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SEO Hosting - 1

SEO Hosting Guide - Part 1

 - a guide to hosting for SEO, and CMS hosting

Part 1: Website Hosting For SEO Guide  [this page]
Part 2: Web Hosting SEO features in detail
Part 3: Additional website host factors affecting search potential
          (and not forgetting The Crucial Hosting Test)
Part 4: SEO implications when moving to a new web host
          SEO implications of changing domain name

Here is everything you ever wanted to know about search engine friendly website hosting. It applies to all types of websites, but because we are SEO and CMS specialists, it is especially valid in the areas of CMS hosting and ecommerce hosting.

This series of pages points out the issues that should be considered when choosing a web hosting service. Since our focus is always on the SEO aspects of any question - this being the foundation of commercial success online - it is inevitable that there will be a search-optimising slant to anything we discuss. Unsurprisingly, then, these articles will give you a very good idea of what to look for and what to avoid in your hunt for the best search-friendly web-hosting service.

One of the key factors we identify is how little real information (i.e. technical) the vast majority of hosts provide, and how much flannel and flim-flam they advertise instead of what you actually need to know. A lot of the detail they give you is comparatively useless; and much of the vital data you need appears to be secret.

Don't make the mistake of paying before you know the full story.

You'll find some things apparent after a little research:
  1. There are a very large number of web hosts.
  2. There is a huge range of deals, packages and features on offer.
  3. The majority of hosts don't tell you what you really want to know.

Therefore: do your research, and caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. Don't be afraid to email potential hosts and have them confirm their package details for you. All reputable web hosts have an email contact address for pre-sales enquiries.

Choosing a web host

Choosing a host for your website can be a difficult and worrying experience, the first time round. One reason for this is that you may not understand the issues, and therefore you will be uncomfortably aware that a wrong decision will cost you money, or worse, the success of your website.

Here, we aim to simplify these issues and point you toward the right decision. We're mainly looking at what a small to medium size website with under 35,000 visitors a day will need (under 1 million visits per month), since at that scale other factors enter the equation.

A mid-size ecommerce site with 20,000 pages might have fewer than 2,000 visitors a day, so having a lot of pages is not related in any way to high traffic. 

The issues are similar for larger sites, and only the scale is bigger; the website will need the same facilities but with higher bandwidth, more webspace, and probably more servers. It is important to realise very clearly that just because your site only receives 500 visitors a day, you should not have to accept third-class service.

Hosting: where to start?

Most start-ups and smaller sites need 'shared hosting', which is the normal type you see advertised everywhere. This is where many sites share a server and typically pay between £40 /$60 and £100 / $150 a year. There are normally around 200 sites on a shared server - good quality infers less than this, poor quality means many more. The approximate number of sites sharing a server can be found by diligent research.

Websites with over about 3,000 visits a day need better facilities called dedicated or VPS hosting. On VPS hosting, the site 'owns' a larger section of the server, typically with between 4 and 10 sites per server, plus the ability to alter the software set-up in their own section. This usually costs from £20 / $30 per month and up. A dedicated server is fully owned by one site, and any/all server parameters can be changed as the site has exclusive use of the server, at £50 /$75 per month and up.

Hosting decisions have to be based on cost before anything else. Once you have decided your budget, then every other answer becomes clearer. If you cannot achieve your required minimum standards at your chosen price point, then you must decide whether to accept the lower level of service offered or pay more.

With shared hosting, if you cannot afford more than £60 a year, or $90, then your choices are limited. This is the first 'break point' in hosting costs, and means simply that below this level you can't choose what you get. You can certainly find most of your requirements below this price break (especially if your requirements are limited) - but you will have to work hard to do so, be good at research, and compromise on some of the points; or simply accept what's on offer.

At £60 to £120 per year (just add 50% for US$), you can get anything you need for a website with up to around 5,000 visitors a day (depending on site type). There is no need to pay anything like the top end of this figure unless you insist on the best options, which are listed below. Indeed, top-quality hosts can offer all the options listed, at the lower end of the price scale. You just have to find them. This may not of course be true in your country of choice.

Below are your core requirements, if you can find a host who can provide them at your price point, in your required geographical region. Once again, there are hosts who provide most (or all) of these options at around £60 - £80 per year, so you should be able to get what you need - if you look around.

Never accept second best in a webhosting package - there is absolutely no need to do so, the sole exception being for a particular deal in a particular country, which may restrict your options somewhat. You can get any deal you want, in the UK and USA, which are the most active Internet markets in the world - but this does not apply to every other country.

Shared hosting checklist

Here are the basic requirements of a business seeking normal shared hosting:

1. Server location - the hosting must be located in your main country of business. The physical location of the hosting (and thus in the 'geotargeted' area) is one of the most important factors.

2. LAMP server - this means a Linux / Apache server, as is normal, and which includes variations such as the Unix operating system instead of Linux. However the server must use the Apache server application, alternatives such as Nginx will not suit general customers since there are htaccess file issues and so on. 

3. Windows servers - DO NOT use a Windows server unless you have specific technical reasons for doing so. This would normally only be because you are using ASP code. Ordinary websites are handicapped by running on a Windows server.

4. Unique IP - a dedicated IP is an important quality factor. An SSL certificate may be required, which can be bought for under $20. A unique / dedicated IP should cost less than $24 per year as there is no reason for any higher cost (they are free to ISPs).

5. FTP access - a website cannot be managed properly without FTP access. Even the cheapest hosts @ £5 a year provide this. Hosts who do not provide FTP access should not be in business.

6. Control panel - a recognised full-facility Control Panel such as cPanel or Ensim / Parallels. A website cannot be managed properly without a proper control panel.

7. File Manager - all properly set up servers have control panels for website management. These provide a GUI facility for file access, file upload, email management, database management, and directory password protection among other things. It's very hard to do without this, and not necessary. 

8. Statistics - a minimum of one free statistics package (the best free one is probably AWstats). Again, this is a vital feature and normally present. 

9. Bandwidth - this term refers to how much traffic you get for free with your hosting account. A minimum of 5GB transfer bandwidth per month will suit a small site start-up or a small ecommerce site - bigger sites need more. It approximates to about 400 visitors a day, depending on the filesize being transferred by browsing (graphics etc).

10. Databases - 2 or more MySQL databases will be required by almost all modern websites, and 5 is a much better number.

11. Apache modules enabled - basic Apache modules in operation (mod_rewrite etc.). Without these, you cannot manage many important site parameters such as setting the correct domain variant, or page redirects.

12. Apache version - version 2.0 or later is needed. There is no reason to have old versions running on a server, and this indicates a sloppy attitude to security. You pay your webhost for security above all else.

13. PHP 5 - old PHP versions indicate poor security management. You pay your webhost for security above all elseA choice of PHP4 may be useful if your main website application only runs on this older version.

14. Default PHP security - the basic PHP set-up is secure, but some hosts override it in order to avoid having to give advice on how to run old web apps that need old settings. For example php.register_globals must be set to OFF. Overriding these basic security settings renders the whole server vulnerable. If an override is required for a specific website, it can be done locally, just on that website. This factor is hard to determine for non-technical website owners, though.

15. Your own domain name - not a subdomain. In other words your site name needs to be example.com, not yoursite.example.com, which is called a subdomain and is not transferable, is not owned by you, has no value, and presents impossible problems when you move hosts (as all websites do).

16. Your own website - not a rented website, which will often have a subdomain address, as above. Another type of rented site involves an annual fee for the site. This is of no use at all to a business owner unless your sole reason for having a website is simply to provide an email address.

And much less important:
1. 500MB disk space or more.
2. 50 email addresses.

Every single one of these points is debatable - the business won't fail if your webhost cannot supply them, though you will certainly be handicapped. But it is a fact that the people who want to debate the value of these factors most, are hosts that don't provide them. Fair comment?

More importantly, these points are the ones that experienced website owners always look for when getting a better deal; they didn't know about them the first time round, but now they know just how valuable they are.

Hosting companies are notoriously unwilling to show you what they provide in advance - especially with regard to some of these technical details. They are more than happy to bombard you with showers of detail about less important things like how much webspace you get, or how many email addresses. The simple fact is that just about any figure currently on offer for those things will do for a new business, so it doesn't matter.

If you need to move hosts later, there are few negatives - you don't lose your links or your search engine page rank, for instance - so it basically doesn't matter about minor details such as the number of email addresses. The primary items detailed above are vital for any business, new or old, and often can't be upgraded once you've signed - at least, at minimum cost. You'll most likely find you will be charged more. If you have particular requirements for a huge number of email aliases or suchlike (which is any more than 50) you'll be well aware of it, and will no doubt choose a host to suit.

Server location

The physical location of the server is critical, because search results are prioritised for the enquirer's region. If someone in South Africa searches for a product or service, the search engine serves up a set of results that it 'thinks' will be best for someone living in South Africa. Normally, shipping or language issues mean that this is the best choice. The search engine knows where the person searching is located, and where the websites are located, by the IP (internet address) of the person and the sites. So if somebody searches for a product in country X, the search engine knows they probably want to see results from country X. If you are in the USA you don't want to see shoe prices in New Zealand. 

You can now see that if you are an SA business you don't want to be hosted in Australia - your local SA customers won't see much of you in the search results. 

From this it can be seen that you absolutely must have your proposed host confirm the server location prior to signing up. This catches out many businesses who sign up with hosts who operate on the edge of ethical practice by not telling UK customers they will be hosted in Germany, for example.

Bad hosting deals

One last point for this section: some of the worst hosts and the worst deals we have ever seen are provided by the biggest UK names in Internet services, who have also been around the longest - the big-name ISPs. We have had clients come to us with sites hosted at nearly £250 a year (about $400), with no control panel, no file manager, every other user's folder on the server visible via FTP, and so on. The server set-ups, facilities, and even security were terrible - the only way to describe these hosting packages is a rip-off.

The sites were all hosted by major ISPs, in the business for longer than most, who obviously couldn't care less about their hosted customers. Some of these were on Sun servers; which is no reflection on Sun's quality, of course - simply the poor quality, operating software and practices of these ISPs, who not only masquerade as hosts, but also charge ridiculous prices for their 'service'. A fair price for a service like this would be $1 a year. Since there is at least one host who charges £5 a year and offers a better service (5quidhost.co.uk/hosting.php), there can't be much argument about this.

Another type of host to avoid is one who uses their own home-built control panel, avoiding the need to pay for a real one like cPanel. Some of these host-built panels are awful, just like the facilities this type of host usually (doesn't) offer. Unbelievably, there are even hosts with no control panel at all, just FTP access.

Make sure that your proposed host uses a well-known control panel such as Ensim or cPanel, and states this in the feature list. A mention of a 'custom-built control panel' should set the alarm bells ringing.

Caveat emptor.

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Part 2: Web Hosting SEO features in detail
Part 3: Additional website host factors affecting search potential

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