You have decided that you would like to set up a web site for your business or blog and you know that you need web hosting but what exactly is it?
Like a lot of things, especially technical things, subjects can get overly complicated and so we are going to try to explain what web hosting is, why you need it and what other bits of terminology to look out for so that you can find the best hosting package for your web site.
Why do I need hosting?
Web hosting is the term used to keep your web site available and on the internet allowing anyone else with a computer and an internet connection to see it. In theory you could set up hosting on your home computer but this is an extremely difficult thing to do and it would also mean that you would never be able to turn off your computer because as soon as you did, nobody would be able to access your web site.
Hosting is very cheap and the benefits of buying hosting instead of setting up your own far outweigh the problems you would get doing it yourself.
Your web site is just a number of files that sit on a large computer (server). Just like the files on your home computer - except that anyone can view them. A server is used, which is really just a normal computer which has been set up specifically so that it can deliver your web site across the internet to anyone that asks to see it.
Servers usually have special features that your home computer wouldn't such as redundant power supplies so that if one fails, the other one kicks in and the server keeps working. They also have redundant hard drives and network cards for the same reason - if one part fails is does not matter. The server and your web site will stay online. If something does fail, a technician will come along and replace the faulty part without turning the server off. This is called a 'hot swap' and it allows the server to stay turned on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Factors to consider
There are literally thousands of companies out there offering to host your web site for you. These range from people who have set up their own server in their bedroom through to multinational companies and you can pay varying prices depending on the level of service that you get. Below we've put some of the most useful definitions and how each can affect which host you decide to set up your web site with.
You are based in the UK so it makes sense to use a UK host, yes? Well yes, I would agree. There's a number of benefits to using a company based in the same country as you are, instead of going abroad but be careful. Just because they are a UK company, it does not mean that the server and indeed the support staff that they use are based in the UK.
Like many other industries, hosting benefits from cheap labour from abroad so do not be surprised if your web site goes wrong and when you ask for support, you find yourself having a conversation with someone in a different country. Having support staff in a different country can create communication problems but these are usually easy to get around. Having the server equipment located abroad can be a different matter.
The way the internet works is that it creates connections from your home to the one next door, to the one in a different county and across to other countries. This means that the server that your web site sits on could be located in Germany, America or India. The reason you may want to check and avoid hosts that locate their servers abroad is simply because of speed. Google now factor in server response time in to their ranking criteria so if you want your web site to appear high up in the Google Search results, speed is a factor and having your web site hosted in one country and your primary audience in another, that could be making the difference between your site appearing in the top three search results and the top 10.
Pricing for hosting varies and there are lots of things to be wary of. Cheap hosting is appealable but you need to ask yourself, why is it so cheap. Lots of companies cram as many web sites on to a server as possible. This means that they can host thousands of web sites and it can keep the costs down but the price is often speed and reliability. Just like with your shopping trolley, if you have a couple of bags of crisps in there, you will push it along easily. Add in 300 bottles of lemonade and you will grind to a halt. The most web sites that are on a server, the slower the server will be and the slower your web site will be.
There are of course some people at the other end of the spectrum who charge a lot of money for a service that should be much cheaper. If someone is charging 10x what someone else is, talk to them and ask why. Quite often there are good reasons but it's best to check.
I think most people are the same here. We never bother to backup our files and e-mails until it's too late. That first time that your computer fails and you lose weeks' of work and then from that day, you backup your computer religiously. The same could be try of your web site and e-mails - don't forget your e-mails will be looked after by the same people hosting your web site - make sure that the hosting company has a good backup procedure in place.
We make sure that our customers' web sites are backed up four times a day, that's once every six hours. That way if something did go wrong we can quickly and easily restore to a very recent version.
Some hosting companies charge extra for automatic or regular backups so again, it's worth checking before it's too late.
It's the little things in life that matter and being protected from spam e-mail messages is important. Nobody likes logging in each morning to see they have 200 messages from people trying to sell them anything from drugs to knock off clothing. Enabling e-mail spam protection is a simple and effective way for your web host to make your life much easier. Check they have a good system in place. We are big fans of SpamExperts, a fantastic service that blocks almost everything that you do not want from getting through. We use it on all of our accounts as a free add on for all of our customers.
This is a big one. What level of support can you expect from your hosting company? As we mentioned before, many outsource their support abroad. Whilst there's nothing wrong with this in general, in can create issues with understanding between languages. As well as the location of the staff, how much help are they actually allowed to provide? If you send an e-mail to them will you get a response just sending you to an instruction manual on their web site or will they genuinely try to help?
What's their response time like? Businesses rely on their web sites to bring in new customers so a web site that is down for a few hours can have real world consequences and costs. If the support team only offer a response within 24 hours, maybe you need to look elsewhere.
We all hate seeing one price and ending up paying another because we've been hit with hidden charges. Different hosts charge for different things on top of their regular packages. Some, for example, allow you to only have one e-mail address associated with your web site. If you want more, you have to pay extra. Some allow you to have one database. This means that you could set up WordPress for your web site but if you wanted to install some more software, such as a booking system, you would need to pay more.
This goes back to pricing and 'getting what you pay for'. Before signing up, be clear about what you want to do with your web site and what resources you will need. That way you can find a host that matches your needs and you won't get hit with any unexpected additional costs.
The 'unlimited' myth
In recent years web hosts have jumped from giving their customers fixed limits on how much disk space and bandwidth they can use. This is always a misconception though because disk space and bandwidth cost the web host money. They will never allow you to use as much as you want without charging you extra so you will always find reference in their terms and conditions to a 'fair usage policy' which basically means you can use what you want until we decide it's too much - hardly unlimited after all.
Disk space: this is how much space on the server's hard drive you are allowed to use for your web site. Just like your home computer, the more files you have the more disk space you will use up. Most web sites use less than 1GB of disk space.
Bandwidth: this is the amount of data allowance you are given. Each time someone accesses your web site, they use a bit of bandwidth to transfer the web site from the server to their computer. It's just like call credit on your mobile phone. The more calls you make, the more credit you will use. For web sites, the more people visiting your site, the more bandwidth you will need.
In addition to their fair usage policy, the host will usually add in extra restrictions. These usually include things such as restricting e-mail accounts to 400MB so you can only save so many e-mails before they will charge you more to increase your allowance. Again, it's another thing to be aware of. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is and the term 'unlimited' when it comes to web hosting, is always too good to be true.
Can I change web hosts?
Yes and you should if you are having problems or being charged too much. It's usually quite a complicated thing to do yourself, depending on the set up of your web site and e-mail accounts however it is possible.
We offer a free transfer service with all of our hosting packages. All you need to do is sign up and then send us your details so that we can get things moved across for you. We do all of the site transfers at a time convenient to you so if you always work late and need access to your e-mails, we'll transfer your site early in the morning. If you work Monday to Friday but not at weekends, we'll transfer your web site and e-mails over the weekend.
We always suggest doing your research. Find out what you need and then get in contact with the company that you are considering. Not only should they be able to answer any of your questions in easy to understand language - not too many technical terms please(!) - they should make you feel like a valued customer. If you get in touch and they send a short e-mail and make you feel like you are being fobbed off because they have more important things to do, go elsewhere. Everybody likes good old fashioned customer service but lots of hosting companies provide the bear minimum in terms of technical ability and customer.
If you would like to get in touch with us to discuss anything that we've said or perhaps you are interested in our hosting packages, please get in touch.