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Critical Issues in Choosing a Web Hosting Provider

Welcome back to Answering the RFP, where, despite all the reasons why RFPs are not a great way to engage strategic partners, we make the most of these opportunities to strengthen our agency partners by providing clear answers that build trust with prospects and help them win clients. 

In the last couple videos I’ve been answering questions around the subject of search engine optimization—which led to the topic of page speed. In the last video I made the case that speed, while a factor in S.E.O., is not a heavily weighted one—assuming your pages aren’t irritatingly slow. But speed is important for users, and does have some impact on S.E.O., so pages should load quickly. I made recommendations about handling images and using caching plugins last time, and today I’ll discuss another significant speed factor—your website’s hosting environment.

Hosting a topic unto itself, and server speed is just one factor in choosing a provider.

When I discuss hosting with our clients I always want to make one fundamental point as they weigh their options. It’s critical to distinguish between two facets of any hosting package, namely the actual server resources offered (disk space, bandwidth, processor speed, and so forth), and the support structure around that environment. Unbundling this critical distinction is essential in order to properly compare one hosting provider’s pricing options with others.

You see, the basic resources needed to host a website are actually pretty cheap. You know this because you buy internet access and you’ve probably upgraded your computer. And so you know that year after year, for essentially the same price point, you get significantly more speed from internet service providers, or significantly faster processors from computer manufacturers. 

Core resources of computing power and internet access are cheap and become increasingly better and less expensive over time.

What’s not cheap is technical expertise. That is the opposite. The employment environment for technical engineers is highly competitive. It takes ever increasing resources to hire and retain excellent technical staffing. 

So when you find a website hosting provider with plans for less then $10, you may get sufficient network and hardware resources, but don’t count on easily accessible support to competent engineers. Low cost plans will say they provide support, but this will likely in the form of email or chat support with low skill call centers. And when your site is down, you don’t want to have to open a ticket and wait 24 hours for a lame reply.

In my experience, if you buy a plan for anything less than $50 per month, you can pretty much assume that you will be unhappy if and when you need emergency help. 

One other thing that I mention to our clients regarding hosting is the distinction between the hosting environment and the website itself. If your site is experiencing a technical issue, and you contact your hosting provider, they will look into their network, their computer equipment, and the software running their environment. If that all checks out they typically refer you back to your developer to address the problem. They are not responsible for the website, just the environment.

That’s why we regularly recommend WP Engine to our clients for hosting. Because we develop exclusively on WordPress, and since they are specialists in hosting WordPress sites, if there is a site issue, they’ll look into it, even if it’s not strictly related to their network or environment. That extra layer of support is well worth the small premium, if there is any, you might pay over other comparable providers.

Lastly, when comparing hosting options, you will typically see one set of relatively inexpensive options with price points under $100 per month. These are almost always going to be for shared server environments. Which in many cases is perfectly fine. But the resources on shared servers are pretty tightly monitored and controlled. And if you were to get a sudden spike of traffic exceeding shared thresholds, your site may become inaccessible. That’s the last thing you want when you’ve run a successful marketing plan or benefit from an unexpected viral moment. 

Alternatively, you can get a custom plan, or a dedicated server. Essentially though, to upgrade from shared to custom, you should assume you’re going to need to add a zero to the price. These plans tend to range from $400 to $1.000 per month (or more). 

But remember, if you invest in such a platform, you are not just buying faster processors and more disk space—those things do add some cost, but not that much. The 10x increase in cost directly corresponds to the engineering service level behind a custom hosting environment. When you have a custom or dedicated server, you must also have available IT engineers to manage it. That’s really what drives the cost. 

So, for example, if you had your own system administrator on staff, you could easily spin up a really powerful server on Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud for a fraction of the cost of a dedicated solution at a hosting company like WP Engine. But the essential ingredient there is your system administrator. And I guarantee system administrators get paid a lot more than $1,000 a month. 

Clients often undervalue the support level that corresponds to what they are paying for hosting. So if you have a relatively simple site that has predictable and level traffic volumes, a shared solution may be just fine. But if you have a large site with mission critical dependability, with potential spikes in visitation you may need a dedicated server with solid engineering support behind that environment. And that can’t be cheap, because engineering resources are costly. 

The bottom line in website hosting is you really do get what you pay for.

Until next time…

Be Clear. Build Trust. Win Clients.