One surprising benefit of starting your own website: your vocabulary grows! You start to see words like “web hosting” or “front-end interface” on a regular basis; you begin to pick apart specific acronyms like IP and SEO from random alphabet-soup amalgamations. Sure, you still don’t know what these words or acronyms actually mean, but you’re certainly familiar with them!
In this guide, we’ll help in answering at least one of your questions: What is web hosting? It’s really not as complicated or technical as you think—we won’t mention a single line of code, we promise. Instead, we’ll explain everything you need to know as someone starting a site: how it works, the different types, and what to look for.
What is web hosting, really?
In a nutshell, web hosting is where you store (or host) your site’s data: media, formatting, backups, etc. Site data is stored on a server—including cloud servers—and your customers access those servers directly when they visit your site.
Servers are pretty complex hardware, so most people rent server space from a web hosting provider. You can think of a web hosting company as a landlord, leasing out server space to various renters, but also maintaining that space like how landlords make sure their tenants have “hot water.”
On the bright side, a lot of the best website builders provide hosting as part of their packages, including Wix, Squarespace and Shopify. If you’re using one of them, you don’t need to worry about web hosting at all. If you’re still having trouble deciding, check out our guide to choosing the right website builder for you.
Even if your hosting is handled, that doesn’t mean your work is over. Hosting does not cover areas like your domain name (which is the same thing as your URL or web address). Although some hosting companies sell domain names as a side gig, buying an unused domain name is a separate service.
Likewise, web hosting doesn’t always include secondary features like email capabilities or website design, although they’re occasionally included in hosting packages. Don’t expect these kinds of services from your web hosting provider, any more than you’d expect your landlord to help you pick out throw pillows or other interior design choices.
5 main types of web hosting
Unless you know how to build and maintain your servers yourself, chances are you’ll need to work with a web hosting company. As mentioned above, some of the website builder platforms include hosting when you sign up, so in a sense they are your web hosting provider.
But some of them do require outside hosting (like WordPress), or maybe you just want to create your site without a template-style builder, in which case you’ll need to work with a hosting company. Below, we discuss the five most common types of web hosting, so you have an idea of what to look for.
One of the most common forms of web hosting, shared hosting is when different sites are hosted on the same server and share the same resources. This benefits the hosting provider because they can more efficiently use their servers, and the client gets a better price because they’re not paying for a whole server. The downside is that you don’t have a lot of space for yourself, so it only works for sites that don’t receive much traffic.
Also known as Virtual Dedicated Server (VDS), a Virtual Private Server (VPS) is a step-up from shared hosting. Technically, you still share the same server with other clients, but everyone has a set amount of allocated resources—not quite the free-for-all of shared hosting. It costs more than shared hosting, but not as much as dedicated hosting.
Dedicated hosting is when you have the entire server to yourself—no sharing. This gives you resources to handle lots of traffic and more involved media, but costs more. Dedicated hosting is more for established websites that can put the extra space to use.
The newest type of hosting, cloud hosting stores your site’s data in the cloud instead of a server. This protects your data from local power shortages or equipment failures, not to mention you’re only charged for the resources you use, so the cost is both reasonable and scalable.
What’s the downside? Some critics protest that cloud hosting is less secure, but these myths have largely been disproven. In short, cloud hosting is just as safe as the others.
Managed hosting isn’t a type of web hosting like shared, VPS, dedicated or cloud—it just refers to when your service provider manages your data for you, on top of security and maintenance. The idea is, for an extra fee, you can use their own expert staff to manage your account. This is the popular choice for people who don’t want to bother with the technical aspects; otherwise, you may need to hire an internal IT professional.
Advantages of web hosting
After “what is web hosting,” the second most common question is, “do you need it?” Often you don’t—as we mentioned above, many website builders take care of it for you. But sometimes you do need it, and even if you’re tech-savvy, there are still advantages to using a web hosting service over doing it yourself.
Some sites require it
For starters, web hosting is essential if you’re building a site on certain platforms. The biggest is WordPress—sure, that’s just one platform, but that one platform powers almost half (39.5%) of all websites. So roughly 40% of websites will require an outside hosting service, including any e-commerce sites that plan to use WooCommerce.
Hosting providers, even if you opt out of managed hosting, provide the basics for server and data maintenance. For one thing, this ensures you never miss a scheduled upgrade or forget to back-up your data regularly. But moreover, you can rest easy knowing your data is in the hands of a professional.
Perhaps the strongest advantage of hosting is security. Cybercrime gets more sophisticated every day, but hosting providers stay on top of the latest preventions and protections. They have to—one of their primary jobs is keeping client data safe.
Hosting affects all the significant areas of website performance, including loading speeds and bandwidth. If, for example, your small site suddenly goes viral overnight, the increase in traffic could overload a small DIY server.
Not only do hosting providers ensure that your site stays live (or they should—it’s called an “uptime guarantee,” explained below), but they can also incorporate content delivery networks (CDN) to your hosting. CDN is when your site data is stored geographically close to your user, so that the site loads faster. This can be too complicated to handle on your own, but some hosting providers have everything you need ready to go.
How to pick the right hosting service
If you need a web hosting provider, there’s plenty to choose from. Too many, in fact—competition is fierce, as you might expect by the number of people who want their own websites. So how do you determine which one is best for you? We offer some advice here.
List the features you want beforehand
Hosting providers come in many different sizes—big and small, expensive and cheap. The trick is to find one with what you need and little extra; you only want to pay for the features you’ll use.
Make a list of what you want beforehand, and then reference it when browsing service providers. Not only does this ensure nothing slips through the cracks, it also makes it easier (and faster) to sift through all your different options.
We cover some of the standard features below, but also consider some of the non-essential ones, such as 24/7 customer support. If you’re the kind of person who always has questions and prefers direct communication, support can make a big difference.
Bandwidth and traffic
More than anything else, bandwidth and traffic determine which hosting package you need. Small sites can skirt by with minimal hosting, but as soon as you start getting lots of traffic, you’ll need to upgrade your hosting or else risk your site going down.
Unfortunately, if this is your first site, you’ll have to estimate how much you’ll need. If you’re expecting a swift success, choose a hosting plan that allows for scalability in a pinch. Otherwise, start small and expand only when necessary.
Likewise, if you’re using large media files, like high-definition videos or advanced visual effects, you’ll need more expensive hosting packages to accommodate that storage space. If you’re using standard photography and/or only a few video clips, standard hosting storage should suffice.
Depending on your business model or managing styles, you might want to consider some optional features as well:
- Uptime guarantee—a clause in your contract guaranteeing 99% or 100% uptime means your site will almost always be live.
- SSL Certificate—a certified Secure Sockets Layer is a security measure that provides an encrypted (safe) connection between your users and the server. Since 2018, sites without SSL are marked as “Not Secure” on Chrome, so you’ll likely lose visitors without one. If your hosting provider doesn’t offer one, you’ll have to get it yourself.
- SEO tools—a lot of SEO happens behind the scenes, so if SEO is crucial to your business strategy, make sure your hosting provider takes care of it on their end.
- Renewal fees—here’s a trick some hosting providers pull: they offer low cost startup packages, but raise the price for renewals after everything is already “moved in.” Check renewal fees before signing up, and watch out for pushback if you want to switch to a different hosting company.
Aside from that, check out peer reviews and ratings before signing up. There’s plenty of honest service providers out there, but you still have to watch out for the bad apples.
Conclusion: Hosting is just the beginning
Getting the web hosting you need is just the beginning—you still need to design the site according to your industry, branding, business model and style tastes. Luckily, you can hire a “service provider” for that as well.