Choosing a website host can be a confusing experience for website owners. There are so many companies available, offering a wide range of services at different price points.
How do you know which service is most appropriate for your website?
Domain registrars and hosting
Before we go further, it’s worth clarifying the difference between a domain registrar and a web host. If you’re unsure, think of them like this: the hosting/server is your website’s house, where all of the files are physically stored, and the domain name is the street address, telling users where to find the files.
Sometimes a host will handle both your domain name and the hosting, but often they’re separate so it’s useful to know the difference between the two.
Types of hosting
Hosts will typically offer three tiers of hosting:
- Shared hosting
- Virtual private servers (VPS)
- Dedicated servers.
Hosts may also offer ‘managed’ application–specific hosting, such as WordPress Managed hosting packages.
In short, these tiers of hosting relate to how a host assigns server resources to their different users. Here’s a quick breakdown.
The cheapest and most common form of hosting. On shared servers, a host will put many sites (often thousands) on a single server and divide the resources between the sites.
There are a few downsides to shared hosting. The performance of your site can often be impacted by another site on the same server. For instance, if another site on the server suddenly starts receiving millions of visitors, it can cause other sites to load extremely slowly.
Sites on shared hosting plans can also suffer from email issues if the server is temporarily blacklisted. This can happen if a ‘bad neighbour’ on the server starts sending spam (either maliciously or through a hack).
The final downside is that shared plans offer the least flexibility. Often these plans can’t be customised, so if you realise you need a feature that the host doesn’t offer, you’re unlikely to be able to quickly add this.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
If your website outgrows a shared plan, this is the next step. On a VPS, hosts will still share a server’s resources but between far fewer sites. A VPS offers a good balance between resources and cost.
One of the main advantages of a VPS is that the site shouldn’t be affected by the resource needs of other sites on the server. You may notice that your site’s performance is more consistent.
VPS’s also tend to offer a bit more flexibility, allowing you to tweak the server to suit your site’s requirements.
This is the most powerful and expensive option for a website. Websites hosted on a dedicated server will have the entire server at their disposal. This tends to be most appropriate for busy e-commerce sites or sites that have extremely high-performance demands.
Managed Application (e.g. WordPress) Hosting
In recent years, lots of companies have started offering this type of hosting. These are usually shared hosting plans that are set up in a way to make managing WordPress sites easier.
Features may include auto-updates to the WordPress core, a server-level cache, single-click staging sites and security features that should help to prevent your site being compromised. Often these plans prevent the installation of certain plugins and have other restrictions in place that may only come to light further down the line.
I would typically recommend starting with a shared hosting plan for most websites unless you’re expecting huge traffic or server demands from day one. If your site outgrows this plan, you can always upgrade to a VPS or dedicated server as and when the needs arise.
I generally don’t recommend using Managed WordPress hosting as these plans can be limiting. These packages are aimed at site owners with limited technical abilities, so wouldn’t generally be recommended if you’re hiring a web designer/developer who may need more refined control of your site.
So which web host should I choose?
Once you’ve chosen a plan, you can start to narrow down your hosting options, but where do you begin?
Here’s an inconclusive checklist of things to go through for each host you’re considering:
- Support: Probably the most crucial factor in choosing a web host. How can you get in touch with them? Phone-only support may seem like a good idea, until you’re on hold for an hour. Similarly, you’ll want a host that picks tickets up quickly and escalates them to the relevant department in a timely manner.
- Control Panel: What sort of control panel does the host offer? Ultimately, as long as you can do whatever you need to to manage your site, this shouldn’t matter too much. That said, proprietary systems can sometimes make moving to/away from a host more complicated than it might otherwise be.
- Email: Does the host offer email? This shouldn’t be a dealbreaker, but some hosts don’t offer email and sometimes it’s an added extra. It’s useful to check this upfront so you know whether you to arrange a separate email address through G Suite or similar.
- Backups: Reputable hosts will offer regular (at least daily) off-site backups. If a host is trying to charge extra for this, that’s not usually a good sign.
- Location: Ideally, you’ll choose a host that’s either based, or has a data centre, near where most of your visitors are coming from. So if you’re a UK–based business, it’s a good idea to have UK–based host. This can have performance benefits, but is also useful for support as your hours will be aligned.
- SSL Certificates: Most reputable hosts have integrated with Let’s Encrypt to offer free SSL certificates for customer sites. This might not offer the level of encryption your site needs, but for most basic sites these are a good option for enabling HTTPS encryption on your site. With Google’s recent push to mark all non–HTTPS sites as ‘Not Secure’ in the Chrome browser, this is worth bearing in mind. Given that Let’s Encrypt has been around for a while now, and many reputable hosts have integrated with it, there’s no reason to choose a host that doesn’t offer this as standard.
- Guarantee: Hosts that are confident about their service and performance will often offer a money–back guarantee of some sort.
- Reviews: Check out the host’s reviews on sites like TrustedReviews or Trustpilot. Review sites such as these are really useful for trying to get a measure for how the hosts perform across areas that are more difficult to measure before taking out an account, such as performance and customer service. Reading a few recent reviews and looking for trends over time (i.e. do lots of recent reviews mention poor customer service?), can help to highlight particular strengths or issues with an individual host.
Once you’ve looked through these, you should have a reasonable idea of how the host holds up against some of the more important criteria. Other factors include the amount of space and bandwidth your site will be allowed and, of course, cost.
Clearly, there’s more to picking a host than price or the claims splashed across their home pages. Even with a handy checklist, it can be overwhelming to know where to start and which hosts to avoid.
With that in mind, here are a few of hosts that I’d recommend. I’ve dealt with each of these on several projects and had positive experiences with all.
Yes, these are affiliate links, but these hosts are all solid! If you find this article useful, please consider using these links when purchasing from these hosts.
Guru*: An excellent UK–based host. Their customer service is quick and extremely helpful. When I moved to Guru, I had to bring around 50 sites with me and their excellent migrations team meticulously moved each one over with outstanding care and attention.
On top of this, they run LiteSpeed servers which have resulted in some of the fastest WordPress sites I’ve ever seen, so very highly recommended.
SiteGround*: If you’re based in the US, I’d recommend giving SiteGround a shot. I’ve dealt with their technical support on several occasions and been impressed with the speed and technical know-how of their staff.
I’ve also see outrageously bloated customer sites load very quickly, which is unusual for a shared service. Highly recommended.
Kinsta*: Whether you’re based in the UK or US, if you’re running a WordPress site you can’t go wrong with Kinsta. Their customer service is excellent and they’re an excellent choice for WordPress.
Packages are reasonably expensive in comparison to Guru and SiteGround, but their customer support and site performance is excellent.