Choosing a website hosting solution can be difficult, particularly when there are a myriad of puzzling terms and price ranges thrown around which you may be uncertain about.
Picking a hosting solution without knowledge of the entire package can mean that you might end up paying over the odds for services which you don’t need or won’t actually make use of.
I have created this two-part guide to help you to make a more informed decision about your domain, website or email hosting.
In this two part article, I intend to demystify and make clear exactly what service providers have to offer in order for you to make a more informed decision about which solutions will be right for you and your business. In Part 2 of this article (to be published next week), I will round-up the available services on the market and compare and contrast their offerings to help you choose which solution might be of best value to your business or project.
What to look out for
There are two components to your domain purchase: the domain name and extension. In order to purchase a domain, both the domain name and extension cannot be currently owned by another party.
Every website is hosted on a server which is accessible over the internet. Each server has a unique IP address in order to be accessed from another device. An IP address is a string of numbers not unlike a telephone number. We use domain names to point to these numbers instead to make them more memorable — a website address like ‘vestigemedia.com’ is arguably easier to make note of than ‘126.96.36.199’.
Domains are typically charged on a per-extension basis, some extensions cost more than others owing to their popularity: ‘.com’, ‘.net’, ‘.org’ are perhaps among the most common extensions whilst niche options such as ‘.tv’ can cost more due to their in-demand nature. When you purchase a domain name, you will often be given the option to purchase many different extensions to go alongside that name, each extension you pick will add to the billable price. Now that there are an almost endless range of new domain extensions such as ‘.blog’, ‘.app’ or ‘.shop’, there is unlikely to be an end to the possible addresses for your chosen home on the internet. Some region-specific domain extensions such as .de (Germany) require that you are located in that country in order to register, however most do not have such a restriction.
Check the following before you buy:
- DNS / Name-servers: will you have control over your DNS settings? this allows you to manage which address your domain points towards. If you host your website with the same company you purchased your domain from, this shouldn’t be a problem, however this is useful to maintain control over if you do decide to change your hosting provider later on.
- Forwarding: can your domain be set to forward to another should you need to, either permanently (301 forwarding), or temporarily (302 forwarding)?
- Control Panel: is there a tool to allow the management of your domain and billing once purchased?
- Sub-domains: can you easily create sub-domains to point visitors to different parts of your site (e.g. services.vestigemedia.com, portfolio.vestigemedia.com, articles.vestigemedia.com)?
- Billing: how often is your domain billed for? can you cancel at any time?
- Transfer: can your domain be easily transferred to/from another service or owner should you choose to move or sell your domain later on?
Your hosting plan dictates what you can do with your website: how much space you have, what programs you can run and what level of control you have over your files. Hosting plans are usually either bundled or heavily pushed for sale alongside a domain name. With both a domain and a hosting plan, you are able to create and host your website on the internet.
Your web hosting solution represents a permanently-on piece of hardware stored remotely. You can access it, add and delete files as well as have it run complex scripts in order to display results. There are four main types of web hosting solution (ordered by general cost):
- Shared Hosting — your website scripts and files are hosted on a server alongside those of many other clients. The server is managed by the service provider to ensure your website remains online.
- Virtual Private Server — similarly to shared hosting, your files are stored on a server alongside those of other clients, but your segment of the server is more tightly walled-off, giving you stronger controls over your allocated segment of the server resources. You can usually choose whether to manage the server yourself or pay an additional fee for on-site tech support.
- Dedicated Server — your very own dedicated remotely-hosted machine, giving you full control over system resources and storage space.
- Server Cluster — for resource-heavy websites and server applications (think social networks or multi-national web shops), many dedicated servers can be strung together to manage extreme load.
When I discuss hosting with clients, it is typically either in reference to Shared Hosting or Virtual Private Server use as these will cover the majority of requirements in majority of cases. If you are a small to medium business, either of these options will likely be fine to get you and your business online.
Check the following before you buy:
- Storage Space: how much storage will you have access to in order to store any website files and extras (photographs, videos, audio files etc)? can storage be scaled up or down to meet your requirements? do you require extra space to store private files?
- Bandwidth: how much data can you transfer to users of your website during a billing period and at what speed? will this amount of data transfer be enough to meet your needs? what happens should your website overuse the available bandwidth — will your website be taken offline or will you incur extra fees?
- Server Location: where is your server located? is it geographically-close to your primary audience for optimum data transfer speeds?
- Domains allowed: do you intend to manage several domains under the same storage solution to make the most of available storage space? Can you create and manage more than one domain through your hosting plan?
- IP: can you purchase additional IP addresses if you need to in order to manage large/multiple websites?
- Sub-domains: can you create sub-domains to point visitors to different parts of your site? This is also a domain option too as sub-domains can often be managed either through the domain host or the web hosting provider.
- Programming Compatibility: is it possible to use a variety of server-side code like MySQL, CGI, PHP, Ruby, SSH, Perl, Python etc? You may need access to a handful of these if you want to run software programs on your server such as Wordpress, a Forum or an eCommerce solution.
- MySQL Databases: required for many server-side software programs. If MySQL is enabled, how many databases can you make use of? You may need access to several if you wish to install more than one service on your web hosting server.
- Server Stats: are programs like AWStats or Webalizer included? these can help you to analyse your website traffic (useful for improving your search engine placement!)
- Logs: are you or your tech support team able to analyse your server access logs if there is a problem?
- Operating System: what operating system does your server run on? servers typically either run on Windows or Linux. Unless you absolutely have to use server software which requires a Windows server, Linux is certainly the recommended option, giving you more choice and versatility.
- Backups: does your server automatically make regular back ups of your hosted files? are you able to make and download your own backups for safe keeping?
- Management Panels: is there an internally-produced management panel for your settings or a third-party solution such as cPanel or Plesk? Some panels will allow you to manage your hosting settings and install new functions like Wordpress or eCommerce functions easily without fiddly manual installation.
Just like your website files, your email will also need to be managed using your hosting plan. Your available email options will depend on which method you choose for your web hosting. If you are on shared web hosting, your email options will typically come as an additional priced add-on from your hosting supplier. If you manage your private server yourself, you will be able to create, manage and allocate email resources through your management panel.
If access to email is important for you then choosing the right amount of storage space and mailbox availability is definitely worth paying attention to from the onset, it can be difficult to change later on and result in potentially problematic downtime.
Check the following before you buy:
- Accounts: are you able to set up more than 1 email account? You may want additional accounts for different members of your team or to create some addresses which forward directly to others.
- Mailboxes: how many unique mailboxes can you have? is there allowance to create one for each member of your team, your help-desk, accounting etc?
- Storage Space: is there enough storage space available to store a moderate amount of emails on your server? do you often receive large file attachments to emails? it may be the case that you need more storage space for mail than you might think.
- Forwarding: are you able to create forwarding email addresses? perhaps you or a member of your team would like the opportunity to receive help desk mail to their primary mailbox without creating separate storage boxes?
- Catchall: can you create a catchall address to ensure that all mail sent to address at your domain (even if they don’t exist) are caught in a net and checked through? (‘here lies danger’ however if you begin to receive many spam emails every day which can potentially destroy your productivity)
- POP vs IMAP: Are you able to choose which connection method to use when accessing your email? (you can read all about the benefits and challenges of POP or IMAP for your email access in this article I published last month)
- Autoresponders: if you go on holiday or leave the office for a few days, can you create an autoresponder to inform senders that you may be delayed in responding? alternatively, you may want to create an email address which automatically responds with a notification such as an automated thank you note for resumés or a notification of receipt for first contact requests.
- Mailing Lists: are you able to import a list of email addresses and send a group mail to many contacts at once? there are many services which will allow you to do this outside of your email hosting provider (and arguably they do a better job), but the option is always nice.
- Spam: what does your service-provider offer in terms of anti-spam? can you ramp up the filters if you begin to receive copious amounts of irrelevant mail?
I am often asked about the best options for website & email hosting and domain purchases, many people are understandably confused about what they are paying for and how that relates to their needs. I have known clients of mine in the past to pay far over the odds because they didn’t know exactly what it was they were being sold or what they needed when they purchased their website domain. I hope that this article has helped you to make a more informed decision about your hosting choices.
Please check back next week for the second part of this article where I will compare and contrast service providers and provide recommendations based on their offerings in regards to your needs.