We get asked a lot “What should I look for in a web host?”. Obviously that’s a tough question to answer as everyone’s hosting needs are different. However, we figured it might be useful to put together a few general tips for picking the right web host.
Without further adieu, here is our list of Top Ten Tips On Choosing A Web Host.

1. There is no such thing as “Unlimited” in web hosting

If something is called unlimited – it isn’t. For example, if a company offers unlimited disk space, ask yourself where they could have purchased “unlimited hard drives”. The more likely answer is that the company’s Terms and Conditions specify other restrictions that would kick in before you can use too much of their resources (e.g. concurrent connections, CPU or RAM restrictions), or they allow unlimited storage of website files only. No family movie collections, etc.

“Unlimited” hosting came about because somewhere along the lines, one company advertised it, so the rest had to follow or look inferior. This becomes a problem when unscrupulous web hosts cram as many users as they can onto a shared server. Users then proceed to try and use their “unlimited” resources. Servers get slow and unreliable when overcrowded. The moral of the story? Be wary of “unlimited” shared hosting.

That being said, some “unlimited” companies aren’t so bad. They use the “unlimited” marketing ploy but keep a close eye on what their users are consuming and allocate resources accordingly. Most users will be lucky if they ever consume a couple of gigabytes of disk space and a few gigabytes of transfer. For every handful of modest users, there will be a user who consumes larger amounts of resources. Good hosting companies can balance this aggregated server usage, allowing them to maintain their “unlimited” marketing whilst keeping servers purring. Any unlimited hosts we recommend are safe, but even they will have limits on their “unlimited”.

2. Be realistic about your requirements

Not everyone needs a dedicated server for their new website. You don’t need unlimited bandwidth. If you’re running an average WordPress site, any of the companies we recommend will be able to handle your site for hundreds of visitors a day. For an average site, support, uptime and the complete package offered by the host should be bigger factors in your decision.

3. Choose with scale in mind

Contrary to No.2, if the launch of your new site is receiving a lot of attention, don’t start on a small shared package to save a bit of cash. Having to change to a larger hosting plan after a month or two due to the mounds of traffic you always knew you were going to get is crazy. In this case, starting with a VPS or dedicated server is worth more in time saved and hassle avoided than the money you would save. This goes for e-commerce sites too. By all means use a small shared plan to build your site, but scale accordingly before your hundreds of customers viewing your hundreds of products get you thrown off your underpowered hosting account at an inopportune time.

4. Don’t be scared to move around

Moving hosts is a bit like moving banks. If handled poorly, it can be a bit of a pain, but ultimately it’s sometimes the only way to get the best service (for your website). As can be seen from our recommendations, some hosts are great at shared hosting but not recommended for dedicated. Some we may only recommend for VPS. This is slightly inconvenient, as moving your site can mean a few hours of downtime. However the common consensus of the Woodsmen is that the few hours of nail biting are ultimately worth it to get your site on the right server. Careful planning can minimize these moves and minimize your downtime. Moving host is rarely as scary a process as you think. Many hosts will do it for you!

5. Think hard before locking into huge billing cycles

This one comes down to personal preference. How long do you anticipate staying with the web host? Will you outgrow the shared server you bought a 3 year plan for in 6 months? Has the company you signed up with been around forever and has a glowing reputation? Our general rule is to buy month-to-month on shared hosting as you just never know when you may outgrow it. With VPSs and dedicated servers there are too many variables for general rules! Just think long and hard before committing to a 3 year plan to save 5%…

6. Be careful with extras!

If someone’s offering a managed VPS for $20 and everyone else is $40-50, alarm bells should be ringing. Read every bit of a company’s website and understand fully what is and what isn’t included in your plan. There’s no point taking a lower quality (and possibly overcrowded) VPS to save a few dollars, to then spend $10 a month for a dedicated IP, $10 a month for off-site backups and $10 a month for a control panel. Know what you get for your money with each host so you know you’re comparing apples to apples. Make a spreadsheet if it helps…that’s what we do.

7. You get what you pay for

This phrase holds true in many industries, but is especially relevant in web hosting. Seriously. It’s simple math. If you pay for $2 worth of web hosting, you will get $2 worth of support, server, network and backups. It’s not a good idea to cheap out on any aspect of web hosting. Support, server, network, backups – it’s all important. Plenty of people get away with cheaping out on things, but from our experience…the minute you try to go cheap is the minute you wished you hadn’t. If your budget is tight, find other areas to shave costs. Hosting is the foundation of your business online (think about houses with bad foundations…). Buy Once – Cry Once.

8. Contact the company beforehand

Seriously, give them a call. Send them an email. Use their livechat. There are probably a few questions you have for them and maybe a few things need clarifying from their website. Any host interested in your business won’t mind talking you through your questions. Shopping for a host should be about finding out if you and the host are compatible. It’s better for you and the host to figure out your differences instead of just signing up, raising loads of tickets, then leaving at the end of your first month! Also, think about contacting their support and seeing how long it takes them to respond. You may only need their sales team once, but the support team’s who you will be emailing at 3AM when your website won’t respond. Give a host’s support team a trial run by contacting them, telling them you’re in the market for a host with GREAT support, then ask them a question. Maybe something that happened to you in the past with another host.

9. Look out for fake “Best Host” lists

A quick Google of “best web hosts” or something similar will produce a plethora of “host review” and “top ten” websites – many of them paid AdWords listings. These are usually one of two things. Either sites built with the sole purpose of “reviewing” or “rating” sites in order to collect on large affiliate payouts from large hosting companies, or sites actually set up by large hosting companies who own most, if not all, of the hosts in the top ten! Unsurprisingly, you probably won’t find your dream host in these lists. Quantity over quality is usually the way these large companies make money. You will pay rock bottom prices for a rock bottom hosting account crammed onto an already overpopulated server.
For real reviews and ratings, head to Web Hosting Talk and search for reviews or take advantage of our Host Scout service. Full disclosure: most hosting companies have affiliate programs. We only recommend hosts we either have or have had accounts with. If the companies we recommend have affiliate programs, we’ll link through it. It helps keep the lights on. What we’ll NEVER do is link to a single host that does not deserve your business. Promise.

10. Look for public uptime and server status

Yes! Many hosts will offer uptime guarantees. You’ve probably seen them before…99.9% uptime guarantees. That’s great and all, but in practicality it usually equates to getting a couple of dollars of credit back for what can add up to quite a few hours of downtime. What’s even better is no downtime…whatsoever. Most web hosts worth their salt have nothing to hide with regard to the quality of their servers and network. In fact, many have such good infrastructure, they have something to gain by flaunting its speed and stability. Check out MDDHosting for example. MDD is a small host by comparison to the behemoth hosts you see in TV ads and plastered all over the internet. However, what they lack in marketing budget, they make up for a thousand times in rock solid infrastructure. Feel free to not take our word for it. After this post, go look up a mega-host you saw a TV ad for. See if you can find detailed reports on how speedy their servers are or how good their uptime is each month for the past year. We bet that at best, you may find a vague “Known Issues” page with comments such as “slight problems with MySQL” but no hard facts. Bottom line is – even huge marketing budgets can’t help you if you’re cramming users onto servers and making them slow or unstable. Look for hosts with infrastructure so good, they show you how good it is.

Have any general rules of your own? Let us know and we can add the good ones to the list. Don’t worry, we’ll give you credit for them!