Always on the lookout for creative ways to explain web hosting, I try so hard to reimagine the tried-and-true real estate analogy: Shared hosting is like renting an apartment, VPS is akin to owning a condo, and dedicated servers are equivalent to owning your own home. It’s a common comparison, and one I’ve even used before to explain managed services.
Despite my preference to relate hosting to pizza, clothing alterations, and the search for true love, I find myself falling back to the all-too-familiar roots — setting up web hosting is like buying a place to live. Your website and files need somewhere to reside, and we’re here to help you find a happy hosting home.
After putting so much emphasis on finding just the right hosting provider, it’s natural to relax a bit after signing up for a new plan. Selecting a host, however, is just the first step to getting your website online. Whether you’re starting from scratch or looking to move sites from a previous hosting provider, we’ve outlined the steps to hosting happiness below.
1. Choose a Web Host
Simply put, you can’t set up something you don’t yet have. Identifying your best web hosting option can be tricky, given the wide variety of services, sales, and companies in the market. Just as a debt-strapped recent college grad probably shouldn’t move straight into a mansion, a well-to-do family of eight wouldn’t be happy in a cramped studio apartment.
Consider us your real estate agent and view your hosting provider as the properties that balance your budget with location, layouts, and upgraded features. At this stage, we’re just identifying the neighborhood or subdivision you want to target. Most new customers will be quite happy with shared hosting, while others might be outgrowing their shared services and are ready to jump up to VPS, cloud, or dedicated plans. If you already run a website, keep an eye out for a host that offers free transfers or migration. You’ll be able to skip a lot of these steps.
A great place to start your search, shared hosting is an affordable, user-friendly way to get small and medium sites online quickly. Shared hosts divvy up server resources to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of customers, making these the easiest plans to set up and manage. Customers can focus on their account without worrying about the technical details of server management.
Narrow down the pool of prospective providers by targeting a few features that are specifically important to you or the goals of your online project. That might mean high-performance solid-state drives, unlimited bandwidth, or spam filters for your email accounts. Other differentiators include eCommerce offerings and free domain options, along with perks like advertising credits, a website builder, and upgraded hardware. Here are some of the top shared hosts we recommend:
- Known for high-performance, low-cost shared hosting
- FREE website builder with 1,000s of templates
- Endorsed by the WordPress.org team as a top WP host
- FREE CDN accelerates your site’s page loads
- Usually $7.99/month, but our visitors pay $2.95/month
- Get started on Bluehost now.
- An industry-leading shared host with competitive pricing
- Attract visitors with a complimentary marketing suite
- $500 in extras like Google AdWords and SiteLock security
- Start selling online in minutes with FREE ecommerce tools
- Get more than 75% off today! (usually $7.99/month)
- Get started on iPage now.
- A favorite for shared hosting (and dedicated or cloud)
- FREE SSD storage packs 20x the performance
- FREE SSL certificate and 24/7 support
- 1-click installs for WordPress and popular CMSes
- Get started with FREE website transfer service
- Get started on InMotion Hosting now.
A virtual private server, or VPS, is best suited for high-traffic sites and applications performing complex tasks. Physical servers are virtualized and split among fewer customers, leaving more power and performance for each website. Customers have direct access to their VPS and often are responsible for installing and maintaining software and security solutions.
VPS plans can be more complicated for beginners to set up, but many hosts offer various tiers of expanded support — also called managed services — that will help users stay on top of security, backups, and operating system updates. Keep scrolling for a list of our favorite VPS hosts.
Dedicated Server Hosting
Customers who opt for a dedicated server typically see very high levels of traffic, store massive amounts of data, and have a critical need for performance, security, and reliability. The most expensive hosting option, dedicated servers are also the fastest and most powerful hosting configuration. Users have ultimate control over how to set up their dedicated hosting, but with great power comes great responsibility.
Because customers get total and complete control over an entire server, dedicated hosting plans aren’t really suited for rookies. Again, less experienced site owners can (and should) rely heavily on managed services, but the price tag can become astronomical for premium white-glove treatment. Our top dedicated server hosting providers, however, all excel at maintaining name-brand, performant hardware with hands-on technical support teams.
- 100% network and power uptime guarantees
- Custom configurations, SSDs, and instant provisioning
- Auto-migrations, backups, and 24/7 Sonar Monitoring™
- Block/object storage and load balancer add-ons
- Our visitors pay $79.98/month! (usually $189/month)
- Get started on Liquid Web now.
- FREE server management and security updates
- Launch Assist™ gives you 1-on-1 time with a sysadmin
- 99.999% network uptime via Smart Routing™ technology
- Tier 1 network with redundant bandwidth at two datacenters
- Up to 44% OFF for HostingAdvice readers
- Get started on InMotion now.
- RAID 1 mirrored storage
- Minimum 3 IP addresses per plan
- Modern hardware, built and maintained in house
- 24/7 expedited support from a dedicated team
- Sign up today to save at least 27% on your first term
- Get started on Bluehost now.
2. Register a Domain Name
Once you find the perfect place or property, you’ll need a way for people to find you. Because you can’t select your home’s address, we’ll compare this stage to finding the specific apartment, condo, house, or floor plan in the complex, neighborhood, or subdivision you’ve chosen as your favorite. The idyllic house number and street name might already be occupied by someone else, but you can usually find something close nearby without stooping to streets that are hard to pronounce or remember.
Domain Host vs. Domain Registrar
Most hosting companies — but not all — allow you to reserve and register a domain name, with many even including the service for free. The hosts, acting as registrars, work with the global managers of domain registries to secure the name of your site. A few hosts, however, avoid this step and simply prefer to focus on storing your files and making them readily available to site visitors. You can register a domain with any registrar and house your information separately. While we recommend keeping everything under the same roof for simplicity, you can register a domain and host your files separately.
A domain name is like using your new home’s mailing address instead of the longitude and latitude coordinates. Computers can’t communicate using domain names and find each other using IP addresses. The Domain Name System, or DNS, acts as the translation service that connects IP addresses to domain names. Hosts use DNS servers or nameservers to connect your website to the worldwide system.
Choosing a Domain
As your brand or website’s address, the domain name you choose is supremely important. SEO experts at Moz outline eight rules for a strong domain name. To have the greatest effect, domains should be brandable, pronounceable, short, clear of trademarks, and intuitive. When needed, a domain name should use broad keywords or rely on creative modifications.
3. Choose a Website Design Route
Now, we’re in that stage of finally having a new place to live — but all your stuff is still in boxes. To make a house a home, you might want to hire an interior decorator or a landscaping crew. Naturally, you want your space to look and feel like your brand or personality and take advantage of the files, pictures, and trinkets you own.
Website builders and content management systems blend the expertise of others while still allowing you to exude your own personal flair. Designing and coding a website from scratch, however, will likely appeal to developers and do-it-yourself-ers. If you already have a site design you’re happy with, skip ahead to learn how to seamlessly migrate it to your new hosting plan.
A. Design By Website Builder
The red-hot market for site building platforms provides a bevy of options for site owners who want a custom look without the long days of slaving away over a code and a keyboard.
Website builders offer bloggers, entrepreneurs, developers, and hobbyists a chance to create a stunning and professional website in minutes, with services typically focused on usability and mobile-friendly designs. Buyer beware: Several hosts include a building platform for free with new plans, but others can only be had by using the site builder’s hosting services.
- No coding skills needed with drag-and-drop website builder
- 100s of templates with industry-specific designs
- Add features via the App Market
- Build an eCommerce store easily
- Build small sites on a budget
- Get started on Wix now.
B. Design By Content Management System
You’d be hard-pressed to find a web host that doesn’t offer a one-click WordPress installation. The world’s most popular content management system can be tough for beginners to learn, but WordPress is a free, open-source solution seemingly without limits.
For nervous beginners, try signing up with our top WordPress hosting provider, InMotion Hosting, which blends the best of both worlds with its proprietary, one-of-a-kind WordPress website builder, called BoldGrid.
- FREE software with 1-click install
- Trusted by millions of site owners
- 1,000s of drag-and-drop themes
- #1 blogging platform
- Huge online community
- Get started on WordPress with InMotion Hosting.
C. Design From Scratch
With the right tools and lots of patience, you can craft a website from thin air. Coding a website from scratch can be a worthwhile endeavor for those not under a time crunch to get their site online. Learning web design and programming languages empowers site owners to create exactly the look and user experience they desire — and further tweak and expand your website as you acquire more skills.
Still unsure which route to take? Whether you want to learn how to code or are still checking out your design options, our helpful guide to site builders, CMSes, and coding provides a greater level of detail on the perks and downfalls of each choice.
Additional Steps If You’re Migrating From Another Host
If this isn’t your first hosting home, you’ll have the option to hire movers to box up and transfer your belongings from your old place. Many of our favorite hosts offer free website and domain migrations. Of course, you can elect to move things yourself with relatively little experience, but why bother? The hands-free transfers usually incur little to no downtime — and exactly zero headaches for you.
Transfer Files and Databases Using FTP and phpMyAdmin
Load up the moving truck by downloading all your website files through FTP, or file transfer protocol. You can either use your old host’s file transfer tool found in cPanel installations or configure a free FTP program of your choosing. Unsurprisingly, you’ll then connect to your new host’s server through FTP and upload all the files to your new storage space.
For simple, static sites, that’s all for this step. Most sites with dynamic content, such as blogs, have databases that will have to migrate, as well. Database management can be done using phpMyAdmin, which is found in your host’s cPanel platform. Export the relevant databases from your old host and sign into phpMyAdmin on your new host. You’ll need to create new databases and usernames before importing the information.
Alternatively, you can minimize downtime by downloading and restoring backups using cPanel, so long as the web-based control panel is used by both hosting providers. You’ll want to collect compressed backup files for your website, subdomains, and databases. Once the files have been uploaded to your new server, you’ll have to enter username and password information associated with each MySQL database in the cPanel tool.
Point Your Domain Toward Your New Host’s Nameservers
Once your files and databases have been moved, all that remains is telling the internet that your domain should now look for a different server to load and display content. This is akin to alerting the Post Office of your new address and signing up for mail forwarding. Moving a domain name to your new hosting plan is completely optional. Hosts will give you instructions on how to initiate that process, or it is perfectly fine to host domains separately from your website files.
Regardless of where your domain resides, log into that account management interface, and replace the domain nameservers with the updated information from your new host. Changes to the DNS records will take up to 24 hours to take effect, but both the new and old websites will function properly in the interim.
Once Your Website is Set Up, You Can Focus On Content & Customers
Even though we enjoy comparing two hosting options to seeking medical attention, the tried-and-true real estate comparison is the best route for explaining how to set up web hosting services. Regardless of the new hosting plan or server configuration you ultimately select, price, support, storage, and performance are all important features to consider when shopping for a hosting plan. Those components never go out of style, whether you’re looking for somewhere to house a blog or your growing online store.
Naturally, once you’re done moving into the starter home of your dreams, all that remains is throwing the housewarming party. Take advantage of the SEO tools and advertising credits many hosts offer to grow your audience and show off your new digs.