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Despite the amount of time people spend on the Internet — an average of 6 hours and 42 minutes per day, according to some reports — the behind-the-scenes actions that keep websites running remain mysterious to many.
However, not understanding the inner workings of the Internet doesn’t mean you can’t create the website of your dreams, especially if you are a small business owner. That’s why we created this guide answering one of the fundamental questions of website building — what is web hosting?
Web Hosting 101
In the most basic terms, web hosting is the service that enables an individual or organization to publish a website on the Internet. While we may think of websites as something that only exist digitally, the truth is, physical resources are also needed to power Internet content, mainly in the form of servers.
A server is a powerful computer that holds all the files that comprise your website; it is the physical space where your website “lives.” Websites are essentially collections of files, including text, images, and other elements. Therefore, you can think of a server as the filing cabinet where those files live. When someone visits your website, they are connected to the server where they can access those files, aka your website.
Your website is only useful if it’s accessible to your customers. Most people have heard of servers “crashing,” which can happen for several reasons. A good web hosting service provider makes sure their servers are operational as close to 100 percent of the time as possible. This is referred to as uptime and is the amount of time that a server is online.
While it is possible to purchase and run your own server to host your website, this is likely far more expensive and complicated than necessary. Most small business’ needs can be met by paying a company, known as a web hosting service provider, to rent space on servers that they own, house, and maintain.
Another reason to use a web hosting service is security. Unfortunately, website hacks are common, and can have devastating effects. Reputable web hosting service providers have multiple layers of security in place to protect your website from hackers, cybercriminals, and other threats.
Types of Web Hosting
Different websites have different needs, so a variety of web hosting services exist. You may already be familiar with some of them — shared, dedicated, VPS, cloud, and e-commerce, to name the most popular. The type that’s best for your business will depend on a variety of things, including the type of business, the amount of website traffic, and how many visual assets are on your site.
|Type of Hosting||Description||Best For...|
|Shared Hosting||A single server is shared among multiple users, in this entry-level form of web hosting.||Businesses that have small, simple sites with moderate traffic, and want the most affordable option available.|
|VPS Hosting||A single physical server is divided into multiple virtual spaces, that are used to host individual websites.||Businesses with larger, more heavily trafficked websites that can spend a little more money for additional control and resources.|
|Cloud Hosting||A virtual server that runs in a cloud computing environment, and stores data across a network of servers.||Small- to medium-sized websites that require more resources than shared hosting, including the ability to handle traffic increases on the fly.|
|Dedicated Hosting||A server that is rented to a single customer.||Businesses with large, high-traffic websites that require a lot of resources, and can afford a higher monthly price.|
|Ecommerce Hosting||Specialized hosting with features designed for online stores, including shopping carts, inventory management, and payment processing functionality.||Online stores, or brick-and-mortar businesses that also want to be able to sell products through their website.|
|Reseller Hosting||A form of hosting that lets a user purchase server space, divide it, and re-sell it to other customers.||Individuals or businesses with some technical knowledge that want to earn money by reselling server space to other customers.|
What is managed web hosting?
When researching web hosting, another option you may encounter is managed hosting. This is not its own type of hosting, but rather a service that web hosting service providers offer to customers, primarily those using dedicated or VPS hosting. With managed hosting, the hosting service provider will handle the set-up, administration, and support of the server, whereas with unmanaged hosting, this is the customer’s responsibility.
8 Essential Web Hosting Features
There are a few key features to consider when shopping for web hosting services:
1. Domain name registration
Every website needs its own unique domain name. While you can register your domain name separately from your hosting plan, many hosting service providers offer domain name registration (for one or multiple sites) as part of their hosting packages. Because there are additional fees associated with registering a domain name, having it included in your hosting package can save you money.
How fast your website loads is essential to its success. Speed affects your customers’ experience on your website, and Google also factors it into their overall score of a site’s quality, with slow speeds negatively impacting SEO. When selecting a hosting service provider, look for companies that use Solid-State Drives (SSD) and a Content Delivery Network (CDN), and have servers in multiple locations, as these factors contribute to better speeds.
Despite their size, servers only have so much capacity for storing files. You want to choose a type of hosting that can accommodate the size of your site. For example, shared hosting is typically sufficient for text-heavy sites with a few pages, while larger sites with lots of high-resolution images and streaming media may require the amount of storage only a VPS or dedicated server can provide.
Like storage, bandwidth needs vary site-by-site. A website with thousands of daily visitors requires more bandwidth than a website with a few hundred visitors. While many shared web hosting services advertise “unlimited” bandwidth, this is usually based on the fact that most websites never come close to hitting bandwidth limits, especially when they are new. However, it helps to read the fine print; some hosting service providers penalize customers who exceed their allotted amount of bandwidth.
One way to address issues of storage and bandwidth limitations is scalability. Some types of hosting, like cloud hosting, allow sites to increase resources on the fly. Many hosting service providers offer different types of hosting, so that a website that launches with shared hosting can upgrade to VPS or dedicated hosting when it outgrows its storage and bandwidth limitations.
As mentioned previously, a good web hosting service provider ensures that its servers are running as close to 100 percent of the time as possible. You can verify a company’s claims about their uptime through a third-party site.
7. Email Accounts
Dedicated email accounts at your domain name are key to establishing professionalism and authority for your business. Different hosting packages offer varying numbers of email accounts per website, so determine what your needs are, or what you anticipate they will be, and look for a package that meets those needs.
Having reliable, accessible technical support from your web hosting service provider is also essential to effectively running a website. If you or your customers are having trouble with your website, you will want to be able to get those issues resolved as quickly as possible. Look for companies that offer 24/7 support, whether it’s by phone, chat, or email.
Web Hosting Terms
There is a lot of specialized terminology surrounding web hosting. Here are some of the most common words and phrases:
Hosting service provider: Any company that provides web hosting services. They own and operate the servers where websites are hosted, and rent space on the servers to customers. You can think of the hosting services provider as the landlord for your website. Popular hosting service providers include A2 Hosting, Bluehost, InMotion Hosting, and Hostgator.
Server: A computer that provides data to other computers by running specific software depending on the server type. Different types of servers include web servers, email servers, and file servers. As the name implies, web servers host websites. When someone visits your website, they are connected to the server hosting the files that make up your website.
You will see hosting service providers advertise Linux servers and/or Windows servers. This refers to the operating system that the server uses. Linux servers are more common, less expensive, and suitable for the needs of most small business websites, but you may want to compare the two before purchasing web hosting.
Internet Protocol (IP) address: This unique numerical address identifies your website, and connects visitors to it from their browser. Because it is too difficult for people to remember all the individual IP addresses of the websites they use, website addresses are simplified with domain names.
Domain name: Your website’s unique name that users enter into the browser’s address bar to access your website. Domain names have to be registered with a domain name registrar to prevent multiple websites from having the same name. Many web hosting service providers include domain name registration as part of their web hosting services, but you can register your domain name separately.
Uptime: Refers to the amount of time a server is up and running, usually defined as a percentage.
Bandwidth: The measurement of how much data can flow through a connection in a given amount of time. Limited bandwidth can negatively impact the speed and accessibility of your website.
cPanel: The abbreviated form of control panel, this Linux-based graphical interface is used to publish websites, organize web files, create email accounts, and more.
WordPress: This is a simple, popular content management system that lets users create websites and blogs. Because of its popularity, many hosting service providers offer hosting services tailored specifically for WordPress sites.
Web Hosting FAQs
Can I host a website on my own computer?
Technically, yes. But the question is, do you want to host a website on your own computer? To do so means establishing and running your own server, which requires time, money, and technical knowledge. Using a web hosting service provider is a simpler and more cost-effective way to get your website up and running, so you can focus on other elements of your business.
How do I know what type of web hosting I need?
It ultimately depends on your website’s size and purpose, and how much traffic you expect. For most smaller, brand-new websites, shared hosting is usually sufficient. If you are creating an online store, you will want ecommerce hosting, as this will provide the resources and functionality needed to sell merchandise online. Most web hosting service providers offer different types of hosting, and make it easy for you to upgrade if your site outgrows its current type of web hosting.
How much does web hosting cost?
This mostly depends on the type of web hosting. Shared hosting is the cheapest, because it requires the least amount of resources. Conversely, dedicated hosting requires the most resources, so it is the most expensive. Cloud and VPS hosting typically fall somewhere in the middle. Some web hosting service providers offer free hosting, although this typically comes with limitations. Generally speaking, shared hosting plans can start at as little as $5 per month, while dedicated hosting can cost over $150 per month.
What is a website builder?
A website builder is an online tool that lets you create a website without needing any technical knowledge or coding skills. Most website builders use templates and a drag-and-drop interface to let users easily create their websites. Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace are some popular website builders. The difference between a web host and a website builder is that, with a website builder, your website is tied to the host through which you built your site.
Can I switch web hosts?
Depending on how you build your website, yes. If you use a content management system like WordPress to create your website, you have more flexibility to move your website to another host than if you use a website builder, in which your website is linked specifically to that host. This is something to consider when deciding how you will create your website.