How to Choose a Web Hosting Provider
A simple question which can send some of us into hours or even weeks of despair.
Choosing a web hosting provider isn’t easy. There are thousands of different options, many of whom purport to be the best. Some claim to be the best at some certain aspect (speed, reliability, support, security, etc).
Given this problem, some common solutions I see people take are: ask friends, ask a community, or read reviews.
The Web Hosting Problem
The goal is finding someone you can trust to steer you to the best choice. With many products it’s as easy as saying: this widget is the best. But for services, like web hosting, it’s different. There are mixed opinions about every company. In fact, a lot of the brands you will see promoted on review sites are often plagued by negative feedback in communities.
Why is web hosting particularly bad for finding good information? Money. Specifically, affiliate payouts and advertising. Web hosting customers are worth a lot of money.
How much is a customer worth? The Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) for GoDaddy in 2020 was $166 with 85% retention rate. Using those numbers, each customer is worth approximately $1,100 in revenue. (Source: GoDaddy 10K 2020)
When customers are worth huge sums of money, companies are willing to pay very large affiliate commissions to acquire them. I’ve seen commissions in the many hundreds of dollars per customer, occasionally even over a thousand for very high end customers. That means there are a lot of people willing to promote the companies willing to pay very large sums of money. The quality of the service generally doesn’t factor into that decision at all, people will say anything to make some extra money.
Review Sites Often Lie
One hosting review site went so far as to scrape Review Signal’s reviews, make up star ratings for them (Review Signal’s main site only uses positive and negative reviews), and only took positive reviews from one of the lowest rated companies and use them to promote the company. (Source: HostingAdvice steals Review Signal’s Content and Uses it to Mislead Visitors)
So review sites as a category are pretty hard to trust. In fact, my general rule is don’t trust any of them until proven otherwise, including this one. Extreme skepticism is warranted in this industry. The goal at Review Signal has been to build trust in a trustless space and it’s very difficult. The way the reviews work here are designed to be data driven and transparent. All the algorithms and methodologies are published and should be reproducible for anyone interested in enough to try. I also benchmark against the public data which sometime gets published (against maybe my only honest competitor who was sold or publicly available NPS scores). And still, my information is only as good as the data I can collect, and it has its limitations.
So you might search for discussions outside of a review context.
Communities can have Bias
The other places people often look for opinions or advice are communities. There are many different communities around the web from forums like WebHostingTalk, to /r/webhosting subreddit, to WordPress Hosting facebook group, there are communities dedicated to web hosting. There are also many small business, entrepreneur, startup, designer, developer and other communities where people talk about web hosting because of its importance to running any online presence.
The issues with these communities is that there can be biases based on the membership and who is active or runs the community. There tends to be favorites in most communities who get treated and recommended possibly more than they should be, and negative feedback of them gets treated with skepticism while positive recommendations are encouraged. There are also companies that get treated poorly no matter what they do because of reputational inertia, things done in the past, sometimes more than a decade ago. This isn’t a negative reflection on any particular community or the people involved, but simply the tribal nature of communities in action. The healthy communities tend to be filled with people who are passionate about web hosting and people who might work in the industry who help provide support and information outside of the traditional channels.
They can be quite helpful sometimes, but again, your faith is often put into one or two people’s opinion.
Don’t Lose Hope
It might sound very hopeless after reading all the problems with figuring out which web hosting company to use.
You just need to know and understand some realities: every company will have customers who have good AND bad experiences. You want to find a company where more people are having good experiences compared to bad ones. You also need to know that companies tend to at best, stay equal in quality over time, but often degrade as time passes by because scaling human operations managing hardware that will break and fail, is hard. Given enough time, every company will have problems. Even Google and Amazon have gone down on occasion.
Knowing all of this, always be prepared to move your website to another provider. That means make sure you keep regular backups of all code and databases.
How to Pick
If you made it this far, you’re ready to choose a company. After going through this process, most people will have a short list of companies that they are considering that match whatever criteria they might have in their heads: cost, location, services, specialties, etc.
Before pulling the trigger on a host, the test I like most is actually reaching out to the sales/support staff and asking them the questions you have. Explain your situation, explain your needs and ask them about why they would be a good fit.
Listen to all the answers you get from each company and look to see if any company stands out or eliminates itself from consideration. My rule of thumb is, if you’re unsatisfied by their customer service before you’re a customer, you’re unlikely to be satisfied once they’ve taken your money.
If you still can’t decide after talking to them, it maybe just roll the dice on one and keep the backups ready in case.