What to look for
No two businesses are exactly the same, and so there simply isn't a one-size-fits-all formula for setting up the perfect business website. All you can do is try and get the best possible sense of what your requirements are, and then look for the package that comes closest to meeting them while still delivering value for money. Let's take a quick look at the main areas you should be thinking about:
Space: As we've already mentioned, if you go with a free web hosting service you'll invariably have to put up with some fairly tight restrictions on how much server space you're allowed to take up. This doesn't necessarily have to be a problem, though: for a simple website that isn't updated often and isn't particularly image- or graphics-heavy, even a modest 5MB of server space will probably do fine.
At the other end of the scale, large commercial sites with high traffic and significant numbers of pages may need hundreds of gigabytes' worth of server space, in which case a dedicated server through the likes of Rackspace is the way to go. Lastly, hosting packages can be Linux- or Windows-based, and that can affect how easy it is to access and modify site elements. The details are too complex to go into here, but it might be something worth looking into.
Bandwidth: Just like with your typical home broadband connection, most web hosts have a limit on how much bandwidth your hosting package allows your site to use up every month. Even if the service is advertised as offering “unlimited bandwidth”, this is seldom actually the case. It's worth having a good read of the terms and conditions to see what the bandwidth cap really is, as you could be in for a nasty surprise if you exceed it.
Speed and reliability: Most small to medium-sized websites share server space, so unless your site is big enough to warrant a dedicated server (with its associated premium price tag), there isn't any real way of guaranteeing unbroken high-speed access to your site at all times. That said, it's worth having a look at reviews and feedback other users have left about the web host, while in terms of reliability we'd strongly advise going for a service with a guaranteed up-time. That way you at least have potential recourse to a refund should the host not live up to its promises.
Support: One of the biggest factors that separates commercial and free web hosting services is the level of support you get. Every website experiences the odd technical glitch every so often, and just the knowledge that help is there if you need it is a reassurance worth paying for. It's worth checking what the hours of service are too, as an office hours-only help desk won't be much use when your site goes down in the middle of the night before a Bank Holiday weekend.
Managed or unmanaged: The vast majority of first-time site builders will choose a managed hosting solution, which simply means one where nearly everything (except any applications that you yourself introduce) is managed and maintained by the hosting service. If you're more experienced, or want to employ your own webmaster to run the site, unmanaged hosting will give you that control, with the web host only making sure the basic infrastructure ticks over, leaving everything else up to you.
The difference in cost between the two can sometimes be quite significant; in some cases you could be looking at up to £300 per month more for a managed, dedicated server, but if you are thinking of taking credit card payments or storing customer information you will need to use encryption, such as SSL (Secure Socket Layer) security certificates, and your site will need to pass PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliance testing. Keeping on top of these can be a full-time job in itself, which suddenly makes the extra cost seem worthwhile compared to hiring someone with the skills to do the same job.
Admin tools: Every managed hosting service will have its own variation on a central control panel of back-end site-management tools. This is where individual pages for your site are created and edited, and where global settings are controlled. You'll invariably spend more time here than on the actual website front end, so check for other users' comments on using the system before making a final decision.
Flexible language support: This won't apply if you're using an online site builder, but otherwise you should look for a web host that supports as many script languages as possible. Even if you're not planning on getting your hands dirty by delving into the coding side of things yourself, the greater the flexibility your package offers the easier it will be to find and test elements you wish to incorporate on your site.
Email: Your hosting service should allow you to set up email addresses using the site's domain name. For a start-up business with a number of employees, however, you'll typically want multiple addresses, which not all services give you. It's also worth checking what sort of auto-respond or mail forwarding features are supported, and whether the email addresses can be accessed through normal webmail services or even better set up via the likes of Google Apps instead of the host's own servers in the first place.
This touches on one of the major pitfalls of having your web host register your site's domain name (which will happen if you go for a package with a “free” domain name rolled in): you're then subject to the terms and conditions of your web host, and may have to use its email servers and accept whatever restrictions it places upon you. Worse still, you could find your domain name effectively held to ransom should there be a dispute down the line.
Secure shopping: Online shopping is big business these days, and if you're planning on doing business through your website – either now or in the future – you'll need to make sure your hosting service actually supports online payments and offers secure SSL data encryption to protect customer card details.
Multiple domains: You may have just the one site right now, but if your business empire takes off you may be looking to expand in the future and set up additional domains or sub-domains. Take a look at the costs involved in doing so, as a package that looks expensive for a single site could prove cheaper in the long run for managing multiple domains.
Every business is different, but they all have the same basic objectives in common: to make a profit and grow. The same generally applies to your website: if your business is growing, your site will more than likely grow too in terms of both size and traffic. You obviously need to walk before you can run, but give some thought to the potential for expansion when choosing a web hosting package. Nobody can be completely sure what the future holds, but if the package you're looking at only just covers your web space or bandwidth needs right now, chances are it won't be long before you need something bigger.
Speaking of the future, you could opt for a cloud hosting service such as Windows Azure or Amazon EC2 if you're looking to ensure maximum scalability, either upwards or downwards, in the future. Instead of allocating you a fixed amount of space on a server, cloud hosting services let you use space, effectively on-demand, potentially over a number of cloud-linked services as and when you need them. Should you need more space, it's there instantly, and can just as easily be given back if things quieten down again.
Another great thing about hosting your site in the cloud is the potential cost saving. Starting your website small on a cloud server can cost just a few pounds a month, but as your site grows the server automatically grows with it, saving you the trouble and cost of relocating later. And if you suddenly find yourself becoming an international sensation you can choose to host your site across multiple locations, making sure all of your customers get the fastest service possible – this also doubles as a back-up solution; should one of your sites go down, your customers will instantly be redirected to an exact duplicate of your site, allowing them to continue shopping while you fix the problems.
Counting the cost
The web hosting landscape is constantly changing as new players emerge and existing names try to attract new business through special deals and offers, so it's not easy to pick out a handful of names to recommend from the hundreds of options out there.
In terms of cost, typical hosting packages can set you back as little as just a few pounds a month for an entry-level package through the likes of 1&1, which offers 5GB of shared-server space, a single database and PHP support for £2.49 at the time of writing.
Your costs start to rise once you factor in additional databases, multi-language support and increased web space, but you should still be able to come in at well under £10 a month for even the most comprehensive of shared-server packages.
If you're expecting high traffic volumes, you'll need a dedicated server that will set you back in a month what some shared-server solutions cost in a year but offers far superior performance, support and flexibility. The likes of Rapidswitch, Netcetera, RackSpace and Fasthosts are among the leading names for dedicated server hosting.