Selecting Your Website Hosting Service
SO, ..... HOW DO YOU PICK A GOOD HOSTING PROVIDER ?
If you do the rounds of all the websites on a Google search for "website hosting" your's going to see lots of the same-old, same-old. Pictures of space rockets, Ferraris, turbo this and turbo that. Some making outrageous claims and others splashing out powerful images around performance and security. Not too many pushing cheap pricing (mostly avoided because of price/quality linkage) and lots and lots of features and lists. That's the same-old.
Truth is ..... they are all really much the same, give or take some, and what really counts is what happens when things go wrong. Or when you need help and advice. It's special features and the quality and level of support that you need to assess.
Google around. Look for "choose a good web host" and you'll soon find that there's rough consensus on the following as a structured process to use for selecting.....
- Start with Your Overall Strategy
- Special Website Requirements
- Owned vs Dedicated vs Shared Public Servers
- Reputation and Historical Issues
- Uptime Guarantees
- Loading Speed
- Support Reputation
- Server Location
- Secure Certification
- Statistics and Usage Reporting
- eMail Facilities
- Other General Resources
START WITH YOUR OVERALL STRATEGY
First off - make sure that your decision around selecting a website hosting service will align with the overall strategy that you have for your website. And here we are assuming that you do have a website strategy!
So if you are relying on good SEO to provide focussed, organic traffic to convert to enquiries then you need to select a host that will be helpful with SEO and you will need to consider the SEO implications of using that host at every stage. But if your site was largely to act as a reference point for referred customers then you could instead consider budget hosting and largely ignore SEO benefits which generally add to cost.
SPECIAL WEBSITE REQUIREMENTS
There may be functions or visitor interactivity which will require the installation of special or unique software. Examples could be customer forums, predeveloped scripting to crunch customer calculations, or simply many pages of custom reporting written in a particular scripting language. Or perhaps you have a legacy (from way back) website which requires a specific server operating system. The Linux and Windows server platforms would generally cater for these issues. And this would also include migration of the more popular Content Management Systems (CMS) such as WordPress, Joomla!, Umbraco, DotNetNuke (DNN), etc.
WordPress needs special attention here. This CMS has become so popular, and there are so many (vulnerable) plugins that a host that offers specialist support is a major consideration. Changes in PHP versions, the updating of core, theme and plugin versions, and the control of hacking, worms, compromises, malware and other security issues are sometimes very WordPress specific. A host who is aware of these issues will provide alerting and many other services to help avoid pending issues.
We generally house WordPress sites with Hetzner as the local preferred specialist host. For US locations, SiteGround would be recommended where location and speed issues are paramount for competitive SEO.
OWNED vs DEDICATED vs SHARED PUBLIC SERVERS
An "Owned Server" is where your website (perhaps with one or two others that you own) are the only wbsites that reside on that server. This ensure maximum performance from the server and also ensures that you cannot be compromised through wak security and vulnerabilities on other websites over which you have no control. The major drawback is that this is an expensive option and these are generally unmanaged machines. Almost all our hosting is on our own, Webpro owned, dedicated managed servers.
A "Dedicated Server" is owned by a developer (or boutique host as in our case) where only websites under control of that developer/owner are housed. That gives us control over the content of all websites as well as the operating system of the server. This is a good mix of cost effective control that excludes other parties.
"Shared Public Hosting" is a cheap option but the danger is that you share the server with literally hunderes of other websites. The hosting farms are inclined to load these servers to be able to offer the cheap rates and this introduces the risk of security problems. Other issues are variable performance, memory leaks, virus and malware crossovers, reputational IP damage from spammers and higher resultant downtime. Shared public servers should always be avoided.
REPUTATION AND HISTORICAL ISSUES
It often seems to make good sense to use a "big name" company for your company website - something like the "big name" corporate ISPs. In practice this is not such a good idea as they house many clients to a server, and while the neighbourhood may be slightly better, you are still open to all the dangers and issues encountered on shared public hosting. And you can add to that the dangers of attacks on corporate websites.
If a web hosting provider has a history (even a short one) where spammers have operated from their servers, then they could suffer reputational damage which is recorded by the major blacklisting services. At the extreme this can result in a visitor to your website being warned by the browser that the website could harm your computer, and in the general cases your website would be marked down in page relevancy by the search engines which would cost you traffic. Some ISPs have more problems than others in this area, but legal considerations preclude too much further discussion in this regard. Best you do some homework here.
A standard statement at most web hosting sites is that uptime is guaranteed, sometimes even at the remarkable rate of 99,9%. That seems impressive - until you work out that the 0,1% of "acceptable" downtime is actually the better part of an hour, or 43 minutes and 10 seconds to be more accurate. Would you be happy with a Google crawl or a visit from a potentially big customer during that time.? Probably not.
A guarantee of 99,99% is better with only 4 minutes out, and you'd want a free hosting month in compensation. Now there's a deal. But - bottom line - is you don't want to be down at all. The outages we have seen after 20 years in this business, when they happen, can be several days in duration. We experienced that ourselves in the 9/11 Twin Towers attack when a building that housed our server was destroyed by the second tower collapse. And again not so many years back when an entire server farm was seized by the FBI along with the backup systems.
We've discussed some issues with using "big name" hosts - but bear in mind that there are even more dangers in using hosting operations that are too small. A small operation can suddenly close, and it certainly happens as we have often been approached by website owners who have been told to find alternate hosting providers. And there have been some where the hosting contact (or developer) has simply vanished - along with the access codes and authority for the domain registrar. These issues can be resolved with legal processes but you would not need to go this route if you had the access codes in the first place. Know where your physical hosting is placed, be on the authorised list of site and domain custodians and know that you are dealing with a substantial entity.
If your site's uptime is mission critical, then you should be asking questions about the security of the host farm installation and the contingency plans for natural disasters and total term failure.
When you read statements about the average visitor moving on when a site has not loaded in 4 or 5 seconds you may not be convinced. But see how quickly you get frustrated by sites that still seem dead after 10 seconds, and that's quite common. Hence the reason for little spinning doo-dahs and messages asking you to "please wait" in attempts to assure you that all is well. But these are phycho machinations and don't fool Google. A slow loading site will be penalised in page rank. And be aware that left unoptimized, WordPress can be a resource-heavy application and slow to load. Those big front page sliders and hero images could sink you in the rankings.
So you need a host that uses solid state (SSD) drives, and not the old hard disk drives. And you need to ensure that, if you need them, there is access to content delivery network services such as distributed DNS and website caching services. You don't want the agony of having to move hosting providers because of a speed issue.
Be aware that the major search engines are reportedly escalating loading speed as a ranking signal. Hence Google backing the AMP (accelerated mobile pages) project. Use GTmetrix (www.gtmetrix.com) to test sites at your target host. It's a great tool for fixing your current pages as well.
We make sure that our servers use SSD, are overloaded with RAM, have powerful processors and are underloaded with websites.
When there is drama, and there always will be some, you certainly don't want support people who are reluctant to help or just plain useless. They need to respond fast, drive the issue, and resolve the problem. A recurring problem is that it may become clear that the problem is "client side" or outside the areas of expertise and responsibility for the server support personnel. Often this presents a crisis point.
In this respect we provide the perfect solution as we fill that gap. We are the interface between you and the webfarm support. Your query or issue comes to us and we take it to the support staff. Where they can't help - we bridge the gap. It's all somewhat transparent to yourself as we speak their language and yours - and the problem gets resolved which is your primary objective. Nobody falls in the gap.
End of the day, it's the users that are the final arbiters of the quality of support. In the South African webspace, a good place to get end-user opinion is at www.mybroadband.co.za
It used to be be (many moons back) a much touted myth that the domain country designator (ie .co.za vs .co.uk) effected rankings depending from where the search was made. The SE spokespeople denied that, but today Google can pinpoint you and the server location and you will logically be served up local sites before "offshore" sites. They also identify the country being targeted from the website content. Google allows webmasters to even specify (in Search Console) the target country for the content. So the physical server location, technically, does not pose a problem for SEO.
But it can be a problem for the visitor in terms of the speed of "loading", as perceived by the viewer. The international links often introduce latency at the busier times of the day, and again the user experience may result in site abandonment and the loss of business. The site speed loading tests may be fine, but a visitor from the other side of the world may still have slow page delivery performance. You need to assess this one based on where the target visitors are relative to the position of the hosting location.
Try to keep your hosting provider in the same time zone you are in. There is nothing worse than needing urgent help and finding out it's midnight in Seattle and you are dealing with junior support on the graveyard shift. Advance technical support, with most hosts, is only available during their business hours and you really don't want inexperienced people undertaking major surgery on your data. Online chat support might also be unavailable outside their daytime hours. Another problem with big time zone differences is that performance sapping admin (such as backups) are usually undertaken in their "small hours" times which are often our peak times for visitor access. USA backups (Pacific/Central) at 2:00am are slowing the server for your local visitors at 10:00am. Asian and Australian locations are even worse for this effect.
We offer servers located in the USA, Germany and South Africa.
The backup function is fairly standard and is usually automatic and a hosting function. Typically, backups are run on a daily basis at low traffic times which are often after midnight. They are usually kept for about 21 days and then the oldest backup (no 21) is overwritten by the newest. They are not always "complete" in that a database may be open or in an unreadable condition which means that some individual files can be missed. This is a particular danger where sets of matching small databases occur (as in accounting data sets). Large singular databases (as in CMS systems) can also fail when restored.
Add to this the situation where you find you have a ongoing corruption, or content error, which was present a month or so back but has only been discovered now. When this happens you effectively have no backup as the server backups only extend back three weeks. We recommend that you should take an off-server backup at least once a month which should be downloaded and stored locally. This will allow you to go back to whenever you choose, especially with static data. We can provide this service.
The control panel software should also offer you self-service in "file by file" backup. It happens often that you only require one file, and it is really convenient to simply pick it from the backup day you want and restore it either to the live website or to a different folder.
Never scrimp or cut corners with the backup chores. It does not matter whose fault it is - when the data is gone, it's gone - and it's worse whenyou know you could have prevented that loss.
Server Security refers to the likelihood of your web hosting server being compromised by a virus or trojan that allows access to your website files or to a visitor's computer. A Denial of Service (known an DoS Attack) can remove the server from being visible on the web. These are the results of malicious actions from third parties and they threaten you, your visitors, and the availability of your website due to the web server crashing.
The level of server security, and the discipline and rules that the security staff apply to users of the server, usually determine these security standards and the resulting possibility of trauma and drama.
There is little you can do to to change these issues so it becomes an act of selection on your part to ensure that the reputation of the hosting facility is a good as possible in this regard.
We have found, as a general rule, that Linux servers are usually more secure than Windows servers, with Microsoft Server being a more vulnerable server platform. However, applications for Linux (user's websites) are generally more compromised than Windows applications. The majority of security problems do come via vulnerabilities in the websites but poorly maintained servers can contribute to the subsequent spread of the compromise incident.
This type of damage can be minimised by keeping off public servers and ensuring that your own website is well maintained from a secury aspect.
The use of secure certification (https:// vs http://) has become a critical SEO issue. Coupled to that is the negative UX (user experience) when a visitor to your website is presented with a "This site is not secure" warning. So it's a given that you need to adopt secure certification.
At the minimum level, your web hosting service should be able to provide free site certification such as "Let's Encrypt". The additional benefit is that data communicated between the visitor and the website is far less likely to be compromised or stolen.
All our server's offer "no charge" secure certification as well as the top end commercial products.
STATISTICS AND USAGE REPORTING
All servers record visits by saving basic information related to each visit. These are known as server logs and are stored in the hosting space. Statistical analysis software such as AWStats and SmarterStats can then present reports which give insight into how the site works and how visitors find it. This is basic usage data. Make sure that your hosting service provides these facilities and that they are easily available to you.
Our servers provide both AWStats and SmarterStats for server stats analysis.
Related Topic ; xxxxx
The hosting of email, because of the common domain use, is often bound with website hosting and falls under the same hosting service. The facilities and tools offered by the hosting service to manage mail services make your life easy or difficult. This is an important enough subject to have its own section.
Make sure you read our page on eMail Hosting
before making any decisions on a web hosting provider.
It is important to understand that your website hosting and email hosting do not have to both be on the same server. Linux servers have always provided superior mail administration services and many of our clients split the website and mail hosting for this reason. Some web hosts offer better support than others within the Linux community.
Related Topic ; Mail Administration
Related Topic ; Solving Missing Email Problems
OTHER GENERAL RESOURCES
A forum for disussions on web hosting providers in South Africa
Best Web Hosting in 2018
Reviews and comparisons of top international hosting operations
9 Best Options for Managed WordPress Hosting
Comparisons between major hosting operations located outside of South Africa