Web Hosting - Let`s Get Real for a Moment

April 1, 2008 by Staff Writer

For a novice, especially the busy novice, choosing a web host really is a difficult thing to accomplish. If you read articles on the subject, not only do you have to learn a new ‘web hosting’ language and understand a number of new concepts, you also have to get down to the nitty-gritty of working out which company is best for you through research. But let’s get real for a moment - this is such an overwhelming task that only the absolutely dedicated get ahead of the learning curve. The following article considers things from an absolute novice’s perspective, and answers the question, “How do I get a website up and running as quickly and easily as possible?”

Hosting a Website

The first step in finding a web host is considering exactly what your website is going to be for. Is it business or pleasure? Are you just establishing your website as a ‘personal page’, or a place to store your thoughts and fancies and share them with your friends, or is this going to be the next Google? The size and complexity of your site are issues that will go a long way towards helping you decide which web host you need.

Hosting a Personal Website

If you need is for a personal page, you might not need hosting at all. Web 2.0 has shifted the Internet dynamics from ‘Content is King’ to ‘Community is King’ and there are literally countless websites that are designed to generate communities. MySpace, Facebook, hi5, Tagged.com, Microsoft’s Live Spaces – the list goes on, and on (and if you don’t believe me check Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites). Some sites have a particular bias – for instance, some cater to budget travelers and backpackers, others just cover everything – but if your objective is to set up a site just for ‘you’, then there is very likely a social network for you – and if there isn’t, you can start your own! Take a look at Ning.com.

Beyond social networks there are a number of ‘blogging’ sites which are very accessible and allow you to add text and pictures to your ‘site’. Google’s Blogger.com is ideal for personal use, as are WordPress.com. If you need more control, you may need to consider free web hosting.

Like paid hosting, free host has come on from the early days. Many (but not all) free hosts allow you to upload via FTP or a browser, offer a free email account, provide MS FrontPage support, offer and online web page editor, provide pre-installed CGI, and allow sites to accept advertising. However, free web hosting is, of course, free - and often or not, people get what they pay for. There is a vast range in the quality of free hosting available. Many free hosts require that you display their ads. 

Being free, revenue generation is a problem for free hosts, and many cram their pages full of third-party adverts to earn their crust (although more and more offer ad-free services with premiums on services like domain name registration). Thus your personal page could end up with adverts for activities and products that are completely unrelated to your site, with some adverts being, let’s say, less than tasteful! However, once you are on most free hosts give you an option to upgrade to a paid option which will provide better performance, and get rid of those annoying adverts! 

Aside from adverts, one of the downsides of free hosting is your URL – although a number hosts do allow you to use your own domain, it is likely that your website will have a URL like www.freewebhost.com/mywebsite.php, or a sub-domain, http://mywebsite.freewebhost.com – not the most attractive.

One of the most recognized free hosts is GeoCities (http://geocities.yahoo.com/). They have been around almost as long as the Internet and Yahoo! bought them some time ago. There are though countless others around – the list is endless. HostSearch.com has created a database including most of the leading free web hosts available. You can take a look at it here: http://www.hostsearch.com/freehost_zone.asp

Hosting a Business Website:

If you are in business and need a business website, it’s a different kettle of fish, and all of those social networking things are just not even worth considering, right? Well, perhaps not. Again, it is important to consider exactly what you need a website for. Lots of companies have MySpace or Facebook pages and equally as many legitimately use free blogs (e.g. http://virtualtourcompany.blogspot.com/). In addition, if you have a small company with limited means, a free web host might just be what you need. However, for the sake of argument let’s imagine none of these options are viable. That means you need paid web hosting!

Do it Yourself or Professionally Built?

Regardless or whether your website is for personal use or business, if you are going to take on the job of designing and managing a site yourself, you are taking on what can be a formidable task. A lot of web hosts do though make the job easier for you. If you are a total novice with a will to do this all on your own, then the type of server a host offers is probably less important to you than how easy it will be to get your website up and running.

Do it yourself:

Open Source CMSs

One of the things that could determine which host you use is whether your website is going to be a ‘do-it-yourself’ site or professionally built. If you want to design and manage your site yourself, there are a number of options available to you. One option is Open Source Content Management Systems (CMSs).

A thorough introduction to Open Source CMSs is not necessary, except to say they are systems that allow you to have a website which has as many of the bells and whistles as some of the top sites, and they are provided totally free of charge. You can download free templates off the Internet, and once you have found the one you want, it’s just a matter of setting up and adding the content and pictures. You can also add dynamic modules – events calendars, forums, photo galleries, etc.

Some of the most popular Open Source CMSs include Joomla, Mambo, WordPress (particularly for blogging) and PHP-Nuke. Although very elegant and sophisticated, they need looking into and you really do need to learn how to use them. Wikipedia is a great example of Open Source – all Wikis are provided free of charge. Here is Wikipedia’s list of Open Source CMSs:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_content_management_systems.

Although you can load these systems onto a server yourself, you have got to know what you are doing, and it’s a steep learning curve. If you are determined to take the Open Source CMS route, then choose a web host that specializes in that particular CMS. Leave it to the experts. There will of course be a number of web hosts that ‘specialize’ in hosting the system you want to use. Your job is to find the best one amongst them, and we will be going into that later.

Site Builders

Another route to designing and managing a website is site builders. Many web hosts offer Site Builders that allow you to build a website online. These are either third party or proprietary solutions. Like Open Source CMSs, you can often also add dynamic modules like events calendars, forums, and photo galleries using site builders. Many hosts offer extensive demos or even demo sites where you can play around with a site builder to see how it works. If this is the route you want to go, finding a web host might be as simple as a Google search for “web host” (or web hosting provider + site-builder) and visit hosts and see how easy their site builders are to use. So long as the site builder offers the functionalities that you need, you can use it, and the site you are going to build will be limited in size and sophistication, it won’t matter what type of server a host is using.

Website Templates

A lot of web hosts these days offer website templates. As the name suggests, these are prefabricated websites that often offer two or three pages (different style for each) which allows you simply to add text and graphics to create a very worthwhile very usable website. You simply add more pages as you need them. However, despite the seeming simplicity and abundance of website templates (a Google search for “free+website+templates” reveals over 4 million listings), if they are not managed by an easy to use site builder, they could be more trouble than they are worth. Don’t consider learning HTML (that’s the code that underpins the way a website looks) – although it’s a good thing to know (and perhaps in the future you should get to know it), knowing it has to some extent become redundant with all the HTML editors around these days.

There are numerous editors around, Dreamweaver and FrontPage being very popular solutions. Dreamweaver is probably he best out there, but it really is a professional level editor – the sort coders use. FrontPage offers the advantage of the well known Microsoft interface, but using FrontPage means you have to have a web host that offers servers with FrontPage extensions – it’s an added hassle, although they are not difficult to find. In addition, with either of these solutions, you really need at least a short course on how to use them. Trial and error has its place, but when time is limited and you have to get a website up, learning the intricacies of a particular website program might seem a waste of time. In addition, by the time you have finished a course, you will be able to design your own website, so using a template might not seem such a time saving thing.

Professionally:

As you can see by now, a novice deciding on designing and maintaining a website has a number of issues to contend with. However, a lot of issues can be resolved by employing a professional web developer. A good developer can listen to your requirements and tell you what you need and what sort of web host you need. Ideally, the developer you choose will also provide a web hosting service, taking the need to find a good web host out of your hands. If they can’t provide this service, they should be able offer some advice on what sort of web host you are looking for, if not simply go ahead and set up the hosting of your website for you.

Get a professional company to set up your website is of course the quickest route to setting up a website, but the downside is, of course, cost. There are countless companies out there that will set up a website, and a lot of these will also do any programming you require (databases, etc.). Costs can though be staggering with a simple site with moderate programming requirements costing in excess of 3,000 USD, often much more. To reduce the cost many people employee freelancers who work on projects independently. If you find a good freelancer, life is sweet – sort of. The problem with good freelancers is, very much like good car mechanics, everyone wants their time. The result can be good freelancers take on too much work and it sometimes takes them an age to do everything you want them to do. Don’t pay up front if you can avoid it!

So, to recap, if you don’t go the ‘social’ route, you can choose a web host that has expertise in a particular OS CMS and go that route. Alternatively, you can look around for examples of website builders and you can use the services of a host that offers that website builders. You can also engage the services of a professional company or a freelancer that would advise you on the hosting route to go. In all instances, there is a possibility YOU have to make a decision between one or more host, so how exactly do you decide which one is better than another?

Choosing a Web Host:

Actually, the issues related to choosing a web host are very similar in nature to choosing the right professional web development company or a freelancer:

1. Ask Your Friends and Family!

For anyone who is delving around in an area where they have limited expertise and experience, the best bet is certainly asking people you know who have successfully overcome all the obstacles and achieved their objective – in this case, getting a website up and running. There is absolutely nothing better than a personal introduction, whether it be by email or any other means. A personal introduction allows you to explain your needs in terms of reference to someone else’s efforts… ‘I need this, but I don’t need that” sort of thing. A personal introduction to someone who has already proven to be reliable is by far the best way to choose a host.

2. Check out Internet Boards

The Internet is full of sites that cater for ‘communities’, not least the web hosting community. There are numerous discussion boards covering web hosting, all involving people who have been actively involved in web hosting. Get on the boards and ask questions. Get to know people and develop relationships that will allow people to gave you the same advice as a friend or family member would. Be warned though, lots of companies join these boards in a bid to gain customers. Although the ‘spammers’ (people who leave advertising posts) may be kicked off a board quite easily, more imaginative companies may be very creative in their use of such boards. So, be careful. You new found friend might be someone trying to get you to buy one of his/her hosting plans! Usually though, it’s fairly easy to spot such members of a board, but you should always be on the lookout.

3. Check Web Hosting Sites

Once again, there a numerous websites dedicated to web hosting. Often, the most popular web boards are associated to a particular site. Many of these sites offer reviews and user comments on web hosts and their services. Popular sites include HostSearch, TopHosts, and WebHostDir. A note of caution though, as with forums, a number of web hosts feel it is their duty to manipulate these options for their benefit and harm opposition. As the Web Editor of HostSearch.com, John Hughes suggests, ‘It’s a bottomless pit – some hosts change their IP addresses, use false email accounts – they do anything they can to manipulate reviews and ratings. It’s a job keeping on top of it. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how much effort goes into stopping this type of activity, there is no guarantee at the end of the day that bogus reviews aren’t posted on web hosting sites. Although I am pretty sure most reviews on HostSearch.com are legitimate, some are cause for doubt. And as Robert De Niro suggests in the film Ronin, ‘Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.’ – you can’t ask for a better source of advice than that!”

Spotting bogus reviews can be difficult. If a site has consistently bad reviews, there is not contest – even if it is the host’s competition that has manipulated the site, if the host can’t keep on top of its bad press, something is wrong. If it were me, I would request my account be deleted just to make sure such comments weren’t on the net. If there are equal numbers of good and bad reviews, it could be that a host is getting bad reviews and countering them with good reviews. Or the service really could have such a huge range of quality of service. Likewise, consistently good reviews should be treated with suspicion. It is a shame hosts put this much energy into manipulating things – if they put that much energy into their businesses, they would most likely be successful.

Aside from reading reviews on the Internet, it is interesting to look at ‘metrics’ sites. These sites monitor a host’s performance in terms of the amount of time they stay on the Internet (uptime) and issues like the number of servers they have and the number of sites they cater for (lots of sites, few servers – bad: likely strain on servers and possible future dysfunction; lots of sites and lots of severs – good: the servers share the load). With a combination of information from metrics sites and sites with users comments you should get a pretty accurate feel for what a host can – and does – do.

Well, did that clarify things? Possibly not. But hopefully it’s given you some ideas and you will one way or another, get started with hosting. Once you get started, things sort of take their own path, and little by little you gain more experience, and a better feel for the whole area. At that stage you might want to know the difference between LINUX and Windows, and megabytes and gigabytes – but that’s another story!

John Hughes is the editor of HostSearch.com – the Internet’s leading website dedicated to web hosting.


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