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Website hosting basics are important to anyone with a website. Sure, the topic is about as thrilling as discussing dental hygiene, and the details may seem confusing when you start talking with your website designer and IT person. You need to understand what you are buying and what to watch out for, though, because bad hosting choices can lead to slow websites, security issues and miserable tech support.
And that adds up to a waste of your time and money.
Hosting and domain names are the basis of any website. Your domain name is your .com address — the part that goes before the .com or .biz or .org. It tells people where to find your website and is also used for your email addresses. Your domain name is a label representing an IP address. The IP address points to a server that is owned by your host. So, your domain name is like your phone number and the host is like your phone service or provider.
Just as you’d want to move all your contacts to a new phone on a new provider, you’ll want to be sure to gather all your website files before moving your site to a new host. Never expect your old host to have copies of your website.
A website hosting provider stores your website on their server, giving it a unique address (DNS). It is through this address that people anywhere in the world can find, open and interact with your site.
Simply put, when you buy website hosting, you’re buying space on a server. This is not unlike the space on your computer’s hard drive — except that now your files can be opened from anywhere.
Do you know who your website host is? What would you do if your website went down right now? Do you know who to call (it is often not your web designer), where they are located, and if they will answer the phone when you call?
If you are comfortable with DIY and set up your website on your own, or set up your hosting alone, you need to be able to evaluate hosts and communicate potential problems you may have with your host. When you need to communicate with your host, you should know what and where DNS settings are, the most common DNS settings you’ll need to change, and which settings are for email and which are for website hosting. Whether you DIY your hosting or not, be sure you have an appropriate level of support — that is, somebody who understands these things.
Even if someone else sets up your hosting, it’s a good idea to understand your options. Here are important items to look at when evaluating different hosting providers.
Shared hosting is where one server hosts multiple websites. Because you are sharing a server, you are also sharing all the space and resources on the server, including processing and memory. If another site on that same server happens to be popular with a lot of traffic or large files, it may hog resources and slow your site. On the upside, since your website is only using part of a server, the obvious benefit is cost. In contrast, dedicated hosting means your website gets its very own server and does not share resources with other websites. It does not have to share bandwidth, speed or malware, some of the main downsides of shared hosting.
If you have concerns about security and malware, I recommend secure dedicated hosting. However, it is more expensive. If you decide on shared hosting, be sure to research all the options.
Offshore web hosting is a nightmare. It usually leads to a desperate phone call from clients looking for their missing website files because the website is down. Aside from the obvious language and time differences challenges for technical support, connectivity between countries can be spotty. Really, there’s no reason to choose a host outside the U.S., even for cost: general economy hosting plans typically cost about $100 per year. Always double-check your host’s physical location as well as the location of its call center.
Surprisingly, several law firms still use hosts that have questionable practices. Beware of these red flags:
Many website developers have terms that include removing all of your SEO links when you discontinue service so that you lose all the momentum you paid for. Also, be sure to ask about provisions for identical SEO services to other customers who may be your competitors. Will they regurgitate the same content and services so that you never get ahead?
Hosts like LexisNexis and FindLaw offer extras like directory listings and content expertise, but it comes with complicated contracts and ownership issues and can cost up to $250 a month. What your host should be is:
Do you have a contingency plan for your website if it crashes? Are you mistakenly assuming your host is backing up your database? They probably aren’t and won’t be much help when your site goes down. Back in the olden days of HTML sites, you could give your web designer or developer (often the same person) a call and find the missing files on their computer. Today most law firms use database-driven sites built on WordPress. Rebuilding this type of site is much more complicated and requires regular backups. Here’s a good article from WordPress.org on backing up your databases.
When you back up the database you are protecting the data and content from the site as well as layout instructions. However, all graphics and images need to be backed up, too. Always keep a backup of your original design files. Your web developer (not your web host) can provide guidance and should be backing up your original design files, which are usually native, editable, layered Photoshop files.
Moving your website to a new host is the most complicated part of hosting and it scares even the most tech savvy. It involves your domain name, IP addresses, approvals and timing.
The most common of the frantic calls I get from clients come after they try moving a WordPress website to a new host themselves because they thought it would be as simple as copying and pasting a folder of files. It’s not.
Consider hiring someone to help with moving your site or find a host that offers low-cost site move services with a new hosting contract. My process for moving a website to a new host normally involves redundant backup files so there is a copy of the site at the new and old host, scheduling the move for an evening or weekend, changing the DNS of the domain name to the new host, then canceling and shutting down the old host once you are sure everything is at the new host.
Because your website is the 21st century’s business card and since 89 percent of people research products and services online, your site needs to function reliably around the clock, with no surprises: no downtime, lack of control, loss of ownership, hidden fees or scams.
You can meet most client expectations for your website by simply using the information provided here to minimize your risk of falling prey to scammers, having your website held hostage, or being trapped in a contract with outrageous and unfair fees.
Good, reliable and fair web hosts are out there. With a little guidance, you’ll find the right one for you.
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