Seems like everyone these days has a web site to host, but most do not understand the hosting industry well enough to make an informed decision about who they should host their site with. I am constantly amazed by the horror stories I hear about the impact on a web site from downtime, slow and/or useless support, hacked scripts, spamming and a myriad of other troubles which can be anything from a nuisance on a personal site to financially ruinous for an e-commerce shop.
For any of you out there looking for a first or fiftieth host, the following are some of the most important factors to identifying one that will provide you with a good experience.
Likely the last point most new web masters think of just so happens to be the first point complained about whenever you read a negative review of a host. If your site is experiencing any kind of trouble, you really want quick access to what I refer to as “extra mile anytime” support personnel. Engineers who understand how the many aspects of hosting work and can reliably narrow down the problem and identify what will solve it. Often times the actual problem will be code related which isn’t directly handled by most hosting companies, but good support personnel are the ones who will let you know what the code problem might be, and point you to further resources so that you can find your answer. Not just give you a predefined reply stating “Code issues are unsupported”.
These are two aspects of the same point. When it comes right down to it, you want your site to always be available and loading fast. If you install a common PHP script such as a forum and it normally takes 10 seconds or longer to load even on broadband, then you are likely hosted on a server that is under-powered or over-sold. Many hosts these days list server hardware that is barely adequate as a light desktop computer such as those with Intel Atom processors and 512mb to 2gb of RAM. Even if they are utilizing higher end hardware (the kind actually designed to be used for “always on” server applications) they might very well be hosting thousands of accounts per server. Either of these methods are sure to result in frequent poor performance or outages.
3. Reasonable limits
If you fall for an offer of unlimited or unrealistic bandwidth or disk space for a small price, you can be almost certain that you will be sharing a server with a large number of other sites and none of you can actually use what you purchased. It is much safer to choose a host that provides sufficient space and bandwidth at a decent price to meet your needs with a bit of room to grow, and that makes it easy to upgrade later if you need more.
4. Real hosting “Company”
Make sure that the host you choose is an actual registered company that has been in business at least a few years. It is also best to avoid resellers unless they offer a niche benefit that hosts usually don’t, such as assisting with tasks that normally fall to the webmaster or site owner which actual hosts would normally not support. Another common service provided by resellers might be assistance with SEO (search engine optimization) which can certainly be of use to new webmasters. There really is nothing at all wrong with web hosting resellers, but since they usually have to escalate any admin level issues to the host they resell, the added time for support should be balanced against some benefit that most hosts would not offer.
Make sure that they offer all the basic features you would expect in a host such as mail (POP3/IMAP/SMTP), FTP, database (MySQL / PostgreSQL / MSSQL depending on your preference or need), PHP, CGI, control panel, etc.
Certainly best to make sure they provide secure services as well such as shared or dedicated SSL for your web site and secure version of mail and ftp as any host who doesn’t at least offer the ability for secure methods of interacting with the server is not very likely concerned with security in general. That could mean a compromise of the data on your site or within your emails, extended outages and lost data from a server having to be restored (formatted and reinstalled completely), or even visitors to your site being infected with a virus and blaming you for it.
While these are some of the most important factors in choosing a web host, there are certainly other points which may be of importance to you. Just keep in mind that, like nearly everything else in life, you get what you pay for. While it would be silly to pay $50 per month to host a personal blog, there are far too many $200k+ per year e-commerce businesses complaining about downtime on their $5 per month shared hosting account.