A company website is crucial to a small business. Indeed, your website is not merely a marketing tool, it is an extension of what your company is. It should be treated with the same type of attention you would devote to creating a new office or an additional location. Unfortunately, websites can be confusing to set up.


Deciding where to “host” your site is the first step to getting a website up and available for the world to see. Creating you own hosting solution can be  beneficial if you’re concerned about the reliability, speed and customizability of your site. Additionally, using your own hosting means you have complete ownership of the content on your site — as opposed to a content network like Medium or Tumblr that may have various claims or rights related to your content once you publish it.

A good web host means that your site will be available quickly when your customers need it.

Owning your own web hosting solution has tangible business benefits, then, but it can be intimidating to understand. There’s a huge range of companies and options to choose from, and most of the literature on web hosting can look arcane to the uninitiated — full of terms like “bare metal” and “virtual machines.”

To help you navigate the world of web hosting, we’ve prepared the following guide.

What is web hosting? 

A website is, in essence, a collection of files that live on a computer called a server. When you visit a website, the server uses software to understand those files, and the information that makes up the site is delivered to your browser, which in turn renders the site for you to read and interact with. When we talk about buying web hosting, then, we’re talking about purchasing space on a computer that can serve your website to the rest of the world.

Shared, dedicated, VPS and bare metal — what’s the difference? 

When you buy web hosting, it’s very rare that your site is the only site living on a given machine. Most websites don’t take that much power to run, so it would be inefficient for hosting providers to do that — not to mention much more expensive for users. Here’s the difference between the four types of hosting:

  • Shared hosting: In shared hosting, you’re given a directory on a server that your site lives in, and other sites live in different directories alongside yours. You don’t have access to see the rest of the server; as far as you’re concerned, the entire server is your directory, so you can’t see other peoples’ sites and they can’t see yours. Most cheap web hosting falls under this category, and it’s actually perfectly fine for the vast majority of sites that don’t require much in terms of server customization or power.
  • Dedicated hosting: As you can probably imagine from the name, dedicated hosting means that you have access to the entire server. If you know what you’re doing, you can install new software and configure the server settings. Just because your server is “dedicated” still doesn’t mean you have an entire machine to yourself, though.
  • VPS: Short for Virtual Private Server, VPS is a type of dedicated hosting in which you are given a virtual machine or a simulated computer which on top of a base operating system. Almost all dedicated hosting falls under this category, as hosting providers prefer to run powerful servers that contain multiple virtual machines. Virtual machines come with other benefits, too — for example, virtual machines can be resized to allocate more computing power and hard drive space, so if your site suddenly gets hit with a ton of traffic, your hosting provider can allocate more resources to it dynamically.
  • Bare metal: This eliminates the virtual machine — your server is now running directly on top of the hardware, or “bare metal.” This has performance benefits over virtual machines, although only the most demanding sites will need to make use of the additional performance.

For most purposes, a VPS is a good balance between price, reliability and customization.

Key things to look for in a web host

Shopping for web hosting is kind of like shopping for a vehicle. You’re looking for reliability and enough power to handle the needs of your business. If you’re smart, you’ll buy it from a dealership that has a reliable and easy-to-contact service center.

Apart from those basic things, the web host you’re looking for will vary depending on the type of site you need. If you’re just looking to put up a simple informational page about your services and contact information, you won’t need much in the way of server speed or power, and you can probably go with a shared hosting solution. On the other hand, if you’re looking to put up a complicated e-commerce site with a newsletter signup and user management, you’ll be looking at something with a little more processing power.

If you’re working with a developer, you should always check with them to see if they have any hosting recommendations. Depending on how your site is built, your developer may have specific software requirements that certain hosts don’t provide.

Customer service

Most hosts provide service via email or chat, with some providing call assistance. Good hosts have a low response time, typically within an hour or two of your submission. Make sure to check their customer service hours, as well; if you have a problem on Friday afternoon and service centers are already closed until Monday, you don’t want to have your site down all weekend.

Look for over 99 percent uptime

Reliable hosts will guarantee at least 99 percent server uptime. Reliability is one of the most important considerations when choosing a web host for business; while outages are inevitable from time to time, make sure to check out reviews to see how the host has handled downtime in the past. 

Software

Check to make sure that your host has recent versions of programming languages and server software installed. For example, the most recent version of PHP is 5.5; if your host is still on version 5.3 you might have a problem.

Many hosts now also offer one-click installs of common CMS software like WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. If you know you’re going to be using one of these, find a host with a good one-click install available.

Managed hosting

Back to customer service, again. If you really don’t want to spend any more time than necessary on your website (and who does), managed hosting might be a good idea for your business. Managed hosting means that the host takes care of a lot of the server maintenance and backup tasks that you’d have to perform otherwise. Most commonly, they’ll automatically upgrade your software to the latest versions, keep automated backups of your site and implement security and caching procedures. If you don’t know what you’re doing, all of that could take you a few days to figure out on your own. Make sure to take a good look at reviews and features of managed hosting plans before you buy, as the benefits I listed are just the tip of the iceberg.

Cost 

At the end of the day, we’re all concerned about cost. Web hosting can run anywhere from $5 to several hundred dollars per month, and the old adage that, “You get what you pay for,” is true here. The important thing is to assess how much traffic you’ll be getting and how much business you can expect the site to drive — spending $200/month may sound like a lot to spend on a good host, but when you consider the time it will save you and the additional customers you’ll earn from having a fast and reliable website, it begins to seem like a good investment.

Web hosting is also just the first step in getting a website up and ready for the world to see. Keep an eye out for future SmallBusiness.com guides on getting your website live.


Also on SmallBusiness.com | Creating and Managing A Small Business Website


(Photo: ThinkStock)

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