Web hosting is a relatively new industry, but one that’s nonetheless massive. Worth $20 billion, someone looking for the right web hosting solution is left with countless options. Here at Cloudwards.net, we’ve tested all of the top providers to ensure you have a roadmap when making the decision which is the best web hosting provider for you.
Over the course of this guide, we’re going to run down what web hosting is, the purpose a domain name serves, the different types of web hosting there are and the best providers out there. For a quick answer, HostGator wins in nearly every category, so make sure you check out our HostGator review to see why it may also be the best for you.
That doesn’t mean that it’s the choice for everyone, though, so make sure you read some of our other web hosting reviews or just keep reading to see what we’re about. If cost effectiveness is the name of your game, you may want to check out our cheap web hosting guide.
What is Web Hosting?
Web hosting is the system put in place to provide storage and access to websites. Since websites hold information like images and text, a computer stores and serves that data each time the site is accessed.
Not just any computer is capable of this, though. Servers, computers purpose-built for networked storage, are used to host websites on as they are capable of transferring large amounts of data quickly. Web hosting providers own large data centers, full with thousands of servers. Millions of websites pass data through each, and that’s much of what a web host provides.
You can host a website with your own server as well, too, and that was really the only option until about 1995. The early years of the internet were restricted to education and research until the National Science Foundation lifted commercial restrictions, allowing companies to build websites for themselves.
Large corporations and government entities owned most of web pages after this. It would remain this way until the Web 2.0 boom caused a stir of independent companies and individuals looking to build a website.
So was born the web hosting provider. A whole mess of servers in a data center runs a high tab, which many SMBs and most individuals wouldn’t be able to afford on their own. Web hosting companies handle the infrastructure and technical support, renting out server space so that those without deep pockets can put up websites, too.
These websites include social media, blogs, wikis and more. Jump ahead 14 years and web hosting is now a $20 billion dollar industry, expected to grow to $154 billion in only four years.
Just about anyone can now easily put up a website, with web hosts able to accommodate more customer needs and budgets than ever.
Domains and Web Hosting
Before you decide to set up your own website, though, it’s important to know the difference between web hosting and domain names. Companies like GoDaddy advertise both, so it can be a bit confusing for first-time buyers.
A domain name is your web address, pointing users to the webpage you want to serve. You’re essentially buying internet real estate when you decide to put up a website, and your domain name functions as your street address (though far less expensive).
When a user types in your domain name, it tells the host which website they’re looking for and transfers the appropriate data back. It’s remarkable, even now, but this entire exchange happens in just seconds, sometimes moving data packets between opposite ends of the Earth.
The web host provides the metaphorical property lot in the real estate analogy. It stores the data for your site and the domain tells the host which bundle of data to send out.
Nearly all providers allow you to purchase a domain when checking out, so you don’t need to worry about going to multiple places to get what you need.
Like with property, you must register a domain when you purchase it. A group of independent registrars known as WHOIS takes care of the process. The name may seem like an acronym, but it’s not. It is literally the question that it answers for anyone that asks.
Your information is bundled to a domain when you register it. This is for accountability, but mostly just to know what’s what in the millions of domains that are recorded each year.
You may see a lurking issue here: your personal information is tied to each domain registered, and ICANN (the organization behind WHOIS) makes no attempt to hide it. There are, however, ways to protect yourself.
Domains and Privacy
Domain name registrars may offer domain privacy whenever you purchase one. This service uses a proxy to return substituted personal information whenever your domain is looked up. This includes data like name, email address and physical address, so it’s best to purchase this extra service if you want to keep your identity hidden.
However, your information is still on file. You’re putting it into the hands of your registrar, and there is no law restricting them from sharing it. Something as little as a telephone inquiry could put you at risk, so make sure you only register with reputable providers or you may find yourself flooded with junkmail.
This general overview applies mainly to the .com domains. We’ll define what a .com is in the next section, but for now, here’s an overview of domain extensions that have privacy restrictions by default because of the countries they represent having privacy legislation in place.
- .al — Completely private.
- .at, .co.at, .or.at — Contact data such as phone number, fax number, email address is hidden by the registrar.
- .ca — No personal details disclosed since 2008.
- .de — Street address must be made public, but other information is hidden.
- .eu — Only email address shown.
- .fr — Restricted publishing of information by default.
- .gr — No information about the owner is disclosed.
- .is — Street address and phone number may be hidden.
- .nl — Street address is hidden.
- .ovh — Contact information is hidden by the registrar.
- .uk — Information can be hidden provided the user isn’t trading from the domain.
The domain naming scheme is more than just an extension at the end. There are three main parts to one that determines its purpose, structure and location. For demonstration, we’ll build a domain as we go through each section.
The first is the domain extension or top-level domain (TLD). A TLD is something like a .com or a .net. There are subsects of each including a gTLD (generic top level domain) and ccTLD (country code top-level domain).
Knowing the difference is important when registering yours. For example, an Australian or someone who has a registered business in Australia are the only ones who can take up a .com.au address.
This rule only applies to a ccTLD. A gTLD can, for the most part, be registered to anyone, and you’ll find most of them at any web host. There are a few restrictions, though:
- .com — This is the most common TLD, widely used across the internet. The extension stands for “commercial” and can be registered to anyone.
- .edu — Educational institutions are the only ones permitted to use this TLD.
- .gov — The U.S. government is the only entity permitted to use this TLD.
- .int — Like .gov, this TLD is used by international organizations and agreements between two or more nations (it’s pretty rare).
- .net — This is a catchall TLD that stands for “network.” It serves no specific purpose.
- .org — Nonprofit organizations are the target of this TLD, but there is no restriction on who can register one.
For building our domain, we’ll use a common TLD, giving us an unsatisfying “.net”. Millions of websites use this TLD, so we need a way to differentiate ours. The name you put in front can be anything not previously registered so long as it doesn’t include a space, period and a few other special characters.
This part is known as your domain, the section of a website that is individual to you. When a web host serves a website, this is what the servers are looking for. In the case of our domain, we now have “cloudwards.net.”
For most websites, this is as deep as it gets, with stored pages being served up with a specific URL, like cloudwards.net/best-web-hosting/. However, large websites may need more specification.
A subdomain defines a subset of a website that still lives at the same domain. For example, if we provided an email service, the domain structure would be “mail.cloudwards.net.” To apply it to something more people use, Google Doc’s address is “docs.google.com.”
While a bit exhaustive, all of this is important when registering your domain name. Most web hosts can register any TLD, so you need to know which one is right for you, and what exactly they’re talking about when offering subdomains.
Types of Web Hosting
Now that you know what web hosting is and how it differentiates from a domain name, it’s time to learn about the different forms of hosting. Web hosters provide a wealth of different options, so knowing what you need is essential when choosing a plan.
Shared hosting is the most cost-effective form of web hosting. Many different users are put together on the same server, and it serves the website up when the appropriate domain pings it.
Users share the resources with shared hosting; there’s not a set amount for each and allocation of resources ebbs and flows to users as needed. Many hosts will advertise specs as “unlimited,” when really what you receive is all that’s currently available.
Resources may be unlimited in theory, but they rarely are practically. The web host doesn’t limit what you get, but other users do. Additionally, the others on the server pose a threat to your website, not regarding security, but regarding uptime. If a single site on a server becomes flooded with traffic and causes that server to crash, every website on it goes down with it. Automatic rollover decreases much of that concern, but it’s something to consider with shared hosting.
Not everything is terrible here, though. For many, shared hosting is the most comfortable entry point, certainly the most cost effective, and often bundled with free setup and great support. It’s an excellent choice for those with smaller goals in mind that don’t require extensive resources, like a personal blog or school website.
- Easy to set up
- Slow response time
- Risk of going offline
- Inconsistent speeds
WordPress hosting is no different from shared hosting in its basic setup. Users are still put together on the same server, sharing the resources as needed. However, web hosts do a few different things to speed up response times.
The first is putting fewer sites on each server. The low-density arrangement doesn’t ensure you get more resources, but it certainly helps. The risks of shared hosting are significantly reduced, simply because there are fewer other sites to compete with.
WordPress hosting almost always come with a caching plugin as well. This is particularly useful so that your site can harness server and client-side caching without paying any extra. Caching stores data from a website, so it doesn’t need to be fetched each time the site loads.
Response times go way down when using caching, especially with modern websites. As pages become more complex in design, the demand on the server goes up as it loads much data very quickly. Caching lessens that problem, storing much of the content and only sending what’s required.
WordPress plans are also particularly useful for newbies. These plans come with WordPress, a popular blogging platform, pre-installed. You can login to the WordPress dashboard within moments of checking out, a massive plus if you’re eager to get your site up quickly with minimal hassle.
There are two main types of WordPress hosting: managed and unmanaged. Managed hosting means you get some different software for running your website and features like status monitoring.
Unmanaged hosting comes with none of that. Instead, you get the server, an OS and WordPress installed. These plans tend to be cheaper and apply to those who need to customize the software used on their site beyond what WordPress can do.
- Faster than shared hosting
- WordPress pre-installed
- Occasional downtime
- Inconsistent speeds
Hosting on a VPS (virtual private server) bypasses many of the issues in shared hosting while maintaining a low cost. Users still share a server, but each gets an allocated amount of resources, helping both speed and consistency.
Providers manage this by creating different virtual machines on the same server. For those unfamiliar with the term, a virtual machine is an emulation of a physical one, using software to create a computer inside of a computer, essentially.
Computerception, yes, but not too confusing. Each VM gets a set amount of the massive load of resources on a server, in essence making many smaller servers, only virtually.
The upsides to this are huge. Speeds are far more consistent, and how fast your response time is lies in your hands. At the very least you know that, if you’re experiencing slow speeds, it’s probably something with your site and not the server.
Upgrading is very easy too. Providers like DreamHost allow VPS users to add more resources instantly. While foresight is required to determine how much you’ll need, this flexibility is a significant advantage.
Despite how much value is offered, the cost is still low. The only extra change for a provider is setting up the VM, allowing those who can pay slightly more far more performance.
- Dedicated set of resources
- Easy to upgrade
- Risk of going offline
- Low amount of resources
Cloud hosting takes the idea behind a VPS and spreads it across servers around the world. Instead of using a single large VM, you gain access to several smaller VMs, sharing the load across different points.
The main advantage is reliability. With a VPS, you’re still at risk of going offline if the server crashes. While not all cons of shared hosting impact a VPS, this one does. However, with cloud hosting, you’re automatically rolled into one of the servers in the network, experiencing no downtime.
You can scale resources automatically as well. The model allows you to add other VMs from different servers seamlessly as needed. If your website experiences a sudden spike in traffic, cloud hosting can accommodate it without losing any response time.
Unlike VPS hosting, you only pay for the spike when it happens. Cloud hosting requires no estimation of required resources thanks to the scaling model, providing a utilitarian approach to cost for added value. You only pay for what you use, and that includes sudden spikes in traffic.
Cloud hosting is a relatively new service to web hosts. The price has dropped considerably in recent years as cloud technology has improved, making it affordable for more people. The main draw is reliability, though, with not much of a speed boost over VPS or even powerful shared plans.
- Utility style cost
- Automatic rollover
- Resource scaling
- No large speed advantage
- Still pretty expensive
You can have your cake and eat it too in the web hosting world, though. Above all other plans in terms of price and power is dedicated server hosting. The host uses no tricks to drive down cost, instead giving you a nice corner of the data center all to yourself.
The largest upside to dedicated hosting is speed. While there is a hefty price, performance is unmatched. Lightning-fast response time and companies with large, high-traffic websites are the targets of dedicated solutions.
Before cloud hosting became a viable option for consumers, dedicated hosting was the most reliable. You’re still out of luck if the server goes offline, but that’s far less likely to happen when yours is the only website living on it.
Even if you have the money, you shouldn’t look at a dedicated plan unless you know how to harness it. That’s because web hosts build dedicated hosting for those with experience in high traffic websites in mind.
Customers get full control over the server, a double-edged sword if you don’t know what you’re doing. Essentially, you’re renting a server in another space and that’s it. Providers will charge extra for set-up, maintenance and assistance.
For large corporations who already have an IT department, a dedicated solution makes sense as it provides the best in speed, customization and stability. For nearly anyone else, look at another option.
- Extremely fast
- Difficult to set up & use
The Best Web Hosting Providers
Now that we know what web hosting is, how it’s different from a domain and how to get started on both, it’s time to look at the best providers. While top companies provide an excellent service overall, certain brands take the prize in individual categories.
More important than nearly any consideration in choosing a host is its reliability. You want your website to stay online, especially if you intend on monetizing it. While any host can get you online, it takes an especially good one to keep you there consistently.
HostGator is one of only a few providers that offer comprehensive cloud hosting at an affordable price. As mentioned above, this model is one of the most reliable ways to host a website, providing automatic rollover in case of a server outage.
Even without cloud hosting, HostGator provides a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee. Most providers advertise this, but few follow through. HostGator is the rare exception and will credit your account for one month worth of services if it ever falls below this threshold for your site, check out our HostGator review for more on this.
Like HostGator, DreamHost provides a comprehensive cloud service. However, unlike the competitor, it is billed as a utility and not a flat rate. Costs end up being higher, especially if you need a lot of resources, but DreamHost has this service aimed at those who can truly harness the power (that is, those with deep pockets).
You’ll also get a 99.9% uptime guarantee, though it’s not nearly as good as the HostGator guarantee. Instead of providing a full month credit, DreamHost only compensates for the time that the server was down, read our DreamHost review for more info.
If you need maximum reliability, then you can’t go wrong with Pagely. Used by e-commerce titans like eBay, the company is built around providing best in class WordPress service, with an interest in speed and uptime.
This comes at a hefty cost, though. Pagely is far more expensive than any provider on this list, aiming their sights at those who demand the best of the best. If you have the coin for it though, Pagely is tough to beat, as you can read in our Pagely review.
Ease of Use
Your web host should be easy to use as you’ll be spending a lot of time in the billing area and control panel of your site. Many hosts use cPanel to achieve this, but a few have a better implementation than others.
BlueHost has the easiest to use interface we’ve tried, as you can see in our BlueHost review. cPanel is infused with the billing area, making it a one-stop shop for controlling everything on your site. BlueHost calls this an “enhanced” cPanel and thankfully we can confirm that it is indeed one.
Finding support is just as simple. Its knowledge base has multiple avenues for each topic and an intelligent recommendation system based on which is the most comprehensive. BlueHost is easy for anyone to use without sacrificing any power.
While HostGator is scored second here, it’s more like a co-number one than a number two. It manages the same clean and intuitive cPanel experience provided by Bluehost, presenting plenty of features without overwhelming those who aren’t sure what they all are.
HostGator miss some with a weaker knowledge base than what you get with Bluehost but makes up for it with a website builder. This tool provides plenty of flexibility for those putting up a site without paywall limitations like some other providers.
DreamHost doesn’t use cPanel, leaving it at a slight disadvantage compared to our top two picks. However, its UI is still clean and inviting, filled with plenty of useful features for those who wish to seek each out.
It’s clean, yes, but almost to a fault. While there are some powerful things you can do within the control panel, additional add-ons and services aren’t within arms reach like providers using cPanel.
Hosting can get very expensive, especially if you’re starting from scratch. While there are always providers that give the highest speed and uptime, it often comes at too much of a cost.
iPage provides the best bang for your buck if you’re putting up your first website. The focus on individuals and small business is apparent in our iPage review, with a straightforward pricing scheme and intuitive website builder.
For under $10 per month, you get the builder, a free domain, WordPress installation and a few hundred dollars worth of ad credits. Speed and uptime may not be the best around, but they’re more than enough considering all the upside.
HostGator sits in between providers like Pagely and iPage, giving both individuals and large companies a platform to use. HostGator provides a load of features with each plan at a great price across the board.
The cloud hosting plans are particularly impressive, coming in at only $4.95 per month on the low end. If you need reliability, you can’t get it much cheaper than this.
Like iPage, GreenGeeks focuses on the little guy, providing extremely affordable plans, ripe with features. You’ll get a free website transfer, one-click installer for WordPress and integration with ZenCart. Read about these and other features in our GreenGeeks review.
GreenGeeks comes at a slightly higher price, but the upside is enormous. Speeds and reliability are overall better and its dedication to eco-friendly hosting means you’ll be helping the environment too.
Best Web Host for WordPress
More than 25 percent of all websites run WordPress, so it’s likely that’s the platform you’ll end up on. Nearly all hosts provide WordPress specific hosting, but few genuinely optimize the platform for speed and uptime.
If you’re only interested in building your website on WordPress, you can check out our dedicated guide to the best web hosting for WordPress as well as our articles on using the CMS.
- Beginner’s Guide to Using WordPress
- Intermediate Guide to Using WordPress
- Advanced Guide to Using WordPress
SiteGround is our top recommendation for WordPress. The costs are low enough for anyone to get in with a straightforward model that easily allows you to add resources to your site as it grows. Don’t be fooled by the price, this is a fully featured WordPress solution, as you can read in our SiteGround review.
Everything is included from automatic daily backups to free SSL certificates. While SiteGround takes a hit in the usability department, the upsides for WordPress are huge with super fast speeds and rock-solid stability.
Unsurprisingly, making another appearance in this guide is HostGator. While it isn’t exclusive to WordPress, plans are still excellent. Specific features aren’t as fine-tuned as SiteGround, but still enough for most users.
HostGator wins mostly due to the usability and pricing. Plans pose a tremendous value with deep integration into one of the best configurations of cPanel. Features like a CDN and staged caching are also available, so speeds will be fast.
If money is no object, Pagely is the way to go. The service is behind titans like eBay provide the full service in terms of speed and uptime. For those who demand the fastest speeds and can’t afford to go offline, Pagely delivers.
Of course, that comes at a cost and one the shows significant diminishing returns. Plans quickly run into thousands of dollars per month, only showing marginal increases in performance. If that’s what matters, though, Pagely can’t be beaten.
Finally, when things go wrong, you need a reliable support staff to help. From call centers to tutorials, these hosts have you covered when the inevitable downside of hosting arrives.
Topping the list of best support is Hostgator, making yet another appearance in our guide. Shocking, we know. You can contact the staff via live chat, phone or email, each with swift response times and assuring answers.
However, the star of the show is with DIY support. There is a wealth of content in the knowledge base from videos to articles, each with detailed instructions. The interface is a bit dated, but still very useful.
SiteGround wins in the opposite area. Contacting support is a joy. Members are always friendly and helpful, ready to answer questions right away. There are never any queues for waiting, so you’ll get support immediately.
There’s even a profile for the member you’re talking to, complete with a picture and ratings. SiteGround calls this “the human side of support,” and it works.
BlueHost meets in the middle with a great team of support staff and an intuitive knowledgebase. It will automatically suggest the best form of support whenever you search a question, bringing all avenues into a single space.
This helps the flow of support. Instead of questioning where you should go, BlueHost does the heavy lifting and points you in the right direction. While it doesn’t master areas like HostGator or SiteGround, support is a well-rounded machine.
Other Considerations When Picking a Host
Guided by our recommendations, you’ll find a host that’s well-suited for you. However, if you venture out on your own, there are some things you should look out for that we don’t always have the opportunity to cover in our reviews.
The price structure of most web hosts can be very deceptive, especially for first-time customers. This is a category in which nearly all hosts are at fault, not just the bad ones, so it’s important to be vigilant even with a trusted provider.
This comes in the form of multi-year rates as opposed to monthly payment plans. Many companies offer a month-to-month payment structure (minus BlueHost) but at a 20 to 30 percent markup.
That isn’t to comment on any particular host or its business ethics, just to point out the fact. It’s not terrible, but it’s important to keep in mind before hitting “check out” on a three-year contract.
99.9 Percent Uptime Guarantee
As touched on in the reliability section above, many hosts advertise a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee. That is to say that your website will be live 99.9 percent of the time over its lifespan.
In many cases, this is true and there’s no reason to make a fuss about it. In others, the guarantee means absolutely nothing. In the case above, HostGator and DreamHost guarantee their uptime with compensation if your website went down due to server issues.
While this should be true for all hosts, it simply isn’t. Many times the term is used for marking and doesn’t guarantee anything at all. Try looking for the terms and conditions or a link to the guarantee on the site to see if your host is living up to its claim.
Lastly, you must see what the host includes when you purchase a plan. Web hosting isn’t a single service; it’s a combination of services tucked under a single umbrella. Because of that, it’s important to seek out what’s offered to you before assuming everything will work out.
A broad example would be installing WordPress. Those looking to put up a website up for the first time will likely use the CMS because of the ease of use, and nearly any host will be happy to give the site a home.
However, new users probably won’t be able to install and configure WordPress on their own. In this case, you need to check that the host will install WordPress for you or that there’s a one-click installer.
In most cases, this comes down to what you need and how the host can deliver that. The best providers include everything, but you should always double check. In our experiences with web hosts, the worst mistake you could make is to assume something is included.
Web hosting is a tricky field to navigate. There are a lot of moving parts and knowing what fits where is half the battle when putting up a website. Our hope here at Cloudwards.net is that this guide eased the process for you.
We didn’t dive into the specifics of each provider here, so make sure to check out web hosting reviews for the nitty-gritty. What web host are you going to go with? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.