The Ultimate Guide to Website Hosting & Maintenance in 2021
The average internet user spends 6 hours and 43 minutes online every day browsing one of the world’s more than 1.87 billion websites. But for all the time that you spend browsing, making purchases, reading the news, and sharing pictures of cats on social media, how often do you think about the infrastructure underneath all these websites?
Setting up a website for your business may be the first time you’ve had to think about the nuts and bolts of how a website makes it from an idea in your head into a public page that customers and clients can easily find and use.
And, as you dig into web hosting and maintenance options, you may become overwhelmed by the various choices you have to make and the jargon that reads like R2D2’s dialogue.
In this guide, we’ll give you an overview of both web hosting and maintenance to give you the information you need to build a website that will help you build your business.
What is web hosting?
All websites exist on servers, which internet users (clients) can request access to in order to view your content.
But running and managing a server is a major undertaking, and so most small-to-medium businesses purchase web hosting from a third party—effectively renting the server and other necessary services and technologies—when they want to get a website up and running.
This makes it easier for you to publish your website to the internet so that clients and leads can find you. Your web host will also often take responsibility for the security of the server that your website is stored on, protecting your data, pages, and databases etc. from malicious attacks.
Of course, there’s a fair amount more to web hosting than this explanation offers—but this gives you a general overview of what web hosting is and why you’d consider purchasing a web hosting package.
How to choose the best website hosting for your business
As with any product or service, web hosting comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes to match the wide variety of needs that would-be website owners have. Needless to say, there’s a huge difference in what it takes to run a small website where you store your vacation photos to share with your family vs. running a major e-commerce site.
When you’re choosing a web host, therefore, you’ll need to be clear on what you need. Here are some things you should be considering:
Performance: What do you need in terms of performance? Your answer to this question will depend on how much traffic you generate, and how you want users to interact with your website. If improving your SEO is part of your business strategy, you’ll also want to consider how poor performance will impact your search engine ranking. One metric to look out for is a hosting company’s uptime score: ideally you’d want a company that has an uptime score of above 99.5% and should avoid companies that have a score below 99% Other performance factors to consider include loading speed, storage and monthly traffic caps.
- Security: As recent high-profile cases have proven, any company can find itself the victim of a ransomware attack or have its data hacked by cybercriminals. Security should be a concern for every organization. When assessing your web hosting options, consider what requirements you need as well as how hands on you want to be. If you do get hacked or there’s a breach, what happens? Good security features to look out for include information redundancy systems and regular back-ups.
- Updates: Many aspects of your website such as your content management system (e.g WordPress), your theme, or your plugins will need to be regularly updated in order to maintain security and performance. Some hosting plans will include making these updates on your behalf, others won’t. Consider whether you have the time and ability to manage updates yourself, or if you’d prefer a web host to take care of them for you.
- Support: When something goes wrong with your website, you want to get the issue resolved right away. That’s why you should explore what support options your website host offers. Do they have a ticket system or are there live/chat support options? When is support available—during limited hours or 24/7? And is the support in-house or outsourced?
- Options included: Different web hosts will offer different packages. Do you need an e-commerce option? Do you plan to have email linked to your domain? Are there SEO or analytics tools you want to have access to? Is there a built-in content management system? Do you need the option to purchase additional space or domain names as you grow? Take a careful look at what different hosts are offering you when you sign up, even if you don’t think you’ll need all the bells and whistles from the get go.
And of course, your budget will always be a consideration. Many web hosts offer discounts if you agree to lock in your plan for a longer period, but that has its own trade offs. You will also want to explore beyond the initial registration costs and look at what it will cost to resubscribe at the end of your term—these costs can be substantially higher.
If you are on a tight budget, don’t lose heart: good hosting options can be found in the lower price ranges, too.
Remember, there’s no “one-size fits all” checklist that can tell you whether a hosting option is right for your business or not. The best hosting solution for you will be the one that meets your needs (and, conversely, that doesn’t have you paying for extras that you won’t use). That means that you may need to put in a little extra work into determining those needs and comparing hosting plans, but given the importance of your website to your business, it’s worth the effort to find the right solution.
4 common types of website hosting
Once you’ve got a broad sense of what you need from your website hosting, it’s time to find the package that will work for you. There are options available that vary on the amount of storage you need, the level of control and customization provided, and the speed and reliability of the server, etc.
Here’s a quick rundown of four of the most common types of website hosting that are available to you.
What is it? Shared hosting means that your website is stored on the same server as multiple other websites. The server resources, such as the RAM, bandwidth, and CPU, are shared among all the websites hosted on the shared server.
Pros and cons: Shared hosting has many advantages. Firstly, it’s usually the cheapest hosting option available, because you’re sharing the cost of those server resources with other customers. Secondly, your hosting company will handle many of the technical aspects, such as maintaining the server, running updates, managing security, etc. Typically, providers of shared hosting plans make setting up a website easy even for people with no technical background. Often, “one-click” / easy set-up options, such as WordPress, are available.
However, a shared hosting plan isn’t for everyone. Because you’re sharing server resources, what happens on other websites can impact the performance of your site. For example, if a website on the same shared server as you experiences a massive spike in traffic, your own website could be slowed down as a result.
With shared hosting you’re also placing your trust in the hosting company’s security, which may be a concern for some types of business. You’re also bound by the terms and conditions of the hosting provider: some customization options may not be allowed, and exceeding your allowance of the shared resources may lead to your website being pulled down.
Who is it ideal for? Shared hosting is an affordable, low-barrier way to get a simple website off the ground. This makes it great for individual entrepreneurs or small businesses who don’t anticipate getting large amounts of traffic to their website (e.g. less than 500 visitors daily).
Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting
What is it? VPS hosting is a half-way point between shared hosting and dedicated hosting. With VPS hosting, you still technically share your server with other customers, but you get a dedicated portion of that server for your use. VPS hosting offers more storage space and opportunity for customization.
Pros and cons: VPS hosting offers more storage and bandwidth, and will tend to be more reliable than shared hosting. Websites on VPS hosting can typically handle more traffic, and you’ll have a greater level of control over customization, including advanced security options should you need them.
However, VPS hosting is more expensive than shared hosting and despite its increased capacity, can still be insufficient for sites that have large amounts of traffic. Because you have more control over your VPS, you may also find you need someone in-house with the expertise to manage your server, which can also add to your costs.
Who is it ideal for? VPS hosting is ideal for small-medium sized businesses who are already established and have a significant amount of regular traffic. It’s also a great option for businesses that want more control over the setup of their server and enhanced security.
What is it? Dedicated hosting is exactly what it sounds like: instead of sharing a server with other users, you rent the exclusive rights to a server from your hosting provider, giving you access to the full resources of that server.
Pros and cons: Dedicated hosting offers you high degrees of control and customization, as well as advanced security options. Perhaps the largest benefit of dedicated hosting is the enhanced performance you can expect from your website, with improved uptime, speeds, and stability. Dedicated hosting is also more scalable–as your website grows, your hosting provider can add additional resources to your plan.
The downside of all of this is that dedicated hosting is the one of the most expensive hosting options available. And while your hosting provider will likely have technical support available, in order to install and manage the server you will need high-level in-house technical expertise.
Who is it ideal for? Dedicated hosting is ideal for websites that generate large levels of traffic (millions of visitors daily) as well as for businesses that need more advanced customization (for example, large ecommerce sites). Dedicated hosting is also a good option for businesses that need high levels of security, such as organizations managing sensitive health or financial data.
What is it? Managed hosting is an option where your hosting provider handles the technical needs of your website, taking care of everything from setup and configuration, maintenance, and ongoing patches and support.
Pros and cons: Managed hosting allows you to make the most of your hosting package and website capabilities, without requiring you to have technical experts in house. If you need something beyond the basic setup and plug-ins that come standard with most hosting plans, but you’re not at a size to hire someone full-time, managed hosting allows you to build and maintain a site that performs in exactly the way you want, as well as likely running faster and being more secure. Managed hosting also frees up your time so that you can pay attention to other parts of your business.
One downside is that you’re handing over some of the control and flexibility when you choose a managed hosting plan.
Who is it ideal for? Growth-focused small-medium sized businesses, who have more complex needs than can be met by a typical shared hosting plan. Managed hosting plans are also a great option for businesses as they’re growing and don’t yet have in-house technical expertise or capacity.
What is website maintenance?
Once you’ve sorted your hosting and built your website, you never have to worry about it again and can just sit back and wait for the money to roll in, right?
Sadly, your website isn’t a “one and done” kind of a deal. Websites require ongoing maintenance in order to ensure they look good and remain functional. At the most basic level website maintenance encompasses any tasks you undertake to ensure your website remains functional and up to date. This includes checking for and repairing any issues on your site, and performing regular updates.
Too many people fail to consider website maintenance as part of their ongoing web strategy. However, just as a crumbling store-front and burst pipes would deter customers from entering a physical storefront, a poorly maintained website will ultimately drive away the customers you’re trying to reach. Here’s why website maintenance is critical:
- You improve your security: You’d never leave the doors to your office (and your safe) unlocked and just hope for the best. But when you fail to update your website regularly, you’re essentially leaving potential doors open to hackers and cybercriminals.
- You boost your website’s performance (and increase the chance you’ll make a sale): A well maintained website is going to load faster, function as expected, and delight your visitors. These factors have real business implications: 89% of consumers will switch to a competitor if they have a bad experience trying to use your website.
- You drive more traffic to your site: Your website’s performance isn’t only important to visitors… It matters to search engines, too. Search engines, such as Google, want to make sure they’re directing users to high-quality, reliable sites. That means you’ll rank better (and thus get more visitors) if your site is well-maintained and high-performing. (Psst… to learn more about technical SEO and why it matters, check out our Ultimate Guide to SEO)
What’s typically included in website maintenance?
As we highlighted in the previous section, website maintenance can cover a multitude of different tasks. Some of the common activities that are covered under “website maintenance” include:
- Taking backups: When it comes to websites, it’s not a matter of “if” things go wrong, but “when.” Human error, updates sending everything haywire, crashes–all can cause you to lose data and content. Backups are your website’s safety net: a guarantee that you can restore your website to a previous, functioning state with ease. If you are regularly updating your website, daily backups are the gold standard.
- Monitoring uptime: Your website can only act as your digital storefront if it’s actually “up”: live and visible on the web, so that your visitors can find you and the information they need. Uptime monitoring lets you know asap if your website has gone down, so that you can resolve the issues right away.
- Performing CMS, theme and plugin updates: In the same way that your phone needs to be updated every so often, the same is true for many components of your website including your content management system, your theme, and any plugins you may be using. Keeping these updated is critical for your website’s security. Unfortunately, hackers and cybercriminals are always working to figure out how to bypass current controls and technologies, which means if you’re not up to date, your website has effectively left its door wide open.
- Making front-end content updates: If your site isn’t regularly updated with new content, not only will your visitors have no reason to come back, but your search engine rankings will start to drop too. You also want to make sure you maintain your existing content–fixing broken links, deleting duplicate pages, etc, as these factors also play into your SEO.
- Keeping domains up to date: Your domain needs to be kept up to date on a regular basis to make sure that your registration details are in good order. If you don’t update or respond to domain registrars, your domain name may lapse, and unfortunately it can be an expensive process to try and reclaim your domain.
- Keeping SSL up to date: SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. SSL adds additional protections to your website to ensure the security of your website, and your visitor’s data. Your SSL certificate authenticates your reliability to your visitors and encrypts the transmission of data, making it harder for hackers to steal credit card numbers or other personal information. However, SSL certificates need to be renewed on a regular basis in order to maintain your security. If you let yours lapse, your visitors may see the following warning when they attempt to browse to your website:
- Testing across different browsers: Users have a variety of choices when it comes to web browsers, including Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Edge among others. Users also have different platforms (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, etc) where they open their browsers. What looks good on your work laptop running Chrome, may not look right or function properly at all for an Android user running Firefox. Testing across browsers helps identify issues and determine what fixes are necessary.
- Monitoring performance and analytics: Monitoring your performance and analytics can let you know how well your website is performing. You can begin to identify your peak traffic times, sources of traffic, bounce rates (e.g. when a visitor clicks away from your website), and conversions (visitors to sales), as well as many other metrics. All of this is critical business information that can help you identify issues and opportunities as you grow your business.
Should I hire a company to manage my website?
The answer to this question is… it depends. You’ll want to think about the time and resources you have in house to manage your website, and what your budget looks like.
The answer also depends on what goals you have for your website. If your website is small, has low traffic, and doesn’t play a critical role in your business, you may be able to keep it maintained and working as well as you need. This is especially true if you’re not looking for your website to drive business and you don’t have plans to grow your online presence.
However, if you have a more complicated website (e.g. an ecommerce store), large amounts of traffic, or you are relying on (or plan to be relying on) your website to drive business, you may want to consider hiring a company to manage your website for you. While there is, of course, an upfront cost in paying for website management, you’ll want to do a cost-benefit analysis that considers the time saved, and gains made in performance, conversions, SEO, etc.
Your website is a valuable asset, and so whether you’re starting from scratch or looking for a new home for an existing site, you’ll want to be sure that you’re getting the right hosting and/or maintenance plans for your business.
At Sparked, we’re a team of experts who will give you jargon-free answers. We’re here to help you find the solutions that match your ambitions– and we’ll always be transparent about what we’re recommending, why, and what options you can consider. Want to chat about how we can manage your website hosting and maintenance? Contact us and one of our friendly team members will be in touch soon.