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Web Hosting Beginner’s Guide

Learn the Fundamentals in Web Hosting: How does it work, what’s a domain name & the difference between web hosts.

We’ve all done this:

You grab your phone or computer, open a tab, and browse the web.

Well all do it, but very few of us stop to think about how it all works. How does something go from an idea, to an entire website? 

In this expansive guide, I’ll introduce you to the world of hosting with the ultimate hosting beginner’s guide. Here are the chapters we’ll be covering:

 

Chapter One: What is Web Hosting Anyway?

Let’s start from square one. If you’re already familiar with hosting and how websites function behind the scenes, skip on ahead to chapter two. If you’re looking for the full course, here’s what we’re covering in chapter one:

  • Underneath it all, what’s a website?
  • The types of websites on the World Wide Web
  • Where everything is stored
  • The purpose of a hosting company

 

Underneath it All, What’s a Website?

Beneath the cool images, the interactive animations, the embedded videos, and all those glorious words, are lines and lines of code and data. The skeleton of a website is a complex and beautiful thing, but it’s mostly complex.

Luckily, you won’t ever have to touch anything that complicated unless you want to. Creating a website is easy with all the tools on offer these days.

As you’re browsing the web, you’ll come across different types of websites and online applications. Here are three examples of the different website types:

  • A Collection of Static Pages – This is the most basic form of a website. Here you’ll see pages that don’t change and typically display the same information regardless of when you visit. For these types of sites, you’re simply looking at a document that someone uploaded.
  • An Online Application – These are programs that run on the internet. They can be anything from your Gmail account, to your Facebook page, to the online games you play in your browser.
  • Content Management Systems (CMS Websites) – This category covers websites that were made using a platform like WordPress. Most websites these days (blogs especially) are made using this type of technology. These websites store the content in a database, so when you click a link or pull up a post, your web browser is requesting that document for you to view.

 

When you enter a website address in your browser, your computer sends a request to the server where that website it stored. This request could be for a page, a document, or an application. The address you type into the search bar acts as that initial request.

The content you request is then delivered to your web browser by the server and you see it on your screen. This exchange happens, ideally, in less than a few seconds.

Can I Host My Own Website?

When we talk about servers, it’s nothing complicated. They are simply computers build with the ability to send and receive requests. Given this, you could, theoretically, create your own server and host a website yourself, but this isn’t a great idea.

Beyond the knowledge to set up the server yourself, you would need the capacity to handle all of the users trying to access your website. It made be a few here and there at first, but once people start flooding your pages, your server will most certainly crash.

Even if you had a server capable of handling the traffic, the bandwidth needed would far exceed what internet companies offer these days. Top that off with maintenance and it’s clear that running your own server isn’t the way to go.

It is for these reasons that hosting companies exist, and website owners (myself included) are very happy they offer these hosting services from their own data centers.

So, let’s explore the purpose and services offered by a hosting company.

Today’s Web Hosting Companies

Now that we know how websites are stored on specialized computers known as servers, this is where a hosting company comes into play. These companies own data centers that are filled with hundreds of thousands of servers.

When you purchase a hosting plan, you’re essentially leasing a space on one of these servers. Using tools like WordPress, you’ll create and store all of your website’s information in this space.

Depending on the type of plan that you choose, you’ll have additional control over space you are renting, or may even have an entire server all to yourself!

The hosting company is responsible for keeping your files and your website safely stored on a server. When people want to access your site, these computers are equipped to handle the request.

So, let’s summarize:

Chapter One Summary
A website is a collection of pages or files stored on a server somewhere in the world. These servers, offered by hosting companies, have space on them to store multiple websites which are accessible to internet users 24/7/365. When you purchase hosting, you're renting space on a server to store and run your website.

Chapter Two: The Types of Hosting

In total, there are five different kinds of web hosting. Combine that with all of the features, bells, and whistles and it all gets a little too much. Choosing the right hosting solution for your needs is imperative. That’s why we’re going to break it down in chapter two.

Here’s what we’re covering in this chapter:

  • The main differences between shared, VPS, and Dedicated hosting
  • A look at cloud hosting
  • The definition of managed hosting and whether it’s right for you
  • How you can decide which type is best for your needs

 

The Main Types of Hosting: What’s The Difference?

Let’s start with Shared Hosting. This is the type that you’ll find most often on the web. It offers the lowest price, but also the lowest amount of power.

Shared hosting refers to websites that share the space on a single server. They are also sharing the resources and power that the server provides. The servers owned by hosting companies can store hundreds of websites on a single computer.

For simple requests and low levels of visitors, the shared resources don’t pose a problem. The only issues arise when one or more websites are pulling down more resources than the others. In this situation, more stress is being put on the server and this can slow down other websites as a result.

To combat that, many hosting companies set limitations on how much of the resources a single website can use and the amount of bandwidth they are allowed to utilize.

The other downside to shared hosting is the lack of control options for your server. This isn’t something that will concern a beginner user running a WordPress blog, but as your talents and needs grow, you may find that you need more control over the hosting environment.

Finally, one thing you should look for in a shared hosting plan is the security that the company offers. In this type of environment, you will be sharing the same IP address with the other websites. If one of these sites is engaging in bad behavior, it could affect others on the server.

Of course, there are hosting companies who have security measures in place to ensure that shared servers offer a certain level of isolation from other websites on the same computer.

Next up we have Virtual Private Server (VPS) Hosting. This type is a step up from the standard shared hosting. It offers you an isolated piece of a server that functions as if it were a separate computer. You essentially have a virtual server all to yourself, including the resources that entails.

With a VPS hosting plan, you have control over the environment the same way you would if you owned a server of your own. This gives you the ability to make custom changes and develop your own applications for example. Be sure to check this out for a complete guide on VPS hosting.

Since you are isolated on your own virtual server, you will have many more resources here than you would with a shared hosting option. The addition of your own unique IP address and the separate virtual server also adds additional security.

Moving up from here, we have Dedicated Hosting. This type of hosting is usually reserved for massive websites that are part of a larger business or corporation. It gives you complete control over your own server, which is a costly venture.

With this type of hosting, you’ll have complete control. You can change the operating system, install any software you want, and tweak any of the settings as you see fit.

With this type of hosting, you also have complete and total access to the server’s resources. All of the speed and storage on offer is yours for the taking.

All of this power does come with a lot of responsibility. The server’s maintenance and updates will, in most cases, be yours to handle. If there are any updates to the software, you’ll need to ensure they are installed to avoid security issues.

It’s a lot to take in, which is why many website owners start with a shared hosting plan and move upward from there as needed.

The New Contender: Cloud Hosting

No matter how much power you have, the basic types of hosting have limits. If your website is hit with a spike in traffic, there’s always the chance that it will slow down or crash entirely. For a business, this can result in a huge loss.

In many cases, these limits are never reached, but the possibility is always there. Hosting companies understand this, and now they are offering a new type of hosting that utilizes cloud servers to provide a service that can meet your needs and scale with your traffic levels.

People often refer to the “Cloud” with a sense of wonder and awe, but in reality it’s a very simple and easy to understand concept. In terms of hosting, the cloud is a set of servers that are all interconnected and able to share their resources on-the-fly.

With this type of hosting, your website exists on multiple servers within this greater network. If there’s a spike in traffic, these cloud servers can immediately direct unused resources to handle the situation and keep the website running smoothly.

As time goes on, more resources can be allocated to growing websites. In the end, though, you only pay for what you’re using, much like a power or utility bill.

If you decide to pursue cloud hosting, make sure you read the details of the service as it can vary from company to company. The definition of “scalable” for example, can change depending on the service.

Managed WordPress Hosting

Let’s say you need more bandwidth and resources, but you don’t have the skills to maintain a VPS or dedicated server? This is where managed WordPress hosting comes into play.

The term “managed hosting” essentially refers to a plan where the company provides you with a dedicated team that monitors, installs, updates, and supports your server while you handle the website elements.

In some cases, these services extend to web design which will allow you to pay for them to create a working website for you up front. In many cases, the managed hosting is geared towards a specific platform like WordPress, so keep this in mind when choosing your platform.

Which Type of Hosting is Right For Me?

Now that we’ve covered all the basic types of hosting, let’s look at which type fits your needs:

  • Shared Hosting is perfect for those who are just starting out and need to dip their feet into the waters of hosting. It’s for a small blog or website.
  • VPS Hosting is for growing websites that need more resources and control over their hosting environment.
  • Dedicated Hosting is for businesses and corporations who require an entire server for their website to function properly.
  • Cloud Hosting is for growing websites that expect their needs to change rapidly and require a service that adapts to those needs.
  • Managed Hosting is for website owners that do not have the time or knowledge to maintain their server, but require that amount of power. A team of professionals can perform maintenance while they are working on the site.

 

Chapter Three: What’s My Money Buying?

It’s hard to pay for something that you can’t see or touch. Hosting is a service, and it’s highly likely that you’ll never see the server that hosts your website. Even so, your money is being used for a variety of things.

Depending on the hosting company, the marketing style will push you towards cheap shared hosting or highly expensive plans. For a beginner, it’s important to cut through this advertising and consider what you’re paying for.

Here’s what we’ll cover in chapter three:

  • Servers
  • Data centers
  • Software installation
  • A steady connection
  • Customer support

 

Servers

The first thing your money is going toward is hardware. Servers are expensive to build and maintain, which is why hosting is a monthly payment.

The various payment plans reflect the hardware used to create the servers, which is why you’ll find that more power costs more per month. This additional power, of course, will translate to faster website speed and a higher capacity for visitors.

Data Centers

Servers are usually stored in massive buildings known as data centers. These usually contain hundreds or even thousands of servers in a single location. The buildings themselves must maintain cool temperatures so the servers don’t overheat.

They are also equipped with around-the-clock security to ensure that no data is stolen. The amount of bandwidth, electricity and manpower needed to keep them running smoothly is a major expense for hosting companies.

Software Installation

Most of the software used on servers and websites is Open Source, meaning it can be used by anyone in any capacity without a fee. That being said, there are programs that have a cost associated with them and they are usually included in your hosting plan.

One such example is cPanel, which is used to manage all the elements of your hosting environment.

A Stable Internet Connection

While hosting companies do not provide internet services, they do require a connection to host all of their client’s websites. They usually have contracts with major providers which acts as another major ongoing expense.

This type of expense translates to the cost of hosting, so your money is also being used to pay for this connection for their servers.

Customer Service

Perhaps the most important aspect of a hosting company, beyond their service, is the support they offer for their clients. Many hosting companies have representatives on staff that answer calls, emails, and handle live chats.

This staff also requires a system to handle inquiries, so this is the last major expense a hosting company faces. In some cases, these employees work remotely which cuts costs for the company, but your money is ultimately used to ensure you have help when you need it as well.

Let’s summarize where your money is going:

When you pay for hosting each month, you’re paying for server space, data centers, customer support, software, and more. All of this contributes to a service that keeps your website online and running

Chapter Four: Which Features You Want (And Need)

Here’s what we’re covering in chapter four:

  • What to look for in your bandwidth, speed, and storage features
  • How to find flexible plans
  • The one thing I always consider when purchasing hosting

 

Website Speed

The speed of your website is incredibly important. The longer it takes for your site to load, the less satisfied your users will be. Google also ranks websites based on their speed so a slow website can hurt these efforts as well.

A poor host can also cause your website to slow down, even though many of them advertise extremely fast speeds. When you’re looking at hosting features, look for some of these signs that a host provides the speed they promise:

  • They advertise Solid State Drives which are faster than traditional hard drives.
  • The location of their servers. The closer the servers are to your users, the faster they will be able to deliver content.
  • If the host has a Content Delivery Network (CDN) they will be able to deliver your website to the closest possible servers based on user location.

Beyond this, always remember they optimizing your website’s code and limiting excessive plugins can also keep the speed where you want it to be.

Monthly Bandwidth

Bandwidth is the measure of how much data flows from your website on a monthly basis. Many hosting companies promise “unlimited bandwidth” but hidden within the terms of service are limits to what you can use per month.

Most people won’t reach these limits, so for many this is a non-issue. One thing you should avoid if possible are fees for exceeding your monthly bandwidth.

Even hosting companies that utilize CPU throttling to limit overuse of bandwidth are preferable to those who charge fees for going over the arbitrary limits set by them.

Storage

Much like bandwidth, most hosting companies will advertise “unlimited storage” as one of their features. In reality, this is once again a set limit that most people won’t reach with their websites.

If you’re trying to store or host large amounts of files, you’re bound to hit this limit fairly quickly. If you need to host this type of content, look to other service or compress your images so they don’t take up as much space.

Even something as simple as YouTube can offer a place to host your videos so they don’t have to be stored on your website’s server.

Scalability Options

When most people start a website, they don’t have the slightest idea how much space, speed, or bandwidth they’ll need. For this reason, I always recommend that you look into their upgrade options.

Great hosts will offer the ability to scale your services as needed. Options like cloud hosting can also provide you with the flexibility to move upward with resources as needed.

Look at the various plans on offer and see how simple it is to change your service. If it’s overly complicated or they charge fees to upgrade, you may want to look elsewhere.

Customer Support

No matter how skilled you are, you’re going to run into issues or a question you can’t answer. This is where your hosting company’s customer service comes into play.

The best companies offer email, phone, and live chat options for you to reach one of their representatives. This is also something you can find more information about by reading customer reviews.

Find out the average response time and the overall satisfaction of previous users to assess this aspect of your hosting.

Chapter Five: Welcome to WordPress

For first time website owners, WordPress is the perfect option. I personally recommend it for everyone, regardless of their skill level, and I’m not the only one.

There are over 74 million websites that use WordPress! In this chapter, we’ll cover the following topics:

  • Using WP for Shared, VPS, and Dedicate hosting plans
  • How to maximize your WordPress experience

 

WordPress For Shared Hosting

Most hosting companies showcase optimized hosting for WordPress when customers choose a shared plan. Even WordPress themselves recommend a shared hosting plan with their platform.

The issue we run into here is with websites that have a large amount of traffic on a monthly basis. WordPress is a very dynamic and powerful platform, so traffic spikes can greatly affect your website, especially if you have too many plugins or an poor theme.

Shared hosting in general, is best for websites that are of a personal nature, or blogs that are just starting out.

VPS Hosting With WordPress

If your WordPress site is expected to receive a lot of traffic on a consistent basis, you should consider upgrading to a VPS plan with scalable options in place. If you have more control, more bandwidth, and more space, you can easily adapt using WordPress.

Having the option to scale upward will also ensure that you don’t hit a ceiling with any limits that are imposed by the company.

Managed Hosting With WordPress

A growing business with a high traffic website is the perfect candidate for a managed hosting solution. These plans give you powerful technology, plus the addition of a team dedicated to keeping it maintained while you build and grow your website.

While WordPress does have a great setup for beginners, many of the tasks associated with web design can be time-consuming. Hosting companies will save you countless hours by handling some of the more mundane and complicated tasks for you.

How to Maximize Your WordPress Experience

Regardless of your hosting plan, there are several ways to make sure you’re using WordPress in the most efficient manner possible:

1. Keep Your WordPress Updated 

WordPress is constantly updated with new features and security fixes. Running an outdated version of the platform is the most common cause of compromised websites. The same goes for your plugins.

While you may be concerned that updating your WP will result in compatibility problems, this is very rarely the case as most plugins keep up with their own updates as well.

2. Only Download Reputable Plugins 

There are thousands upon thousands of plugins, and not all of them are created equal. When you’re choosing plugins, look for those with a large amount of users and check for signs that it is actively updated.

Choosing a plugin under active development means that you can have support while also having the capability to report bugs and see them squashed in an upcoming update.

3. Do Not Host Videos 

WordPress gives you the option to upload and embed your videos, but this is a very, very bad idea. Not only do videos take up a lot of space, but they also use a ton of bandwidth. This can result in you exceeding your limits without you realizing it.

Videos must also be converted to varying sizes and resolutions to cope with screen size and the user’s connection speed. This adds additional work to your plate as you’ll have to create other versions.

Instead of doing this, host your videos on YouTube and then place the embed code on your site. If you need to make the videos paid, you can use Vimeo Pro to host those videos.

A major plus of hosting on YouTube is extra exposure as well. People can follow these videos back to your site.

Chapter Six: Webmail and Email Servers

In addition to having your website up and running, you need a way for people to reach you. Email is the easiest solution, and when you create a website you will set up an email account through the hosting company.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this chapter:

  • Email addresses and domain names
  • Servers and clients
  • Email protocols
  • Marketing and mailing lists

 

Emails Addresses and Domain Names

When you look at an email, everything before the “@” sign is the local name, and everything after is the domain. A common mistake companies make is to use a Gmail or a Yahoo account for their business emails.

This doesn’t make them appear as a representative of the company. It comes across as unprofessional. Using a personal email can raise legal and ethical issues as well. It’s just not worth it.

Instead, you should utilize a webmail with your website’s domain. We’ll discuss how this works next.

Servers and Clients

To use an email, you need a server and an email client. The email server is constantly online. It receives and processes any mail going in or out. The client is the application you use to view your mail, compose new messages, and send them.

The server and client communicate with each other using protocols that we’ll discuss next, but it’s important to note that the two are otherwise separate.

A common misconception is that your email client of choice cannot work with your webmail server on your website. In this case, many common email apps will work with your server, it’s simply a matter of connecting them.

Email Protocols

There are two main protocols for email: POP and IMAP. These are used to transfer information from the server to the client and vice-versa. POP stands for “Post Office Protocol” and IMAP stands for “Internet Message Access Protocol.”

POP is only capable of handling messages. It does not save or store them. That’s where IMAP comes in to play. Most of your email experience is handled by this protocol.

When you are looking into the web hosting plans, make sure the webmail they provide uses this IMAP protocol in their servers.

Marketing and Email Lists

Most websites and bloggers have an email list for sending newsletters and the like, but you’d be surprised to know that many hosting plans have elements of their terms of service that prohibit using their webmail to send vast quantities of messages.

To get around this, and spam laws, you should consider using an email management system like Mail Chimp or Aweber. Ultimately though, you should use a domain-branded email to appear professional and associated with your business.

Another great tip is to use your first and last name instead of a weird pattern or abbreviation. Typically an email that uses the format firstname.lastname@Business.com is a great way to keep your emails separate and still make it easy to understand who is sending it.

Chapter Seven: The Most Common Mistakes to Avoid

In this final chapter, we’ll look at the biggest mistakes people make when choosing their web hosting provider. Here are the ones we’ll cover:

  • Buying based solely on price
  • Purchasing based on a TV ad
  • Going off of affiliate reviews
  • Choosing one despite bad features
  • Choosing based on SEO
  • Believing the Uptime Guarantee
  • Starting with the wrong plan
  • Buying Things You Don’t Need
  • Believing “Unlimited” is real

 

Buying Based Solely on Price

This first mistake is an easy one to make, but it can spell doom for your site. People will assume that all hosting is made equal, and that a cheap option is a great deal.

While there are some inexpensive hosting companies that have good service, you can’t simply look at a company and judge their service based on price, especially if it’s low.

Companies that offer bottom level pricing often pack a lot of users into one server for their shared hosting, which will put a strain on the server’s resources.

Making a Decision Based on a TV Ad

If a hosting company is spending money on ads (looking at you GoDaddy) then odds are they don’t use enough money towards better hardware, better support, and so on.

As with anything, don’t let the marketing fool you. Do your research before jumping in.

Trusting Completely Positive Affiliate Reviews

Let’s start by saying that affiliate marketing is not a bad thing. Many websites earn commissions by reviewing hosting services, but it’s important that these reviews are objective.

If you read any of the reviews on here, you’ll see that they are completely objective and based on real experience. If you see a hosting review site that doesn’t look at both sides of the coin for any of their reviews, they may not be in it for the right reasons.

Choosing a Host Despite Bad Features

There are tons of great software options for you to choose from. Many of them are free and many of them are great. The problem with many hosting companies is that they have way too many options for you to choose from, and while they may tell you it’s needed, you don’t need all of them.

Only install the software you need for your purposes and nothing more. In addition, only use software like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and other major options. Don’t fall for a third-party web builder.

Choosing Based on SEO

When you’re setting up a blog or website, you’ll hear all about Search Engine Optimization or SEO. There are numerous factors that affect this, but your hosting isn’t one of them.

Even if you have a shared hosting plan, having the same IP address doesn’t massively impact your SEO. In the end, your site’s ranking is dependent on how much great content you publish and how it’s promoted.

Trusting The Uptime Guarantee

Almost every hosting company promises a 99.9% uptime guarantee. This isn’t always the case. Another thing to consider is that 0.1% downtime is still ten minutes a week and up to 45 minutes per month.

That’s not something you want. There’s nothing in the terms of service that requires a hosting company to repay you for lost business. Instead of trusting an uptime guarantee, check user reviews and other online reviews for actual data that shows how often websites go down.

Starting With the Wrong Plan

Most often people will look for a plan with the lowest price because they don’t need anything fancy. Shared hosting, for example, is great for small businesses, blogs, churches, and the like.

If you have an online business with a brand that you want to prosper and grow, you’re going to need more than a low-level shared hosting plan. You don’t want to buy more than you need, but you also need to be realistic about what your needs are.

Paying For Extras You Don’t Need

Hosting companies will offer add-ons with your service, but you may not need all of them. Here are some of the big ones:

  • Domain Privacy – This hides your information, which can be useful if you work from home, but otherwise it’s not needed.
  • SSL certificate/Dedicated IP – These usually come bundled together and the only reason you would need the SSL is if you’re running an e-commerce website.
  • Backup Service – While backing up your website is smart you don’t have to pay your hosting provider to do it. Instead you can choose your own service or plugin and add another layer of security because it’s separate from your hosting provider.
  • Web design, SEO, or consulting – These things are great, but you don’t need them from your hosting provider. You’re better off hiring someone local that you can communicate directly with.

Believing “Unlimited” is Real

The final mistake to avoid is one we’ve discussed briefly, but it’s important to bring it back up before we part ways. When hosting companies advertise unlimited bandwidth, storage, email accounts, domains, and other features, they aren’t being completely honest.

If you read the terms of service (which you should) you’ll usually find that there are limits to the unlimited features. It’s worth noting that most of these limits are too high for you to ever reach, but remember that “unlimited” is never the truly the case.

Final Thoughts

Now that we’ve reached the end of our hosting beginner’s guide, you should have a grasp of what hosting is, and how to best choose the right company for your needs.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments and be sure to tell us which hosting company you chose!