Finding a hosting provider

Finding a hosting provider seems like it should be easy. There are so many of them, and they all offer deals of some kind, so it should be easy, right?

Well, yes and no. While it’s pretty easy to find a website hosting provider, it’s not always easy to tell the good hosts from the bad ones. Nearly all web hosts will have happy customers, and will have some customer testimonials on their websites, but that doesn’t mean they are the right host for you. Here are some things to look for when shopping for a host for your website.

HTTPS and Let’s Encrypt

Over the past few years, search engines and web browsers have started penalizing websites that don’t implement HTTPS [1]. Websites that use HTTPS are considered secure, as they have an encrypted connection between the website and the computers that are viewing them. This is useful for any site that has a login screen, which means almost any website built in the past ten years. Search engines penalize non-HTTPS sites by placing them lower in the search results, or by not indexing them at all. Web browsers also penalize these sites, by warning their users that they’re insecure and might pose a risk.

Websites that use HTTPS have a small file called a certificate to show that the website is encrypted. For a long time, the process of getting a certificate was expensive and technically demanding. It was fine for companies that had server admins who could take care of that stuff, but it was mostly out-of-reach for smaller companies or sites run by individuals. Then Let’s Encrypt came along.

Let’s Encrypt is a project that started in 2016 and is intended to remove the financial and technical burdens of acquiring certificates and setting them up [2]. Let’s Encrypt certificates are free of charge and many web hosts have an integrated process for setting them up. My current web host is Dreamhost and its use of Let’s Encrypt was one of the major selling points for me. Adding a Let’s Encrypt certificate to a website on Dreamhost takes one-click and just a few minutes. The web host I previously used offered Comodo certificates, but it was expensive, and since the process wasn’t automated, it might take a day or so.

Based on my experience, I recommend staying away from web hosts that don’t offer Let’s Encrypt certificates. These add value to their hosting services, so it’s well worth the effort to find a host that uses them [3].

Automatic installers

When I setup my first website dinosaurs roamed the Earth a long time ago, the host I used was very basic. I had to upload all of the files via FTP and setup the database on my own. By chance, I found out about a program called Softaculous which automates the process of setting up a website. I was stunned. Not only was it possible to install WordPress or MediaWiki, but they also have scripts that can automatically install hundreds of lesser known programs, like ZenPhoto or Coppermine gallery. Once I found out this was a thing, I quickly moved to another host that offered Softaculous.

Softaculous isn’t the only player when it comes to automated installers. They have some worthy competitors, such as Cloudron, Installatron, and others. Some hosts even roll their own auto-installers since only a handful of web applications are used on a regular basis. If you know what software you want to use to create your website, you can do a search for the software title and add the word “hosts” next to it. For example, you can search for WordPress hosts, Joomla hosts, Mastodon hosts, etc.

As with Let’s Encrypt, it’s best to go with web hosts that offer some sort of automatic installers. These greatly simplify the process of setting up a website, so it’s worth doing shopping around and comparing hosts that offer these installers.

Database access

It may seem odd that I recommend using automated installers, but also recommend having database access. It’s not something every person will need, but sometimes it’s pretty useful. It’s more useful if you’re like me and enjoy tinkering around with code. This is because people who enjoy working with code will eventually need to access the database to make sure their code is working properly. Most hosts that allow database access use phpMyAdmin, Adminer, or similar programs that make it easy to peek at the DB from a web browser.

While shopping for a web host, database access may be something you want to consider.

Backups

All web hosts should offer some method of automatically backing up your domain. Some will pack everything into one zip file, while others may create separate zip files for email, databases, and files. A web shot that doesn’t offer a mean of backing up your domain isn’t a host worth considering.

Most of my websites are pretty low traffic and don’t get changed that often, so I might only back them up once or twice a year. Other websites of mine might get a little more traffic, and I’ll back those up on a monthly basis. So far, I haven’t had so much traffic or new content to make daily or weekly backups seem worthwhile.

As rarely as I backup my sites, I wouldn’t consider a host that didn’t offer a method of creating backups that I can download and store on a computer of my own.

Email

This might seem obvious, but one of the best reasons to get a domain of your own is so you can setup a custom email address. I like to have one as a general email address to give to companies whose products I use. I take it as a given that they’ll spam me, but they may have deals and offers that interest me. I keep a separate email address for friends and family. It doesn’t get quite as much email, but it’s a reliable way to keep in touch.

All hosts I’ve dealt with have also offered email as part of their hosting packages, but it’s not available from all hosts. Given the prevalence of Gmail and Hotmail accounts, some hosts view email as a good place to cut costs.

Hosting and domain registration

In the previous article, I wrote about domain registrars that also offer hosting services, such as GoDaddy. There are also hosting providers that offer domain registration services, with Dreamhost being an example. There’s a bit of a caveat with this, however. While all domain registrars don’t sell all top-level domains, they offer more of them than hosting providers. Hosting providers prefer to concentrate on providing hosting, and offer domain registrations as an extra service, but only for commonly used TLDs. If you want to make things simple, and deal with as few companies as possible, I recommend finding a hosting company that also does domain registrations. However, if you can’t find a host that sells the TLD you want, then use a registrar to get the domain name, then find the best host based on other features.

Hosts and registrars slightly overlap in the services they sell, but it’s better to deal with them for their main lines of business. My recommendation is to buy domains from registrars and get hosting from companies who primary business is providing web hosting services.

References

1 Vaas, Lisa. “Google to Slap Warnings on Non-HTTPS Sites.” Naked Security (blog), September 9, 2016. https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2016/09/09/google-to-slap-warnings-on-non-https-sites/.
2 “Let’s Encrypt.” In Wikipedia, December 6, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Let%27s_Encrypt&oldid=992744769.
3 Let’s Encrypt Community Support. “Web Hosting Who Support Let’s Encrypt,” November 12, 2020. https://community.letsencrypt.org/t/web-hosting-who-support-lets-encrypt/6920.

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