Getting the right web host for your blog is vital — get it wrong and your blog could be incapacitated, offlined or shut down, or you could end up paying far too much for the service.
Everyone has an opinion on the best web host to use, but here are some of the things you should be looking out for when it comes to choosing your host.
Operating System / Web Server
What operating system and web server your web host runs is very important when it comes to easily installing your blog.
Some blog platforms can be installed on a variety of platforms, though some may need some expert coaxing, but if you’re planning on running WordPress you’re far better off using a host running a full version of the Apache web server (or lighttpd, before you complain I’d missed it out).
Get it wrong and you may find that the blog software can’t be installed or doesn’t work as expected, meaning that you’ll have to move hosts, wasting time and money in the process.
How much hard disc / storage space are you allocated? I’m always wary of web hosts that offer unlimited storage for ridiculously low monthly price, because there’s bound to be a catch or “fair use” policy in there somewhere, even if it’s not immediately obvious.
Ensure that the amount of disc space you have is enough to install all the software and databases you’ll need, as well as have room for your content.
A basic installation of WordPress may only require around 1.5MB, but bear in mind that you’ll probably be adding plugins.
The best hosts will let you start small and upgrade disc space as and when you need it. Obviously, if you’re going to host multiple blogs on a single account (and server) your space requirements will increase.
If you’re used to shared web accounts (where the resources you use are shared with other subscribers) you may not know much about memory usage, but just as your own PC has a physical memory limit, which in turn limits how many programs can be run at once, and how fast, so does a web server.
It’s worth bearing in mind that some unmodified blog platforms (WordPress particularly) are quite memory intensive. This will become apparent the more popular your blog becomes (or if you run multiple single-install blogs on the same server), and as several users try to access your sites at the same time.
The more memory you have, the better the Apache web server will be able to handle requests from each user and quickly serve web page content.
Lower memory can lead to “thrashing” problems, where the server tries to use hard disc space as virtual memory. Your visitors may find accessing your blog is very slow or even impossible.
Memory requirements are a real movable feast, but it’s definitely worth knowing what limits a web host has, and how easy it is to upgrade.
Some hosts, particularly those offering “unlimited” services, may well hide this vital machine information, and you’ll only find out there’s a problem when your site becomes unresponsive or inaccessible.
Bandwidth dictates how much of your content can be downloaded in any given month, and therefore will be determined by how many visitors you have, how many pages they viewed, and what type of content was served up.
It stands to reason that if you’re hosting video or other large files, you’ll chomp through bandwidth far faster than running a primarily text-based blog.
As per disc space, be a little wary of hosts offering unlimited bandwidth, because in my experience there’s usually a catch.
Find out what happens if you exceed your monthly bandwidth. Will you be billed for the additional usage or will your site become unavailable for the rest of that month?
The best hosts will offer you some grace and easily allow you to upgrade your hosting to a more appropriate level.
There’s no point paying for bandwidth you won’t use, but at the same time you don’t want to be left without a web site, particularly if your blog is your business.
Even if you have no intention of getting your hands dirty “under the hood”, you may well want to enlist the help of someone else to perform hacks and tweaks to your blog, and that’s so much easier when you have shell access — the ability to access the command line and quickly accomplish tasks such as setting permissions, tweaking code, observing system resource usage and so on.
Some web hosts don’t allow shell access, or severely limit the command set, because it’s considered a security risk. Yes, it can be, but the decent web host will be set up so you’re not treated like a child, and that any damage you do only affects your site, and can be easily undone.
Ensure that your web host offers the right database support. This includes allowing databases to be updated by the blog software after installation.
I’ve used some large web hosts who locked down the main WordPress database after installation, making it impossible for certain plugins to create new tables. (It also showed up an appalling level of customer service).
Find out what sort of database your blog software needs (most likely MySQL) and what features are likely to be required, then ensure your host can handle that.
On an Apache web server, you absolutely must have full control over the htaccess file.
Web hosts who disable certain key functionality such as redirects make it difficult or impossible to implement certain features on your blog, such as proper permalinks.
You’ll be hoping that your blogs grow over time. As you add more content and more visitors come, the need for more resources increases.
You may start with shared hosting and need to move onto a dedicated server. Believe me, it’s a LOT easier to handle this if your web host can handle the transition for you. It will generally save you time and money.
So, unless you think you’ll never outgrow shared hosting, my advice is to look for a web host that offers a range of plans and types of hosting and makes it easy to upgrade (or downgrade) as required.
Does the web host enforce a rigourous backup policy? While this doesn’t absolve your own responsibility to backup your blog, it does mean that you have an extra safety net should data loss occur.
History and reputation
Consider how long has the web host been operating, if they have any prominent companies hosting with them, and what their overall reputation is.
Reputation can be a difficult one to gauge because, particularly online, negative reviews tend to outweigh good reviews. However, it’s not impossible to see who the better companies are.
Beware of reviews which are obviously linked to some kind of affiliate program. I’m not saying they’re inherently untrustworthy, but you have to wonder how impartial someone who’ll be paid for recommending a service is going to be.
Getting a personal recommendation or two from trusted friends or colleagues can be a smart move, but it’s worth trying to find people hosting similar types of content to you.
The requirements for a multimedia-rich site getting tens of thousands of visitors each day are going to be far different from a small photo blog averaging a couple of hundred visitors, and web hosts won’t necessarily handle both situations well.
Speak to Support
Though the fashion is to find a web host online and sign up straight away, bypassing all human contact, do consider speaking to someone at the company you’re considering.
If you can’t find anyone to talk to, or you can’t get past a pushy sales rep, that in itself should set alarm bells ringing.
However, if you can gain access to technical support (who won’t bombard you with language you might not understand), they may well be able to recommend the best package based on what you’re trying to achieve.
If you’re now expecting my recommendation of the best web host, you’ll be disappointed.
For the very reasons I’ve outlined above, your requirements could well be very different to mine.
I’ve learned quite a lot from experience (and some bad hosting either self-chosen or enforced upon me by my clients) what makes a good web host.
Taking the time to find a good web host means that you can spend more time blogging and less time fighting with a web server or moving hosts every time something changes.
What tips would you give for finding a good web host? Note that we’re not after actual recommendations here, just best practice for researching companies.