So You Want To Find A Web Host?

One of the biggest decisions facing anyone who is looking for quality web hosting is whether they should sign up with a free host, or just spring for a paid hosting plan. The choice really isn't as black and white as it might first seem and it depends on a number of factors. Free web hosts may seem like a godsend, especially for someone on a budget, but can they really live up to all the hype? Let's take a look. First, let's outline some of the advantages of these free plans.

1. Well, they're free, and to a lot of people that may be the biggest advantage of all.

2. You don't need a college degree to utilize them, whether you're a novice or an experienced webmaster. In most cases, you don't even need to know one iota of HTML coding. A lot of these free hosting services offer at least a basic WYSIWYG editor and some of them, such as Geocities, come packed with templates and other exciting freebies.

3. It's a great way to learn the basics. Most features are simple and easy to use so you can familiarize yourself with the straightforward stuff before moving on to more complicated things. For example, you can learn how to painlessly upload files through your browser before delving into the inner workings of FTP.

4. You get what you need. Just do a quick search of hosting providers and you'll see that some of the features you can get are amazing but, let's face it, what are most people going to do with 10 GB of space? Many providers charge for features that you're never going to use.

Those seem like pretty big advantages, don't they? Right about now, you're ready to start searching for a free host, if you don't have one in mind already. Hang on, I'm not done yet. Those were the advantages; now it's time for the disadvantages, and they are just as important.

1. Here's the big one: Ads. Don't be fooled by all those companies that offer so-called ad-free sites. Hosting services must make money to stay afloat and they do this in a number of ways. The simplest way is to charge for hosting. Free hosts generally rely on advertising so their sites usually include pop ups, banners or text links. Another strategy is to offer a scaled down set of features in the hope that the user will be impressed and want to upgrade to a paid plan.

2. Unreliability. This can actually be two-fold. On one hand, if a free hosting company has no visible means of income (either through ads or upgradeable plans), chances are they're not going to be around for a long time. Don't be surprised if you check on your site one day and find it missing. On the other hand, even if the company is making money by some means, everyone wants a free site. This can put tremendous pressure on their servers and cause significant downtime.

3. Little or no support. A fair amount of hosting companies with upgradeable plans will blatantly tell you that they do not offer support for their free services. They're not really willing to spare the resources when they're not getting paid. Can you blame them?

4. Less advanced features. If you're new to the whole website experience then you may be happy with having basic features. However, if you need something more advanced, such as MySQL databases, you'll probably have a long and frustrating road ahead of you.

5. It's a gimmick. What does that mean? These days it's easy to get a domain name for under $10/yr. But some companies will charge you much more than that with the promise of free hosting once you've made a purchase. Translation: your free hosting account isn't actually free.

So what's a girl, or guy, to do? Well, it all depends on what you want out of your hosting plan. Are you looking to establish a personal or a business site? Will you need a lot of space, taking into consideration possible expansion in the future? What kind of features are you likely to need? How experienced are you and are you likely to need a lot of support? Can you build your site offline or will you need a plan that includes an online editor and templates? Can you afford a paid hosting plan? If not, then you really don't have a choice, but there are some things you can do to minimize the risk of using a free host.

1. Research, research, research. Read as many reviews as you can get your hands on. That way you'll have an idea of what people who are already using the service think, and you can benefit from their experiences.

2. Familiarize yourself with the terminology. It'll be easier for you to figure out whether or not you need a particular feature if you actually know what it is.

3. Look for hosts that have been around for a while and still have a high ranking. Free hosting sites are always popping up, and disappearing just as quickly. While the new sites may get some favorable feedback, they have not yet established a record for continuing good service.

4. If you already have a site designed, you may want to consider a more selective host. These companies keep up their reputation, and their resources, by only accepting sites that meet their strict criteria.

5. Reconcile yourself to the fact that you may have to display some sort of advertising on your site and look for the most unobtrusive types. Most people, myself included, hate pop ups. A banner is better, but a text link or button is best.

6. Test drive a few hosts. Sign-up for a few of the better plans and play around.

7. Back up your files!

Ultimately though, it's best to reach into your wallet and pay for a quality hosting plan, the going rate of which is usually less than $10/month. You won't have to contend with forced ads, you'll have a guaranteed uptime of at least 99.5%, and you'll have more features than you can shake a stick at. In most cases, you'll also receive a free domain name with your account and this is especially important if you plan on building a business site. An added advantage is that sites such as DreamHost, BlueHost, Micfo and Vistapages offer multiple domain hosting. This means that you can host more than one domain on the same account so you don't need one account per domain name. This can save you a whole lot of money.

So what's the bottom line of all of this? If you're a novice (or you can't afford a paid plan right now), consider using a free hosting site to hone your skills but be very careful of whom you sign up with. If you're an experienced user, and especially if you intend on using your site for business purposes, pay for a reliable, full-featured plan.

About the Author

R.D.Wylder is the founder of the "So You Want To..." series and has been writing for many years now. She is the author of numerous examples of poetry and short stories. Currently she is working as a freelance writer and web designer.