In such reviews, we’ve been pretty consistent in our formatting and approach to reviewing.
Reviewing a hosting will always be a subjective matter; however, we’ve always strived for making our reviews as complete, realistic & as objective as possible.
To enhance our process of reviewing hosting solutions, in this article I will detail how we go about these critiques.
This will follow the general format of our reviews, but of course this time I’ll be talking about our methodology and what goes on behind the scenes.
Whether it’s how we evaluate what’s “cheap” or what’s “good” customer service, it will be covered.
So having said all that, let’s dive right in!
How We Review Pricing
If you’ve read a few of our articles before, you know that we put pricing as one of the first sections.
This is not a coincidence, or simply for the aesthetic: pricing is usually the first thing people are looking at.
Here’s the deal: it’s 2018, and you can get a decent package with more than one hosting company.
Of course everyone’s situation is different, but chances are you are not too limited in your options.
This means that pricing is a priority—what’s the best deal you can get?
Many of the most important features are common between platforms, so what lets you save?
Pricing can also be unfortunately tricky at times.
Each hosting company invariably offers more than one type of hosting service, from shared web hosting to dedicated servers, and all of these come with their own prices.
When we review pricing, we look at all of these things and view them relatively to the company’s competition and the most common market prices.
Not all pricing differences are equally important, however.
Shared web hosting is one of the most common types of hosting accounts because it is the cheapest and simplest—best for personal websites and users requiring smaller space and less resources.
Shared web hosting prices are generally similar across board—variation between companies will typically be within a couple bucks of each other.
When the service is in the price range of only few bucks a month, a difference in one or two dollars is technically a major one, proportionate to what you spend.
We take that into account, but can’t treat it too severely—this demographic of users ought to be know enough to save money as they see fit (which is why we still report on it), but practically speaking, these price differences do not matter tremendously.
The addition or subtraction of certain features at that first tier can compensate or denigrate the value of an entry-level package–a dollar or two may matter less when an SSL certificate is thrown in, or a domain name removed.
1&1 Hosting, for example, has been one of the best cheap hosting platforms we’ve ever used at $0.99 a month for the first 12 months.
However, that price is “cheap” because it includes an SSL certificate, domain name, and 100GB of storage–pretty impressive for a first-tier.
In contrast, HostPapa and SiteGround have some of the pricier entry-level options.
Why do we still like them?
Because they still offer robust features and are cheaper on other options anyway.
It’s for the heavier options—VPS and dedicated hosting, for example—that prices matter more.
After all, more money is at stake, and customers can range from small to large businesses with varying budgets for hosting.
This is part of what makes products such as 1&1 hosting (again) and Hostinger a couple of the best deals for VPS hosting: the price, considering the quality of hosting, is excellent even if it’s more expensive than shared web hosting options.
Aside from taking all of that into account, we also look at things that might unexpectedly cost money.
This crosses over with the features department, and frequently, security as well.
Many tools, especially security tools, are free or default with some accounts on some platforms, but are optional upgrades with other platforms.
Depending on the importance of a feature—e.g., an included domain name or SSL certificate—the “cheapest” option might not be as cheap as you think.
These details are important, and something we take special care to examine.
Finally, we take a look at money-back guarantees and refund policies.
Pretty much every hosting company you’ll look at offers a money-back guarantee. What we care about here is the length of that refund policy, and the coverage.
Some refunds only cover two week periods, but the longest I’ve seen (DreamHost) extended for about 97 days.
There isn’t really a better way of knowing whether a product is worth it or not than trying it out, and some companies let you try hosting options out more extensively than others.
All together, the main concern for us is the cost of different products offered by a company relative to corresponding products by other companies.
Our secondary concerns are the hidden costs that can crop up, which require looking at the packaging of each product, and the quality of the money-back guarantee.
How We Review Features
As I’ve said, we like to get pricing out of the way first.
Still, features are pretty important, and for us the first priority with features is examining how they are allocated.
You heard me talk about how we examine the fine details in differently priced products.
Price tags alone always matter, but the full picture develops once you understand the tools being offered per price tag.
When we review features, we first look at the official lists of features. We tend to focus on shared hosting features due to their popularity.
After all, the point of these articles is not to give you every single specification—for that, you can go on the companies’ websites directly.
We also focus on shared hosting—and to an extent, we share some focus with WordPress and cloud hosting—because those products matter the most feature-wise.
As you move on to more expensive products, like VPS hosting, pretty much every tool is made available to you—the investment from that point becomes the amount of resources you want allocated to your site(s).
For us it’s not just about the list of features, but the specific features’ quality and their placements in different products.
We don’t just measure the amount of tools given to a first-tier shared hosting account with Company A and its counterpart in Company B: we measure whether a tool missing in one is a minor disappointment, or a major deficiency.
Of course, our experience with the product starts coming into play here.
We generally find the main tools work as designed—but if there are issues, we take note immediately.
We cannot figure this out by quickly dabbling with the control panel.
Instead, we use our accounts with different hosting companies over a longer period of time, making sure features work with constant use.
If we didn’t do this, the #1 cheapest companies would always be the winners–it’s thanks to our constant use that we find Bluehost to be one of the best hosting companies all around (it’s affordable as well!).
Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes, and that is part of why we test features thoroughly.
It is only by getting familiar with tool X or Y that we can figure out what is frustrating and what is smooth.
How We Review Ease of Use
Related to evaluating features is evaluating ease of use; unlike the previous factor, however, examining ease of use involves more subjective experience on our part and a little more simplicity.
Features typically work—at least for successful companies—which is why one of the first things we do is look at the detailed lists of features and specifications provided by companies for different products.
As we experiment with them, we also begin to form an understanding of how easy or difficult to use they are.
Ease of use does not have technical, named, or objective specifications however; all we can do is test and report back.
Anyone can test a product—everyone does by using it—so what we do is approach the collection of tools made available to the user by how they would appear to users of varying experience and with varying needs.
We test out navigating the control panel as a step one, and then go into each menu and submenu and discover how easy or difficult it is to accomplish certain tasks, or make certain settings.
As we go through the control panel, account management, and different tools (such as website builders), we take note of accessibility, speed, and simplicity.
Most popular products are not overly difficult, so we search for a combination of simplicity and user control; nothing so easy that you lose out on features, but nothing to overwhelm you with your options either.
One good example–among many–is FastComet.
In sum, ease of use requires extensive testing on our part, and goes beyond looking into specifications and lists.
By keeping in mind the different technical abilities of potential customer while testing, we are able to evaluate companies’ ease of use per level of experience and make generalized recommendations.
How We Review Customer Support
When we evaluate ease of use, we intersect with our evaluations of customer support.
A hosting package may outwardly be complicated, but have robust customer support that makes it about as easy as any competitor.
An example would be a user interface that produces definitions when the cursor hovers over a certain term or even menu item: although simple, it can make a world of difference for new users and is a far from ubiquitous feature.
Aside from that, however, we look at two main types of customer support: on-site informational content, and customer service representatives.
On-site informational content takes the form of text and multimedia articles (such as how-to articles), FAQ pages, video tutorials, and community forums.
A given hosting company typically has some combination of these, though not all necessarily.
These are generally centralized in a knowledge base format, though sometimes video tutorials and forums are separated.
This process is lengthy: we don’t just look up questions we have using the on-site resources.
We look up questions we know the answers to, just to see how they’re handled.
How does the community forum respond to newbies?
What questions are covered in a forum topic, but missing from the official how-to articles?
If I was unfamiliar with hosting, would this video tutorial be appropriate, or fly over my head?
We try to understand how up-to-date such content is, how accessible it is, and how thorough it is.
We also like to see as much documentation as possible—the more information the better, provided its well organized.
That is an important qualification: a knowledge base had better be well-organized, hence the point on accessibility.
This is part of what brought FastComet down for me: although I thought FastComet was overall strong, it had a limited amount of informational material that was not as informative as that of other companies, such as SiteGround (which has a solid blog and webinar series) or HostGator (which has a simple but well-condensed support page).
We also review based on our experience with customer service representatives.
In our reviews we showcase quick tests of the live chat, done at the time of the article writing for recent evidence.
However, it’s far from the only time we interact with customer service representatives.
Over the course of our product testing, we will use live chat, phone support, and email support more than once to get a handle on company responsiveness and answer quality.
Our questions are often simple, but we make sure to throw in some curve-balls as well.
Our reviews of customer support are based on such experiences with customer service representatives and our experience using the on-site informational content.
Customer support is very important, and should be valued even by tech-savvy customers.
How We Review Security and Reliability
Security, as I often remark, is last but not least. Security is the thing that ties everything else together—once you understand a product’s price tag, its features, its learning curve, and the customer support, the last thing that underpins hosting is security.
The brother of security is reliability. The two overlap of course: a service may be reliable because it has good security.
However, reliability primarily concerns this question: does the product do what it’s supposed to, consistently, and without much error?
Security and reliability are uniquely important for interpreting hosting companies’ value, much more important than it would be for most other products offline.
You need to know that your website, your information, and potentially your customers’ information is protected.
And if you bought hosting, you need to know that you will continue to get hosting.
When we review security and reliability, we have two main approaches.
The first is to examine what the company says; the second is to measure our uptime independently and survey the tools available to us.
The latter concerns the reliability side of things a little more, but still reflects poor server security in the case of issues.
Evaluating what a company website says can be tricky. On one hand, it’s probably the only source of official information you’ll be able to get about a company’s security protocol.
On the other hand, companies will inevitably attempt to sound good on their own websites.
Sometimes, companies have very little to say about their security standards or protection.
This does not necessarily correlate with bad uptime, but it’s something to be wary of, and could be worth digging into with a representative for those who are concerned.
We generally like to see regular back-ups for as many accounts as possible—it’s pretty common for entry-level accounts to not get backed up as frequently as higher-tier accounts, but if they can at least get monthly backups, that’s a win in my book.
Aside from that, strong firewalls, DDoS attack protection, and 256-bit encryption are features we look for: that will mean the company hits an industry-standard.
Naturally, being confined to a company’s website is only so helpful.
When we look at things from our end as customers, the first item we look at is uptime: this is the number one indicator of hosting company reliability.
When we purchase hosting from companies, we create sample websites and use a third party called Pingdom to record in detail our uptime and response time over the duration of our service.
Above all things, these records are what really matter: they’re practical.
Ideally, we want to see the highest uptimes and the lowest response times possible.
After all, no matter what a company says about itself, your ultimate goal is the maintenance of your website and protection of the data.
If you have a solid uptime and response times, a major point of concern will have been taken care of.
Lastly, if any other security tools are made available as account features, we find them worth a mention—as long as we note their price points.
However, we don’t like to focus on this too much—it has more to do with what you can purchase, and less to do with the steps a company takes to protect its customers.
It should also go without saying that if any major security issues pop up with one of our hosting accounts—if there’s a severe amount of downtime, or if a major data breach occurs—we report that in our reviews. Thankfully, it’s a rare occurrence.
Now that, piece-by-piece, we’ve spilled our top-secret reviewing methodology, I think it’s time for us to summarize.
We are fascinated by hosting: that’s why we’ve made an entire website about it.
We have certainly gone to many lengths to find the best hosting companies for ourselves, and we want to help everyone else find the best hosting company for them as well.
So we review hosting companies: we purchase packages from them, create sample sites, and evaluate the myriad items the hosting company offers to us.
We break these things down into different categories so you can better see what is good or bad for you–so you won’t waste a cent.
When we review price, our first go-to is a company’s official pricing structure.
This is where one can get the most recent and official information. However, we’ll always hold that pricing to be relative to the competition.
Other than that, we also look into hidden costs and fees, and money-back guarantees. For example, a money-back guarantee may only cover hosting, but not domain name purchases.
Alternatively, certain important security tools may be costly upgrades that are bound to increase the amount you spend.
For features, official lists are also important. However, we like to poke around and test out the features ourselves with our accounts.
Features tend to perform as designed, but if there are any exceptions, we take note.
It’s with the ease of use assessments that our product testing really comes into play. Only have using a product often, over a long period of time, can we come to be familiar with where a user interface falls short.
It’s also the way we form a sense of the steepness of a learning curve—by learning the platform.
For customer support, we regularly utilize the on-site informational content (such as video tutorials and knowledge bases) to see how many answers can be accessed without human contact.
We also regularly contact customer service representatives—and will include at least one recent live chat sample in our reviews.
Finally, we examine security by looking at a company’s official security protocols, and server performance (a related but still separate metric) by measuring our own uptime and response time.
Uptime and response time are among the most important things we examine, and have been very helpful in distinguishing companies from one another: secure and consistent hosting is ultimately the number one goal in acquiring hosting, after all.
In sum, we tend to combine information from the company with extensive product testing.
The company can tell us the most up-to-date information, which is useful in comparing certain objective realities such as pricing, feature-lists, or security protocols.
We absolutely use our experience as users for the bulk of the review, however; is the price made worth it by performance, or not?
As good as security tool X may sound, is uptime improved?
These features sound good, but do they implement well in reality?
These questions and more are what we ask ourselves regularly as we interrogate hosting companies and their products.
Thank you for reading, and I hope to catch you in our next review!