What is Web Hosting? A Beginner’s Guide

Web hosting is confusing to a lot of beginners. In this article, I’ll explain in jargon-free terms what it is, why you need it, and what you do with it to get a website or blog online.

Web hosting is a service provided by a person or company that allows you to upload a website to the internet. If you so choose, you can set up a private website that only you or somebody with a username and password can view. Usually, though, websites are made available for anyone to see.

Web servers

Websites are stored on special computers known as servers. A server can hold one or thousands of websites depending on its configuration and specifications.

Servers act in very much the same way as a computer or laptop. They hold files, bits of data, and information that can be called and viewed upon request. When somebody requests a page from your website after typing the URL into a browser, clicking on a link on another website, or the search results in Google, the server recognizes the command and sends a copy of the requested page to the person’s browser.

Servers are located in data centers dotted around the world. Websites stored on servers physically located closer to you tend to load faster than those located on the opposite side of the world. I say ‘typically’ because there are many other factors that determine the download speed of a web page.

A website can run on one server. In fact, for really small sites you only need one tiny section of a server. Larger sites might get by using one server, whereas huge sites or online service providers need hundreds, thousands or even millions of servers.

Let’s look at Google, for example. Google is a huge company providing many services to people and businesses everywhere. Can you imagine how appalling its service would be if it only used a small section of one server?

There are no exact figures easily discoverable online, but according to this article, Google runs around 2.5 million servers to keep everybody happy. It could be a higher figure now, as the report comes from 2016.

Why do you need web hosting?

Unless you’re already a technical ninja and want to try setting up a home server, you won’t be able to run a website without buying hosting from somewhere. Imagine driving a car without wheels. It just wouldn’t get you anywhere. So, like it or not, you will need to go through the process of looking for a reliable and affordable web host if you want to set up your own website or blog.

What are the different types of web hosting?

Not all web hosts are created equal, and in the realm of website hosting, you generally get what you pay for.

Earlier in this article, I mentioned servers, and how websites are stored on the same. When you’re on the lookout for a hosting service, you’ll come across the following options:

  • Shared hosting – one server, multiple websites all sharing resources
  • VPS – stands for Virtual Private Server (a software-powered server)
  • Dedicated server – one server, one website using all available resources
  • Cloud hosting – multiple synched servers hosting multiple websites that all share resources
  • Reseller hosting – for people who want to set up a web hosting company and resell the services to their clients

Most people setting up a website for the first time choose Shared Hosting because it’s cheap and fairly easy to use.

Nowadays, there are also a lot of companies providing specialist WordPress hosting. For example:

  • SiteGround
  • WPX Hosting
  • Kinsta
  • WP Engine

Prices across these companies vary depending upon the level of service you need.

What to look for in a web hosting company

Now you know what a web hosting service is, what it does and how it does it, let’s consider what you should be looking for when doing your research.

We all have different priorities. You may see price as a significant deciding factor, whereas another person may give more importance to customer service, speed, or reliability.

If you’re starting your first website or blog you should definitely stick with shared or cloud hosting. You don’t need anything more at the newbie stage. Once your site gains traction, you can upgrade to a VPS, dedicated hosting, or a better shared hosting provider.

Typically, when looking for a web hosting service, you’ll notice they market themselves on a number of points:

  • Monthly price
  • Monthly bandwidth allowance
  • Allocated disk space
  • Number of add-on domains
  • Free domain name
  • 24/7 technical support service
  • Backups
  • Migration from another hosting company
  • Building a new website
  • Money back guarantee
  • Uptime
  • Signup versus renewal fees

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these.

Monthly price

Don’t be fooled by the low monthly prices web hosting companies use to market their services. They like to entice you in by highlighting the lowest amount possible, but usually, the price you see is an introductory offer or comes with a minimum contract of three years. Which you must pay for in advance.

This is a common tactic used by a lot of hosting companies, so be aware of it when you’re looking around.

Monthly bandwidth allowance

A lot of web hosting services offer unlimited bandwidth allowance knowing most sites will never consume more than a few gigabytes.

It’s a sweetener to entice you to sign up.

What is bandwidth? In simple terms, it’s the amount of data the server uses to deliver your web pages to people on the internet.

You will use more bandwidth if you:

  • Use large images in your posts
  • Store videos on your own pages instead of YouTube or Vimeo
  • Allow people to download PDFs, files or software

Any action on your site using data from the server consumes bandwidth.

Allocated disk space

The allocated disk space refers to the amount of space you have for all your website’s files. The amount offered by hosting companies varies greatly depending on the type of service you buy.

A typical aged WordPress site, including the core files, themes, plugins, database and uploaded files might use around 1GB of space. You certainly won’t need anything like that amount when you’re starting out.

As your site grows you may find you need more disk space. This is easy to add to your account. Just look for the ‘upgrade’ option with the admin area or contact the hosting company’s support team.

There’s no interruption to your site, so you don’t have to worry about downtime.

Number of add-on domains

This feature determines how many sites you can host within your hosting account.

Free domain name

It’s another sweetener to get you to sign up, but it’s one worth taking advantage of if you’re setting up your first website.

During the setup process, you’re given the opportunity to register a new domain or use one you already own. When I first started building websites at the start of the noughties, I used this option.

It’s worth bearing in mind that most US hosting companies will register a .com or a .net domain, but only some register .co.uk (or other country-specific) domains.

24/7 technical support service

If customer support is important to you, you might want to give it a try before deciding which hosting company to go with.

Most offer an online chat facility, which you can use before you become a customer. Just go to the website, find the chat facility and ask a few questions.

Perhaps a better indication of support is the time it takes for the help-desk to reply to emails or answer the phone.

Another factor to consider is time-zone.

Some hosting companies have lower staffing levels overnight. If you’re in the UK and typically work during the daytime, you may be better signing up with a UK based company if you think you might often need the help of the support team.

Website backups

Shit happens.

When it happens, you need to know your site is safe and secure.

To this end, it’s wise to ask your potential hosting company about its backup and restore policy.

Some of the questions to ask include:

  • Do you provide a backup service?
  • How often do you backup my site? (hourly/daily/weekly)
  • What’s the procedure if I want to restore my site?
  • How long does it take to perform a typical restore?
  • How much does it cost?

If you prefer to take more control over your backups and you’re using WordPress, you could use a plugin/service such as VaultPress or BackUpBuddy.

Website building software

Some hosting companies, like GoDaddy, have proprietary software for building websites. Essentially providing you with everything you need to build a website: domain, hosting and website building software – all in one place. What’s not to like about that? It takes all the hassle out of getting a website online and is the perfect solution for many people.

How good is the GoDaddy website building software? In all honesty, I have no idea as I haven’t used it. According to this review on Website Builder Expert, it’s pretty good for standard sites but it doesn’t offer any eCommerce tools. Also, if you change the template (theme/design) you must re-enter your content.

Money-back guarantee

Most web hosting companies have a refund policy. Having one, and sticking to it, increase sales because people are more inclined to try the service if they know they can cancel and get a refund if it’s not for them.

Bluehost states boldly on their homepage – * Special intro offer and 30-day money-back guarantee. It’s part of the sales pitch.

Most web hosting companies offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, but some go as far as 45 days. InMotion, which has a decent reputation, offers new customers a full 90 days money-back guarantee.

Website uptime

The term uptime refers to how long your website stays online without interruption during a twelve-month period. Obviously, the higher the number, the happier you’ll be. Most providers guarantee around 99% – 100% uptime. 

If the hosting provider offers an uptime of 99.9% your website may be down for a total of eight hours, 45 minutes, and 57 seconds each year (source). You’ll need to check the small print of the contract to find out how you’ll be compensated if this target isn’t met.

To keep track of uptime, use a third-party service like Uptime Robot. This free service checks your website every five minutes and sends you a notification if it’s down.

Web hosting and email

There was a time when it was standard practice for a web hosting company to provide free email accounts. That’s not the case anymore. These days, you can expect to pay a few dollars a month to a company to provide you with an email hosting account.

That’s not to say you won’t find a host offering free email accounts. But lumping the two together, hosting and email, isn’t a good idea anyway. The main reason being this – if your server goes down, your emails stop working.

Another thing to consider is switching hosts. If you want to move to another hosting company, you’ll need to move the email accounts across too.

The smart way to go is to keep your hosting and emails separate. A good combination is G Suite for your emails and a reliable web host for your website. It’s what we use here and although it’s not perfect, it’s reliable, fast and fairly easy to use. And when we do run into trouble, we usually resolve the issue quickly via Google’s online chat facility within our G Suite account.

Uploading and downloading files from the server

There are two ways to do this. One is through the admin area of your hosting account, usually powered by cPanel, and the second is via FTP (file transfer protocol) program like FileZilla (free). When you buy hosting, you’ll get all the details you need sent to you in an email.

Summary

  • For your first website or blog, shared hosting with a company like Bluehost is the best option. You can upgrade or move to another company when your site has decent traffic.
  • Keep email and hosting separate (G Suite (paid) or GMail is good for handling emails).
  • Host your site in the US unless your target audience is from a specific country. In which case, choose a company whose servers are physically located in that country. Some companies let you choose a location when you place your order.