Why is getting your web hosting provider right so important?
As a small business owner, the hosting for your small business website and your emails, may not seem like a big deal. In fact, if you ask most small business owners who they use for web hosting, they may have to think twice in order to name the hosting company.
For small businesses, picking a web hosting company can be complicated and confusing, you will see lots of adverts that promise trustworthy, safe and inexpensive hosting. Many people just opt for buying hosting from the company they bought their domain name from without giving it any further thought.
For larger businesses, picking a web hosting company tends to be easier as they will typically already have servers in a private or shared data centre or they will have servers in one of the cloud vendors such as Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services), Google gCloud or Microsoft’s Azure. For these businesses, adding additional compute and storage for a new website is a relatively small decision and they will normally have systems architects and developers to design and implement this for them. If you are looking to create a departmental, business unit, or regional site within a large organisation, I highly recommend that you reach out to your internal IT organisation to see what hosting they can provide before you look for solutions out of house.
The snag is that, although the advertising is slick and repetitive making you feel like ‘oh, I have heard of them, therefore, it must be ok.’ I am here to tell you, based on my many years of experience, that the quality of hosting companies varies a lot more than you might think.
Choosing your web hosting service and email hosting company should not be a 2-minute decision for a new business, as it is one of your most important decisions if you want your website and emails to work well. This is simply because it is the foundation upon which your website and therefore an important part of your business and digital Marketing exists.
What is it that the small business owner should look for when hosting for their website and possibly their emails too? Here is my list of things to consider when setting up your website and email hosting:
Register you domain with a different company to the one you use for hosting
When you are starting an online business or a website for bricks and mortar business, you will need to pick a domain name and get it registered. In general, I advise my clients not to host their email and website with the same company that they use to register and renew their domain name. This is because if you put all your eggs in one basket and something goes wrong with that service provider you may have difficulty getting control of your domain so you can move it to another host. So my first tip is to register your site with someone like 123reg or LCN and then host elsewhere. If the web host goes out of business or suffers a serious technical failure you can then just log into your domain registrar and point your domain to an alternative hosting company, restore your backup and be up and running again quickly. If you have more than one website, do try and stick with one domain registrar as while they all offer the same services you can waste a lot of time learning the control panel they offer for tweaks to your DNS and Name Server settings.
Do you want an online store?
Why is CIA important when considering small business web hosting?
If you want to sell goods and services on your website and take payment by credit cards, in my view this instantly increases the requirements for what cyber-security experts call CIA (Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability). You will be processing customers personal data, so under the law, you have a duty to take measures to ensure it is secure. You also need to ensure that the software which is running your website is being kept up to date by someone, as out of date software is a primary cause of stores being hacked. Availability, as the name suggests means making sure your website stays online but less obvious, it’s also the ability to quickly restore it and get it running again if there is a failure at your hosting company.
Maintenance / Support packages for your online store
For an online store, your main choices are WooCommerce which is made by the same company that created WordPress. If you go that route, you will need a maintenance contract or support package with your web developer unless you have good technical skills and experience with these systems. The other option is to go with Shopify, where they offer a full managed service… but do see my discussion later about site builders as much of that applies here as well.
WooCommerce v Shopify
This topic is too big to cover in full here, but I do strongly suggest you try and list out all the features you require from your eCommerce online store. While WooCommerce is free, you may depending on your requirements, find yourself needing paid for plugin modules. These are not necessarily expensive, but they can start to add up, but less obviously the complexity of your eCommerce store, and the risk that something might go wrong, increase with each additional plugin. It’s not always an easy choice. Look at the features you need, and work out the total operating cost over three years for both options.
Don’t go cheap – with web hosting for a small business you get what you pay for
Don’t just pick the cheapest hosting package you can find or the one which just looks like it has the most affordable price. I have lost count of how many small business owners I have met who have said of their hosting company, ‘Well they seemed ok, and they are cheap, so I went for them!’ How many things did you buy for your business where cheapness was the only factor? Not many, I expect. The problem is, you don’t buy web and email hosting every day, so you have no sense of quality, as perhaps you would for office stationery, furniture, accounting services etc. I warn you, with web hosting you do get what you pay for. Cheap hosting will be cheap for a reason and will usually have important features missing and there will be lots of hidden charges for adding these later and you will likely suffer poor response times when your site or their server is under any significant load.
Email Hosting for a small business
You should have your business email and website on the same domain. If you are giving out gmail.com, outlook.com or btinternet.com type free or ISP email addresses to clients it makes you look at best like a very small business and at worse unprofessional. Your email address should be like email@example.com. The good news is, you don’t have to host your email and your website with the same company. Most web hosting companies can provide this service but you might also want to consider Microsoft Office 365. This allows you to use all the tools you would have in a big company, including Outlook for email. To do this you set up an Office 365 subscription with Microsoft and then point the MX (Mail Exchange) records in your domain account at your domain registrar to the mail servers at Microsoft.
If you want a simple email set-up check that your hosting provider doesn’t limit the number of email accounts you can have and that they include a good webmail interface as well as instructions for using their email hosting from your Mac, PC and iPhone.
Speed of your website
The speed at which your website loads is extremely important. It might not seem too bad, as you sit in your home office with your laptop and the homepage takes 4 – 5 seconds to load. Well, unfortunately, it is. If a potential customer is loading your website on their mobile phone using 4G, that 5 seconds for your website to load on your laptop can increase to 9 or 10 seconds. By which time, the potential client has clicked away and your opportunity of a new client has failed. This is not what you wanted for the business that you have put your heart and soul into. This may seem secondary, but as far as Google and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) are concerned, speed is of the utmost importance and if your site is slow, it will count against it in the Google rankings.
Location of Servers
The location of the hosting company’s data centres and servers is essential for a fast website. Ask where their servers are located. They should be located in the same country as your business operates from or where the bulk of your customers are based if you trade internationally. I have seen businesses based in the UK where their website is hosted by GoDaddy on servers in the US. For their customers in the UK this adds the best part of a second or more to the time it takes to load their website. The extra time is literally a factor of physics, and the hops it takes the data to travel from the US, under the sea, into the London internet hub and out to the user somewhere in the UK.
Why is location still important with cloud hosting
You will hear some vendors say they are using ‘cloud hosting’. This probably just means they are sub-contracting the hosting to someone like Amazon AWS. At the end of the day, there will still be a physical server located somewhere. So, if they say they are using Cloud Hosting, make sure they are using a public cloud vendors availability zone in your country to host your website.
Free CDN / Included CDN (Content Distribution Network)
So while the web hosting should be as close to the bulk of your customers as possible, you will still have customers around the country and around the world. You should therefore make sure your web hosting included a Content Distribution Network (CDN). This is a network of servers around the country and around the world that they manage, and which will include copies of your website. This means that even if your hosting is in London when someone in New York calls up a copy of your website, the pictures are served from a copy held in New York rather than London. In addition to improving the locality of the website data, CDN’s also help to reduce the load on your web server itself, making it more scalable.
This is similar to CDN, but at the webserver level. Your web server is the big version of your laptop or PC. The web pages and pictures are stored on a disk. When someone visits your website the page and pictures are read from the servers disk storage and returned across the internet to them. Many websites, for example, those using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, also store data in a database which is stored on a disk. In those cases, when a page is accessed, the database is queried and data from it is merged with assets stored on disk. This is all great while the traffic to your website is relatively low or at a consistent level. Then one day, maybe your business is featured in the press and you get a spike in traffic. At that point, the data can’t be pulled from the disk and database fast enough to satisfy demand and your website will go offline. Good web hosting companies include caching options. I won’t go into too much detail here, but you should know that these caches mean that the most frequently accessed pages and images on your website are held in the server’s memory and can be returned instantly. Caching can make an enormous difference to the speed at which your WordPress site loads for customers, search engines and its stability under spikes from media events and peak trading days like Black Friday and Christmas.
Reliable Uptime, also known as Availability
If you are a new small business, you might think, a little downtime won’t hurt, after all, you don’t have many visitors to start with. This is wrong, Google and other search engines notice downtime and so do the visitors that you have. It creates a bad start in the online world where you need to look an authority in your area. In my experience, good hosting companies where you are paying more for the service will have your website on multiple servers and in multiple availability regions, so that if there is a serious failure in for example the UK, they can continue to keep your website online from Ireland or the Netherlands. But you really can’t take this type of service for granted. I recommend that you assume that unless the web hosting company list ‘multiple availability zones or words to that effect that they don’t provide that feature as standard. You should ask the question, “if the primary data centre hosting my website is destroyed, how long will it take you to get my site online again and how will you restore service?” I tend to favour web hosting companies that work with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft Cloud Services for this reason as they have more recovery options.
You may see some vendors offer an uptime guarantee, in my view, most of these are worthless. At best these vendors will offer you a service credit for the period of the unplanned outage. If you are running a busy online store, or your website is used for making bookings the loss of trade during the outage is very unlikely to be covered by whatever compensation the hosting company claim they will offer.
Planned and unplanned outages
All service providers will from time to time give notice of scheduled outages. This can be quite telling. The better hosts seldom have to give notice of a planned outage as they have the capacity to migrate your site, while it is running to another server or to another data centre. Even some of the big names you see advertised are far from perfect. I once had a hosting company who should have known better give two weeks’ notice in November that they intended to take a busy e-commerce store down over a weekend for maintenance during their busy Christmas trading period.
Every day thousands of small business websites get hacked. This may not be obvious to start with as hacks often involve malware being planted to infect your customer’s computers. Increasingly malware is used to install cryptocurrency mining apps that will run in the background in your customer’s web browsers when they visit your web pages.
Web Application Firewall (WAF)
Several good hosting companies now include Web Application Firewalls (WAF) and other security features to help protect your site. If these are not included, and you are running WordPress you should price in a solution like WordFence to add the necessary layer of security. As a minimum make sure the security layer enabled Multi-factor Authentication (MFA) as protection against stolen and cracked passwords.
A WAF intercepts common hacking attempts and blocks them before they can affect your website. If a security issue is found with WordPress or one of the Plugins you are using the risk can be mitigated by adding a rule to the WAF to block the attack vector. This can often be arranged within a few hours of the attack vector becoming know. Without a WAF, the software vendor would need to patch their plugin and issue an update, something which is likely to take at least 24 hours and probably several days at best.
Does your website need to provide online video and audio?
In the small print of most web hosting packages, they will exclude the hosting of audio and video files. This is because of the bandwidth they take up. If this is a requirement of your new website then make sure this is on your list and look at specialists. Hosting video on YouTube may be an option, but generally, I advise against it as visitors will see adverts for competitors and links to their videos. It is generally better to use a service like Vimeo for hosting videos and then embed these videos into your website. Specialists video hosting providers add a lot of value by doing things like video transcoding. This means that a mobile user on a slow connection receives a low bandwidth stream, whereas someone at home on fast broadband may receive a full 4K video stream.
Customer Support & Customer Service
This is an important area as you need peace of mind to know that when you have a problem or query you have access to quick and effective support. Make sure you understand the support level you will be receiving. How long is the hosting company’s response time? If they offer an online chat, is this available out of hours and at the weekend? I once saw a hosting company that removed its online chat icon facility at the weekends.
Make sure you have 24×365 support
If your website goes down on a Friday afternoon, do you want to wait until Monday before support even starts to look at it. Is this the kind of service, you want to offer your clients? An incomplete service for you means an incomplete service for them.
Make sure the hosting company provide quality support as standard
In my experience, the quality of technical support offered by hosting companies varies greatly. I have never had a problem with Siteground, they tend to bend over backwards to please. On the other hand, some others simply don’t want to know when something isn’t working and others will do anything you want but will want to charge an additional technical support fee.
Check they have an extensive knowledge base
The better hosting companies will also have an extensive knowledge base of helpful articles to explain all the most frequent issues their customers experience with their service and the recommended solutions.
Do they have an online chat facility?
I also look for hosting providers who offer a 24×365 online chat facility for technical support. This can make life a lot easier than trying to resolve a problem via email or worse still over the phone.
How often does a hosting company backup your website? Do you have to pay extra for this service? How many copies of the backup do they keep? Do they keep their backups in the same data centre as the server your website is hosted on? In 2021 a major data centre run by OVH caught fire and was destroyed. It was at that point some of their customers found out they didn’t have a proper backup strategy and their data, website and possibly business were gone for good.
Good hosting companies have more than one data centre and will keep a copy of your data in a location well away from your live website.
Software Updates and vulnerability patching and mitigation
How up to date are the servers the hosting company uses? If a hosting company is charging a very low amount, it is likely it is not able to invest as much into its own internal systems/servers. Good web hosting companies will have the latest versions of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP as well as mitigations and patches in place for older versions.
Ease of software installation
If you want to run WordPress or another popular application, it is worth asking if the hosting company provides pre-configured images of these applications to simplify installation and updating. Good hosting companies maintain their own repositories (like an app store) of trusted images for the most popular packages. This can save you a lot of time downloading these from elsewhere and having to upload them to a new host. If this isn’t something you do on a regular basis you could fall foul of a supply chain attack and pick up a copy of a package that has been tampered with by a hacker.
An SSL certificate is the padlock bit that appears at the beginning of a website. This is seen as being essential by Google and builds in assurance with your customers that all is secure. Good hosting companies offer free SSL certificates via Let’s Encrypt. Their free SSL Certificates should be set up with automatic renewal. In my experience, these work well and remove the worry of having to renew certificates purchased from third parties. Some hosting companies charge extra for this, so beware of all costs, including hidden ones. All websites in 2022 and beyond should have an SSL Certificate installed so that the web session has end to end encryption.
Check year two costs
Make sure you look at the 2nd year costs as usually hosting companies provide a discount for year 1 and you then pay a lot more in subsequent years. This is OK if you are expecting it but can come as a nasty surprise to some. I always advise calculating what the costs will be over 3 years.
Do you need to host Java or Python Web Apps?
Most hosting companies do not include support for hosting Java and Python Applications by default and many don’t have options to upgrade to add this support. If you suspect you will need to host a custom application written in a language other than PHP I recommend you look at specialist hosting options.
Dedicated server versus Virtual Private Server (VPS)
A dedicated server literally means you will have a piece of hardware in a data centre allocated to running just your website. This may sound great but in reality, most technology companies have long since moved to host applications on virtual machines (VM’s). These are easier to upgrade and migrate from one host to another and from one data centre to another. A few years ago it was quite common to buy a server and pay to host it in a rack at a data centre or to rent one which they provide. I would avoid this now unless you have a specialist application and know you have a specific reason for needing this. Virtual Machines or Virtual Servers vary greatly in quality. Lower cost hosting providers use VPS hosting / Plesk type solutions. As you pay more the virtualisation software gets more sophisticated and robust. Some operators will be using VMWare, others will be creating a VM or Docker container on another VM running on cloud servers provided by Amazon, Microsoft or someone else.
Lower cost hosting providers will overprovision hardware. This is basically, selling the same capacity multiple times, in the hope that not all the clients use all the capacity they have bought and if they do, hopefully, they don’t use it all at the same time. To some extent, all data centre operators do this but some are better than others. Some will spot that servers are becoming overloaded and move workload around to better balance the performance of servers.
Be cautious of offers that promise Unlimited Disk Space, Unlimited Storage and Unlimited Bandwidth (aka Unmetered bandwidth). There will usually be small print which limits what you can really do. Unlimited Disk Space, for example, is often limited by inodes, which is indirectly associated with Disk Space, but is a term you don’t recognise is easily missed. Even if they don’t limit inodes, they are likely to limit CPU utilisation and will take your website offline if it exceeds maximum CPU usage for the size of the server you have purchased.
Try and understand the options offered by vendors basic plan and shared hosting plan, business plan.
Buy what you think you are going to need over the next three years and ask your provider what is involved in upgrading to the next level of hosting.
Some hosting companies will bundle in their Website Builders, these are simple alternatives to WordPress. I don’t recommend using these. I have written an article Wix Versus WordPress which explains why.
I also notice now that several big web hosting companies are offering website design services. I have no direct experience of these but I do have a lot of experience of designing websites for clients. In my experience building, a website for a client is a highly collaborative process involving lots of phone calls, meetings and emails. I can’t imagine these large companies are providing anything like the personal service and advice you will get from a local web designer.
Watch out for free domain name scams
I have noticed a few hosting companies now offering free domain names. There can be lots of catches with this, for example, expensive year two renewals. I have also seen some which try and sell you a lot more than you need, for example, the .co.uk version and the .info, the .uk, the .com and even the .org.uk. If these all auto-renew on year two, you could be paying them the best part of £100 for domains you are unlikely to need.
WordPress Hosting v Managed WordPress Hosting
Almost all the hosting services I have seen will host a WordPress Web Site for you. To many WordPress is just another application and they have no particular skills in the WordPress application itself. This contrasts with specialists who offer a managed WordPress hosting service. These companies will have staff who have a deep understanding of the WordPress Database, install options, site migrations and issues caused by the most popular plugins. Many managed WordPress vendors will provide their own set of plugins for things like:
- Image Optimisation
- Site migration from an old host to them
Having a stack of plugins that is fully supported by your managed WordPress vendor, and which are known to work well together is a great benefit. You would normally need to add these to a cheap plan at additional cost, and that carries the additional risk that you pick plugins that don’t work so well together.
In addition to these services, most managed WordPress hosting vendors will also offer development and customisation services if you want something a little unusual. They also often offer malware clean-up services should your site ever get hacked. For managed WordPress hosting look at companies like Siteground and WP Engine.
Do I need a Windows Server?
Some hosting companies will offer you a choice between a Linux server and a Windows Server. Unless you have a specific reason to use a Windows server, such as maybe having a custom asp.net application, going with Linux is a good choice. Although Windows was popular on desktop PC’s, these days most of the servers attached to the Internet run Linux.
Take your time.
Whatever you decide, take your time, do your homework, and don’t believe the marketing hype of the large hosting companies that need thousands of customers to function. They are not as focused on their Clients’ needs as they should be and do not have dedicated knowledgeable support staff.
In a general article like this, I can’t say who are the best web hosts as so much depends on you, your business, and your growth plans. I have worked with most of the domain registrars and hosting vendors out there. My business offers fully managed website hosting, covering everything from domain names, hosting, WordPress, WooCommerce, custom development, backups etc. If you would like a private conversation about what would be best for your business, see my Fully Managed WordPress Hosting site here.
Additional frequently asked email and web hosting questions
What is the best email hosting for small business UK?
As above many web site hosting packages include email hosting, for example see SiteGround. You don’t have to have your email and your website at the same hosting provider. If your business outgrows the email capabilities of your web site hosting company I either recommend Microsoft Office 365 or Google gSuite. If you have employees that have worked in larger companies with Outlook and Exchange Servers then the Microsoft solution will feel very familiar to them. You can use the same domain name as your website for your email with any of these providers. Technically it is just a matter of adding or updating the relevant MX (Mail Exchange) entries on your DNS (Domain Name Server)
What is the Best web hosting for small business uk?
I recommend you review the above points. Currently for my own clients I use SiteGround as they have proven to have great support, availability and performance over several years.