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How to find the Best Web Hosting for your business

by / Friday, 24 April 2015 / Published in Digital Marketnig Blog

Which is the best web hosting service?

It’s a question you have faced or will face at some point if you own a business or manage a website. Even though I have been in technology business for many years, I went through my own struggle trying to find the best webhosting company for our business. In this post, I walk you through our experience and the process we followed to find the right web hosting for our site. I hope it will save you precious time and money while looking for a web hosting company. While I researched several of them, in this article, I share the data and my analysis of the 10 most popular webhosting companies plus my old host. It is a long post so grab a cup of coffee and find a comfortable place to as I take you through my journey to find the best web hosting company for my business.

About a year ago, I was looking for a website hosting company for our digital marketing services and software development business. We had used a popular webhosting company for about two years but we were not happy. We initially signed up with them after reading webhosting reviews by a couple of technology experts. It seemed like a great option – a really cheap web hosting plan backed by solid reviews.

Initially, everything was alright. After applying the discount coupon, we paid about $4 per month for a shared hosting plan with unlimited bandwidth, domains and storage. We could host multiple websites and subdomains (we operate three different sites). It was great for developing and testing client sites as well. But things started to go bad after a few weeks. We noticed the website was going down couple of times a month. Sometimes the email would also go down. I know all hosting companies have downtimes. But the problem was the length of the outages and the fact that we needed to alert the hosting company about outages. They were clearly not monitoring their servers. We would submit support ticket (they do not provide phone support in the standard hosting plans) and wait for hours for a response. Then we would receive an email saying everything was alright and we should check our website. They would not even accept that servers had gone down or had performance issues.

This continued for about two years but the situation went from bad to worse. Our websites had become slow, we would get frequent 500 errors (server error) and the hosting company seemed least interested in solving our problems. So we decided to look for a new host for our website. We were growing fast and had to find a better web host. So I went back to Google to find the best solution.

As I worked through Google’s search results, a few things stood out:

  • Almost all technology sites have a few articles comparing webhosting companies and their plans
  • There are several bloggers / technology reviewers who claim to give you the definitive list of best hosting companies
  • The names of same companies, including my old web host, kept popping up in most of these review pages
  • Many hosting companies are in reality re-sellers for the larger hosting companies. While they can be price competitive, they can provide only limited help as they do not control their infrastructure

I felt something must be wrong with these reviews if my web host was showing up as a top rated hosting provider after our bad experience. Indeed, as I found out, most bloggers / sites were promoting these hosting companies as affiliates. They wanted me to sign up using their affiliate links so they could get a commission. . I don’t mind people getting paid commission from my purchase as long as they help me in some way. Sadly, most hosting review blogs just don’t cut it.

No wonder I had picked the wrong host two years ago when I chose it based on so called expert reviews. After going through a few expert reviews, I decided to stop and look for customer reviews instead. But I must mention that some blogs did provide very useful information. These were also affiliates but provided valuable information. I was happy to use affiliate link from one of these blogs to say thank you for helping me find the right host.

I found some popular customer review sites and used them extensively in my decision process. You can find the list at the end of the blog. To my surprise, my old hosting company had several five star reviews by customers who seemed quite happy with them. How could anybody be happy with such a sloppy hosting service and customer support? After reading a few of these reviews, I realized they were looking for something else, mostly a cheap hosting plan. So I decided to create my own evaluation criteria that could measure what I wanted from my web host.

I set about defining what decided if a company was a good webhosting. Clearly, it was difficult to find a company that met our expectations on all fronts. So I created a list of parameters and forced ranked them in order of priority. I assigned each parameter a weight totaling up to 100%. This is what it looked like at the end of the exercise. While the weightages are somewhat arbitrary, they do serve the purpose of clarifying what was more important to us.

Web Hosting Selector Parameters

The next step was to come up with a list of companies I could evaluate based on these parameters. I turned to Google Keywords tool to come up with the list of web hosting companies. The idea was to find the most popular companies. After all, if a large number of people are searching for a product or service, it must have something going for it. Once I had the list, I turned to various reviews sites to collect and analyse data.
I ranked customer support number one because a company that cares about its customer would also invest in providing a solid, if not top of the line, service. I figured that every web hosting company will have some downtime so getting reliable and timely support was crucial. If the hosting company had a great customer support then it would proactively manage the outages and responded quickly to our complaints. This would take care of the most important problem we were facing with our web host.
I set a cut off of at least 4 on a rating scale of 5 for companies to make the short list for customer support. Five companies on my list made the cut, while two came pretty close (3.9). Surprisingly, some of the most searched for hosting companies did not make it. Was I missing something? Monthly search volumes for these companies were north of 100,000. Those are some serious numbers. So I decided to keep three of the most popular hosting services on the list for now. I also kept our current host on the list to see how it fared compared to others in the final evaluation. As our websites are on WordPress, I also included WP Engine, the managed web hosting service for WordPress. While it is technically not a shared hosting and costs a lot more, I kept WP Engine on the list as the information would be useful in future. Here is the final list of top 10 web hosting companies and my old host (Affiliate Alert: If you sign up for hosting with some of these companies,  we will receive an affiliate fee. I spent a lot of time writing this blog so if you find the article helpful, please help me pay for the numerous cups of coffee I gulped while writing it):

Siteground

Hostgator

Dreamhost

Arvixe

Inmotion Hosting

Bluehost

Web Hosting Hub

WP Engine

iPage

FatCow

GoDaddy

and here are their customer support scores:

Customer Service score of web hosting companies

 

Siteground and Inmotion Hosting took the pole position with GoDaddy, Dreamhost and Hostgator bringing up the rear.

Next up on the evaluation list was server speed.

Server speed has increasingly become important for good SEO. Both the major search engines, Google and Bing, rank faster loading pages higher in their search results. A fast server also means better experience for website users as the pages load faster. A fast server usually indicates a better technical infrastructure – better servers, more bandwidth and better network management. High server speeds also mean that the servers are not overloaded.

The last point is important as I was looking for a shared hosting solution. In shared hosting, multiple websites are hosted on the same server. If the server is overloaded by putting more sites than can be optimally supported, it will slow down your website. Surprisingly, none of the hosting review sites allow customers to rank the companies on this very important parameter. This is where couple of great blogs such as this one on WPsitecare came to my rescue. These bloggers / reviewers tested various hosting companies under similar usage and load conditions and recorded response times. I collected data from a few different blogs to avoid sampling error and to make sure I had data on all companies in the list.

Since most of our sites use WordPress, I was specifically looking for response times for web hosts running WordPress. Fortunately, most bloggers use WordPress sites for server testing. You should not worry though if you plan to use another content management system like Drupal or a custom developed website. Server speeds should remain consistent across applications unless you are running a complex application. Another point to note here is that the data is mostly based on shared hosting plans.

 While comparing server speeds may seem like a simple exercise, in reality, it isn’t. For example, a web host may serve a given page quickly but may not be able to hold up that speed over time. The speed will also drop as the number of users accessing the site at the same time increases. Servers are tested using automated tools which can simulate multiple concurrent users and record minimum, maximum and average response times. A good server is one that stays consistent as the load increases. Unfortunately, for most webhosting companies, server response is not very consistent. For my analysis, I looked at minimum and average response times to understand how long a typical user may have to wait before seeing a page load. I was looking for minimum server response time below 1 second and average response time below 2 seconds. I classified a web host as Fast is it met both these requirements. If the web host met only one of these, I ranked it Medium. Fortunately, all web hosts met at least one of the two requirements.

I should also point out that most hosting companies use security software that can detect automated traffic as it is also how denial of service attacks are initiated by hackers. Because of this, some webhosting companies can throttle or block traffic if they detect multiple users from the same source. This can cause unreasonably high response times during testing.

Here is how the web hosts on my list performed in terms of server speed:

 Server Speed Comparison for Best Web Hosting Companies

 As I wanted a numerical value for comparing the companies, I gave Fast servers 4.5 and Medium ones 3.5 out of 5. Not surprisingly, most companies who made the cut on customer support also ranked in the Fast quadrant. Arvixe was the only exception.

Selecting a web hosting company is a long term commitment. Most of us prepay for a year and get locked in as annual plans are cheaper. Even if you are not locked into a long term plan, moving websites is not easy. You can lose data and emails while moving hosts. Your website will likely be down during migration till the IP address of the new server propagates through the internet. This is why people do not like to switch their hosting companies.

I asked myself a simple question – if we were going to make a long term commitment, should we not expect the same from the company? Will it provide the same level of service in future that it is providing today?

Most webhosting review sites do not rate companies on consistency. But I figured it was an important parameter in our host selection process as we wanted an assurance that the new host will continue to tick all the boxes in future. Since there was no way I could predict what would happen in future, I decided to look into the past and see how different companies had performed over the years. As data was not readily available, I crawled through customer reviews written over a period of 3-4 years to see the trend. What I found was both interesting and shocking – most companies started well. The early reviews for most web hosting companies were good across most parameters.  But over the years, either due to complacency or problems that come with large number of customers, most companies failed to keep up the good work. Companies that started out as five star just 3-4 years earlier had now become three star with an increase in customer complaints.

I was particularly surprised that only a few companies had managed to keep their service standards high over even 3-4 year period. Webhosting is a tough business. Companies typically have thousands of small customers paying less than hundred dollars a year for shared hosting. Some customers do buy dedicated hosting plans costing a few hundred dollars a year but their number is small. Ensuring that the websites of thousands of customers keep running without a hitch and answering their question can be very expensive and difficult. Training new hires maintain the high standards of service and technical competence is difficult. No wonder only a handful of companies make the grade on consistency of hosting quality and customer service.

While I read through dozens of reviews for all major hosting companies, I found just a few who not only provided great service and support but did that consistently by looking at complaints. Even the best of companies have problems and unhappy customers. The real difference between a good company and a great one is how they handle these unhappy customers. I found only two or three hosting companies who bothered to respond to bad reviews. They would typically provide a history of the case, why the customer had faced the problem, provide a solution and apologize. I think it takes a lot of courage to publicly acknowledge a flaw in your product or service. The fact that these companies did that showed their honesty and commitment to providing a great customer experience. I also noticed that companies responding to complaints had been doing it since the beginning and across all major hosting review sites. I tracked the overall rating and review over time to determine if the service quality and support had deteriorated, stayed the same or improved over the years. Here is what I found:

Hosting service quality for best web hosting companiesweb hosting companies

Review of Customer Support of Web Hosting Companies

 

While website security may not be at the top of your lists, it is an important issue if you are trying to build an online business. Most of us think about website security in terms of vulnerability to hacking. But a far bigger problem for most sites is the issue of malware and spyware. Hackers can take over site, deface it and steal data. But they can also install a malware or spyware in your site. It can potentially infect all visitors to your site, including your own computers and damage your reputation. Search engines are pretty good at finding out if there is a malware on your site and will immediately flag your site as unsafe. The information can spread rapidly through the net and may result in loss of traffic. There can also be medium term damage as some of the sites may not remove malware warning even after you have cleaned up your site. While it is primarily your responsibility to manage the security of your site by using the latest version of software and applications, applying security patches and maintaining strong passwords, your web host can either be a big help or a big let-down. Good hosting companies provide strong server level protection and firewall. They will also alert you in case of any security breach. Most webhosting companies will help you clean up the site for a fee or provide instructions to do it yourself.

As I read through the reviews, I looked for instances of security breaches reported by customers and  help provided by the hosting company. I did find some but the good news is that most companies I was researching seemed to provide good support. Most of them provide clean up service for a fee as well as guidance if you want to do it yourself. However, as someone who has experienced a malware attack, I do recommend you take some precautions. At the minimum, subscribe to a Hack Alert monitoring service to get alerted in case of a malware attack. Some hosting companies bundle a deeply discounted hack alert service with hosting plans. If not, or if you don’t like it, find the one you can use by searching Google.

There are more sophisticated services than basic hack alerts which will not just monitor but event protect your site against malware and other common types of hack attacks. They will cost more money but may be worth it if your business depends on your website. As I did not find anything that would greatly differentiate hosting companies on the basis of security, I gave all of them the same score, except WP Engine. Since it is a managed hosting service, it provides much higher level of security than regular shared hosting plans can. If you recall, I was primarily researching shared hosting plans so if you are looking for a cloud or dedicated hosting, you should spend some time to find relevant information.

Next on the list was server uptime. You may be wondering why server uptime ranked so low in my scheme of things. After all, the reason I started looking for a new web host was the frequent outages at my old hosting company. The reason it ranks low is not because it is unimportant. After all, your site being up and running is the basic feature of any webhosting service. But as I explained earlier, the server uptime is actually a result of multiple things:

  • The IT infrastructure of the web hosting company
  • Companies commitment to keeping its customers happy
  • How secure its servers are

A good IT infrastructure ensures that servers are optimally loaded, well maintained and will not go down frequently. It does not mean the servers will never go down – nobody can guarantee 100% uptime – but a good infrastructure ensures website outages remain at a minimum.

I speculated that a web host which is committed to delighting its customers will ensure high uptime for its servers. Indeed, the data I dug up on different hosting companies shows that companies which provide high level of customer service also have least complaints about websites going down. It’s not a coincidence – high level of customer service indicates that the company cares about its customers and therefore will do its best to provide the best product or service it can. So by focusing on customer service and server speeds first, I ensured that I would end up with a web host with infrequent website outages. But I kept it on my list as a parameter to validate my assumption.

Cost was the last parameter on my list. I gave it the least importance in my evaluation. All of us want to buy the cheapest web hosting plan that will meet our business needs. But focusing excessively on cost can be counterproductive. I was looking for a hosting company that would meet my business objectives first. There is no point in buying the cheapest product or service if it does not meet your needs. That is not to say that cost is not important or you should not try to minimize it. What I wanted to do was find hosting companies who met our business needs and then select the one that was most affordable. My goal was to ensure that our website and email services remained up and if they did go down, they would be brought up quickly.

The cost of web hosting varies significantly depending on the plan you chose. For example, we have multiple websites and needed a plan that allowed us to host unlimited number of domains. I was also looking for a plan with unlimited data transfer as one of our websites sells online courses with downloadable content. This ruled out the starter plans from most companies. In my comparison, I only looked at shared hosting plans with unlimited domain hosting, unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage. The two notable exceptions were WP Engine (limited domains) and Siteground (25GB storage).

During this research, I realized that the price listed on the website of the companies is just that – an indicative list price. The plans are either on sale most of the time or you can find a discount coupon on the net. For this exercise, I used the lowest price I could get for each web host. Some companies like Siteground have standard discounts so you would not need to find a coupon. When you sign up, you know you are getting the best possible price. Some others such as Hostgator and Dreamhost allow affiliates to create their own coupons. In their case, you need to scour the web to find the best coupon but you are never sure if you are getting the best prices.  Here is how the companies on my list stacked up on cost:

Price of Hosting plans

 

You can see that there are three distinct price bands forming here. WP Engine is missing from this list as its managed WordPress hosing plans are way more expensive than shared hosting plans.

Once I looked at this chart, I knew why some of the companies are so popular – they offer really affordable web hosting plans. Everyone is not looking for the same level of hosting quality and service. Low prices have can swing the deal for many people, especially small businesses getting on the web for the first time or not sure about the returns. A lot of people also host personal websites and blogs. These folks favour the cheaper plans.

There are some fine prints you should be aware of when selecting a particular hosting plan. For example, check to see if the company offers free website transfers. Most hosting companies include transfer for one website free with an annual package. If you do not know how to transfer websites from one host to another then you will end up paying the hosting company between $50-100 for each site. Many times, the transfer fee can turn out to be more than an entire year’s hosting fee.

Finally, I had all the data for selecting my new web host. The whole data collection exercise took about four weeks. The analysis only took a few more days. After about a month of effort, I finally had a company that looked like the best for our hosting needs – Siteground.

While I was tempted to rank the companies based on how they fared on our selection criteria, I realized it was not going to be fair to the losers. Sure, they did not fit our needs but they may be a good fit for someone else with a different set of needs. So I tried to look for underlying drivers of business for each of these companies. I wanted to see who would find these companies to be a better fit for their web hosting needs. As I had expected, the analysis resulted in three distinct clusters of companies:

  1. Price warriors (The Walmarts of web hosting)
  2. Service Leaders (The Nordstroms of Web hosting)
  3. The In-betweens trying to balance cost versus value (think Target)

Each group has its advantages and disadvantages and the group you decide to go with depends totally on your business needs. Not surprisingly, I decided to go with the Service Leaders. Within the group, I ranked all three based on the cost of the most suitable hosting plan. It was a close contest but I decided to go with Siteground due to its overall leadership in the analysis.

We have been with Sitground for almost a year (I just received the renewal reminder) and I have to say they have been a delight to work with. It has not just been my best hosting experience; it’s one of my best experiences as a customer across the board. In over ten months, I think the site has gone down only twice and for just a few minutes each time. The email has been offline just once. But the best part is that I did not have to call them or raise a ticket for them to act. I did raise a ticket when the email went down but they were already aware of the problem and were already on the job. The service was restored in a few minutes.

While we are extremely happy with Siteground and will renew in May, it does not mean they best for everyone. For example, if you are trying to test multiple niches, you may want to go with a price leader such as Hostgator, Bluehost or Dreamhost.  Once you know which niche you want to go after and have some traffic to worry about, you may switch to a host that gives better service but may cost a little more like Arvixe. Most affiliate marketers and internet marketers would fit this description.

On the other hand, if you already have an established business or online presence and want to scale it up, you should look at Siteground, Web Hosting Hub, WP Engine (for WordPress sites) or Inmotion Hosting.

Additional things to consider when choosing a web host:

While choosing a web host, there are some hygiene things you should watch out for.

Check to see if the company provides free, one-click installs for common applications like WordPress and Joomla.  Luckily most hosting companies do that but you should still check it.

Look for the number of email ids you can create in your plan. Even if you need only 1 email id today, always plan for the future. Will you need to pay extra if you needed 5 or 50 email ids? You may not need unlimited email hosting but you should be aware of what you are getting and when you may need to pay extra.

Another important thing is the backup service. You should check to see of the backup service is included in the plan or not. Keeping a backup copy of your website is important in case something happens to the server or your website. Look for a service that backs up your website daily if you are going to be updating the site frequently.

PS: I will upload the Excel tool I created for my research after cleaning it up. You can use by assigning your own weights to different parameters and the tool will tell you the best hosting option for you. Check back in a few days for the update to this post.

I found the following review sites quite useful:

Web Hosting Geeks

Who Is Hosting This

Web Hosting Hero

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