a website. How should you host it? There are several options.
- You may have a programmer or website developer who offers hosting. This is something that I myself offer clients, though my typical recommendation is for people to buy hosting in their own account, in their own name. Many times people are intimidated by this, and they like to have someone else have ownership and responsibility of the account because they don’t know anything about it. This is completely understandable. The negative of this, and something I see a lot of, is that the relationship between the business owner with the website and the programmer sours. Now, the programmer has total control over the website and often their client doesn’t have access to their website files (the house). This can create a very tricky and uncomfortable situation and the business owner often feels like a hostage to the programmer. If you decide to go this route and have a programmer or development company host your website be SURE to get all of the server access information. Even if you have no idea what it does, what it means, or how to access it – GET THESE DETAILS. It will save you much frustration should the relationship go south. The details to ask for are:
- Admin access to the backend of the website. For example, if it is a WordPress website you will want to have full admin access.
- FTP access to the server. This consists of Host, Port, Username and Password. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART. With this information any programmer can download your website, fix it, change it, or move it to another host.
- Shared hosting on your own plan. This is the recommended route to take. There are many options to choose from and the cheap price tag of some may be attractive. You may purchase GoDaddy and have no issues with it, but there are often hidden issues. For example, I just worked on a website for a client today that had a website on GoDaddy. I looked at the website and it seemed fine. Once I started getting into the code it had malicious code that could cause harm to their users. They would never have known because it was only obvious to a programmer. When it comes to WordPress there is a host that I absolutely love, have used for many websites and recommend consistently to my clients. That host is WPEngine. The WP in WPEngine stands for WordPress. They are expert WordPress hosts. Their hosting is on the more expensive side, typically around $30 per month but you get the following:
- Hosts your website
- You get three environments for your website: dev, stage and production. Production is the website that everyone sees. Dev and stage are mirror copies of that website. The benefit of having a dev and stage environment is that you can make changes to the website in those environments (possibly breaking stuff) and not having it affect your live website. You can change your design, you can try updating your plugins, or test out new functionality without breaking the production site.
- Free SSL certificate. Google is now requiring that all websites be secure (which means the website needs to be on https://www. instead of just http://www.). The SSL certificate encrypts the data that goes between your website and a users browser (think Chrome, Internet Explorer, or Firefox). It used to be that only websites that take payment would need an SSL certificate and data encryption, but now Google will rank any website that has SSL higher over any site that doesn’t. To reiterate, it doesn’t matter if you are selling products or not – you NEED an SSL certificate. On average, other hosting companies charge a fee for SSL from $30-$100 dollars per year.
- Strong caching. Caching can be really confusing as there are many layers and types of caching. To go back to the house example, yet again: Let’s say there is a plot of land with nothing on it. The first time someone goes to that land they build a house to hold all their stuff and allow visitors (just like the website server holds the files and allows the visitors). Let’s say that the building process took 3 days. Now, if someone else drives to that plot of land, the house is already built and it takes them 5 minutes to get inside the house as opposed to the 3 days it took to build the house and get inside. Now many people can go to that house and see it in 5 minutes. This is what caching is. The first time a website loads in a browser such as Chrome, it needs to build the page by pulling all the files across the internet (same as building the house). The next person who visits the page, sees something that is already built and the page loads MUCH faster than the initial page visit. This is because of caching. Caching is the already built house that makes people getting in faster.
- Speed. Search engine experts don’t often agree on much, but the one thing that they DO agree on is that one of the primary measurements that Google uses to rank your website is speed. It needs to be fast in order for Google to move it on up to the first page of Google results. WPEngine has fast websites and uses the latest version of PHP (code that creates the website). Many other hosts will have older versions of PHP which has major performance issues.
- Security. Security is so important on shared hosting. WPEngine actually goes through and checks for bad code and bad plugins. Once they find that a plugin is considered bad for the system, it gets disabled and removed from the system so that it can’t hurt other sites. In the 3 or so years that I have used WPEngine, I have never had a website get hacked.
- Customer service. WPEngine has incredible customer service. It is all typically done through chat. They are fast, knowledgeable and friendly. Very rarely do I run into an issue with support that they can’t fix right away. The instances I did have issues were for really large websites that had a lot of custom functionality.
- Also, don’t forget – coupon codes! If you Google “WPEngine coupon codes”, you will often find discounts on the hosting offerings that will lower the price quite a bit.
I’m not saying that this is for sure the way to go, but the above tips are what you should analyze when purchasing hosting. Are all of the items included in what you are buying, because in my experience these are the important factors when making a decision.
3. Dedicated hosting. If you recall, this is the mansion of hosting. This is only necessary if you are a medical office that is trying to be HIPAA compliant, or a large scale website or web application that will have a lot of traffic or need a lot of security. For most websites this is overkill and not necessary.
To summarize, all website hosting isn’t created equal. Let me know any questions you might have about website hosting and I am happy to answer them!