What is site hosting and why do you need it?

For someone who has never owned a website before, the process can seem daunting. With so many steps – domain registration, site hosting, WordPress installation, email setup, and so on – where does one even begin?

Let’s take a minute to simplify the process and examine the first two steps of starting a new site, registering a domain and hosting a site. What’s the difference between the two? Why are they necessary?

These two steps are commonly associated with each other because many of the same companies handle both. Purchasing and registering a domain simply means that you’ve staked a claim on a particular website name — yourwebsite.com. Owning a domain only means that when someone visits that site, the browser will go where you tell it to go. However, that doesn’t include any storage. Just like photos and text take up storage space on your computer or phone, they do on the web as well. You still need somewhere to store your site.

That’s where hosting comes in. A web host is like your site’s online hard drive, storing the site’s data for other people to access when they visit it. If owning a website is like buying a new house, the web host is the house itself and the domain registration is like the phone book that tells computers where to look for your site. It’s possible to have one without the other, but registering a domain name without hosting is like purchasing an empty plot of land and purchasing hosting without a domain name won’t allow you to have the yoursite.com name you want.

Why can’t I host my site on my computer?

Sometimes people immediately wonder if they can bypass hosting and store their site on their own computer. While this is technically possible, it is not recommended for three reasons.

First, your computer would need to be turned on and connected to the Internet at all times. If your power goes out or if you ever even wanted to turn off your computer, your website would be unavailable until it is turned back on and connected to the Internet again. Most professional hosting companies have your site stored on numerous computers (called servers) located around the globe, so even if one computer or even one entire server goes down, your site is still available.

Second, self-hosting your site is a security risk. Big-name web hosts have built-in security measures to prevent hackers from changing your site’s files or downloading protected information. If you hosted your site on your own computer, you’d be much more vulnerable to attacks from hackers, and if they got in, your entire computer’s contents would be at risk. It’s not worth self-hosting for this reason alone.

Third, your site would load much more slowly from your own computer than it would if you have a professional web host. Server computers are optimized for quick data access and hosting companies also have much better bandwidth than an average home internet connection. Because many people come to expect a fast connection to every site they browse, you could lose many potential viewers of your site before it even loads.

Because hosting is relatively inexpensive, it’s not worth the problems it would create to self-host in order to only save a few dollars a month.

What options are available?

A wide array of hosting companies are available, ranging from small, local companies to massive corporations with multi-million-dollar advertising budgets. Local companies often offer excellent technical support, but larger companies often offer better protection of your data and extra features. Regardless of which route you choose to take, you’ll want to do some research before making a choice. If you use a large company, it’s a good idea to ask around and see if you know anyone who has used that company. Like any industry, some companies are known for treating customers well while others aren’t. If you use a local company, be sure to find out about the type of security they use and find out if they only have one servers in one location or if they’ve got a few locations. Every reputable hosting company will have several copies of their data on different computers in case one fails, but if they’re all in one location, your data could still be lost in the event of a catastrophe like a fire.

You’ll want to find out about a few other features the company offers as well. Be sure you have FTP access to your site, which will allow you to upload files to your site directly. Many hosts offer “web apps” to make installing things like WordPress easier, but you’ll want to have FTP access regardless. You’ll also want to find out information about how your hosting provider’s email works.

If you already have a hosting company, tell us about it in the comments. Who do you use? What has your experience with that company been like?