For anyone who is not well versed in the concept of web design, owning and managing a website can seem daunting. Where do you start? For many users a free web hosting alternative like WordPress.com seems like the best option, and the question of self-hosted vs privately hosted domains remains a big one.

But with such a range of user-friendly CMS systems and “how-to” guides out there, it is increasingly easy to own, manage and understand your own site, and even to contribute to its front-end design.

Not only that, but it is cheap – a domain name can cost as low as £6.99, and web hosting ranges from around £1 to upwards of £100 per month depending on your demand. In today’s globalised and technologically empowered age, literally anyone can own a slice of the World Wide Web.

This article will take you through the very first steps of setting up your website, from the basics of what web hosting is to domain names and how to register a domain along with advice on finding the best web hosting company for your requirements…

You need 3 key things to get going:

  • A hosting plan
  • A domain name
  • And a CMS (Content Management System)

What is Web Hosting?

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The very first step of owning a website is to buy web hosting. As I mentioned above, a web host is a company that sells the metaphorical “land” for your website, or metaphorical “house”. In other words, web hosting is just a place to keep your website.

Hosting companies provide everything you need to set up and maintain your site, including storage space on a very powerful computer (server), internet connectivity, security and a number of other resources depending on the host.

It may not seem like it, but websites are literally just a collection of files – html files (the “bones” of your site that gives it structure), CSS (the aesthetics, controlling how your site looks), a number of other code languages and then your own written, image or video content. Web servers keep those files together, give them an IP address so that people can access them via the internet, and browse your beautiful site. Without a host, or server, your website would just be files saved on your computer.

You can buy a hosting plan with a web host provider, or you can simply set up your website with managed hosting included, like the websites on wix.com and wordpress.com. Managed hosting is where the company who sells you the domain name also hosts your site and deals with everything on the backend of your site – they manage it all! All you have to do is put in your content. But if you want a more malleable, creative platform that’s super unique and really fits with your concept, you should look into hosting your website separately. Either with shared hosting, VPS hosting, cloud hosting or with dedicated hosting.

Types of Web Hosting

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There are 4 main types of web hosting: shared hosting, virtual private server hosting (VPS), dedicated hosting and cloud hosting. All these categories are essentially the same – servers which host your website – but have different specs, including storage capacity, speed, reliability, privacy/control and the amount of technical knowledge you need in order to navigate them. They also vary in price! Here are some details on these 4 main types.

What is it? A hosting plan where there is one server storing many websites, potentially thousands!

 

This kind of hosting plan is usually cheaper, but can be less reliable as all the sites stored on the one server share that server’s resources, including its RAM and CPU. This kind of hosting plan is less able to deal with sudden spikes in traffic or a website that requires a lot of resources to run, and the performance of your site can be affected by that of the other sites on the server.

 

If your site has a low – moderate rate of traffic and you’re looking for the easiest, simplest form of web-hosting then this is the option for you. And though the structure of this type of plan in general means that your site may not be as reliable as you’d like, there are a number of hosting providers out there that do a pretty good job.

Our favourite shared hosting provider: eHost

What is it? Although this kind of plan still uses the one server, resources are not shared. The company divides the server into virtual servers, hosting each site separately.

 

This kind of hosting is more secure and allows you more control at a deeper level, with root access to your own virtual space. This is for those who need the kind of control and privacy of a dedicated server, but without the cost. One downside of this kind of arrangement is that, since your site is still stored on a shared space, its performance can still be affected by other sites on the server, and there is still a limit on how able the server is to handle traffic spikes to your site.

Our favourite VPS web hosting provider: 1 & 1

What is it? With dedicated hosting you rent your very own server and do not share it with any other sites. Your website is the only one stored on the server and using its resources.

 

Dedicated servers are the most secure and reliable way to host your website. All the resources on that server, from its RAM to the backup service offered or the hosting company’s security plan, are exclusively yours. You also have complete control over your site at a root level, allowing you to change server settings and add software) and the resources offered are usually more specialised.

 

The only real cost of this kind of plan is, well, the cost. Dedicated hosting is expensive, just like renting a whole house is far more costly than just paying for one room. We would only recommend this type of hosting to clients requiring absolute control over their site and maximum capacity for traffic and storage.

Our favourite dedicated hosting provider: Fat Cow

What is it? Cloud hosting is essentially a group of servers working together to host your site.

 

This type of hosting is a great way to cater to traffic spikes, since your site uses the combined resources of a number of servers – the load is totally balanced, and different aspects of your site’s requirements are used as they are needed. This offers a great potential for scalability – as your site grows you can access more and more resources – and can work out a lot cheaper than other types of hosting as you only pay for what you use. One downside is that you don’t usually have root access to your server.

Our favourite cloud hosting providers: iPage

Is Shared Web Hosting Powerful Enough for Me?

The answer to this question is that it depends on what you will be using your hosting plan for. Shared web hosting is ideal for small websites that don’t need too many private resources and don’t tend to get big spikes in traffic, since your website will be sharing resources such as RAM with other sites on the same server. This kind of plan is a great way to start out – it’s the easiest kind of web hosting and almost always the cheapest – but if you’re thinking of a longer-term, scalable kind of project then it’s best to invest in private or cloud hosting.

More on the Different Types of Web Hosting

Web Hosting Types – by W3 Schools READ

Web Hosting Analogies – by inMotion Hosting READ

What is a Domain Name?

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What is a domain name? It is exactly what it sounds like – a name for your “domain” on the internet. A name for your website. Some big examples of this are Google.com, Expedia.com, Amazon.com, etc. Before you buy a web hosting plan you have to register a domain name. Many web hosting providers offer domain registration as part of their package, and there is a fee involved that ranges from as low as $10 to several hundreds depending on the demand for that name. You may have to bid for your domain name if it is not available! But if you can’t find a .com name there are a range of options available, including .net and .co, and there are even country-specific options like .co.uk (the UK) and .au (Australia) that you can buy if you want to be affiliated with the country you work and live in.

 

Domain names are often confused with Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, but they are not the same. Every web server (computer, phone, etc) has an IP address, which is like it’s identity on the internet. This is the number that the internet uses to determine where to send you data, and it is invisibly translated into your domain name for ease of use. Can you imagine telling people that your website is called “11.453.52.13”? Not so easy to remember is it.

 

But while people use domain names, the internet uses IP addresses, not domain names, to identify servers. Internet Protocol is the method by which data is sent from one computer to another over the world wide web. Each computer (or host) has an IP address, made up of a unique string of numbers and full stops. When you send any form of data across the internet – photos, text, emails, web pages, etc. – it is broken into little bits called “packets”, and each packet contains the IP addresses of both the sending computer and the receiving computer. Kind of like a postal address and a return address.

Registering Your Domain Name

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The next step of owning a website is registering a domain, and with it a domain name. As mentioned above, web hosts tend to offer this service and like to make the process as easy as possible, but there are some details that are required by the main governing body for world wide web real estate – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). To regulate the interaction of servers online ICANN needs some info about you and your site. All customers who want to register a domain name need to give the following information about themselves:

  • Contact info for themselves, their organisation, business and in some cases their employees.
  • Residency (if you want to have a country-specific domain name you have to prove that you are a resident of that country and your business is registered there).
  • Purpose for website – for example only organisations can own a domain name with the .org suffix at the end, educational facilities have .edu and businesses can opt for .biz
  • Your DNS and MX record information, provided by your web host. These records determine how data is send to and from your website, and how your website is displayed to your readers. If you offer incorrect information you risk 404 errors, page-load failures and mistakes in communication.

 

Domains can be linked with sub domains, which are like states within a country or sub folders under your website’s main root directory. One big example of this is Yahoo mail. Yahoo.com is the main domain, a search engine, but it also offers a number of other services underneath that, including email. You can add a subdomain on top of your main domain if your web host provides that service, and you don’t have to go through the registration process again.

Your domain name has a record of your personal information, the registrants and contacts for the domain, and the domain’s expiry date. This is called a WhoIs record. ICANN requires domain owners to make this info freely accessible on WhoIS directories. A WhoIs record can be both useful and dangerous – if you want to know who the owner of a website is you can easily find out, and likewise should a hacker, stalker or scammer want to get into your site or send you false mail, they can easily gain access to your personal information. This is something that you should be aware of when entering into domain ownership – web hosting providers do offer security services, and if you’re on the lookout for spam email and scams telling you to “renew” your expiring site or to pay for some kind of domain service then you can avoid losing money and time to unethical companies.

How to Choose the Right Web Host for You

When you’re choosing a web hosting provider to host your website there are a number of things to look for, and number of others to watch out for. The usual sales phrases like “unlimited storage” and “money back guarantee” might sound like complete bargains, but in reality you will never need unlimited storage and for a company to guarantee you your money back doesn’t exactly fill you with faith about their product. Does it?

Each web hosting company offers a selection of plans at different rates and with different specifications. When you choose a company to work with you should look at the plans it offers, and choose a plan and a company depending on which one has the right specs for your needs. It’s best not to choose a web hosting company based on price, because at the end of the day an extra $5 per month for good quality security service or twice as much bandwidth is definitely worth it.

Different users will need different things from a web host. If you are a beginner and your site is not yet big you will need to tap into less resources. Your site will probably be fine on a shared hosting account, you may not need a lot of bandwidth and things like staging sites and CDN services may not be useful to you. If, however, you are looking to host a big site with big traffic and a big name, choosing a private or cloud hosting plan from a web host that offers top notch security and a range of more specialist resources is a good idea.

Here are a number of things to consider when choosing a web host and hosting plan for your website. And check out the links for some of our favourite resources on the subject.

If a web hosting company offers 99% uptime guarantee, their worth as a server provider automatically doubles. Think about it, if you’re using a server that cannot guarantee reliability in terms of uptime, your website could go down at any time.

Similarly, if your server is slow it will affect your customers’ experience of your site and product, and can even affect your search engine rankings. As you might expect, faster speed = better SEO ranking and user experience, which in turn leads to higher rankings and more interaction on your site.

What would either of these mean for your business or project? When you do your research check the reviews, and make sure you choose a company that doesn’t have hundreds of “downtime” or slow loading complaints.

One of the biggest problems for website owners is the issue of security. Even if you’re a seasoned coding professional the art of protecting your site from hackers and information stalkers can be very difficult, but for those who know nothing about web development it is almost impossible!

One significant part of protecting your site lies in the server itself. While there are many plugins available, such as WordFence, the biggest and most significant chunk of website security lies in the server itself. So what if you could buy a plan with a company that would literally go into your files and fix your site for you?

When choosing a host you should also consider your personal data and that of your customers – does your host offer an SSL Certificate? SSL certificates create complete, secure connections between a web server and a browser, and are used to protect you and your clients during transactions on your site. Some hosting companies offer a process for purchasing and implementing an SSL certificate on your website.

There are two things that you really don’t need in a web host, and that are ironically plugged by any hosting providers as key reasons to buy their products. Web hosts boast “unlimited storage” and “multiple domains” as a way to get you to buy, because they sound like such value for money, but in reality unlimited storage space is useless (you will never use it) and being able to host multiple domains on the one server is impractical. If you have more than one website on the one server, these websites will have to share that server’s resources. Always buy a new server for each website – it will be quicker, more scalable and more secure.

It can be hard to pick out what plans have good customer service, as it’s often difficult to know what the tech support of your hosting company will be like until you’ve already signed up. But it’s such a useful part of a hosting plan, especially if you are not a web developer and need guidance to work on the innards of your site.

Read reviews with a grain of salt since people like to complain, sometimes even when it is their own fault, and check out the web hosting company’s own specs. Many claim 24/7 customer service, but is this via phone or email? And is it with the core, expert team or a beginner hired to work the night shift.

Here are some other things to consider when choosing a web host, all of which are a bit more advanced and are more relevant to people looking to build more complex sites or large businesses. You can find out more about these things at the links below.

  • Does the web host offer server-side caching? Caching is a way to temporarily store recently used data, without needing to get into a main database to access it. Server-side caching speeds up your users’ access to your website, and makes it all run smoothly.
  • Does the web host offer staging sites? This is a kind of preview feature where you can move your site to a “staging area” to test plugins, themes, updates and other features before going live with them. Staging sites are useful for users who want to test big changes on their site without it being visible to their readers, before implementing them.
  • How scalable is the plan? Make sure that the server you choose will be able to grow with your website in terms of resources. This is where people get confused by “unlimited storage” and “multiple domains” – you want your hosting plan to be able to accomodate any potential future expansions for your site, right? Yes, and while having unlimited storage and the ability to host multiple domains on one server is not really useful, having adjustable limits of other resources, like bandwidth, is very useful! Cloud hosting is perfect for this, since you have a lot of resources available but pay for only the resources you need at the time.
  • Does the web host offer CDN services? A CDN service or Content Delivery Network service does exactly that – it delivers content. CDN services can be used cache content for your clients and deliver it to them quickly, bypassing that annoying delay you sometimes get between requesting a web page and loading it. There are a number of reasons to use them, and a number of reasons why you should not! Check out the links below.

More on advanced web host specs:

  • 5 Ways Your Hosting Company May be Bending the Truth – by Claire Broadley READ
  • How Website Speed Influences Google Ranking – by Billy Hoffman READ
  • Why Do You Need a Staging Environment?— by Chris Lema READ
  • 11 Questions (and answers) About Content Delivery Networks and Web Performance — by Kent Alstad READ
  • The Basics of CDN – by GTMetrix READ
  • 7 Reasons Not to Use CDN Services – more like a list of 7 things to consider when you’re choosing a CDN provider, by Craig Buckler READ

More on What to Look for in a Web Host

19 Things to Look For in a Web Hosting Company – by Envato Tuts READ

Common Web Hosting Problems (And How to Avoid Them) by The WHIRREAD

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