It doesn’t seem like too long ago that the very notion of “cheap web hosting” would have you running for the hills. It was common for anything remotely cheap to only include a tiny amount of hard disk space, enough bandwidth for the smallest of audiences and next to no added features. And let’s not even consider the reliability and performance levels of these early cheap web hosting plans.
As the world wide web has progressed, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the development of the cheap web hosting packages first hand, trying many out on a variety of websites and across many different providers. Cheap plans offered by companies today are actually competitive, trustworthy and perform well. 500MB of disk space has turned in to unlimited accounts, and reliability and uptime are now key sales drivers.
However, something else I have learned along the way – the old adage about getting what you pay for can also be very true, and in web hosting terms, you have to be very careful to check every minor detail of the plan you are considering. Not everything is always as it seems, and if you’re looking to host a website for your business, knowing all of the ins and outs of your plan is vital.
In this article, I will aim to debunk some of the myths about cheap web hosting as well as explain which features you should look out for, and be mindful of. You can think of this as your complete guide to cheap web hosting, and by the end of it you will be well-placed to pursue the cheap hosting package you’ve been after.
Cheap web hosting: set your expectations
Before I get in to the nitty-gritty of features to look out for with cheap web hosting packages, it’s important that first of all you know what to expect from a cheap plan. If you’re coming in to this expecting cheap web hosting plans on to which you can transfer large and busy website to save a few hundred pounds, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Here are some initial points about cheap web hosting so that you can set your expectations:
You’ll be on a shared server
I remember clearly setting up my first website and not being in the slightest bit bothered about the term “shared server”. Mainly because I didn’t know what it meant. When you’re buying in to a cheap web hosting plan, you will almost certainly be hosting your site on a server with hundreds, possibly thousands, of other websites.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, however a shared server can bring disadvantages that you need to be aware of. Think of it a little like living in an apartment block, where you have your own small space to do what you like with, however your resources are shared with all of the other apartments.
In web hosting, the sharing of resources is often fine, however it can lead to poor performance at times (i.e. sluggish page loads) if there is a heavy requirement for resource elsewhere on that server.
Shared servers are also most likely to be susceptible to security risks, such as hacks. This may not be your fault, but instead can be down to a single lapse in security from another user sharing the server.
There will always be limits
Having gone through more than 15 web hosting providers, I counted more than 8 offering unlimited or unmetered hosting accounts, or specific elements of cheap web hosting accounts which were unlimited. Every single cheap web hosting account will have a limit of some sort of it, even if the initial marketing spiel says otherwise. Check the small print. In fact, I went to one of the biggest web hosting providers in the world, and looked at some of theirs for you.
As an example, GoDaddy’s cheapest web hosting plan offers unlimited bandwidth and 100GB disk space. There next plan up, still less than five pounds per month, offers unlimited bandwidth, disk space and unlimited websites. Incredible value. But, just how unlimited is this?
Having found their Web Hosting Agreement, there are some very pertinent points. Summarised, they are:
- All plans (including unlimited ones) are limited to no more than 250,000 inodes for Linux, and double that number of files and folders if you’re on a Windows hosting account.
- Databases and tables are also limited, with storage in these databases often capped at 1GB.
This is standard across the industry, and if you shop around and read the full terms of “unlimited” plans, you will find the same.
The bottom line is that unlimited is never unlimited.
Cheap web hosting is not a storage solution
While it may seem odd at first, many people try to purchase cheap web hosting plans to store files on that are not related to websites. For example, videos and photos which they can then download of stream to their own devices. Let’s be clear here, web hosting plans prohibit this across the board. While the large disk storage capacity of plans may attract you to do this, using a cheap web hosting plan for file storage or sharing will almost certainly see your account suspended.
Which features to expect from cheap web hosting
Once we have accepted the limitations of cheap web hosting in terms of seeing your site hosted on a shared server and alike, it’s time to focus on what features you can expect to see. There is absolutely no point in purchasing cheap web hosting if it does not do what you need it to do.
Let’s use an example here. If you have no knowledge of web hosting, setting up a website or technical jargon that accompanies it, then you’re going to need cheap web hosting that makes everything as easy as possible.
Take Bluehost, for example. Signing up to their cheap plans will not only allow you to get quickly set-up without any technical knowledge (and with a free domain!), but they also offer features such as one-click install of WordPress. In reality, this means you can be signing up and launching your own WordPress blog inside of an hour.
Most cheap web hosting packages are going this way, but some still have hurdles for you to jump. Using the WordPress example, if you were to open an account with some cheap web hosting companies, you will find either no option at all for quick one-click installs of applications, or if there are options there you may be required to set-up databases, etc. You won’t want to do that.
So, firstly, I’ll explore some of the basic entry-level features you should look out for with cheap web hosting. These are tools that can help those without great technical knowledge get set-up, or those that need a quick solution.
Basic cheap web hosting features
- One-click install apps
As I’ve already touched on above, many cheap web hosting companies now offer quick and easy installation of popular applications. WordPress is one such example, but other content management systems such as Drupal and Joomla also regularly feature. If you’re setting up a website on cheap web hosting with application requirements, be sure to check out what hosting plans are offering.
- Automatic backups
If you’re not an expert when it comes to all things websites, then having a web host that takes automatic back-ups of your website on a regular basis is vital. More and more cheap web hosting companies are now offering automatic weekly back-ups, and some even offer to re-instate back-ups for you should you need them too.
- Customer support
Even companies offering cheap web hosting now offer a good level of support, many of whom are 24/7. This is especially important if your website is business-centric. If you have any problems, you need a hosting company that you can rely on to send a support ticket to or pick up the phone. Better still, many cheap web hosting companies now offer “live chat” on their sites too. The support has come a long way in the last 5-6 years. I remember pulling my hair out with one particular company and their shockingly bad support ticket system circa 2008.
Advanced features of cheap web hosting
If you’re reading this, and like me, you need to do more than a simple application install with your web hosting, then having the freedom and capability offered by some more advanced features will be key.
So, for those slightly more advanced webmasters among us, you will want to look out for these features. Again, all now commonplace on cheap web hosting packages – startling really!
I can honestly say I would never again buy a web hosting plan that does not come with cpanel. For those who are not aware of it, cpanel is a back-end management tool for your web hosting plan, allowing you to set-up, edit and access all sorts of things including your databases, file manager, email account set-up and redirects. It will also give you access to any of the one-click or quick install applications.
Now only 3-4 years ago, I still found it a little tricky to get a cheap web hosting package with cpanel included. 123-Reg still do not provide it and instead use their own, while some providers will charge a little extra per month for it – GoDaddy for example want an additional $1 per month for cpanel. It’s a bit of a naughty thing to charge for in this day and age, but for the sake of just $12 a year, if I were going to go with GoDaddy for cheap web hosting, I’d pay this without hesitation.
Okay, I admit, this is not a “feature” in the true sense of the word, however whenever I set-up a new website I am always mindful of whether the site web hosting plan has the provision for the site to grow. If you are producing a blog or a magazine-style site, the aim is almost certainly to produce lots of content and thus attract lots of visitors. Scalability is also one of the real core values of a successful business (in my opinion).
Can your cheap web hosting plan deal with this? Check out the bandwidth and disk space, and as mentioned earlier in this guide, check the small print if something is noted as being “unlimited” or “unmetered”. Again, if I’m being honest, you do not need unlimited storage or bandwidth on web hosting – in fact, many of the cheaper web hosting plans that offer less space on the face of it are likely to be better value.
- Content Delivery Network (CDN)
In another example of the unbelievable progress in the world of cheap web hosting, some now offer a CDN solution. This essentially allows you to cache your content on servers in different physical locations, meaning your site can handle spikes in traffic much better without impacting on bandwidth, while also meaning your site remains available wherever you are in the world.
Cheap web hosting summary
As you have probably identified from this guide, cheap web hosting has come an incredibly long way from where it was just a few years ago. Performance levels and features previously available on premium or enterprise level hosting is now available to us all at a very low price.
The bottom line is that no longer should you automatically assume that cheap web hosting is bad web hosting. So long as you do your homework then you should find a cheap web hosting package that fulfils your needs.
However, if I were to summarise with some take-home messages and words of advice, they would be as follows:
- Check the cancellation terms: If you’re not happy with your cheap web hosting package, is it easy to terminate and go elsewhere? Many providers of cheap plans used to be notoriously difficult to leave. Like everything, this has improved, but certainly something to be mindful of.
- It’s cheap for a reason: As good as many cheap web hosting plans are, it is cheap for a reason. Don’t lose sight of the expectations we set earlier, notably around unlimited never being unlimited and being placed on a shared server.
- Additional charges: Keep an eye out for additional charges that some cheap web hosting plans will incur. These can be for bandwidth overages or other services you do not know you’re opting in to. Always check the terms thoroughly.
- Get stuck in: Once you settle on a cheap web hosting plan, get right in and try to establish what features are available. So many cheap web hosting packages now are bundled with great tools and features that users rarely use. These can be hugely useful to you and add value to an already sound offer. Also, if there were special offers when you signed up (e.g. Google AdWords credit), then make the most of it. Make your cheap web hosting go further by getting the most value possible.