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How we test web hosts: this is how TechRadar does it

Is this a great host, rubbish, or somewhere in-between? Here's how we find out

Web hosting
(Image: © Shutterstock)

Our web host reviews aim to consider all the key elements which make up a good provider: features, ease of use, speed, uptime, price, trustworthiness, and more. We highlight strong points, warn you of potential problems, then weigh up what we've found and deliver a verdict.

Every hosting buyer has their own individual list of must-have features and priorities, of course, and if yours are very different to ours – maybe it's essential your provider has phone support, for instance, and a range of hosted Magento plans – then you won't always agree with our conclusions.

You can still get plenty of useful information from the individual sections of a review, though, even if you might disagree with the overall verdict. And to help you better understand how we arrive at our final rating, this article will explore the full review process and some of the points we're considering.

Range of web host products

(Image credit: A2 Hosting)

1. Range of products

A good web host should ideally have multiple product ranges to cover all levels of user, from basic shared products through to VPS, dedicated servers and more. Even if you're very sure you only need a simple shared hosting plan right now, the presence of more in-depth offerings could make it easier to upgrade later, if your site is a success and you need more resources.

These ranges should be different and distinct, though; not simply rebranded versions of other plans. For example, most web hosts offer shared hosting products with easy WordPress installation. Many also claim to offer 'WordPress hosting' as a separate plan, but when you look at the details, they're essentially the same shared hosting products, at the same price, but with a different plan name and maybe they come with WordPress preinstalled.

If you see a provider with what seems to be a huge list of hosted application plans – WordPress, PrestaShop, Magento – then look at two or three of them, check if they really are different in any significant way, or are just a marketing trick designed to make the product list appear longer.

We pay attention to configurability, too, especially with VPS and dedicated plans. Many providers force you to choose from their preset choices – 2-cores, 2GB RAM, 50GB storage, for example – so being able to start with a package like that, and customize it to suit your exact needs, is a real plus.

Hostgator features

(Image credit: Hostgator)

2. Features

Web hosts often try to sell their plans based on the length of the feature list, but we think it's important to weigh up the details of what you get, and what you don't get.

This starts by looking at the fundamentals. It's likely you'll want to send and receive emails from a your.name@yourdomain.com email address, for instance, but hosts vary hugely in their email support. Free hosts often don't enable creating email accounts at all; others might allow one or two accounts only, or support only very small inboxes.

We're particularly interested in features that many customers will use, but aren't available from every provider: Free website migrations (the host transfers a site for you), a free domain, free SSL certificate, cPanel for website management, Softaculous to install WordPress or other apps, backups, malware scanning and more.

It's important to pay attention to the small print. For instance, many plans offer a 'free domain', but what does this mean?

Most plans allow you to register any domain you like, and will pay any fees for the first year. But a poor plan might restrict the TLD, for example allowing you to register yourname.website or yourname.host but not yourname.com. Meanwhile, really good plans might pay your renewal fees for as long as you have the hosting plan, and maybe throw in valuable extras like domain privacy protection.

We're especially cautious when we see the word 'unlimited', whether it's referring to storage space, bandwidth, email addresses or anything else. We would rather have an account which supports hosting unlimited websites rather than just one, of course, because it gives you more options. But in reality no web host can afford to give you 'unlimited' anything, and what the word usually means is 'there's a limit, but we're not going to clearly spell out what it is.'

Hostgator pricing

(Image credit: Hostgator)

3. Price

The key to web host pricing isn't that it has to be low – in fact, focusing on the headline figures can lead you into making a mistake. It just has to be good value for what you're getting (which is why you need to understand the feature list first).

It's important to take account of the cost of any extras. If a plan doesn't include free SSL, for instance, how much does the provider charge for certificates?

Contract length is a key factor. That low advertised price isn't nearly as appealing if you have to sign up for five years to get it.

Flexibility is a plus. Some providers have nothing shorter than an annual plan, which could be a problem if you have a short-term project or just want to try a service out. We like to see at least monthly plans available, and ideally three- and six-month options, too.

Introductory discounts also make a difference. Having a hosting plan quadruple in price at renewal time is an issue you might want to think about if you're looking for a long-term relationship with a host. But the savings can be significant, especially if you're happy to move your website at the end of the contract to take advantage of some other deal.

Dreamhost

(Image credit: Dreamhost)

4. Ease of use

Comparison tables and feature lists give some idea of a host's abilities, but to get a real understanding of a provider, we also sign up and purchase a plan.

A quality host must make it clear to customers exactly what they're getting in every product. Pricing should be transparent, with renewal costs clearly shown, and we like to see support for PayPal as well as cards (it's easier to prevent hosts billing you without permission).

Some hosts demand you verify your identity. That's usually simple – they send a message to your email address, you click a link – but it can be much more difficult. We've had to provide a mobile phone number so we can receive a code via text, for instance; email a scan of a photo ID; wait for a phone call from the host, or even call them ourselves.

Once we're finally in, we check out what the provider does to help new users: the first emails they send, the design of the account control panel, how easy it is to find your way to the hosting dashboard and all the core site-building tools.

We explore the options in more detail, too. Is there a way to install WordPress? Does it support other apps? Is there a template-based Site Builder, or other useful extras? If the plan doesn't include a standard dashboard like cPanel, what do you get, and how well does that solution work?

You'll more than likely run into trouble in some areas, so we also pay close attention to support. Does the support site have enough quality content? Is it easy to find? What methods can be used to access live support? And when we try a test question, how quickly does it take to get a reply, and is it a complete and accurate answer?

Can you trust a web host?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

5. Trustworthiness

Web hosting and email are vital services for personal and especially business users, so it's important to choose a provider you can trust. Assessing this is difficult, but we look for clues in several areas.

Does the company present its products in an honest, clear and transparent way, for instance? Or does it make over-the-top promises, give you minimal details on the products, quote headline prices but not how long you must sign up to get them, or hide away important details in the small print?

A good host should have a well-maintained web presence, professionally presented and fully up to date. If news pages, blogs and social media accounts haven't been updated in an age, that doesn't suggest a company that's actively working to improve its services. And broken links, certificate errors or other fundamental flaws indicate a serious lack of resources. What other corners might the host be cutting to save a little cash?

For us, though, the strongest indicators of an untrustworthy host appear after we've signed up and are testing the service.

For instance, sometimes our account might not be immediately usable due to some tech issue, so we raise a support ticket. A good host should respond quickly, either fix the issue or keep us informed. But a few have taken our money, failed to provide a working service, then not responded for days – which is totally unacceptable and a perfect example of hosts that don't deserve your trust.

The other major problem area is a host which doesn't deliver on its promises, for example claiming a hosting plan includes feature X, when it really doesn't (or there's some other huge catch it's 'forgotten' to tell you). That's not just untrustworthy, it's dishonest, and earns the host a major black mark in any review.

Uptime.com

(Image credit: Uptime.com)

6. Performance and reliability

Our web host speed tests are generally based on the cheapest shared hosting plan available from a provider. (In some cases, where we're reviewing a free hosting service, we'll use the free plan. If so, we'll spell that out in the article.)

We then upload a simple static site to our web space; just HTML and CSS files and some images.

Where possible, we point a test domain to our site. If this isn't supported, as is the case with some free plans, we use whatever subdomain the plan provides.

Next, we configure Uptime.com to check the availability and server response time of our site at five-minute intervals.

One week later, we note the site uptime (the percentage of checks where the server returned HTTP code 200, meaning 'OK') and average, minimum and maximum response time. We save the seven-day response time chart, too, as it's a useful indicator of consistency.

These results are handy as a way of spotting hosts with significant reliability or performance issues, but note that this testing also has significant limits.

We only test the cheapest shared hosting plans, for instance. The figures tell us nothing about the results you'll see with VPS or dedicated products, or any other plans which give you more resources.

The tests also take no account of page load time, and give us little or no indication of available CPU time, database setup, PHP configuration and more. We may partly address that within a review by using other tests, but there's no single figure that can usefully measure server speed.

Looking at the top and bottom-ranked hosts gives some indication of the best and worst performers, then, and points to web hosts most likely to deliver what customers need. But if you sign up for a provider, you should still run your own speed tests to confirm the service works for you.