I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you just can’t get away with not having a website in today’s world.
Your patrons, donors, and funders expect it and hey – how else are most people going to find out what you have to offer?
If you’ve read anything I’ve written before you know that all websites are not created equal. But what you may not know is that there’s a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into making a website great that has nothing to do with graphics and catchy copywriting. Things that can, in fact, make or break (literally) your site.
One of the biggest decisions you’ll make about your nonprofit’s website will be where to host the darn thing. For those of you who may not be up-to-date on the lingo, here’s a quick definition that I screenshotted from Google:
In a nutshell, hosting gives you a place for the website to live and you have to have hosting in order to allow people to access your website at all. Hosting determines how much your costs for your website will be per year, how frustrating or easy it will be to create and update that website, what kind of experience website visitors will have (in terms of how fast it loads, if it loads, and how well it works on different devices), and how much access you will get to help when something goes wrong.
It’s a big decision and there’s a lot that goes into finding the right host. If you don’t have time to spend hours researching hosts and then spend even more hours researching web development terms so that you can understand how to evaluate what they offer, then you’re in the right place. Below I give you a quick primer on some of the most important things you need to know, my top 3 favorite web hosts, and a comparison chart (available at the end of this article) so you can have a quick reference for comparing the three.
First up – what should you look for?
Monthly or annual cost
Cost is always a big issue for nonprofits, so you need to make sure that your org is getting its money's worth. Luckily, hosting is not typically expensive unless your website is going to get tons and tons of traffic or you need to host lots of websites.
For those who only need to host one site with an average amount of traffic, you can get great hosting for under $5 a month and further breaks on price if you’re willing to pay for 6 months or a year at a time. Unless you have a huge, complex website and/or loads of traffic, you shouldn’t be paying more than $5-$15 per month.
Uptime refers to the amount of time that your website is up and available. Downtime is the reverse of this and refers to any time that a host’s servers are down. If a host’s servers are down that means that your website is down. That’s frustrating for your visitors so you want a host that is reliable with as close to 100% uptime as possible.
Bandwidth & Storage Space
Bandwidth is the amount of traffic and data that your host (and your website) can handle and how much your host allows. If your website gets a moderate-high amount of traffic and/or has lots of resources to load, you will need higher bandwidth in order to accommodate it. Good hosts will offer you ‘unmetered bandwidth’, meaning that they don’t place limits on this. Many low-quality hosts will charge you extra, so make sure you check this out before committing!
Storage (also known as “disc space” or “data storage”) is how much data you can have on your hosting account. This will be determined, in part, by how large your website is and how many files/what size files are on it. Again, good hosts will typically give you unlimited storage space or charge a reasonable fee to those of you with large, complex sites.
More web hosts are starting to recognize that many of their customers are not actually web developers and are starting to offer one-click installations for things like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal (popular platforms on which you can build a website). This is good news because if you’re DIY’ing your site you don’t want to lose time (or your patience) trying to figure out how to manually install WordPress. Good hosts make it easy. You just click one button and you’re done.
SSL stands for “secure sockets layer” and it’s a form of protection for your website. It encrypts user’s sensitive information like names, contact info, IP addresses, and credit/debit card info. It used to be the case that most websites only had SSLs if they were accepting payments or donations. But in today’s world, most websites collect all kinds of info from visitors, even when it may not be obvious -and it’s not just financial info, either.
Without an SSL installed on your site, all of that sensitive user data is vulnerable to hackers and any bad person who has the know-how to pull that data from your website. Search engines have also started penalizing websites without SSLs, which means that if your website doesn’t have one you’ll show up lower in search engine results and your organization will be harder to find. Some browsers, like the widely-used Safari, often won’t even allow users to visit sites that are not secured with an SSL. They block them altogether, which is frustrating for the user and frustrating for the organization who wants people to use their website.
The moral of this story is that every single website should have an SSL. Yes, every single one – no exceptions. Luckily, most good website hosts are now including SSLs with web hosting for free. If you use a budget host, it may not come with one but the good news is that you can buy SSL certificates from third-party companies like NameCheap for about $8-10/year and then install them on your website, which thankfully is really easy to do.
But beware – some companies will take advantage of people’s ignorance about SSLs, how cheaply they can be bought, and how easily they can be installed. Instead, they will charge you crazy amounts of money to buy and install one for you – banking on the fact that you won’t know any better (GoDaddy is the prime offender for SSL price-gouging).
Your organization should grow and scale over time and when it does, your website will likely need to grow and scale with it. That means redesigns, updates, and the need for more server power to accommodate a more complex website with more user traffic.
Before you sign up with any web host, make sure that you can easily scale your website as it grows. Will you be able to easily upgrade your server, update your site, and ensure new users can access it without breaking the site?
This is referred to as scalability and some web hosts are not great at it. The biggest thing to watch out for here are the hosts that come along with website builders (Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, and builders associated with traditional hosts like GoDaddy, etc.). These tend to lock you into a certain platform and structure and it can be darn near impossible to change it without rebuilding the website from scratch.
Make sure you’re set up for growth before you need it by going with a reputable host that understands the need for scalability.
Backups are one of the most important things to consider. At some point, I can almost guarantee you that something will go wrong with your site. It just happens. And when it does, you will need to have access to backup files of your website so you can restore it and get it back up and running.
Most good hosts have incorporated backup systems into their services that make it easy to automatically backup your site on a schedule and then restore your website in just a few clicks if it ever breaks.
A staging site is an area where you can build, design, and test your website (or any updates to it) without website visitors being able to see it. This is particularly important for an existing website that is undergoing a redesign. To avoid usability problems and the tacky ‘under construction’ sign you’ve probably seen on other websites, you can use a staging site to build a site and test for bugs before you make that updated site available to everyone. It’s a best practice in web development and all good web developers use staging sites.
But again, if you’re DIY’ing your site that might sound scary. At best, you may just have no idea how to go about setting up a staging site. Good news, friends – web hosts are starting to offer staging sites along with hosting plans and they’ve made it very simple to set up. Most can be set up just by clicking a single button.
Chances are good that as your organization and its website grows (there’s that ‘scalability’ issue again) you will need to do major updates or maybe even an overhaul of your website. When that day comes, you want to have the tools you need to do it right and that means you’ll need the ability to set up a staging site. Don’t wait until it’s an emergency to make sure you can do it.
Customer support is hugely important and for any organizations which don’t have the luxury of having actual IT or tech people on staff, it’s probably twice as important. If you’re DIY’ing any part of your site or its maintenance, at some point you will likely run into an issue you need help with. When that day comes, you don’t want to be stuck on hold for an hour or worse, stuck talking to someone who isn’t all that interested in helping you solve your problem.
This is where reading reviews comes in handy. Do a quick google search of the name of a web host you might want to use + the term ‘customer support reviews’ and see what comes up. (So the full search term might look like ‘GoDaddy customer support reviews’.)
If the reviews look awful, run.
Those are the big issues you will need to address when looking for a high-quality web host. Now you know what to look for. But even when you know what you’re looking for, that’s only half the battle. You could still lose hours of your life trying to figure out who offers what you need at the best price and with the best service. Not to worry. Years of experience in this field has given me some strong opinions on which companies are worth your time and money and which aren’t and I would not steer your wrong.
Here are my top 3 recommendations for good web hosts:
Siteground is by far my favorite host and they’re the one I personally use for my own websites as well as my clients’ sites. They are fast, reliable, scalable, feature-rich, and have the best customer support I’ve ever encountered in any industry. Plus, they are super affordable. Their one downfall is that they only offer staging sites on their ‘GoGeek’ hosting plan. However, I still don’t see that as a huge stumbling block. Their lowest-priced plan is $3.99/month as of this writing and the GoGeek plan is only $11.99/mo – still incredibly affordable.
If you’re using WordPress to build and manage your site, SiteGround is also a WordPress-recommended host. You really can’t go wrong with them.
BlueHost is my #2 choice. They are reliable, scalable, and offer all the tools and services you need. Plus, they are super duper affordable. The only reason they are #2 on my list is because I have heard (from reliable web developers) that their customer support can be hit or miss. If price is your #1 factor, BlueHost may be the right choice for you, though, and you will still get access to all the tools and services you need.
HostGator is my #3 pick. They have close to 100% uptime, are completely scalable, offer great backup and one-click installation tools as well as a free SSL. They got bumped to the #3 spot because I don’t think that their customer service is as good or as fast as SiteGround and when you log into their hosting account I don’t think it’s as user-friendly for you to find things and figure out what you’re doing as most of the others. Having said all of that, their prices and services are great and they will be a solid host for you to use.
Of course, this is not a comprehensive list. There are other good hosts out there that aren’t on this list, but we all have a lot of choices to make every day and that gets tiring. Instead of sending you down a rabbit hole I wanted to give you my top 3 that would help you make a good decision that you won’t regret.
You may also notice that many of the most popular hosts out there did not make my list (GoDaddy, DreamHost, Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly, just to name a few). There’s a reason for this. GoDaddy has crappy customer support and they are guilty of price gouging on many services and tools that are free or super cheap everywhere else. DreamHost restricts your access to many common web developer tools, which ultimately limits your ability to customize, scale, and troubleshoot your website. And as for Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly….well, you can read my thoughts on them here if you’re so inclined.
And I have one more goody for you. I have created a web host comparison chart showing you the primary differences between Siteground, BlueHost, HostGator, and GoDaddy so that you can make a fast, informed decision. Just click the button below to get your copy.