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What is web hosting?

What is web hosting? Desktop computer showing website
(Image credit: Designecologist from Pexels)

What is web hosting? If that's a question you've ever asked yourself, you're not alone. Whether you want to build your own website, or pay a web designer or agency to build one for you, you’ll have heard people talk about the need to get web hosting. But what is web hosting, why do you need it, and where can you get it?

In this article, we’ll provide the answer to all of these questions and more, in a jargon-free way that is easy to understand. Read on, and discover everything you need to know about getting web hosting for your site and how to choose the best website hosting services. If you're just getting started, don't miss our guide to the best website builder too. 

What is web hosting?

Web hosting is the place where all the data of your website – the text, the images, the video, and so on – is stored, and delivered to those people who wish to access it via the web. 

In the very early days of the web, some people would actually host their website on their own computers. And technically you could still do this. But in practice, most home computers aren’t powerful enough to let more than a few people access your site at the same time without crashing. 

So nowadays, we outsource this task to web hosting companies, which have access to large and powerful computer servers around the world. And because they have so many customers, they can do this at scale, and keep the costs of web hosting low for everyone. 

How much should I pay for web hosting?

A new website owner should probably expect to pay around £50-£100 a year for web hosting. However, the more complex your site becomes, and the more central it is to your business, the more you’ll want to pay. So a very large and complex ecommerce website for a big company, for example, could cost as much as £10,000 to host.

Obviously, it pays to shop around for the best deal. But just like any price comparison you do on the web, headline figures can be misleading, so you have to dig into the detail. Specifically, some of the biggest hosting companies offer hosting for just a few dollars a week, or even free. However, both of these offers should usually be seen as ways for said companies to lure you in, and get you to pay more in the long term.

Woman counting money at desk

Shop around, but don't just go for the cheapest offer (Image credit: Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

First, these super-cheap or free web hosting plans may be time-limited, so you’ll need to read the small print to discover if and when the price will suddenly jump up. Secondly, they’ll usually mean your website is covered with ads, which you won’t earn any money from yourself. 

Thirdly, the service will probably be short on bandwidth, limiting the number of people who can visit your website at any one time. They also may be low on storage, restricting the size and number of images and videos you can include on your website. And finally, you’ll probably be given a custom URL; something along the lines of mybusiness.daveswebsitehosting.com. If you want a better domain name (ie, mybusiness.com), you’ll need to pay for that separately.

The good news is that if you find the plan you’ve chosen isn’t working for your website, you can always upgrade as you go. Web hosting companies are never shy at accepting more money from you!

What should I look for in a web hosting company?

One of the most important things to look for in a web hosting company is the level of technical support. They might be nice as pie while trying to get you set up, but it's what happens after that which is really important.

Support may be offered in many ways, which may include phone, live chat, email, and support tickets. Most companies promise that support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Some, though, limit it to office hours and days, which may prove tricky if the company is located in a different global time zone to you. 

Smiling man talking on the phone in an office

A good web hosting provider will provide customer support whenever you run into difficulties  (Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

There are other reasons to consider where the hosting company is based, and equally importantly, where their servers are based too. As a broad rule of thumb, the greater the distance that data has to travel between the server and your website visitors, the longer it will take for your website to load. For that reason, if your website is primarily for people in your area, it's often a good idea to go with a local hosting company.

Of course, that will be a false economy if the local provider has low quality software and hardware. And just because they're physically near you doesn't mean they'll necessarily offer good support. So it always pays to do your research and check as many customer reviews as you can.

Can I trust web hosting providers?

In general, you can trust web hosting companies to at least attempt to fulfil their promises to you. The market is so competitive that if they don't, they're certainly not going to last very long. However, there is one specific thing to watch out for, and that's the thorny word 'unlimited'.

Many hosting companies promises ‘unlimited bandwidth’, which means no restrictions on how many people can visit your website at any one time. They may also offer ‘unlimited storage’, ie that you can potentially upload an infinite amount of content to your website without ever running out of space.

This is nonsense and pure marketing spin. Realistically, your disk space and bandwidth is always going to be physically limited. What companies usually mean by this promise is that you’ll get far more space and will be able to cope with far more traffic than the average user needs. There will, however, be a limit; you just won’t know what it is until you exceed it.

This misleading kind of language isn't really on, and is a problem the web hosting industry is eventually going have to deal with... unless governments legislate for it first. In the meantime, if your provider advertises 'unlimited' bandwidth or storage, be very wary, and check the terms and conditions carefully.

What are the main types of web hosting?

Woman at laptop waving credit card

The more powerful your hosting package, the more it's going to cost (Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

There are many different types of web hosting, and this can seem quite intimidating to the first-time website owner. If that’s you, then be assured that shared hosting, the first type on our list below is all you really need to know about.

Shared hosting is the cheapest form of web hosting, and the most common service for the average website owner to opt for. It’s called ‘shared’ because your website will live on the same server as many other sites, which may run into the hundreds. The features available with this type of service are usually quite basic, but it’s suitable for websites that are only expecting low visitor numbers.

With Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting, your website also shares server space with other websites, but fewer of them. This type of hosting is more stable and secure than shared hosting, so is less likely to crash when visitor numbers spike, but also more expensive. This type of hosting is suitable for any website that is expecting a medium amount of traffic.

Dedicated hosting, as the name suggests, means your website gets its own private server. This is the most expensive of the services mentioned so far. For the extra money, though, you’ll get your website served faster to your visitors and it will be less likely to crash, even during high traffic spikes. This type of hosting is suitable for big businesses with high-traffic sites. Dedicated hosting can either be self-managed, where you control the server and have responsibility for its security and maintenance, or unmanaged, where the hosting company’s own technical team takes charge of these tasks.

Uneasy about the idea of storing your website on one physical server, making it vulnerable to that local power outages, being hacked, natural disasters, or being interfered with by national governments? These kinds of concerns have given rise to a new type of hosting, called cloud hosting. This means your website is stored on multiple servers across the globe, spreading the risk of anything happening to your website, and providing extra resources during traffic spikes. The downside is that you have less control over where your data is located.

WordPress hosting is a hosting service specially optimised for WordPress websites. WordPress.org allows you to build a website for free (it’s number two on our list of the best website builders) but it’s quite tricky to set up. So most of the main hosting providers have stepped in to make that easier by, for example, letting you install the software with one click, and automatically updating it for you, as well as hosting your site. Check out our guide to the best WordPress hosting providers today.

Email hosting is for people and organisations that don’t want to use a third-party email service like Gmail but would rather store and control their own emails on their own server. This may be the server that also stores their website, or a separate one. 

Want to become a hosting company yourself? You don’t actually need to buy physical servers and operate them yourself: you can rent space on other people’s servers instead, and then sell it on to other people. This is what’s known as reseller web hosting.

Looking for a website builder? Read our guides to: