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SEO Hosting - 2

 

 

SEO Website Hosting - Part 2

Choosing a webhost - features in detail

 

1. Physical location of hosting
Perhaps it is obvious, perhaps not - but if you only sell in the UK, then don't use a webhost in the USA, and vice-versa of course. Hosting must be located in the geotargeted area. 

Most search results (and therefore the resulting traffic) are prioritised for websites in the same region as the enquirer who has searched; so if you're in the US and you search for 'large tent' you will get results prioritised for sites hosted in the US selling large tents - not worldwide. Therefore, if you're a US seller of tents, you don't host your site in Ireland, even if it happens to be the best or the cheapest deal. If you're in the UK, you don't get your site hosted in Australia, even if it's free - because it will cost you a lot of money.

If you sell worldwide, then your SEO consultants will advise on the best policies, which are complex and will vary according to numerous factors.

Let's repeat all this because many people ask and therefore it may not be clear:

  • The physical hosting location is important for SEO. You should have your site hosted in the country where you operate. In cases where this is impossible due to poor hosting or for other reasons, things become more complex and your SEO consultants will advise on the best policy - there are work-arounds for this problem.
  • If you operate worldwide then things become even more complex. Only your SEO people can help with the necessary options. There are numerous choices for when and where to use .com or local variants, and for multi-siting or multi-language sites.
CAUTION: Just because your hosts advertise in England, in English, it does not mean their servers are actually in England. For example, one of the best-known British hosts is actually nothing of the sort, their servers are in Germany. This is NOT GOOD for UK business. The only way you can find this out is IF YOU ASK.

And this applies to all countries - ask your prospective host what city the server is in that they will host you on. This is a polite way of asking "What country", of course.

Another way to do this is locate a site hosted with them; convert the domain name to an IP, using one of the online tools for this (domain to IP converter); and finally look up the geoIP location (the physical location of that IP) - again using an online tool.
 

2. LAMP server
In contrast to your PC at home or in the office, it is unlikely, and undesirable, that your website's server will be running Windows. The best applications for this are Linux / Apache, commonly known as a LAMP server (referring to the Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP & Perl applications on the server, and therefore more correctly LAMPP). Some 60 or 70% of the Internet's servers run this set-up, and there are good reasons for it: it is safe, stable, secure, high-quality, cheap, reliable, open-source and backed by huge resources. As a major open-source solution, the best developers in the world combine to improve it. 

When talking about the normal, everyday shared hosting you will start out with, if you choose any other server type than this, you will find your costs go up, facilities are restricted or non-existent, you just can't do what you need, or the server is not as secure as the LAMP solution. There is also a common variation on this server which qualifies as the same thing: the Unix / Apache server (UAMP strictly speaking). Effectively this is the same as a LAMP server, so it is never discussed as a different case. One way of looking at this is that Linux is a type of Unix. 

For very heavy traffic sites, there are more options. The next step up might be a VPS server, where there are less than 10 sites sharing the server - an average is 4 sites, although it can be anywhere from 2 to 10. With this arrangement you get a complete section of the server, which allows you to have your own software running. However, because of certain practical limitations, we advise that a dedicated server is obtained instead. A VPS might cost $60 per month and a dedicated server $150, so you'll need to pay more - but if traffic is too high for shared hosting then the funds should be there.

Dedicated servers are also best set up with the standard LAMP arrangement: Linux, Apache and cPanel. There have to be very good reasons indeed to go outside this choice of software. All normal websites (and that includes all database-driven ones) work best, for normal businesses, on this server specification. Going to a Linux-Nginx solution or Sun server is strictly for those with specific technical requirements, bigger budgets, and their own server admin - who needs to be very good at his job. Also keep in mind that site management is very much harder when you move away from cPanel servers, so we don't recommend this route. Specialist servers are SSH managed, that is to say via the console. There is no control panel. The commercial site manager will find this a tremendous negative.

 
3. Windows servers
There is one exception to the 'always use a LAMP server' rule: ASP websites. These use ASP and/or .NET web applications, i.e. websites with ASP scripting, or run by dot-NET management; also Coldfusion. These need a Microsoft server, aka an IIS server, Windows server, or Windows hosting. You are advised to find a Windows host that provides full-service (properly set up) servers, as many don't, and your life might become difficult or restricted. Just search this term: <windows hosting php mysql>, and you'll find full-service hosts who offer servers that are worthy of the name, not resellers etc who can only offer basic restricted servers without the software on them you'll need. 

Windows servers running ASP database-driven applications MUST use Microsoft SQL Server databases. They MUST NOT use Access (home PC) databases.

You will almost certainly need PHP scripting and/or a MySQL database or two at some stage, unless you only have a four-page website on Neolithic hut circles that hasn't been updated in five years.


4. Unique IP
Also called a dedicated IP, this is one of the most important points in any web hosting deal. No one will tell you this, because the implications are serious for the majority who are on servers that do not comply; but it is common practice to have every website on a server located at the same IP. To clarify this: one multi-user server, possibly with from 200 to 1,000 websites on it, usually has one IP. Probably 90% of webhosts do this - but not all by any means.

What does it mean? Well, the IP is your address, in exactly the same way that your postal address "is" you. It is both your physical address - because it resolves to a physical location that can be found by research - and your Internet address. You are your IP.

This is fine, but what happens when there are another ten, a hundred, or 2,000 websites with the same IP? This is a common arrangement in web hosting, with all 200 or more websites on a multi-user box all sharing the same IP. It's best if you imagined the full consequences of that yourself. Perhaps the other inhabitants of your server - and therefore IP address - are spotless, blameless, environmentally friendly charitable trusts, and websites of respectable religious organisations and professional associations. Perhaps not.

Imagine if you had a bunch of criminals, debtors, dr*g ad*icts or other malcontents living at your postal address. Do you think that would have no effect on your credit rating, or your reputation at the local Police Station, or your property value? If you said no, it would be difficult to take you seriously. If you have bad neighbours, it rubs off on you; and when they actually live in your house...

It is untrue to say that the actions of another website owner at your IP will have no effect on you; to say differently marks you out as a webhost with everyone on the same IP, or an incurable optimist. Or perhaps you never heard of blocklists or IP bans? What effect do you think it would have on your reputation with the search engines if there were several porn sites, spam sites, MFA sites, BH sites and email spammers all on your IP? And just one or two might do the trick, never mind several. In the case of a very popular US economy host, commonly with around 3,500 sites on the same IP, there is certainly potential for some interesting results on their servers.

IPs are free, from RIPE and ARIN etc. to the ISPs, who issue them to your site hosts. Costs are only those introduced by the ISP. All site hosts need to do, to implement unique IP addressing at server level, is to allocate separate IPs in the Apache configuration file and configure their nameservers accordingly. They can do this at the £60 price point, as stated - and even occasionally below that.

In most cases, hosts will allocate you a unique IP for around $25 (£12) a year or so - £1 or $2 per month. You may have to provide an SSL certificate, which essentially infers that you are an ecommerce site needing a secure channel for credit card processing, which is usually done in connection with a site-owned unique IP (though not always). An SSL certificate is currently available for $15. 

An exception to this arrangement is where an ecommerce specialist host provides a secure server that customers are transferred to when they go into the checkout, and here it is not necessary for sites hosted with them to have a unique IP or SSL. If this applies to you, it is irrelevant since you should still obtain a unique IP.

The straight truth is that as soon as you can afford it (£60 a year that is), you need to move to a host who can offer unique IPs to all website owners. Offering these may well be a sign that the host is not a run-of-the-mill inefficient and uncaring operation, they know what they are about. You will find all sorts of arguments put up by some hosts about this, such hosts of course being the incompetent ones; but with the whole system moving to IPv6 addresses soon, there won't be any 'shortage' of IPs. No doubt there will still be hosts who cannot offer unique IPs, even under the new system; but incompetence doesn't depend on outside influences. And please don't think we are being harsh: if some hosts automatically give all customers unique IPs, and provide a range of 50 on request, then where does that leave hosts who can't even provide one even when asked?

As stated, some hosts clearly advertise they give every customer a unique IP; others that they can allocate 50 IPs on some packages. These hosts are known as 'SEO Friendly', for obvious reasons. There is no shortage of IPs for commercial websites; but there may be a shortage at your particular host, who might turn out to be a reseller incidentally - see the last page for an assessment of this. 

Vote with your feet.

 
5. FTP access
You can't run a business website without FTP access. The only webhosts who don't provide this, as far as we know, are some (and not even all) free webspace providers. For the type of sites that are hosted there, typically six or eight-page 'homepage' family-type sites, this is acceptable.
 

6. A recognised control panel
This means a dashboard that is well known and well rated, not a proprietary self-built affair. Or even worse, no control panel at all.

The control panel is your website's centre - the place where you configure options, install extras, set up anything of importance, check out files and directories, upload the occasional file, set passwords, sort out email accounts and email forwarders, and manage databases. You have to have one or your admin work will be a misery. 

The best-known ones are cPanel, Ensim / Parallels, and Plesk (normally on a Windows server), which are all good. Of course, the host must provide the various options in order for there to be any point to it - but in general, a site host with one of these panels will provide good options. A control panel must offer file management, file upload, and password-setting options or there isn't much point to it, but these are standard on cPanel and Ensim.

Only free webhosts, very old servers, or older hosting companies who have either not upgraded their servers for many years or couldn't care less about their customers, normally have no control panel. Usually, this only applies to the older longer-established ISP-type of webhost, who are to be avoided. These people do not qualify as real webhosts.

As regards hosts who have developed their own 'control panels' to avoid the licensing fees for a name version: these appear to be universally awful, without even the most basic facilities such as directory password protection or email forwarder management.

Windows server control panel
The equivalent in C-panels for a Windows server is Plesk. It works as well as the LAMP equivalents (though cPanel is better). It is certainly much more involved to set up a Windows server with Plesk for a CMS or other complex ASP / .NET application. However, competent developers seem to manage this without issues.

7. File manager
File access via the control panel: this enables the absolute basic requirements of a control panel - the reason for its existence in the first place - which are file access, file upload, and directory password protection. A control panel without these isn't really a lot of use. It isn't a control panel. This facility is especially important where secure hosting is concerned, since some files are designated invisible via FTP, and the best way to work with them is with the control panel's File Manager, if your FTP app doesn't support viewing non-visible files.

8. Statistics
You'll need at least one free package here - some hosts offer three. Out of AWstats, Analog, and Webalizer, a popular choice for the best would be AWstats.

A few months after your website's start-up, you will need to buy a good commercial web analytics solution. Since your website's results may ultimately depend on your understanding of the stats, it is a vital purchase. You can use free ones, but there are negatives.

9. Bandwidth
Probably 10GB  per month is a minimum figure unless you have a small site that's going to stay small in every way. As an example, 500 or 600 visitors a day will commonly use from 5 to 10GB per month, depending on the type of material on the site. Many sites will hope to be expanding to 1,000 daily visitors at some stage, as this is normally considered to be the minimum 'paying number' to operate a standalone commercial site with (unless the products are high-value).

5GB per month will suit if you have a site that will not exceed about 400 visits a day. 

And by the way, forget about 'pageviews', 'hits', 'requests', or MB download per day, and anything similar, as they are completely irrelevant. The only figure of any use is the number of visitors or visits, aka 'uniques'. The sole exception to this is when specifically examining PPC advertising pageview and clickthrough figures, where pageviews has some relevance.

To repeat: when looking at your website stats, you firstly look at the number of visits per day and per month. A web analytics solution must prioritise for this figure otherwise it is useless. All other numbers are subservient to the visits figure. 

 
10. MySQL databases
The absolute minimum number of DBs to go for is two. Three is better, and might be all you'll ever need.

There are many hosts who don't provide a free database at all; or who only provide one free DB. The former are best avoided unless you intend never to install a CMS, ecommerce (shopping cart), blog, wiki, web analytics package, or anything else that needs a DB. If you have a four-page HTML website on Neolithic hut circles that is never changed, this could be you. 

Otherwise find someone else; you can get 5 MySQL DBs and 5 PostgreSQL DBs on a £30 per year web hosting package, or 10 of each on a £50 per year package, for instance. Just look around.

One DB will be used by a CMS or ecommerce app if you install one, and one for any proper statistics package. A blog like Wordpress will need another one, and could share it with a wiki for instance. You can therefore see that a full-option website will need at least 3 databases. 

It is a complete mystery why people subscribe to third-rate web hosting services that don't even supply one free database; these 'hosts' should have gone out of business years ago, and only the unbelievable ignorance of consumers keeps them going. 

And of course it doesn't matter whether or not you are on a Microsoft IIS server, they can have MySQL databases (and PHP) installed without problem. There is no reason to have to do without SQL databases just because your webapps need an MS server - find another host.

Windows server databases
IIS servers are a separate case. They use the Microsoft SQL Server database. This is usually more expensive, and there are normally less DB's per deal. On the other hand, a real host will provide several MySQL DBs in addition to an MS SQL Server DB (otherwise you can't use any normal website software). Avoid Access DBs, they are not used on servers as they cannot be hardened against attack.
 

 
11. Apache modules enabled
Assuming that the server is a LAMP server and therefore running the Apache server app, it won't be much use unless all the basic facilities are available. The most important one of these is URL rewriting, which is provided by the module mod_rewrite. It would be unusual for this not to be in effect - but it doesn't hurt to ask if either this or any other common Apache modules are not in use. Life may be impossible without them, since you won't be able use an htaccess file. The htaccess file is the primary website server control available to the site owner, and is one of the reasons a LAMP server is superior to a Windows server (which doesn't have one).
 

12. Apache version
The server version of Apache now current is v2.2.6; version 1 is obsolete by several years, so you don't really want to be paying for that - it is appropriate on free webspace servers and so on. It doesn't cost any more - the Apache webserver application is free. Apache 1.0 is like Windows 98; it was good in its day but there aren't a lot of reasons to use it now.
 

Hosts running Unix instead of Linux tended to use Apache 1.3.x series, but that time is also past. In mid-2008, many Unix LAMP hosts finally moved from Apache 1.3.x to Apache 2.0. So hosts still running the 1.3.x version are now clearly using obsolete server software.

Why don't webhosts all use 2.0, then? Who knows - all you'd need would be one spare server to migrate people to, by rotation, upgrading as you go. We therefore have to assume that webhosts running Apache 1.0 don't have a single spare box.
 

13. PHP 5
The current version of PHP as a server-side scripting language is PHP5. It has been for at least three years, and PHP4 is obsolete. It is often found on servers due to backwards compatibility issues - some old apps cannot run on PHP5. We even saw a server running PHP3 recently (believe it or not). To explain, that's something like running Windows 95 on your PC. To say this would make the server vulnerable is something of an understatement.

To be honest there are some issues regarding the choice of PHP5 v PHP4, and it would be incorrect not to mention this. The ideal host would give you a choice of which version, as it is still the case that some popular webapps that have not been upgraded need PHP4.

 
14. Default PHP security
At least the default level of PHP security should exist, and the most commonly-required factors here are:
 

register_globals=off
magic_quotes_gpc=on


...which are vital for the security of many popular dynamic apps such as CMS. These are the default security settings for PHP, and have been for years. Any host overriding them is asking for trouble. In any case, overriding these security settings at server level is pointless, apart from dangerous, since, if needed, they can be overridden at website level by htaccess / php configs. Then, only the site requesting it is put at risk.

To explain this again: a software application called PHP is installed on every Linux / Apache server (and many Windows servers as well, of course). It is a script application that delivers vital functionality to the server, the databases, and the websites being served. All such applications have default security settings. These can be overridden if required, to help poorly written or old applications that cannot function properly with proper security settings. The settings can be overridden at server or local level - meaning it can be done at top level on the server (in the top-level htaccess file), which affects the entire server and every website on it; or at local level (in the local htaccess file for a particular website).

Of course, it doesn't make any sense to override these security settings at server level, since the whole server and every website on it are then vulnerable. It should be done at website level, for the old or poorly written apps that need it - then only they are vulnerable. 

If the security is over-ridden at server level, 're-enabling' it in php.ini at local level actually does no such thing. All this does is allow functionality for the website application that needs it - it does not re-enable security, since the entire server has been made vulnerable. It seems that some server tech support engineers do not realise this; please consult central php resources.


15. Your own domain name - not a subdomain

16. Your own website - not a rented website

These last issues, neither being strictly a hosting factor, are discussed on page 3 of this section - Additional Factors.

Less-important hosting factors

Those are by far the most important factors. Much less important, and most likely existing in all but the cheapest and most restricted of hosting deals, are:
 
1. 500MB disk space plus; 1GB is fine for many sites (500MB = about 0.5 GB).
2. 50 email addresses (only a very few start-ups would need 100 email addresses, and they are no doubt very well aware of who they are). Small businesses probably only need 25 or less.

CMS hosting for best SEO

Many of the factors listed above are important for CMS hosting. The database issues of course are more important than with a flat (plain HTML) website. You will normally need a LAMP server, but if the cms is an ASP / .NET one then you must use a Windows server. The xHTML pagecode that WCMS output now is often of extremely high quality, and will give you an immeasurable commercial boost. However, some cms are of poor quality so you need to ensure that your implentation contract specifically covers this area.  

You may need to check if PHP4 or PHP5 is needed by your CMS. PHP security factors are more important in CMS than for flat sites, and you should ask if default PHP security has been overridden or is correct (see the section on this above). For example, register_globals php must be off for security, and if a host has put an override on that it shows they know little about server security and don't read security advisories from PHP central - which kind of disqualifies them from being hosts, you might think.

Transfer bandwidth is unaffected by use of a CMS; the main factor here is if images or video are served as they require much more bandwidth than text. Your site should be hosted in your country of course, but that is the same for all types of sites. You need to ask!

One other problem sometimes crops up for CMS owners: the Apache file ownership problem. This happens on a poorly set up shared server, or one that is incompletely set up such as an unmanaged dedicated server. On Apache server there are two distinct file properties: file permissions and file ownership. On 99% of servers these are set up correctly so you will not be aware of issues. However, if the file ownership settings are wrong then files uploaded by different methods may or may not be usable. For example if you install files via your CMS backend but then find the CMS cannot use them, or you cannot change the file permissions, or you cannot delete them - but files uploaded via FTP are fine - then this is an Apache file ownership issue. To resolve this, some CMS use an 'FTP layer' for plugin installation, to get around this issue on incorrectly configured servers. Of course, you will not know of any issues in this area until you are a customer - the hosts won't know about this since otherwise they would have fixed it. It is an issue being seen more frequently as more flat sites convert to CMS, and are installed on sites where the hosting support techs are not fully trained.

Website traffic bandwidth

Bandwidth eventually becomes an important factor for expanding commercial sites. In the past, bandwidth was very expensive and tightly controlled. This is no longer the case, and some hosts provide unlimited bandwidth. Yes - unlimited - this is not a misprint. 

How can they do this? It's because the majority of websites are very small concerns indeed and use less than 5GB a month. There are a vast number of small sites: vanity sites; family home pages; small businesses who only work offline and have 50 visitors a day; small sites with 100 visitors a day; and so on.

Some are bigger - what you might call 'normal' commercial sites - and use between 10 and 30GB per month. Successful commercial sites use more than this but they are in the minority. You can't use more bandwidth than your site traffic can consume, so, with a small number of exceptions, sites can't use a whole lot even if it's free. Therefore it balances out roughly the same for these unlimited-bandwidth hosts - what they have to give away for free, they get back from the majority of sites that don't use much. Plus: they get a big marketing boost from the offer; and they don't have to allocate any resources whatsoever to measuring bandwidth and billing for it. There are few sites that can actually use a lot of bandwidth: important sites with high traffic; and video sites or others that offer large downloads.
 

Choose your host carefully for the best deal: the cost balanced against the facilities offered. You really don't need 100 email addresses, so ignore all these sorts of pointless sales ploys and concentrate on the important technical aspects of hosting.

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Continue to Part 3:

Additional webhosting factors affecting search potential
Recommended UK CMS hosting
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