Web Hosting: What to Know Before Starting Your Own Site

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If you’re thinking about starting your own website, here are some things to know beforehand.


Richard Peterson/CNET

Thinking of starting your own website for business, art or blogging? If you started a new business recently, a website can help show customers your products. Maybe you’re pursuing an artistic career and want a digital portfolio to show your work. Or you just want to get into blogging. 

No matter what your reason, we’ve compiled a guide of things to know about web hosting to help you choose the best service and plan for your needs. Once you’re finished reading this, you can head over to CNET’s list of best web hosting services to get your website up and running in no time.

What’s a web hosting service?

Web hosting services are companies, like GoDaddy and DreamHost, that own and maintain servers where website data is stored so those websites appear on the internet. Think of the servers as apartment buildings and the web hosting service is the landlord. You essentially pay rent for your website to live on these servers and access resources.

Understanding basic web hosting plans

The goals you have for your website will help determine which web hosting plan is best for you. Here are two of the basic plans.

Shared hosting

With shared hosting, your site data is stored alongside other sites on a server. All sites use the same resources, so if one site is getting more traffic, it will take up the majority of the resources. As a result, your site might slow down as another site sees a spike in traffic. Because of that, shared hosting plans are best if you are starting a website for the first time or aren’t expecting a lot of traffic. Some shared hosting plans, like those offered by Hostinger and iPage, cost around $2 a month.

VPS hosting

Virtual Private Server hosting is a step up from shared hosting plans: The server your site is on is partitioned virtually so it feels like your site is stored on its own server — essentially in its own bubble with its own resources. VPS hosting makes your site more stable as opposed to shared hosting. If you run a small business or are trying to sell art and can’t afford to have your site slowed down on a shared server, VPS hosting is a good choice. Some VPS plans, like from A2 Hosting, start around $5 a month.

What if I don’t want to share a server with others?

In that case, dedicated hosting plans are the way to go. While shared and VPS hosting put your site’s data on a server with other sites, dedicated hosting plans give you the entire server, or servers. These plans offer your website the most resources and help it handle large amounts of traffic. However, extra space and resources mean these plans are more expensive. If you run a large organization or business, a dedicated server can provide you with the reliability you need. Some dedicated server plans, like those from DreamHost, can cost around $150 a month. 

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Servers can house the data for one site or many.


Josh Lowensohn/CNET

What’s this option for reseller hosting?

Reseller hosting is where users will buy web hosting services in bulk, usually at a discount, and resell the additional space for a profit. This allows people to act as a digital middleman between a web hosting service and website owners. The reseller will have to come up with the types of services offered, templates for services offered, pricing and more. Many people treat this as its own business. Not all web hosting services offer resell hosting, though. Some web hosting services, like HostGator, offer reseller hosting plans for about $20 a month.

What’s WordPress hosting?

To answer that, we need to explain what a content management system (CMS) is.

CMS

A CMS is a tool people can use to customize their website’s appearance and what content is displayed on it. You can also use a website builder to help create your site, but these builders may offer limited tools and control over how your site looks. In most cases you also don’t own any of the design content on your site so it could vanish without you knowing. 

With a CMS, you have greater control over how your site looks. More design tools are available through a CMS, and CMSs are open-source so you fully own what you create. 

WordPress hosting

WordPress hosting, therefore, means the web hosting plan is optimized to use WordPress as a CMS. The web hosting provider has ensured their servers can run WordPress as a CMS smoothly and efficiently, and the web hosting service will handle any WordPress CMS updates or issues. WordPress is more user-friendly than other CMSs, like Joomla and Drupal, and still offers a lot of templates, widgets and plug-ins to create the best site for you.

What is cloud hosting?

Cloud hosting is web hosting across multiple physical servers. That means your site can handle huge traffic volume, and if one server goes down, your site won’t be affected as much since your data is split across servers. However, cloud hosting can be pretty expensive and only large sites, like Facebook or Google, really need it. We’re not saying your site won’t take off and be as big as them one day, but for now don’t worry about that option.

Managed and unmanaged server plans: What’s the difference?

With a managed server plan any administrative issues — like resetting the server or updating it — are handled by the web hosting service. If you have little to no experience managing a server, these plans could help you avoid any major issues or setbacks. Managed VPS or dedicated server plans usually start around $50 a month.

With an unmanaged server plan, you have to handle any administrative issues yourself. If you’re tech savvy, or have a desire to learn system administration, an unmanaged VPS or dedicated server is for you. These plans usually start around $5 a month.

What should I know about domains and IP addresses? 

A domain is what your website is called, like a name for your business. When you come up with a domain, you have to cross check a domain registrar, a ledger of all domains, to make sure the name isn’t already in use. It’s like when you start a new social media account and the platform lets you know whether someone else has that username already.

An IP address on the other hand is where the business is located within the server. It’s like your home address. You can change the domain of your site, but the IP address usually stays the same.

Can I get email addresses for my domain?

You can. These are like corporate email addresses, so instead of your address being @gmail.com or @yahoo.com, it can be @yourcooldomain.com. Having an address like this can help lend your emails credibility, so people won’t mistake your emails for scams. Many web hosting plans include a limited number of email addresses your web hosting account can have. As you go into higher tier plans that number usually increases, and some services, like DreamHost, offer unlimited email addresses with certain plans. 

Is it possible to lose my site?

You can lose your site data in many ways, like if the server is corrupted or damaged by a virus, if the server crashes from overuse or if an update was done incorrectly. Think of backups as a save point in a video game. Your site can be restored to that point in time in case you run into any kind of trouble. Many web hosting services offer backups as part of their hosting plans. Some backups, like those offered by GoDaddy, will scan your site data for malware and store the malware-free data. Backups aren’t usually advertised, though, so you’ll have to contact the service to figure out what their backup policy is. Some services offer weekly or monthly backups, but some services don’t offer backups at all.

Error 404

If your site goes down, people will see an error message when trying to visit it.


James Martin/CNET

What else do I need to know about web hosting?

There’s a lot going on in web hosting and we just scratched the surface. When looking at web hosting plans you’ll come across a lot of terms like data storage and uptime. Here’s what they mean and why they are important.

Pricing

The cost of web hosting plans can be confusing. Listed prices are often introductory deals attached to contracts that usually last at least a year. These contracts then auto-renew at the regular rate at the end of the contract so your site stays up continuously. When the contract auto-renews, the normal rate is often much higher — sometimes double or even triple — than the introductory price. Contracts are usually paid upfront rather than month-to-month as well, despite companies listing the price as a monthly cost. Many services offer month-to-month plans, but those are usually listed at the regular rate. Sometimes services will add on additional services to your bill, too, so make sure when you check out you review your bill so you are only paying for what you want.

Data storage 

Data storage refers to how much space you have on the server for your site’s data. Videos, music and image slideshows are a few things which can take up a lot of data storage. The amount of storage is usually measured in gigabytes or terabytes, but some plans offer unmetered/unlimited storage. At that point, the storage space on the server is the limiting factor. Some shared web hosting plans will offer unlimited/unmetered storage plans because of the nature of shared hosting.

Bandwidth 

If you have a hosting plan that gives you 5GB of bandwidth a month, that means you can only transfer 5GB of data total from your website to your viewers each month. If you have a one-page site loaded with media, one visit to your site could send 300 megabytes of data to your visitor. A few more visits and you could go over your monthly bandwidth and incur an additional fee — like the overage charges you get for going over your phone’s data plan. Again, there are some services that offer unlimited/unmetered bandwidth, but your site’s bandwidth usage has to be in compliance with the terms and services of the web hosting provider. HostGator offers unlimited bandwidth, but they say if customers use over 25% of server resources for longer than 90 seconds, that’s a violation of their terms

Uptime

Technology isn’t perfect and there will be times when servers go down for any number of reasons. Uptime is a measurement of how long servers, and the sites on those servers, stay up continuously without going down. Most web hosting services will say they will guarantee over 99.9% uptime. Any time your site goes down is scary, but these guarantees mean your site might be down for about 20 minutes a month. If your site is down for longer, you should contact your web hosting service. In many cases, your web hosting service will give you a credit worth a percentage of the monthly hosting fee for every hour their server is down.

SSL certificates

SSL is short for Secure Sockets Layer. These certificates encrypt data that is passed to and from your site. SSL certificates are used on many sites to prevent hackers from intercepting people’s credit card or personal information. Google announced in 2018 that any site that doesn’t have SSLs would be marked as “Not secure” in Chrome. If you look in your address bar on any website and see a padlock next to the URL, that means the site has SSLs. By using SSLs, people will feel more comfortable visiting your site. Many hosting services provide SSLs to their customers.

However, you can install your own SSL certificates in most cases. There are paid SSL certificates, like from Namecheap which cost about $6 a year, and unpaid SSL certificates, like from the Let’s Encrypt initiative. Then you need to install the SSL certificates on your site, and this requires some server knowledge. Installing your own SSL certificate gives you greater control over your site, but if you don’t have the server knowledge to install and maintain your SSL certificate, then you might want to stick with the SSL certificate offered by the web hosting service.


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