Is Cheap Web Hosting a Race to the Bottom… or the Top?

If you’re human, it’s hard to resist a deal. The problem, when it comes to Web hosting, is that the industry is inhabited by entrepreneurs with ethics that run the gamut from Captain America to Snidely Whiplash.    

In other words, buyer beware, and the lower the cost of the hosting, the more aware you should be. This is not to say that you can’t find a good cheap host. The problem is you can find a rotten one too.

So before you whip out the plastic and charge up a year of deep discount hosting, make sure you understand what to look for when separating the bad from the good.

Focus on Web Hosting

Without servers on which to host your site, you won’t be able to connect it to the internet. Luckily for all would-be website owners, web hosting has become cheaper and more accessible than ever before, with some organizations offering access for just a few dollars per month.

But even as web hosting prices fall, putting such services within the reach of virtually everyone, not all remains sunshine and roses. A number of serious problems have dogged deep discount (and free) web hosting providers, leading to questions as to whether any monetary savings justify the headaches they generate.

There’s no doubt that cheaper web hosting alternatives now offer a list of features that expands with time, providing increasing value for those who wish to venture online with their own site.

The question remains: Is it worth it? Does cheap or even free web hosting provide the kind of value that it appears to provide, or are webmasters better off paying more to host their sites and simply swallowing those additional costs?

Drawbacks of cheap web hosting

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The old adage that you get what you pay for often holds true. Free and cheap web hosting services present pitfalls to be aware of. Here are a few:

1. Slow page loading

Cheap web hosting services often keep prices low by cramming multiple websites onto a single shared server. This is called shared hosting. More customers on a server—fewer servers needed so there is a lower cost in that area.

The downside of this is all these multiple websites vying for limited bandwidth. If your website is hosted on a server along with a number of others, and one happens to be a resource hog, you might suffer poor performance in the way of a slow-loading website.

Evidence from Google suggests that web users are impatient and will leave a website if they’re made to wait even a few seconds for it to load. The obvious result is a higher percentage of visitors who grow frustrated and leave without buying or signing up for your list.

This is why articles that offer faster website loading tips usually suggest that you get your hosting from a—generally more expensive—VPS provider or dedicated server.

2. Lower website ranking

Page speed is the amount of time that it takes to load and display a page on a device screen. Site speed is the average page speed of a statistical sample of the pages on a website. Google uses site speed as one of the key metrics to determine how highly a website will rank in search results. This is almost common knowledge today but can be verified with any keyword rank tracker.

This matters a lot because the higher your site ranks on Google, the more visitors it will receive. However, since cheap web hosts share servers amongst multiple websites, this tends to increase network latency and decrease server response time. Longer server response times means longer site speeds. Never doubt that Google is paying attention with a stopwatch in hand.

3. Security Risks

Cheap web hosts are notorious for getting hacked and the reason is logical. Since lower-priced services put multiple websites onto the same server, a successful hack of one website is liable to expose all of them to risk—including yours.

Additionally, if you use WordPress (which a WHOLE lot of people do), be aware that it’s a huge hacker target due to its popularity, which puts you in even greater peril if you use a sketchy web host too.  

WordPress Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to pay for plugins or bonus integrations with different marketing tools. While there are thousands of free options, you’ll find that the profit motive encourages premium app creators to issue security updates more often and write code more resistant to hacking in the first place. Two “essential” security tools I use for all client sites are Akismet to stop spam and Mailbird to ensure emails are compliant. The best security strategy is to set updates to install automatically where possible and manually update the rest daily or, at worst, weekly.

4. Poor customer service

Poor customer service is another common theme. Before committing to any host, make sure that they offer a way to reach them by phone in case you have questions or concerns. The ability to interact with flesh-and-blood (as opposed to only a chatbot) when you have a technical issue will reduce the amount of stress in your life.

Worse, some cheap web hosts do not offer 24/7 customer support in any form. You can send an email but there is no indication when, if ever, you’ll hear back. While there may be an FAQ document, you can bet your last dollar the question you have won’t be answered, and if it is, expect it to be incomplete and unsatisfactory. Sound like fun when you’re losing your mind with a malfunctioning website?

5. Frequent downtime

There’s no avoiding it. Technical issues arise and websites go down. With deeply discounted hosts, this tends to be too common thanks to the already mentioned server overload problem or the bad luck to suffer a Distributed Denial of Service attack. If you’re wondering whether an inaccessible website can have a negative effect on your business, we feel confident in saying “yes.”

Contributing to the downtime issue is the reality that low-priced hosts often come with no redundancy—meaning that there are no copies of your website on other servers in case yours goes down.

Benefits of cheap web hosting

With so many obvious problems, why would bother considering cheap web hosting at all? Why does it remain popular? The reality is that, despite the maddening issues with some web hosting platforms, there are positive things to say about them.

1. It’s cheap (duh.)

This is an obvious one. People like low prices. They react positively to deals.

For all of its flaws, cheap web hosting remains will remain always and forevermore, well, low-cost. If you’re bootstrapping your business, it’s a legitimate way to get your site online for the world to see without the sting of high monthly payments.

2. Expanding services and capabilities

Despite everything mentioned, cheap doesn’t always mean dangerous and failure-prone. The truth is, cheap hosts often perform as well as or better than more-expensive counterparts, as is evidenced by third-party tests that look at bandwidth and uptime. Many of them include plentiful computing resources, and state-of-the-art cybersecurity in services charging a few bucks a month.

Here’s something to ponder. Retail giant and perennial low price leader Walmart generated around $500 billion in revenue last year. Obviously, it’s a legitimate company, so you shouldn’t dismiss a web host automatically because it’s cheap.

The trick lies in learning to separate the “here today, gone tomorrow” mentality of junk companies from the ones that have made the conscious decision to deliver quality products and services at affordable prices.  
New technology becomes more affordable as it achieves wide-scale adoption. Remember what those new HD televisions used to cost? Priced one lately? These same market forces will continue to whittle away at the cost of delivering quality web hosting.

Final thoughts

Cheap web hosts provide the obvious benefit of low cost but randomly choosing one to power your website could lead to regrets spawned by overburdened servers, security risks, slow load times, terrible search engine rankings, and frequent technical issues.

The bottom line, a cheap host can be more of a headache than it’s worth.

But it doesn’t have to be. Some cheap web hosts offer good quality. To find them requires time and effort and firm resistance to the flashy numbers bandied about on countless web ads. Do your research.

The best prices are found when you sign up for multiple years and pay in advance and that’s always a little risky. If you find yourself suffering analysis paralysis go for the slightly more expensive month-by-month billing until you are convinced you’ve got a keeper.

Sam Sam Bocetta is a freelance journalist specializing in U.S. diplomacy and national security, with emphases on technology trends in cyberwarfare, cyberdefense, and cryptography.

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