Reference Guide: Managing Your Online Presence
Get Online: Select a Webhost
One of the first questions people have when setting up websites is: which host should I use? This is a very important question to answer, as you probably don’t want to switch hosts very often, if at all. Selecting a host requires much research ahead of time. You need to determine your requirements and then select a host based on that. It’s worth taking the time to review your requirements now and consider future growth. Webhosting has changed quite a bit in the last few years and security concerns have increased. If you’re thinking of moving to a different host, you should review your requirements again. In this post, I review some of the features to look at to help you make your decision. This isn’t everything, but I think it can get you started down the path.
Types of Hosts
I think there are two basic types: those geared toward a more general audience, and those for more tech-oriented customers. Which you choose is totally up to you. It depends on what you need now, what you might need in the future, and how much maintenance and management work you’ll need or want to do. It’s not a question of which type is better in general, it’s which type works best for you. What’s best for one person or company may not be for another. The only way to determine which to use, I think, is to thoroughly review your requirements and research a number of hosts.
You may also hear webhosts described in different terms. They’re also referred to as resellers and ISPs (Internet Service Providers). A host might also be a registrar for domains. There aren’t as many registrars as there are resellers. So your host may process your domain on your behalf through an accredited registrar. Some hosts are also registrars.
Keep in mind that there are three main parts to hosting your website:
- Domain name registration: processed through an ICANN-accredited registrar
- Website hosting: provided by a reseller, aka ISP or webhost
- Email hosting: provided by a reseller
These can all be in the same place. Or you can host your site and email via one reseller and a separate registrar. Or, you can have separate resellers for your site and email, plus a separate one for the registrar. It’s completely up to you.
ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. There’s quite a bit of information on their site if you’d like more details about domain names.
When I research hosts for people, these are the items I start with.
This prevents personal information from showing up in your domain’s WHOIS record (pronounced Who – is, as in: who is this?). If you’re a small business owner that works from home, you probably don’t want your home address listed. That’s what this does. The address of the host is usually provided instead. I always recommend setting up privacy. There’s usually a minimal cost for this. It may be called something other than privacy, but if you’re asking, just say you want to hide personal information from Whois and they’ll know what you’re talking about.
Depending on the country you’re in, privacy requirements may vary. For Canadian .ca domains, for instance, there isn’t as much information provided in Whois, so privacy may in effect be taken care of. Check, though.
WHOIS, by the way, is the official record for ICANN. If you look up a domain in WHOIS, you can see the contacts and domain expiration dates and other information. Just search in Google or another search engine for Whois and you’ll be able to find a link to look up a domain.
Your registrar will ask you periodically to review your ICANN – WHOIS information to ensure it’s current, and update it if necessary. When that happens, just do it. Right away. Always keep your WHOIS information up-to-date. You don’t want any administrative problems with your domain, website, email, or host. For an excellent review of all aspects of domain names, review this document: ICANN Beginner’s Guide to Domain Names.
Note: some webhosts might also be your domain registrar. However, it is possible to host your domain with a registrar different than your webhost.
All self-hosted website hosts should have file transfer protocol (FTP) access. You can use FTP to upload files to your sites, download files, and that sort of thing. It’s helpful if you ever make some error and you want to replace a file. You can upload plugin or theme files directly. If you’re not a technical person, you might not use FTP much, if at all. It’s still good to know what’s available to you from a host you’re considering. With that in mind, the thing to look for is the number of FTP accounts you can have. You probably don’t want a gazillion FTP accounts, as you’re essentially giving people access to your site. But you’ll want to be able to have more than one. It totally depends on your requirements and how many people will be maintaining the site – and who you trust with it. FTP enables you to upload and delete files from your website, so be judicious with your choice of FTP account owners.
There’s also a secure FTP option (SFTP) that’s used more now.
When you create an FTP account, you have to create a password. When you configure your FTP client (such as FileZilla) you can require that the person accessing your website provides that username and password.
Questions for FTP:
- How many FTP accounts can you have?
- What secure FTP options are available?
- How do you handle anonymous FTP? (Some hosts may not even support it.)
At some point, you’ll want to have files that have limited access. This is a critical feature, IMO. If a self-hosted website host doesn’t have this functionality, look somewhere else. I would be shocked if that option wasn’t available, but who knows?
Some hosts provide a domain registration at no cost. Others charge a fee. There are also parked and addon domains. See how many of those are included. You’ll need parked or addon domains if you purchase a .net or .org in addition to your .com, for instance. If you think you’ll add a domain for something like a book you wrote or a training package you put together (like CDs, books – that sort of thing) then you’ll want extra domains. So just check and see how many you can have, and check the costs for them.
Note: Years ago, sometimes there was an issue about domain ownership. A person thought they were the owner when they purchased it, but later found out that the host was. I don’t know if this is still the case or not, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask a potential host about domain ownership. Make sure that you are listed as the registrant. In other words, make sure you’re the owner of your domain – not the host. If the host doesn’t explicitly say that you retain ownership of your domain, keep looking.
Also, when researching a domain name to see if it’s taken, always check Whois. Someone may own a domain already, but not have a website up. Don’t assume that a name is available just because you can’t find an actual site when you type in a URL. If you see that the name you want has expired, don’t think you can just pounce on it and buy it. There is a grace period so people don’t lose their domains right away if they forget to renew the registration or something along those lines.
You can find a domain’s expiration date by checking the Whois listing.
This, to me, is absolutely critical to review. It’s one of the first things I check. It’s one of my make-or-break features. If a host doesn’t provide enough mailboxes or charges much extra for additional mailboxes, I usually move along. Here is some basic information.
Number of Mailboxes
Some have a limited, small number. Others have unlimited mailboxes. Others are somewhere in between. Or, the host might not provide email hosting at all.
I recommend that people think far into the future. Even if you don’t think you’ll need many, you might. For instance, you might want a Sales mailbox for inquiries. Or perhaps you’ll host webinars at some point and want to have a mailbox just for that. Or an email newsletter. Or a mailbox that several people can access. If you might have employees at some point, you’ll need to be able to set up mailboxes for them. The more mailboxes you can have, the greater the flexibility in the future.
I have multiple domains and an unlimited number of mailboxes available – which I absolutely love. If I had a limit of say, ten mailboxes, I would have already exceeded that and have to be paying more for the additional mailboxes. If you think you might end up with websites for multiple domains on your account, you might want to lean more toward the unlimited options.
Really take the time to look at this. Think far ahead in the future. You can move email or move a host, but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you want to do very often. Also, you can host email and your website separately: email with one ISP and website with another. So you don’t have to have everything in one place. That’s another option. You could ask about that as well with hosts: do they host email as a standalone option? If they do, you could migrate a website to a different host down the road and perhaps leave your email where it is until you have it ready to move.
I imagine that most, if not all, hosts provide webmail. By webmail, I mean being able to log in to your email on the web from anywhere. Really, what to look for here is the application available to access the webmail. If your host uses cPanel, you may have several options. Some common ones are RoundCube and SquirrelMail. Of those, RoundCube is my favorite. It has a nicer UI (user interface) than the others. That means it’s easier to use, IMO. Think about asking what app they use for their webmail. You might even be able to see a sample.
You might also think about asking about server limits for email. There might be a limited number of files that your host allows you. Or, perhaps ask them what the “mailbox quota” is. They may have an unlimited amount of email you can store for each account, or maybe a limited amount of space.
Important: your email is stored on your webhost’s server. You can download those to your computer via an app such as Outlook. In Outlook, you have the choice of leaving the emails on the server as well, or deleting them from the server once you download them. This is important to keep in mind. If you elect to delete them from the server, they’re gone forever from your host. In that case, you should definitely back up your Outlook email periodically. If you keep them on the server after downloading to Outlook (or other app), your phone, or a different computer, you’re covered in all places. I do both: download everything and keep copies on the server. Plus I back up my Outlook mailbox periodically. Because of this setup, though, deleting messages from my Outlook doesn’t mean they’re deleted from the server. In such a setup, you may have to periodically go in and delete messages from the server as well. Also, if you have multiple devices (desktop and laptop, for example) and you have an app such as Outlook installed on several, and you delete files from the server when you download files to Outlook, you might have email all over the place and not know what’s where. That’s another reason why I always keep a copy on the server. Then I can also access my email using webmail and see everything – no matter what device I’m using or where I happen to be at that moment. The same situation applies to email that you download to your phone.
See what options they have. If there aren’t any spam filters included with email packages, see if they have additional options you can use. This is an important feature to look into, obviously.
WordPress has comment spam filters as well. Look into those, because you can’t believe the volume of spam comments that comes through – but which are quarantined so they don’t end up on your site.
Forwarding, Autoresponders, and Mailing Lists
You’ll likely want these. Make sure they have them, and how many available for use.
- Keep copies of email on the server when you download to Outlook or whatever email app you’re using on your computer, and back those files up periodically.
- Clean out your email on the server once in a while.
- Check with your potential webhost to see if they have limits on the mailbox quota, or if it’s unlimited.
- Look far into the future and determine how many mailboxes you might need
There’s quite a variety of support options. This is a very important consideration. The main options I’ve seen are: phone, email, or chat support, plus knowledgebases and tutorials. Support availability can be 24/7, weekdays only, or phone support during the week and email on the weekends, or some other combination. It really depends on the host. Take a look at their social media accounts, too. Do they use those? Do they respond to inquiries in a timely manner?
Look at this closely and determine what will work best for you. If you can, call your host finalists at different times and just see how they respond. That can tell you a great deal, and may make the difference between selecting them or a different host. Support matters!
Always research extensively online to see what people are saying about the hosts you’re looking at. See what their reputation is. Definitely check out their social media accounts, too, to see what people are posting and tweeting.
See what options they have. Even if you don’t think you’ll need one, at some point you may.
Dedicated IP address
You will want this option available. You may not use it right away, but you’ll want the option to be there if you want to use it. This provides your account with its own IP address.
Something to keep in mind with this is cost. This can have a higher cost to add than something like privacy, for instance. So if you’re a small business and are spending much to get everything purchased and set up, this is something you could wait on for a few months. You can add this at any time (or you should be able to). When researching hosts, make sure it’s available and see what the cost is.
All hosts should provide server logs and stats for you. A common one is Awstats. You’ll also likely want Google Analytics for the site. Your host might provide that and set it up for you. Or, more likely, if you’re using self-hosted WordPress, you add Google Analytics yourself via a plugin. You’ll need to set up a Google account to use GA.
Many hosts provide templates you can use to create your own sites. Others provide options such as WordPress that may require more technical skill. Here’s some information on WordPress, which is my favorite option.
I think that at this point, most webhosts have WordPress setup available. You should have the option to set up a self-hosted WordPress site. The more tech-oriented hosts usually have this. For the more general-audience hosts, there might be slightly different WordPress setup options. So really look at that.
A new feature that many webhosts are now offering is WordPress managed hosting. There are separate packages just for WordPress. It’s a specialized type of hosting that addresses features that are important for WordPress sites. For instance, site speed and security. They also might manage updates for you. I suggest reviewing the WordPress packages (managed or not), shared hosting, dedicated server hosting, and more.
Some hosts also provide staging areas so you can prepare content or make changes and test it before it goes live. This is a great feature. I don’t know that all hosts have that. It’s something to check on.
When reviewing WordPress-specific hosting, be sure and see what security options they provide. Security concerns are increasing, so it’s good to review that aspect of the hosting package. Definitely research different hosts and find the best security option for you. Keep in mind that there are additional security options available outside of hosting as well. For instance, there are plugins you can use. There are firewall and monitoring services for which you can sign up. This is one area to really dig in and research. See what’s available by the host and outside vendors and compare costs. For example, a specialized WordPress setup is likely more expensive than shared hosting. However, it might provide some security features. If you select shared hosting and an outside firewall, that would add cost. Really dig in and look at the security aspect of hosting. See what’s available and what the total costs are and see how it fits in your budget.
WordPress uses databases. So you’ll need a host that provides a number of databases. With some, the number can be unlimited. Check to see how many you can have. Maybe having three or four databases will work just fine for you. Or maybe you’ll need many more. It depends on what you’re doing. With WordPress comes mySQL databases and all that goes with, including phpMyAdmin. Also, you’ll need PHP. Look for UNIX hosting. If you’re going to have multiple domains, you’ll probably need more than just a few databases. Ask about that.
This is an interesting aspect to consider. Have you a preference for geographic location of the host – and the server locations? If so, add it to your list of review items. Perhaps you want a host local to your immediate area, or your state or province or similar type of area, or your country. Maybe you’d like to support the economy of a specific area. It’s completely up to you, of course.
Keep in mind that you’re looking at two location considerations: location of the host itself, and where the servers are. A company may have its headquarters in one place, but servers located all over the country or world. So look at both. Maybe it matters to you. Perhaps it doesn’t. It’s just something to think about.
BTW, I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to have servers located in multiple locations. That can actually be a positive. It provides something called “disaster recovery” to ensure that if something happens in one place, the other servers could take over so there isn’t downtime. That’s another aspect to review for hosts: what redundancy and disaster recovery options do they have? If you have a big site and shopping carts, for instance, you’d probably want a host that has servers in multiple locations.
Some hosts use and boast of their environmentally-friendly setups. Some may support local charities. If that sort of thing is important to you, take a look at that, too.
I realize that I’ve covered quite a bit of information here. Some may still be confusing. It’s not everything, but I hope it helps. In the end, it really depends on your requirements. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all situation. Do your research! If you have questions about any of this, or would like assistance in reviewing your requirements, contact me.