Thoroughly researching hosting possibilities can take a lot of time and effort. What if you want to make safe hosting choices but don’t have the time to research everything? Fortunately, following a couple of simple rules provides a safe shortcut.
1. Use Different Companies for Domain Registration and Web Hosting – Using the same company for registration and hosting can be a problem if you get into a dispute with your host. A host who controls your domain as well as your hosting files has total control over your website and business. When you register your domain with a different company, you have the option of switching hosts by resetting the nameservers in your registrar account. Also, a hosting company is usually better than a domain registration company at hosting.
2. Follow the Smart Crowd – Some of the best hosting choices are not only popular, they’re consistently recommended by knowledgeable users. HostGator definitely falls into this category – a large reputable company with excellent service. Most of the best hosts will offer the selection of features most requested by knowledgeable users. That includes cPanel to manage your hosting account, Fantastico to simplify software installation, and content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla to build and maintain your website. If you follow the smart crowd in making choices like these, you not only are making safe and solid choices, you’re joining a large user base. That means support is usually as easy as typing your question into a search engine.
When shopping for a web host, have a checklist of features you want. That way, you’ll be comparing hosts on equal terms, and you’ll ensure you’re getting at least what you need without overpaying. Here are some common features and choices you may want for your website.
1. Linux Hosting – Prefer Linux hosting to Windows hosting. Linux hosting is more reliable and is often cheaper than Windows hosting. Note that this choice is about which operating system will be running on your web server and has nothing to do with the operating system you run on your desktop. The only reason one might prefer Windows hosting over Linux hosting is if you plan on doing Windows-based scripting on the web server.
2. Shared Hosting – Shared hosting means your website will be sharing the same server with a lot of other websites. When everyone “plays nice”, this sharing is invisible to the customers using the same server. However, when a customer consumes excessive space or bandwidth and hurts the other customers, the host may pressure him to upgrade to a more expensive non-shared hosting plan or may even cancel his account. Be sure to check the host’s Terms of Service (TOS) to see what you can and cannot do. Although shared hosting is by far the cheapest hosting you can get, it is more than adequate for typical small business websites. A good host should be able to seamlessly upgrade you to a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or dedicated server if and when you outgrow shared hosting.
3. Unlimited/Multiple Domain Hosting – Many hosting plans allow you to have multiple websites. Sometimes this capability comes bundled with the cheapest plan, sometimes it may be an inexpensive upgrade. Having the option of creating multiple websites provides valuable flexibility that is well worth the extra cost. You could, for example, have multiple websites for multiple income streams.
4. Unlimited/Multiple Email Accounts – Most hosting plans have email plans bundled with them. However, if email accounts aren’t explicitly listed among the hosting plan features, you may have to pay extra for them. These email accounts let you use your own domain for email addresses, a requirement if you want your business and website to look professional.
5. Name-Brand Control Panel – A hosting control panel is the interface that lets you control all aspects of your hosting account. Look for a host that lists a name-brand control panel, such as cPanel, as one of its features. If no brand-name control panel is listed, assume the interface was designed in house. Unfortunately, good interface design takes expertise most hosts don’t have. If a host doesn’t advertise a brand-name control panel, search for customer comments on the control panel before signing up for an account.
6. Name-Brand Installation Script – Hosting plans typically come with lots of useful software for your website. The software can’t do you any good, however, if you can’t figure out how to install it. Installation scripts like Fantastico greatly simplify the process. With such scripts, many useful software packages can be installed with little more than a click of the mouse. If a host doesn’t list an installation script as one of its features, you may have to install any desired software manually.
7. WordPress Hosting – WordPress is a justifiably popular content management system, not just for the blogs it was originally designed for. The WordPress interface is probably the easiest way to create and maintain a website. You can choose from a large number of free professional-looking themes, many of which can be customized to give your website a unique look. Even if you’re not currently planning to use WordPress for your website, consider choosing a web host that supports easy “1-click” installation of WordPress. You might be glad later to have the WordPress option available.
8. Pricing – When comparing hosts’ prices, don’t get distracted by discounts offered for the initial period or for committing to several years. Compare prices using a standard duration, such as what you would normally pay for an undiscounted year of hosting.
9. Host Forum – Before committing to a host, check out its online forum. A good forum may answer questions you still have, and will show how the host deals with questions, problems, and their users.
There are many information resources to help you choose the right web host. Sifting through the information from the following resources can help you avoid a web hosting mistake and is well worth the time and effort.
1. Collected Body of Reviews – Read lots of reviews about a web host and you’ll start recognizing patterns. Are the majority of customers happy, or critical? Are there repeated complaints of downtime or billing irregularities? You should be able to get a feel for how a host’s typical customer feels. Remember to check the dates on the reviews. Praise or problems from 10 years ago may no longer be applicable.
2. WebHostingTalk – WebHostingTalk is an excellent and popular forum for getting unbiased information about web hosts. Many of the posters are experienced and knowledgeable. Some web hosts monitor this forum and respond to posted questions or complaints. One indicator of a good web host is that it responds professionally to posts, even by those who are ignorant or abusive. Another positive indicator is when the host’s customers defend the host or attempt to help resolve the problem.
3. WebHostingJury – WebHostingJury is a good place to find uncensored reviews of web hosts. Although this website scores and ranks web hosts, you’re better off absorbing the general trend of the reviews. Note that all major web hosts will have some customers who fire off hostile reviews before giving the host a chance to resolve the problem, or before realizing their problems are of their own doing. With practice, you should start to recognize which reviews are useful and which aren’t.
4. Host Forums – Most web hosts will have open discussion forums on their website as part of their support. Good hosts are comfortable having this window on their operations. Browse the forum to learn how the host responds to problems and questions. There’s often a section for pre-sales questions. Consider posting there if you’re thinking of signing up but still have some concerns.
5. Better Business Bureau (BBB) Ratings – For US-based web hosts, take a look at the company’s Better Business Bureau (BBB) page. The stats on the number of complaints and how many were resolved and unresolved might tell you if this is a web host you’d want to commit to.
Although the internet is a great resource for researching web hosts, some of the most visible information is worse than useless. Beware when using the following resources. They could lead you to make a big mistake in your choice of web host.
1. “Top” Web Host Lists – Websites that rank the “top” web hosts look like great resources. They display price and various features in a nice, easy to read table. Unfortunately, these websites are usually worse than useless. For one thing, the low pricing that gets a web host a good ranking isn’t a price you can get safely. The low price often requires a long-term commitment, which is extremely risky if this is your first dealing with the company. Another problem is that these lists are usually created to maximize affiliate (partner) commissions, not to inform the consumer. To recognize whether a link is from an affiliate, position the pointer over the link without clicking. If the link has characters that look like tags or redirection information, it’s an affiliate link. When you click on such a link and sign up, the affiliate gets money. The affiliate relationship introduces potential conflicts of interest and biases, and, unfortunately, most top web host lists have given in to these biases. Many of the hosts given high rankings in the list get terrible ratings on the sites where affiliate links aren’t in play.
2. Individual Web Host Reviews – Reviews of web hosts can be useful, but any single review may not be representative of the typical customer experience with that host. Customers who feel they’ve had a bad experience often fire off a negative review without much thought. The negative post stays alive even if the customer is wrong or if the host quickly resolves the issue to the customer’s satisfaction. Rave reviews can mislead also. A customer with minimal website requirements may not have yet encountered a bad host’s shortcomings. Some rave reviews have even been exposed as fakes, attempts by a web host to boost their poor reputation.
Your dream scenario is to find a web host that provides exactly what you need for the long term. Your nightmare scenario is getting stuck long term with a host you no longer want. Unfortunately, nearly all hosts offer features that look great but make it difficult to change hosts. Be cautious when “taking advantage” of the following featues.
1. Free Domain For Life – Many web hosts offer customers a free domain for life as long as they keep hosting with them. Giving you a free domain is of more benefit to the host than to you. You get a small benefit, something worth only about $8-$10 a year. You also get the risks and drawbacks of using the same company for domains and hosting, discussed in an earlier post. When offered a free domain for continued hosting, you have two safe options. One is to pick a domain that is unrelated to your important websites. Another is to ignore the offer. A domain controlled by someone else, that you can’t safely tie to your important websites, is worth very little.
2. Website Building Tools – Web hosts often offer their customers website building tools. Like the free domain, these builders benefit the host more than the customer. The drawbacks become apparent when you start thinking about changing hosts. How can you move a website that’s in a framework or format nobody else uses? You’ll probably end up rebuilding your website almost from scratch using new tools and techniques. The website builder is anchoring you to your original host. There are numerous open source tools to help you build your website. They’ll work better than the host’s website builder and won’t tie you to a particular host.
3. Long Term Low Pricing – You compare web hosts and get attracted to one that appears to have all the features you want at a very low price. Only when start to sign up do you realize that getting the low price requires a long term commitment. When trying out a host, think short term until you’re comfortably springing for a multi-year commitment. When you’re comparing prices between hosts, use a standard duration such as one year. Compare hosts on the same basis and don’t make a multi-year commitment with a host you haven’t tried out.
4. “Unlimited” – Web hosts almost universally misuse the term “unlimited”. Supposedly the user gets unlimited space, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited everything. This doesn’t mean infinite or unlimited in the conventional sense. It means unmetered, with no preset limits. The host doesn’t monitor your usage until a problem arises or until other users on the same server start complaining. The host is offering its customers unlimited/reasonable resources, and the Terms of Service (TOS) you agreed to back him up. Don’t commit to a host on the assumption that you’re being offered infinite anything.
Using the same company for domain registration and for website hosting is potentially risky. Problems with hosting are not uncommon. You may not like their service and want to switch to another host. Your host may think you’re using too many resources and want you to upgrade to a more expensive plan. They may claim that you’ve violated the terms of service (TOS) you agreed to when you signed up for hosting. Most TOS agreements make the host the final judge on whether you’ve violated the terms.
Basically, if your web host has control over your domain as well as your website content, they’re in a position to dictate terms to you. They can freeze your account until you pay more money, or they can close your account. Without control of your domain, you could find your domain, website, and business completely shut down.
On the other hand, If you register your domain using a different company, you can switch hosts by changing the nameservers that are set in your domain account. Not only will this protect your domain in case of a hosting dispute, you’ll probably get better service when you use a domain registrar for registration and a web host for hosting.
If you host with your domain registrar, the biggest threat to your domain and business will probably be honest misunderstandings or mistakes, not a disreputable company. A client may do things with his website that unwittingly hurt other clients using the same server. If a client uses a $5/month shared hosting account to make a YouTube-like website, a host must take action to protect his other clients. Hosts can make honest mistakes as well. They receive a complaint that you’re a spammer and take action against you before checking the complaint thoroughly. They may think you haven’t paid when you have.
In summary, pick a web host other than your domain registrar to give yourself the best service and the best protection for your domain.
An earlier post made specific recommendations for a web host (Arvixe and HostGator) but it’s understandable that you might want to do your own research and make your own decision. The following posts offer some guidelines to help you make an informed choice.
1. Choose a domain registrar
Choose a reputable registrar with straightforward name management and consistent pricing. Dynadot and Moniker are both highly regarded registrars that offer good service and pricing. GoDaddy is the most popular registrar but be prepared for upsell and price increases at renewal time.
2. Choose and register a domain name
Use your registrar website to check the availability of the domain name you want. Be prepared to search for alternative names if your first choice isn’t available. Good domain names are in high demand so, if the right name is available, register it without delay. During registration, make sure your contact information is correct, and set the domain to auto-renew. This will help ensure you don’t accidentally lose your domain through administrative error or non-payment. The cost for registering a domain name is about $10/year.
3. Choose how to manage your website content
Content management systems like WordPress maintain your website in a database on the web server. Of the popular content management systems, WordPress is the easiest to use. WordPress is extremely flexible and powerful, however, and you can use it to create a business website that looks very professional. A content management system like WordPress should be your choice if you’ll be making frequent updates to your website.
You can also create a website by using a template. Copy the template to your PC, use the template and an editor to create your web pages, and upload the pages to the web server. A good template and quality content can provide your business with a professional web presence. The template approach is appropriate for small websites that don’t change frequently or for hosting plans that don’t support WordPress.
4. Choose a web host
Select Linux shared hosting. Shared hosting, where your website shares a server with many other websites, is inexpensive and is sufficient for most business websites. Linux hosting is more reliable and is sometimes cheaper than Windows hosting. The cost for host a website using Linux shared hosting is about $75/year.
Arvixe and HostGator both offer reliable service at good prices, and have very high customer satisfaction. HostGator is one of the largest web hosts. Arvixe is a medium-sized company whose owner is actively involved in answering customer questions.
If your budget is tight, consider Dynadot or Google Sites. Dynadot offers a minimal hosting plan for only $12/year. Google Sites is free, but has limited features and takes some expertise to use it with your own domain name.
5. Point your domain to host nameservers
Login in to your registrar account, look for “DNS” or “nameserver”, and set the nameservers as instructed by your web host.
6. Choose your website design
Going with a clean and simple look lets visitors focus on your content, not on how flashy your website is.
7. Choose graphics for your website
Royalty-free stock images are an inexpensive way to add a professional look to your website. Upgrading the appearance of your website for a small one-time cost is a good investment.
8. Accept payment on your website
Adding a payment page to your website makes it easy for clients to pay you. PayPal lets you accept credit card payments without a merchant account.
9. Set up analytics for your website
Seeing information about your website visitors, such as how they found your website, which pages they visited, and how long they visited them, is valuable for assessing your content and marketing.
10. Upload your website content
To create or update content on your WordPress website, login into WordPress and make the changes using the WordPress interface. To create or update content on your template-based website, copy the web pages from your PC to the web server using an FTP client or the uploading interface in your hosting account.
11. Add your website URL to your marketing materials
Adding a link to your website on business cards, brochures, stationary, and email signatures makes your business more visible.
12. Advertise your website
Google Adwords lets you run pay-per-click (PPC) ads where you only pay when someone clicks on your ad and visits your website. Adwords lets you reach potential clients worldwide for as little as $0.05/click. If your business serves a local area, you can run a Craigslist ad for your business for free.
13. Repeat forever
- Evaluate your website analytics
- Evaluate and update your website advertising
- Backup your website content
- Evaluate and update your website content
Here’s a checklist to help you get the most value from the domain registration process with the fewest headaches.
1. Get as many domains as you need. One domain for one website sounds obvious but if you’re planning a business website you might benefit from having some extra domains. For example, suppose your business is Joe’s Widgets. The domain joeswidget.com, if available, would be an obvious choice for your website. However, suppose you want some of your advertising to focus on just one of your services. You could also register widgetrepair.com and widgetconsulting.com, then use URL forwarding/redirection to point those domains to joeswidgets.com or one of its pages. Most registrars offer URL forwarding for free or for a small amount. URL forwarding can be done for free within your hosting account if the account supports multiple domains. (Web hosting options will be discussed in a later post.) Extra domains are only about $10/year so they can make a pretty good marketing investment.
2. Find good domain names that are available. After you’ve chosen some names, go to the website of the registrar you plan to use. There will be a mini-form that lets you check the availability of a domain name you type in. Most registrar websites also have a form to check the availability of multiple domains, although you might have to look around for it. If all the domains you want are available, you’re lucky. Although buying a domain already registered by someone else is possible, let’s assume you’d prefer to limit your domain hunt to names that are currently available. Pop open your favorite text editor and start typing in domain name candidates, one per line. Use the registrar website’s multiple-domain checking form to see which of them are available. You might also try NameBoy. It generates domain name candidates from 1 or 2 keywords you give it and tells you if they’re available.
3. Find available price discounts. During the registration process, many registrars will give you the opportunity to enter a discount code at the payment step. Go to Google and type in “discount”, “code”, and the name of the registrar you plan to use. Leave the web pages with applicable discount codes open as tabs so you can use them during registration.
4. Register the domains. On the registrar website enter the list of domains you want to register and follow the instructions. Look for the opportunity to enter a discount code before you submit payment for the registration fees. You may have to retry if a code has expired or is otherwise invalid.
5. Make sure your contact information is correct. During the registration process you set up your user account with the registrar. You’ve probably received one or more emails confirming the registration and account setup. Log in to your account and navigate to the part of the interface that allows you to edit your contact information. It will be in four sections, often containing identical contact information. The first section, for registrant, is the only section where it’s critical that the contact information is correct and up to date. That section identifies the domain’s owner (you), specifying who should be contacted for issues related to ownership of the domain(s). The contact information in all sections will probably be pre-populated with your billing name and address. If you wish, you can change the contact information. Just make sure it’s valid information that points to you. The registrar interface should have a checkbox that tells all sections to use the contact information specified in the registrant section. That’s common and simplest if you’re a one-person operation. The contact information should be default apply to all the domains in your account.
6. Set your domains to auto-renew. Log in to your account and find and set the option to have your domains auto-renew. This saves you the trouble of having to make a manual payment every year. It also gives you extra protection in case you somehow miss all the email warnings that your domains are in danger of expiring. You don’t want to build a killer website and have it go down the drain when the domain it sits on expires and gets registered by someone else.
7. Verify your information in the Whois database. Unless you specified Whois privacy during the registration process, your contact information should make its way into the master Whois database within 24 hours. Go to whois.domaintools.com and plug in your domain name(s) to see how you and your domains appear in the Whois database.
Of the big three choices you have to make when starting a website — domain name, domain registrar, web host — choosing a registrar should come early, maybe even before you’ve thought of a domain name. The reason is the demand for good domain names. If you find a good name that’s available, you’ll want to register it right away instead of starting your registrar research.
If your research time is limited, browse the reviews at Registrar Judge. For the most part, the good registrars get the higher scores. The reviews aren’t a perfect sampling because most users don’t publish reviews unless they’ve had a fantastic or terrible experience. Also, some negative reviews come from user misunderstandings, fired off in the heat of the moment, that can’t be retracted after they were posted online. However, Registrar Judge can at least suggest some good candidate registrars. To narrow the candidates further, search for more opinions at DNForum, Web Hosting Talk, or using Google.
$8-$10/year is a typical price for a .com domain registration. Extra features, such as URL forwarding and Whois privacy (both discussed in later posts), may cost a few dollars a year. If you look to pricing to differentiate between registrars, check for pricing consistency. Some registrars offer teaser rates at initial registration, then revert to a higher rate at renewal time. Instead of being distracted by minimal price discounts, look for the registrar you feel is most reliable and professional.
If you think you might have your registrar picked out but aren’t quite ready to commit, sign up for a free account. You just need an email address. This lets you test drive their user interface from the inside. Ideally, you should be able to easily navigate your way to editing your contact (Whois) info, change nameservers (which point to your web host’s server where your files will reside), and setting auto-renew on/off. Realistically, though, you may have to do all these things just once. Just put your domains on auto-renew and make sure your email is up to date so notifications of domain and credit card expirations reach you.
The following registrars get consistently high recommendations from their customers:
My top recommendation would go to Dynadot (simplest interface, extra features at no extra charge), followed closely by Moniker (large registrar, low base prices).
GoDaddy is the largest and best known registrar but customers are hit with an assortment of minor annoyances — confusing interface, outdated documentation, fluctuating prices, and constant upsell. On the other hand, they’re a reputable company with solid tech support, and the annoyances will mostly be in the background after you get your domain registered and put on auto-renew.