Broadly speaking, there are three types of web hosts:
- Shared hosts run multiple customer sites on a single server. Your technology options are most limited with shared hosting, but sites are easier to set up and maintain. Shared hosts are also typically the least expensive option.
- Dedicated hosts are entirely self-service. Not only must you set up your website, but you must also maintain the operating system and underlying technology to keep the site operational.
- Virtual Private Servers (VPSs) occupy a space between dedicated servers and shared hosting. You must still manage the operating system and technology, but costs are lower and maintenance is a bit easier.
If you aren’t sure which setup is right for you, then you almost certainly want shared hosting. While your choice of technology is more limited, your options are typically the top technologies for any given task. You can install whichever tool you choose with a user-friendly control panel, and your hosting provider often expedites upgrades and security patches. Further, the technologies available on shared hosting platforms are often backed by rich communities, or feature enterprise support options for those with a larger hosting budget. If you find that you need to upgrade, it is possible to migrate your site to a VPS or dedicated server later.
Choosing shared hosting narrows the field somewhat, but there are still many companies from which to pick. The bar for setting up a shared hosting business is low, and providers differ significantly in the service they provide. Some offer poor customer service. Others have lax security practices, or run on unreliable technology. If you are not well-grounded in how servers run, it can be difficult to identify the top shared hosting providers.
Upgradability is key in choosing hosting providers. A shared host will get you started, but as you grow you’ll likely migrate to a VPS and then to dedicated hosting. Choosing a provider with an upward migration path increases the likelihood that they can support your upgrade when the time comes. Also, more hosting options usually indicates better underlying technology, as a company that provides more choices has likely invested significant money and time building a flexible infrastructure.
Also, focus on server uptime. Down servers translate into lost visitors and revenue, neither of which is good for a new or established website. Even if your site does not earn revenue, if it gains a reputation for unreliability then it will not cultivate a following. Many providers self-report uptime statistics, but for best results you should check their figures against independent uptime trackers. Website providers typically advertise 99.9% uptime, but that still translates into several minutes of downtime per day which adds up quickly over time.
Focus on simple pricing. Obscure business models make it difficult to budget accurately, and any hosting providers with confusing options or obscure discounts likely have something to hide. You should be able to view pricing without signing up, or without initiating the process of selecting a plan.
Also, check out the available documentation and knowledge base. Providers who take the time to document their use will also likely show that same dedication to customer support. Those with poor or no knowledge bases will likely have you scratching your head in confusion, or turning to paid third parties to perform simple tasks that good documentation might have resolved quickly.