Your website is your first impression, as many customers research a company online before deciding to conduct business with them. If you've ever visited a website that is broken, is hard to navigate or looks like it was designed in 1998, you've probably been turned off by the company and didn't explore it further. Your company's place in search rankings can also affect how much business comes through the door.
This guide will help your small business move from brick-and-mortar to digital, or help your small Etsy shop turn into its own company. We'll review the different types of server hosting – shared, dedicated, VPS and cloud – then go into eCommerce software and CMS hosting options. What starts as a small website with static pages will soon evolve into a fully functioning eCommerce site and active blog.
Throughout this guide, you'll also find our recommendations for top hosting options. We'll review what each brand offers and provide links to detailed reviews. By the time you reach the end, you'll know exactly what to look for in web hosting options and will be able to make informed decisions to make your website stand out.
Basic Shared Web Hosting
Each year, more than 500,000 businesses are created. The new American dream includes forming a startup with a few close friends, creating the next great app or tech innovation, and becoming a millionaire by selling it to Google. [SS1] Garage think tanks are the new garage band. A new business is created once every minute, and one of the first things that people do is design a logo, come up with a slogan and build their website. The optimal web hosting choice for beginners is a shared web hosting.
What is It?
Shared hosting is the most popular and least expensive web hosting choice. Your website shares a server with several other websites, as opposed to having your own server at your own facility or having an entire server to yourself.
Who Should Use It?
Shared hosting is an optimal choice for small companies that are just getting their feet wet. You're not Microsoft (yet), and you don't need more than 1 million servers to handle your global daily traffic. Startups that only need a few static pages should consider this option, as well as service providers like real estate companies and marketing firms where the call to action is to call for more information. Basic shared hosting might not be the best choice if you're hoping to sell actual products and services online, but we'll get to that later.
- Scalability: As you get bigger, you can take up more space and have additional features.
- One-stop shopping: Those who are unfamiliar with the basics of running a website can buy a package deal with everything they need.
- Customer support: It's a good choice for the inexperienced to be able to call and ask questions or seek help as needed.
- Low cost: Your site can stay up and running for only a couple of dollars per month.
- Security and Space: You don't have to worry about these problems; it's the host's job to fix them.
- Your software is limited: You can only run the software provided by the server, not your own.
- Security: The entire space is vulnerable to viruses because it's shared with so many other websites.
- Limited resources: If one site has a spike in traffic, it could negatively affect the other sites on the server.
What Providers Should You Use?
Top Ten Reviews compared the different elements of web hosting sites and came up with its own recommendations. Here are its top three picks.
- iPage: Not only is iPage the cheapest out of these options, making it perfect for emerging businesses trying to establish themselves – it also has the best features. Its ease of use and support set it apart from Go Daddy, and it has a comprehensive email marketing and analytics toolbox.
- Just Host: One of the most helpful features of Just Host is the getting-started wizard, which walks you through the setup process. It also has user forums that you can turn to if there's a problem not discussed in the FAQs.
- GoDaddy: While Go Daddy is a household name in web hosting, it only reached third in the rankings. Its eCommerce features require extra purchases, and there's no live chat support. However, it has many useful features that set it apart from the dozens of other sites out there.
Choosing eCommerce Software
As your business grows, you may need to switch from basic shared hosting to eCommerce web hosting. For instance, a restaurant will start with a few static pages that provide the hours, menu and contact information. As it grows, it might upgrade to an eCommerce page to sell its secret sauce or T-shirts and other merchandise online.
What is It?
eCommerce software lets you upgrade to sell whatever product or service you offer online. Whether you're shipping flower baskets or selling copies of your eBook, adding eCommerce software is the easiest and safest way to start making money off of the internet.
Who Should Use It?
Local businesses are relying more on eCommerce pages for customer acquisition and retention. Instead of calling your hair salon to schedule an appointment, you can book one online. You can pay rent online or send cupcakes from a local bakery to your friends in another state. Most small businesses that offer products and services can benefit from some form of eCommerce page.
eCommerce is the natural next step for DIY crafters graduating from Etsy. If you've made a fortune selling cat-shaped tea cozies, moving your business to your own eCommerce site gives you more power and options.
- You determine the price: Depending on the software and upgrades you use, eCommerce software runs from $15 to $1,000 per month. Feel free to start at the low end; you're not Amazon just yet.
- QuickBooks integration: Let your accounting handle itself so you can focus on creating an amazing product.
- Mobile-friendly: According to Adweek, 72 percent of consumers expect brands to have mobile-friendly websites – do you?
- Marketing options: Most software includes marketing options to send emails to customers who abandoned their carts, send promotional emails and let your customers share purchases on social media.
- Customer response: If your clients are used to calling you for orders, they might not be inclined to start ordering online.
- Questionable integration: It's sometimes hard to integrate your eCommerce software into your current website. You might have to create a third-party site or change your hosting plan.
- Rapid changes: eCommerce software is constantly updating, and each mobile phone introduces easier ways to buy. You'll have to follow trends and keep evolving to stay on top.
What Should You Use?
In case you're looking to incorporate eCommerce into your business, Top Ten Reviews highlights these three options.
- Volusion: Volusion is good for small businesses and beginners that are testing eCommerce software and don't want to break the bank. There are a lot of free features for you to test out and see what works best for your site. However, some of its paid upgrade features come standard in the other software options.
- Shopify: Unlike Volusion, Shopify lets you upload an unlimited number of products, but that's just about all it has to compete with the other options. Features such as a POS system, customizable analytics and low inventory alerts cost extra or aren't there at all.
- Shopping Cart Elite: While the top two options cost about $30, Shopping Cart Elite Pro is almost $400. The severe uptick in cost comes with more options than the other two have, but it may only be worth it if the bulk of your sales are through your website.
Content Management Systems
After launching a basic site and monetizing it with eCommerce software, the natural next step is the addition of a blog to help with marketing efforts. When it comes to choosing a content management system (CMS), there are many options, but three stand above the crowd.
WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are the three best choices for your CMS. Here are the pros and cons for each, and what types of businesses would thrive with each one.
WordPress began as a blogging platform and has taken off with amateur bloggers and small businesses that have minimal technical expertise. WordPress offers 27,000 free plugins and 2,000 free themes that make customization easy – something the 68 million websites that use it appreciate. While major sites like CNN, Forbes and The New York Times operate out of WordPress, its average site gets less than 1,000 hits a day, meaning it's a favorite pick for small businesses and blogs that use shared hosting.
- User-friendly: WordPress is recommended for marketing agencies that design websites and then hand them to clients. It's a site the technologically challenged can easily understand.
- Easy SEO: There are multiple free plugins to help guide newbies through the process of optimizing their content for search engines.
- Plugins: There are thousands of plugin options. Just make sure you're keeping up with the updated versions and deleting plugins you don't use.
- Multiple authors: Different people can get in at once, which is good if multiple people in your company are running a blog or making changes. You all can work without overriding each other.
- Limited designs: While you can choose from different themes, the general look and build stays similar. It's fairly easy to spot a basic WordPress page.
- Spammers: Blog spam is a serious problem with WordPress, and you could quickly get overrun if you don't keep it in check. You'll want to install comment CAPTCHAs or close comments entirely as you grow.
- Security issues: Because WordPress is the most popular, it's also the most heavily targeted out of the CMS options. Hackers will try and take down your site or steal your information through weak plugins.
Second to WordPress is Joomla, with more than 50 million downloads. This is the site you want to use if your small business wants to focus on eCommerce over blogging. As we mentioned earlier, companies that use websites to inform will want static pages and a blog, while internet retailers and businesses looking to expand online will need solid eCommerce software. Joomla is your top choice for this. It's also used to support eBay's intranet (with more than 16,000 employees), along with the websites of IHOP, Porsche and Harvard University.
- Strong content management ability: WordPress can't easily handle hundreds of posts getting published weekly, but Joomla was originally built for that.
- Happy medium: Joomla is more complex than WordPress, but it's easier to use than Drupal. Users with a decent understanding of code or design will be able to use it comfortably.
- Hits own plugins: There are 6,000 available plugins for Joomla users. While that's not as many as you can find on WordPress, it's still more than most users need.
- Learning curve: Getting a feel for the software takes more time than it does with WordPress.
- SEO challenged: There's no easy SEO solution for Joomla. You'll either need a background in search optimization or to download a collection of plugins to piece together a complete picture.
- Lack of support: Consumer feedback reports that Joomla lacks the help and support that WordPress offers.
Any CMS that's good enough for the White House is probably good enough for your business. Drupal comes in third in popularity with 15 million downloads, and like Joomla and WordPress, the initial cost is free. Drupal is a great CMS for projects that your company plans to scale. Besides Whitehouse.gov, Drupal also powers Linux and Fast Company.
- Better SEO than Joomla: Its SEO capabilities run closer to WordPress as far as ease of use, and the software was designed to be search-friendly.
- Most advanced sites: Run-of-the-mill bloggers and businesses might shy away, but Drupal can support thousands of pages and millions of users.
- Stability: Drupal is one of the most stable of the content management systems. It has to be, considering it manages massive sites with government information on them.
- Hardest to use: Leave this one to the pros and advanced developers. If you don't have the training but want to use Drupal, consider hiring an outside agency.
- Most modules aren't free: Instead of plugins, Drupal has modules, and most of them aren't free. It doesn't have the vast options offered through WordPress and Joomla either.
- Sacrifices stability for aesthetics: In exchange for a strong, utilitarian service, you don't have the theme options and customization of the other two CMS options.
Choosing a Host for Your CMS
When you're building out your CMS, you may need to rethink your server choice. As we discussed, most WordPress blogs get fewer than 1,000 hits per day and can live comfortably on shared servers with hundreds of others. However, as your small business grows, it may be time to take your CMS elsewhere. Here are our top two picks.
- Synthesis: Synthesis offers some of the best support on the market. If your site sees a dramatic uptick in traffic, it's easy for Synthesis to keep your site running. It also has enhanced security defenses, site optimization, and a site sensor to make sure it's up and running as fast as it can. This is the top recommended server option.
- WestHost: For the small business that's just starting out, WestHost is an optimal solution. It hosts more than 1 million domains globally and has starter packages from $4 to $12 per month. On top of 24-hour support and ad-free hosting, WestHost also helps with spam and autoresponders.
Evaluate where your company and website is currently and where it's heading. It might be worth choosing a more advanced CMS to plan for the future.
Cloud and VPS Servers
Up until recently, businesses only had a few options when it came to hosting their websites on servers. Small businesses used basic shared hosting, while medium and large businesses used dedicated servers that only worked for them. In the past few years, the rise of cloud and VPS technology has made servers more reliable and less expensive. Let's break down the virtual options for your small business.
What is a Virtual Private Server?
A VPS is a physical server with specific software that breaks it apart into virtual smaller servers. This means that while multiple websites are shared on one machine, they act independently of each other. This adds an extra level of security over a typical shared hosting option. If someone hacks a shared server, they have access to all of the sites on there, but they don't if they hack a VPS.
- Less expensive: A VPS is traditionally less expensive than cloud storage.
- Can be rebooted: Other sites won't be affected if one VPS needs to be rebooted.
- Privacy: As it says in the name, a VPS is private and doesn't share information or space with other sites.
- Reliant on a physical server: Unlike cloud storage, a VPS can still fail if the entire physical server goes down.
- Not for beginners: Essentially, you're managing your own server, so you could load it with viruses and accidentally delete files if you don't know what you're doing.
- Host might not be efficient: You still need to rely on a hosting service, trusting that it allocated the resources correctly.
What is a Cloud Server?
Instead of renting physical space, users rent virtual space on the cloud. Cloud servers are run on a hypervisor, which controls the capacity and balances out space as needed. Each client has multiple cloud servers available to them and can move them to make room. There's also more backup, and more websites can handle spikes in traffic without crashing.
- Almost limitless resources: Because the server is virtual and can move around to accommodate size, businesses can grow without worrying about exceeding bandwidth.
- Redundancy: There's more backup on cloud servers, preventing sites from losing information or going down.
- Modification freedom: You can change the software you use as much as you need to as your small business evolves.
- Setup ease: Cloud servers don't require much setup or maintenance.
- More expensive: Because of the additional benefits, it's more expensive than a VPS.
- Limited control: The cloud is managed in a third-party environment, giving you limited control over it.
- Provider dependency: Once you're set with a vendor, it's difficult to change. This is commonly called vendor lock-in.
Now that you know the pros and cons of the cloud versus VPS, consider these three providers chosen by Top Ten Reviews.
- Heroku: Heroku costs about $85 and supports most major languages and frameworks, from PHP to Drupal. It was given excellent ratings for features, scaling, flexibility and ease of use. Few other providers ranked as highly.
- Amazon Elastic Beanstalk: The leg up that it has over Heroku is that it supports all languages and frameworks. It's also less than half the price of Heroku, costing an average $35.
- Windows Azure: Windows Azure is more expensive than the other two, costing almost $200 on average, and it has fewer features and support. However, it offers phone and email support, which helps businesses that want to get hands-on with their cloud service provider.
For small businesses just getting their feet wet in web hosting, software and content, start small. Look into shared servers and the most basic packages. As your business grows, add more advanced features and consider investing in scalable hosting. Keep these factors and brands in mind and you should make savvy digital choices moving forward.