When trying to choose the right hosting plan, you learn that there’re both free and paid web services and you’re probably enticed by the idea to get free hosting. But you shouldn’t. Among the most important reasons are the need for reliability, stability, and technical support that free options give no guarantee for.
Choosing the right hosting plan comes down to understanding your own needs and differentiating between core features and such features that add little or no value, while boosting the price.
There’re several different hosting solutions from a technical point of view, depending on the size of and the traffic to your site. This post will, however, focus on shared hosting only for three reasons:
- Shared hosting is the optimal solution for new sites and blogs from technical perspective. Shared hosting is indeed the easiest to maintain, as it is usually managed, meaning that you don’t need to go in and set up the server (there are quite a lot of settings and none of them are as intuitive and easy to figure out as you are used to when working with WordPress);
- It is also the cheapest option, while not underperforming terribly (for the most of it);
- Shared hosting allows you to accommodate the volume of your site and its traffic just fine. Even though some hosting companies oversell their solutions, making shared hosting slow, most established providers offer truly value for money.
In this post you will find listed and explained the most important features of hosting plans and what they mean for you as a site owner. At the end of the post, you can find specific examples of hosting needs and fitting solutions.
Core features are the ones that must be taken into consideration when choosing a hosting plan. These features affect directly website performance and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Such are:
- Disk Space
- PHP limitations
- Apache, Litespeed or Nginx
Just as when buying computer, RAM matters a lot when choosing hosting. The reason is that RAM, simply put, is the ability of the server to process data. The more RAM, the better.
RAM is of course just one of these components that matter for server performance. It would, however, be a mistake to underestimate its importance.
Most hosting providers offer quite little dedicated RAM, simply because they need to accommodate as many customers as possible on each single server to get the revenue they hope for. As a result, you are usually offered somewhere between 0.5 and 2GB.
While you might know from your computer at home that 2GB is quite reasonable, don’t get too excited. Firstly, when a website gets more traffic, the processor needs to handle not one but quite a few users. Secondly, even when you get 2GB dedicated RAM on paper, you rarely truly get them, as the users on the server share resources, which also is the reason why it is called shared hosting.
To conclude, choose hosting with as much RAM as possible. Don’t get overexcited though. In many cases, what sounds as a great hosting offer, turns out to be a hosting nightmare.
Bandwidth and Disc Space
Bandwidth is the amount of data transferred from/to your website during certain period. Most of the time, you can see a bandwidth per month limitation in the details of hosting plans. It might be that such a limitation scares you but you should know that a new website rarely will use more than 1 GB/month for the launch period, as long as it isn’t heavily advertised.
Many hosting plans offer unlimited bandwidth but you should be aware that “unlimited” is never truly unlimited. I actually see it as a problem that you don’t know, how much real bandwidth is hidden behind the label “unlimited”.
The same applies to disc space. There are many hosting plans with unlimited disc space, which you as a beginner might deem as a nice offer. However, experienced webmasters know that at some point, as your website grows bigger than 5-6 GB, you’ll get to know that there’re limitations to everything that is advertised as unlimited.
In reality, you don’t need that much space, when just starting out or when running a website with steady size (no blog, just pages). To be sure that you can still use the hosting plan after a year or two, I recommend that you choose an option with at least 5 GB.
Now, this is not something you can read about in an offer, when choosing hosting. Perhaps because quite a few customers know how important it is before they get to it experience themselves.
php limitations can stop you from executing simple tasks as publishing a post (this is in fact one of the first hosting/WordPress issues most beginners face), uploading a plugin or an image, or updating your database. The three most common php limitations WordPress users should be aware of are: execution time, memory, and upload.
Many hosting providers set their values very low, as a protective practice. WordPress does, however, require setting php memory limit at the very least at 64MB and execution time at 60 (some themes require up to 300 during installation). The php upload limitation isn’t of crucial importance but should be set to at least 10MB, ideally 100+MB, so you can import plugins, images, and larger files easily.
Some hosting providers allow you to tweak php settings from within the control panel, while others do change the settings for you. Be though aware that there are also those, who won’t allow you to change these settings and will simply refer to server security.
As a WordPress user, you must make sure that your server will enable WordPress to work optimally. This means that, when choosing hosting, you must take php limitations in account to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Apache, Litespeed or Nginx
This might not be the first thing on your mind, however it is quite important. There are different servers, the most popular being Apache, Litespeed, and Nginx. As we are talking about three different systems, we are also talking about different performance.
Nginx is supposed to be the most optimized and fastest server, followed by Litespeed with Apache at third place. This depends, however, on the optimization and maintenance skills of your hosting provider.
The advice here would be to go for Nginx, if you are just starting out. If you, however, have used Apache or Litespeed before, you might want to keep away from Nginx due to incompatibility between these the way servers handle WordPress files (I am talking about .htaccess in particular). If you want to give it a try though, prepare for issues and even better – hire a professional to deal with the transition.
Uptime means the time the server is working properly, thus your website is accessible. If the server crashes, this event is called downtime. During downtime, nobody can access your website: neither the backend, nor the frontend.
Because uptime is so important, you should go after hosting providers that offer 100 % uptime – and actually explain, how they achieve it. It might, for example, be via a network of backup servers, kept in different locations.
Many webmasters and bloggers are quite uncertain, when it comes to choosing a hosting provider. Even though some countries and industries can have requirements about where you host your website, as a rule, it’s not at all necessary to host your website on a server in specific country.
Even if you use a country code top level domain (ccTLD), such as mydomain.us, you don’t need to host the website locally. True that many hosting providers don’t offer registration of ccTLDs but this isn’t a problem. You should register your domain with a registrar that offers ccTLDs and then choose hosting independently. Don’t worry, there’s nothing easier than pointing a domain to a server – and this is all you have to do.
Buying hosting abroad can in fact turn out to be a very good idea, not only because prices on established markets, as the US, are much lower but also because the service level is usually much higher than on emerging markets.
The downside of choosing hosting provider from another country is that server response time will be slower. This makes it therefore a no-go, if you are targeting nationally. If you, however, target potential site visitors internationally, the precise location of your server becomes secondary. In such cases and when you reach a point in your business development, where it makes sense, you should start using a CDN.
Secondary Hosting Features
The features, listed below, are still important – for example price or capacity of the hosting. They are though not directly connected to performance.
As a blogger or a small business owner, one doesn’t need fancy hosting plans, offering extras that one will never use. A reasonable price for a single blog/site hosting is around 4-10 USD/month.
Many end up paying more, as they feel obliged to buy local hosting, don’t do the needed research, get misled by short-term discounts or go after the plans with most features. You should, however, take the time to compare the regular prices and offered services of multiple providers before signing up for hosting. Be especially careful when you stumble upon discounts! Most hosting providers offer initial discounts that can mislead users, as regular prices are much higher and almost impossible to find on their websites.
You might not understand what MySQL stays for but what you need to know is that the number of MySQL databases equals to the number of installations you can have on the server. An installation is, though, not only a site but also subdomain or directory installations, such as survey software, forums, chat, CRMs, and similar, adding functionality to your site.
Thus, make sure that you buy hosting that doesn’t restrict you too much in terms of MySQL databases. In most cases, you’ll be fine with 10-20 MySQL databases. WPBloggingNerd uses only two, though.
SSD (Solid State Drive) is a better alternative to the standard HDD (Hard Disc Drive), as it’s much faster – in fact up to 20 times faster. Therefore, hosting based on SSD is advertised and priced as a premium solution. In my experience, it doesn’t make a big difference but it might be worth to try it, if your website loads very slowly.
Some hosting providers, as InMotion Hosting, offer it as a standard solution, while others charge for it as an addon. Be aware that there are also some that offer SSD cache, which is not the same as SSD hosting!
FTP and Email Accounts
FTP is one of these things that you’ve never heard of before starting a website. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a network protocol used to transfer files from/to a server from/to a local device via a FTP client (special software). To put it in other words, it makes it possible for you to access, upload, download, modify, and delete files on your server, without using the server’s control panel. In most cases, you’ll do just fine with one FTP account. However, if several users must have access, you have to use multiple accounts, likely with different permissions. Some hosting plans limit the number of FTP accounts, so consider the maintenance needs of your website before making a choice.
The same applies to emails. There’re hosting plans with as few as 10 email accounts, others with up to 200, and many set no limitations (take it with a grain of salt that there aren’t any limitations).
For a blogger, it is more than enough with 10 email accounts. If all employees of your company have to get a corporate email addresses though, and you have chosen to host them with the hosting provider, you must do a good job figuring out how many accounts you’ll need before sealing the deal.
Dedicated IP Address
Dedicated IPs used to be luxury. They allow you to maintain certain website reputation by not blending the signals of your website with those from other websites. In addition, it allows you to use a SSL certificate the old fashioned way.
Today, it is a must to install SSL on your site, as Google starts to mark all HTTP pages as insecure, starting July 1, 2018. You don’t, however, always need an IP address for that. Most servers have already enabled SNI (Server Name Indication) that allows you to install multiple SSL certificates on the same IP address, which therefore can be shared.
Most hosting providers offer dedicated IPs as an add-on service that easily can cost a lot (24-48 USD/year or more). There’re though others, such as HostWinds, that offer them for free with their standard plans.
The advice here is to assess, whether you really need an IP address. It’s recommended for companies and brands, as it minimizes the risk of blacklisting and bad reputation (spam-related). For bloggers and small businesses working on a budget, it can be skipped.
Subdomains, Parked Domains, and Addon Domains
To make it understandable, subdomains are additional installations to the one under the master-domain for the hosting account. That is, if you own the domain milk.com, you can create subdomains as cow.milk.com, drinks.milk.com, health.milk.com, etc. Subdomains can be classified as parts of your website by search engines but are most often classified as separate websites.
Parked domains are domains that you have purchased and added to your hosting account, without them being associated with any services, such as mail or website. Such domains are typically purchased to protect a brand or with the intention of reselling them later on.
Addon domains are separate domains that you have purchased and added to your hosting account post-registration. It’s important to note that 99 % of all shared hosting plans don’t give you the opportunity to host two master-domains in one account. You can add an addon domain to your hosting account and it will indeed render as a stand-alone domain. The problem is that addon domains are in reality subdomains to your master-domain. This means that, if you add the domain MyAddonDomain.com to your hosting account, registered with the master domain MyDomain.com, a subdomain myaddondomain.mydomain.com will be created automatically and you won’t be able to remove it. The implications can be enormous in terms of SEO.
Most hosting providers offer a combination of xx number subdomains, parked, and addon domains. As long as you are on the clear about your hosting needs, you should easily be able to choose the right hosting plan. If you aren’t sure how your web adventure will unfold, you don’t need to purchase the largest hosting option, just in case. Hosting providers make it quite easy to upgrade an account, so overpaying from the beginning isn’t necessary.
Start with a hosting plan allowing you one website and, should you expand, you can upgrade in the matter of minutes. Keep also in mind that hosting multiple websites on a single account isn’t recommended, as this affect performance and security negatively.
It’s, of course not a must to work with a specific control panel. However, you’ll be really surprised, once you experience the difference that a nice control panel makes. I’ve used different solutions through the years and I’m convinced that cPanel is the best. Luckily, this is also the one offered by most of the major hosting providers as a standard solution.
Be aware that a control panel isn’t always included in hosting plans! I’ve stumbled upon providers that basically leave you to deal with an intricate server interface or self-made solution that requires specialization to work with. To avoid wasting time on managing your account, choose always hosting plans that include cPanel, Plesk or another well-developed control panel.
Additional Services (That You Can Ignore When Choosing Hosting Plan)
The services, listed here, can add some value to hosting plans, however, in most cases you’ll be better off getting them elsewhere.
Implementing SSL becomes more and more a must, even though a non-business blog rarely needs it, due to Google’s policy for secure internet. Most established server providers offer an okay SSL certificate for free as a part of their packages, while others offer promotional prices for premium website protection with up to 70% initial discount. However, it’s rarely the best choice to buy a SSL certificate from your hosting provider. There’re a lot of specialized SSL stores offering much better prices and a lot more choices.
Installing a SSL certificate purchased from a third party store, is an easy few-click procedure, so don’t get scared by the prospect of doing it yourself, instead of letting your hosting provider install an expensive SSL certificate just to avoid dealing with it.
Free Or Discounted Domain
Most hosting providers have bundle offers, where you can either register a domain for free with the purchase of a hosting plan or get it for free for the lifetime of your contract. The first option means that you save the fee for the first year only, while the latter means that you never need to pay for your domain, as long as you pay for hosting. Both offers sound appealing but cost you the freedom to move to another hosting provider, if there’re problems with the service of your current one. Worst case scenario, you can lose your domain, if you try to switch to another hosting provider.
I do recommend buying domain and hosting separately – here’s why.
WhoIs Domain Privacy
Domain privacy is important for private bloggers, that is site owners, who register a domain in their own name. If you don’t implement domain privacy, all your data, such as name, address, and phone number, will be easily accessible for everybody, using a service as ICANN WhoIs. Most companies offering domain registration offer also domain privacy as an addition to your purchase. Make though sure that they indeed offer proper Domain Privacy before registering a domain with them! You can only get domain privacy from the company you registered the domain with.
If you decide to register your domain with your hosting provider, you should be on the lookout when ordering Domain Privacy, as some hosting providers don’t use real WhoIs privacy protection. Instead, they simply register your domain in their name and pretend to protect your details this way. However, this presents a serious risk, as from a legal point of view, the only owner of the domain is the hosting company.
Just as in the case of domains, I do recommend getting domain privacy from a registrar, not your hosting company.
Site software, such as drag-and-drop page builders, CMS as WordPress, as well as other one-click installs are often a part of hosting packages. Only the cheap services, as web hotels, don’t offer any.
Take a look at the different site builders listed as a part of the hosting plan and if you’re not satisfied – and don’t feel comfortable installing WordPress on the server yourself – move to the next offer.
This, of course, doesn’t apply, if you already have a website that you want to move to new hosting or if you are capable of a little DIY.
Services as CRM, SEO, email marketing, and similar add little or no value to the hosting plan, as they are usually not good and often paid. Hosting companies can also try to trick you into paying for things like getting your site indexed by Google – which is simple simple and free. My advice is to keep away from such services.
Sometimes though, a CDN is offered as an extra service. While you should still pay for it, as long as you don’t use a high-tier hosting plan, it’s usually a discount price. This kind of extra service really makes a difference and I recommend using it. A CDN can in fact compensate for a lot of the shortcomings of the hosting plan, which makes it possible to choose a lower-tier plan and then activate the CDN.
Customer Service and Technical Support
Customer service and technical support should in fact be one of the primary reasons for choosing a hosting plan. However, as a rule, the quality of service swings a lot in the hosting industry, so you can’t really know how it’ll perform when you need it.
Therefore, there’re two things you should do: read current reviews of customer service and support before choosing a hosting provider and never commit for long periods. Keeping your commitment to the minimum may cost you a few more dollars a year. However, you’ll quickly find out that problems with your hosting account are so intolerable that you in periods might end up with 2-3 hosting plans that you can’t get out of for a single website – and this costs more than a few extra dollars a year.
How Do I Choose The Right Hosting Plan?
Let’s work with a few cases to exemplify the needed resources:
- A fast-growing website (blog) with posts published daily: 1 domain, no subdomains, parked or addon domains if needed, min. 5 GB disc space, 1-2 GB bandwidth, unlimited email accounts, 5-10 FTP accounts, 1 MySQL database + 1 more for each installed application, SSD hosting preferred due to faster loading, no need for dedicated RAM (you must pay for more than 4 GB RAM to make a difference and you can’t know, how much RAM you actually get to use).
- A video streaming site: 1 domain, no subdomains, parked or addon domains if needed, min. 100 GB disc space, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited email accounts, 5-10 FTP accounts, 1 MySQL database + 1 more for each installed application, SSD hosting preferred due to faster loading, might be necessary with dedicated RAM (4 GB+), ideally you should put the site on a CDN.
- A website with multiple subdomains: 1 domain, the needed number of subdomains, no parked or addon domains, min. 20 GB disc space, 10 GB bandwidth, unlimited email accounts, 20-50 FTP accounts, as many MySQL databases as needed (domain+subdomains) + 1 more for each installed application, SSD hosting preferred due to faster loading.
- A website without a blog (constant number of pages and resources): 1 domain, no subdomains, no parked or addon domains, min. 1 GB disc space, 5 GB bandwidth, unlimited email accounts, 1-5 FTP accounts, 1 MySQL database + 1 more for each installed application, no need for dedicated RAM.