Choosing a web host

Mon, 11/10/2010 - 11:00 -- James Oakley

Back in June, I changed my web hosting provider.

As there are a fair few pitfalls to choosing a new web host, I thought I'd put this post up here to help others through the issues. I'm sure there are more worthwhile tips out there, so please free free to leave a comment.

As this has turned into a fairly lengthy post, let's start with:


  1. Separate domain registration and hosting
  2. Choose the country for your web servers to be in
  3. Read the reviews of others
  4. Ask people who have similar websites
  5. Technical features
  6. Cancellation policy
  7. Data and bandwidth needs
  8. Upgrade and downgrade
  9. How many domains?
  10. Which control panel?
  11. Customer support?
  12. Account migration

12 Considerations

  1. Don't have your site hosted by the same company through which you purchased your domain. That's almost a point of principle for me. Finding the right web host is a business worth spending time over. Using a company to buy a domain, and then signing up for their hosting package on the side, is to make two mistakes.
    1. The mistake of not thinking carefully enough. You probably bought the domain from them because they are cheap or well-known. It does not follow that the same company will have just the right requirements in place for hosting your site. They may well be more expensive than you need for hosting, or miss the mark in some of the other ways I'll discuss below.
    2. The mistake of getting yourself tied in. You want to be able to change your hosting provider at a later date. If your hosting is provided by the same company that registered the domain, you may find they don't let you change. This will especially be the case if you were given the domain "for free" in return for taking out the hosting package.

    For UK domains, the domain registrar is set by the tag; the hosting provider is determined by the nameservers used. As long as you chose the right registrar, you can go into their control panel at any time and change the hosting provider by modifying the nameserver settings

  2. Decide which country you want your website to be hosted out of. There are four considerations here.
    1. Crossing the Atlantic takes time. If most of the visitors to your website are from the UK, the site will load slower in the UK if it is hosted in the United States.
    2. Probably, the legislation governing your website will be that of the country where it is hosted. This is probably not relevant to you if you are reading this page to learn about these questions, but I can think of a company that deliberately hosted their website in France because it would stop certain other governments from attempting to take the site down. France was seen as the "neutral" location.
    3. Cost is a factor. The British Isles are small. Running a larger server room in Canary Wharf will cost more than running one in Texas. Also, there is only so much bandwidth between the UK and the rest of Europe and the USA, so bandwidth in the UK costs more. Both of these factors tend to make identical hosting packages cost more if they are hosted in the UK than if they are hosted in the US.
    4. Support. If you want telephone support, as opposed to by help ticket or e-mail, you probably want the technical support staff to be based in the same country as you.

    Those 4 factors may not all pull you in the same direction. It's not quite as simple as saying that you choose a British company to host in Britain and an American company to host in the US. My previous host was an American company, but they offered the choice of taking a hosting package where the site would be hosted in the UK.

  3. Check out the reviews by others who have used the same host. This is a minefield, for at least two reasons.
    1. In any market sector, there are fake reviews on the internet - either satisfied "customers" who are really employees, or dissatisfied "customers" who are really competitors. This is even more the case with web hosting.
    2. The other complication is affiliate marketing. Because many hosting providers pay a small commission to those who refer others to them, there is an incentive to "talk up" the hosts with the best-paying affiliate schemes. There are many "top twenty web hosts" websites out there which just recycle a list of features from the same set of providers. That's not because they are "top ten" in any measurable sense, but because the site owner has an interest in promoting the companies in this way. You also get people who register domain names like, which sounds like it is published by people who actually use the service, but need not mean that at all.

    As I say, a minefield. My suggestion is to find online communities of web-hosting users, where the pros and cons are discussed freely. Ideally, they would require any staff-members of the hosting companies to identify themselves. Be aware that not everyone will come back to report their good news. Even the best host has things go wrong, and those are the stories that make the headlines. The best review site I found was Go and spend lots of time there.

  4. More specific than checking the reviews of existing users is checking the views of people who use their hosting for something similar to you. I run most of my sites using Drupal, so I spent time on their site reading about hosts that had caused problems for people and about ones that had been a success. It won't give you a definitive list of hosts to use, but it will rule some out and give you some new ideas. The same goes for whatever you plan to do with your site: Drupal, Joomla, Wordpress, Zencart, etc.
  5. More specifically still, are there particular technical features you need to run the website you are planning?
    1. This covers technology you need. If you need a particular version of PHP, or of MySQL, identify that, and rule out any host that doesn't give it to you. Perhaps you need a particular feature of .htaccess that many hosts block. If in doubt, ask them. They'll tell you, and occasionally there is a feature they block to most users but would be glad to include for you.
    2. This also cover limitations. Some hosts limit the number of physical files you can store in your web space. Others may have a maximum file size for any single file. Others may limit the number of directories you can have. Others may limit the number of databases you can run, or the maximum memory allowed to PHP. It will usually be the reviews of others that highlight these "features", but I'm afraid it also means reading terms and conditions closely.
    3. Finally, this also covers the server set-up. For instance, one or two hosts I considered (and immediately discounted) run their MySQL databases on different physical machines from the web server software. That would make my sites unacceptably slow.
  6. Cancellation policy. Suppose you think you've found a good host. You need to know the terms under which you can cancel. There are two sides to this:
    1. Initial cancellation period: Many hosts will give you, say, 7, 30 or 90 days, during which you can cancel without charge. They will refund all moneys paid, and let you go elsewhere. I would say that this is a non-negotiable requirement, as a host that looks good on paper could always give you an unforeseen problem. With my previous hosting provider, I only settled on them after having tried and cancelled with someone else.
    2. Subsequent cancellation terms: If you want to cancel after this initial evaluation period, how much notice do you have to give? Will they give you any kind of pro-rata refund? Most hosts offer a cheaper monthly price if you pay for 12 or 24 months up-front, but that's a big mistake if you can't get that back should you want to cancel. Knowing the cancellation terms helps you see which monthly rate you would opt for, and that affects how you regard a particular host.
  7. Decide how much data you need to store, and how much bandwidth you need.
    1. Data storage is the total number of MB you need to store all your files, databases, e-mails and everything else.
    2. Bandwidth is the amount of data that will be transferred to or from your site each month. Files transferred using FTP (say, as you set up the site), and e-mails sent and received, all count towards this limit.
    3. It's worth spending a bit of time trying to estimate these, because...

    4. There are many hosting providers out there that offer "unlimited" bandwidth or data. Avoid them. There is no such thing as unlimited bandwidth. There will either be a "fair usage policy", so that "unlimited" is a misnomer. Or, they will be overselling their server, so that they promise people more space than there actually is, in the hope that not everybody will take them up on it. This is how you then get 400 websites on one server. The sites start to run slowly. Even if there is enough bandwidth and storage for all 400 sites, the computer processors in the server will be running at full pelt and won't cope. Avoid the attraction of "unlimited", and work out what you actually need. At first sight it's counter-intuitive that a host which limits your bandwidth costs more than the one which offers unlimited. Now you see why - the latter host can actually give you what they offer you.
  8. Can you switch between packages? Most providers will offer a range of different hosting packages. The cheapest are "shared hosting", where your websites are run from the same server as other people's websites. There will be a range of these, offering different amounts of data and bandwidth, and maybe some other differences. Then, there are other more expensive options that you are unlikely to need at first, such as having your very own server just for you. Will the host allow you to switch between these as your needs grow or contract? Will they just charge you the difference if you upgrade, or would you lose what you've already paid for? Can you take any special offers with you that you may have been given when you first signed up?
  9. How many domains do you want to host? Some web hosts, but by no means all, offer packages that allow you to run more than one website off the same hosting account. How many domains do you have that need hosting? Obviously, a package that costs £20 a year, but only lets you have one domain per account, is more expensive than £50 a year if the latter will allow you to run 5 separate domains off the account, and that is what you plan to do.
  10. What software is used to let you manage your account? There are at least two things to think about here:
    1. Some providers have developed their own online control panel; many use a piece of software known as cpanel. Usually, they will give you a username and password that allows you to log in to their control panel with a demo account. That is worth doing, so that you get a feel for how it works. Having used cpanel a lot, I know my way around it and would always look for a host that offers it, but that is my preference. You must decide.
    2. What features does the control panel have? This is not just a question to consider when looking at a host that has developed their own control panel. One potential host I looked at used cpanel, but disabled a particular feature on it (the ability to set a default e-mail address for a domain). For me, that ruled them out, but I nearly didn't notice that it was missing. Cue the comment above on cancellation policies. You need to consider how much control you are being offered over your hosting account, and how much you need / want.
  11. Does their support support? Customer service varies from host to host. Do they offer support by e-mail, by phone, by helpdesk ticket, or by several of the above? How fast do they get back to you? Do they listen carefully to answer your exact question, or do they send you the reply from a cue-card that is only an answer to a question that resembles yours? I always fire off a question or two before I sign up. This is rarely a work of fiction; there are usually a few questions I want the answer to. Sadly, it is not uncommon for pre-sales support to be better than technical support offered to customers who have already signed up. However if they don't even get the support right when you have not yet decided to buy from them, that says a lot.
  12. Can they help with migrating your account from an old provider? This is only a consideration for those who already have an active website, and who are looking for a new host. Do you have to set everything up from scratch, or do they offer to help you? Some companies, especially if you are moving from a cpanel-based provider to another one, will log-in to your old hosting account and retrieve a back-up of your entire site. They can then restore that backup to their server and you are up and running with very little work.

Happy hunting for the right web hosting company for you!

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Roy Gasteren's picture
Submitted by Roy Gasteren on

The web hosting provider makes a BIG difference. I had a client with a Magento site hosted on an overstuffed shared hosting account. By switching to SSD VPS hosting I got the loading time cut in half. SSD hosting is not enough by itself though. There are slow SSD shared hosting providers. Even some SSD VPS providers are slow if they are OpenVZ and they are overselling. So you need to choose the right SSD VPS provider. For few of my clients who have webshop in Europe i found one very fast SSD hosting provider. {Details temporarily redcated, pending verification of this review.}

James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

Roy: Thank you for your recommendation. There is of course a big difference between shared and VPS hosting, and as you say that doesn't solve the issue as there are good and bad providers of both kinds. I'd never recommend Magento go on a shared hosting setup, but other less resource intensive sites can work fine up to moderate traffic levels.

Anyway: Please could you use the contact tab at the top of this website to send me an email. Let me know the domain that your client hosts at the provider you're recommending. It won't be made public, but sadly the web hosting industry is overrun with shills so I would always verify a recommendation of a particular provider. (Especially a provider whose domain is under two months old.)


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