Despite the amount of time people spend on the internet — an average of 397 minutes per day, according to some reports — the behind-the-scenes actions keeping websites running remain mysterious to many.
Even if you don’t understand the inner workings of the internet you can still create the website of your dreams, especially if you are a small business owner. That’s why we created this guide to answer one of the fundamental questions of website building — what is web hosting?
What Are Web Hosting Services?
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 exists digitally, physical resources are also needed to power internet content, mainly in the form of servers.
All about 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 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.
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 ensures its servers are operational as close to 100% of the time as possible. This is referred to as uptime and is the amount of time that a server is online.
Why use a web hosting company?
While it is possible to purchase and run your 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 web hosting service provider to rent space on servers it owns, houses, and maintains.
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 unique needs, so various web hosting services exist. You may already be familiar with some of them — shared, dedicated, virtual private server (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 used to host individual websites.||Businesses with larger, 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 require a lot of resources — and they can afford a higher monthly price.|
|E-commerce 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 sell products through their websites.|
|Reseller hosting||A form of hosting that lets you purchase server space, divide it, and resell 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 setup, administration, and support of the server. But 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 a unique domain name. While you can register it 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 additional fees are associated with registering a domain name, including it 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 search engine optimization (SEO).
To have the best speeds, look for hosting service providers with:
Despite their size, servers only have so much capacity for storing files. It is best to choose a type of hosting that can accommodate the size of your site. If you are creating a website that is mostly text with a few images, you can get away with having relatively little server storage. If you are hosting lots of images, user content, videos, or other large files, make sure you choose a host that can meet these requirements.
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 most websites never coming close to hitting bandwidth limits, especially when they are new. But it helps to read the fine print; some hosting service providers penalize customers who exceed their allotted bandwidth.
One way to address 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.
A good web hosting service provider ensures its servers run as close to 100% of the time as possible. You can verify a company’s claims about its 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 your needs 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, it is important to get those issues resolved as quickly as possible. Look for companies that offer 24/7 support, whether 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:
Bandwidth: The measurement of how much data can flow through a connection in a given time. Limited bandwidth can negatively impact the speed and accessibility of your website.
Control panel (cPanel): This Linux-based graphical interface is used to publish websites, organize web files, create email accounts, and more.
Domain name: Your website’s unique name that users enter into the browser’s address bar to access your website. Domain names must 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.
Hosting service provider: Any company that provides web hosting services. They own and operate the servers hosted by websites and rent space on the servers to customers — like the landlord for your website. Popular hosting service providers include A2 Hosting, Bluehost, InMotion Hosting, and Hostgator.
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.
Server: A computer that provides data to other computers by running specific software depending on the server type. Different types include web, email, 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.
Hosting service providers advertise Linux and/or Windows servers. This refers to the operating system 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.
Uptime: Refers to how much time a server is up and running, usually defined as a percentage.
WordPress: This is a simple, highly-favored content management system (CMS) that lets you create websites and blogs. Because of its popularity, many hosting service providers offer hosting services tailored specifically for WordPress sites.
Frequently Asked Questions About Web Hosting
Can I host a website on my own computer?
Technically, yes. But if you want to host a website on your own computer, it entails establishing and running your 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 as well as how much traffic you expect. For most smaller, brand-new websites, shared hosting is usually sufficient.
If you are creating an online store, e-commerce hosting 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 to upgrade if your site outgrows its current type.
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 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?
This 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 you easily design a website.
Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace are some popular website builders. The difference between a web host and a website builder is that, with the latter, 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 CMS like WordPress to create your website, you have more flexibility to move your website to another host. But if you use a website builder, your website is linked specifically to that host. This is something to consider when deciding how you will create your website.