The Best Web Hosting
From more than 15,000 options down to 4
There are a ton of web hosting companies — like 15,000 of them — and they've all got the same back-of-the-box specs. In fact, a lot of the companies are owned by one conglomerate. To find the overall best web hosting company in 2016, we talked to a web systems architect and a few engineers, then built our own websites and put them through a Siege test.
InMotion Hosting hit the mark with transparent pricing, 99.99 percent uptime, and a cPanel back-end. It won our hearts with the easiest on-boarding, best customer service, and for not sending us a single piece of spam.
If you have a business, you need a website — but you might not know how to go about getting one. Don’t worry, that’s normal. When Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens famously referred to the internet as a “series of tubes,” he was merely singing along with a chorus of confusion. Most people have no idea how the internet works, let alone how to build a website. It sounds complicated, too: Getting your business online means renting server space, building a website to store on that server, and wrapping it all up in a dot-com (or org, or net, etc.) domain name. Every single one of the 15,000 hosting companies we came across (really!) can help you do this, but the best web hosting companies also have excellent customer support, an intuitive and easy-to-use back end, and a reputation for reliability. And to be honest, quite a few web hosts fit that description. InMotion Hosting took the crown for 2016 Best Overall web hosting company by doing it with just a little more class.
Stevens was half right — the internet is a vast network of computers that are interconnected through physical means, but it’s more of a series of servers than it is a series of tubes. These servers are basically just big, powerful computers that all hang out together in data centers. When you go to a specific website, you’re really just downloading files from a distant computer. Theoretically, you could host a website on a PC in your living room, but that’s complicated, expensive, and probably not worth the effort. It’s much more efficient to simply rent server space from a company that has a lot of it. You know, a web host.
How We Found the Best Web Host in 2016
What kind of hosting you need depends on your business requirements, but it basically comes in three flavors:
- Shared Hosting: The least expensive and most common form of web hosting. It’s also the least powerful — different customers “share” a server’s resources among potentially hundreds of clients.
- Dedicated Servers: These offer unmitigated control of the server’s resources, but can be pretty expensive, and are probably overkill for most projects.
- Virtual Private Servers: This option lies somewhere in between: the versatility of a dedicated server without the expense of renting an exclusive hardware stack.
If you’re not sure what you need, Shared hosting is a good place to start. You can always upgrade to VPS, Dedicated, or a custom hosting package later. Simply Googling a shared web host won’t get you far, though: There are thousands of companies leasing webspace, and at a glance they all look kind of the same. They aren’t — some companies specialize in only one type of hosting; some have poor customer service, are unreliable, or run on outdated technology.
We separated the wheat from the chaff by merging the top-ranked, US-based hosting companies from sites like WhoIsHostingThis, HostMonk, WebHostingStuff and CNET, among others — outfits that ranked sites based on server uptime, verified user reviews and technical support. This left us with just over 200 well-regarded hosting companies. A good start.
We eliminated providers without a clear upgrade path.
Picking a web host is a lot like buying shoes for a child — you’re looking for something that fits, but still has room to grow. If you’re a small business setting up a website for the first time, that means starting out with a Shared hosting plan, but being ready to upgrade to a Virtual Private Server or Dedicated hosting if necessary.
The nature of shared host means you’re “sharing” a server’s storage space, bandwidth, and processing power with other websites. If these neighbors are doing significantly more traffic than you, it could make your site run slower.
“If you move away from shared hosting, you gain some advantages — like not being disturbed by ‘noisy neighbors,’” Dave Rosenthal, a web systems architect at Core Media Technologies told us. “The guy you’re sharing with could be slowing everything up for 8 to 10 hours a day.” This doesn’t always happen, but Rosenthal explains, “even if it happens once a year, it’s enough to be a problem.”
Your site might be fine on a shared server (and your hosting neighbors might not be noisy at all) but if your business grows fast enough, that shared space could start to feel crowded. Candidates that couldn’t meet the needs of an expanding business were cut.
We only looked at web hosts with an independently reported server uptime of 99.95% or higher.
In 2013, Amazon.com went offline for about 40 minutes. That brief stall in service cost the company $4.8 million. Seriously. As one of the internet’s largest retailers, Amazon’s case might be somewhat exceptional, but it illustrates a core truth about business and web hosting in particular: Time is money. Server uptime, specifically.
HostGator advertises 99.9% uptime and delivers on it (we double-checked with two different uptime-tracking sites).
Not all web hosting companies advertise an uptime guarantee, but when they do, they promise 99.9 percent uptime or better, every time. Never trust those numbers. Almost every provider we eliminated for having poor uptime oversold their reliability if they mentioned it at all. We found several hosts that promised 99.9 percent uptime on their sales page, but only scored 99.7 or 99.3 percent from independent uptime-tracking sites.
Okay. Maybe demanding near-perfect server uptime is a little, well, demanding, but even a fraction of a percentage point can make a big impact. If your website is only online 99 percent of the time, it means it might be down for as much as 14 minutes a day, an hour and a half a week, seven hours every month, or three full days every year. If your customers rely on your website to do business with you, you’ll lose money. Maybe not $4.8 million, but enough to count. To minimize this possibility, we eliminated any host that couldn’t score a 99.95 percent server uptime in at least one of two independent tracking databases — cutting our initial list of contenders from 202 down to a mere 51.
Downtime / day
Downtime / week
Downtime / month
Downtime / year
It might seem demanding to want that extra 0.9 percent uptime, but it’s the difference between your site being down for a few hours every year instead of a few days.
We eliminated web hosts with confusing websites and ambiguous pricing.
Hosts that buried package details by giving them ambiguous, yet marketable nicknames like Blast, Flash, Sonic, Expert, and Ultimate Business didn’t make the cut. Neither did services that hid more advanced hosting options behind unintuitive menus or that obscured pricing with complicated, unexplained discounts. And those that refused to reveal the price until we began the purchase process were instant goners. You want a host to be upfront with you about what you’re buying. If they aren’t, don’t bother.
And we checked out each one's knowledge base. Because, of course, knowledge is power.
A good knowledge base can save you hours of time, giving you the resources to solve a problem that would have otherwise left you frustrated, confused, and on hold with customer support. Not sure how to manage name servers? Need to know how to perform an .htaccess URL redirect? Just wondering what the hell cPanel is and why almost every web host uses it? That’s what a knowledge base is for. Most hosts provided at least some form of FAQ or database of articles to help users mull through the basics of managing their server space. Those that didn’t were cut.
We put their customer service to the test.
All other things being equal, customer service is going to make the biggest difference to you when it comes to choosing a web host. It’s Murphy’s law: Something is going to go wrong eventually, and when it does, you want your host to be easy to reach, easy to work with, and extremely helpful. Can you contact your web host 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year? If not, maybe it’s not the best company to rely on when your site crashes at 4 am on Labor Day. If a host couldn’t offer some sort of 24/7 support (be it via phone, chat, or ticket system), it got cut.
We submitted support tickets, started chats, and made calls to 27 hosts in hopes of finding the best customer service among our contenders. Only seven made the final cut. While most host companies were quick to respond (and were available at odd hours), far too many of them were generally unhelpful and dismissive. Three hosts were cut for ignoring our technical questions and trying to sell us upgrades. Two hosts fell out of the running for treating our inquiries like a nuisance, leaving us feeling unvalued. One host, regrettably, was cut for being dishonest — insisting that its shared hosting plan was “truly unlimited” and stating that no traffic spike would ever disrupt service. Sorry, buddy. Technology has its limits; you can’t host Amazon.com on a shared server.
When hosts did well, however, they shined. Bluehost, GoDaddy, InMotion, Media Temple, HostGator, iPower, and FatCow were all extremely helpful, patiently doling out detailed answers for both simple and more complicated queries. These hosts’ customer service departments were thorough, friendly, and detailed. They instilled confidence that if our site crashed, suffered a DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack, or had some sort of an incident, it would be sorted out in short order. They could also all be reached on at least two of the following four fronts: phone, chat, email, or ticket support.
Our Picks for the Best Web Host in 2016
InMotion Hosting Excelling at the little things while capably handling everything we'd expect of a web host pushed InMotion Hosting to the top of our list.
There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all web host, but if we had to recommend just one without blinking, it would be InMotion Hosting. As ringing as that endorsement is, however, our top pick almost didn't get the win. InMotion Hosting didn't score the best in our “time to first byte” Siege testing, a stress and load test to measure how well a site will perform under heavy traffic. It doesn't have any amazing, standout, exclusive features that you can't get elsewhere. It isn't even the best deal, often clocking in with slightly higher prices than its rivals (shared plans start at around $5 with discount). But at the end of the day it was the little details that mattered.
InMotion hosting got our attention early on by having one of the easiest onboarding processes of our final seven. Its sign-up page was so simple and straightforward, it was almost dull — but it didn't waste a second of our time. After three or four clicks and a couple of checkboxes asking us if we'd like to be sent support articles to get us started, we had almost instantaneous access to our new webspace. The process only took a few minutes, and it didn't inundate our inbox with a deluge of redundant confirmation emails or unwanted marketing. Better yet, it still hasn't: Of all the web hosts we tested, InMotion has spammed our test email account the least.
The company didn't just respect our inbox either. InMotion's US-based customer service department was extremely thorough. It answered our questions, even the simplest ones, in incredible detail with the utmost courtesy. The customer service agents never made us feel like we were beginners asking beginner questions (even when we were).
We were blown away by InMotion’s support center, which included narrated videos, screenshot-guided walkthroughs, and step-by-step tutorials.
As great as the company's live customer service is, you might not even need it. The InMotion Hosting Support Center has one of the most comprehensive knowledge bases we've ever seen. As expected, this database is stocked with articles, tutorials, and FAQs, but it's the level of detail that sets InMotion's knowledge base apart. Want to know how to set up your email? There's not just an article for that, but also a full video tutorial illustrating every step of the way. When there isn't a narrated video, there's usually a detailed, screenshot-guided walkthrough. If something isn't clear, scroll down: InMotion support agents answer questions in the comment section of every article. If you have a question, there's a good chance it's already been answered.
Have a question? Scott’s got the answers.
InMotion Hosting also checked every box in our testing methodology: clear and transparent pricing, a website that cleanly details the features of each hosting plan with almost no obfuscation, a straightforward and easy-to-use cPanel back end, and a third-party-verified 99.99 percent uptime rating, all supported by that stellar customer service. Shared hosting users can rest easy knowing the service will grow with them, too: InMotion Hosting doesn’t charge a migration fee for customers upgrading to VPS or Dedicated servers.
So, while InMotion isn’t necessarily faster than our other top picks overall, its service does come with some nice perks. For starters, it guarantees SSD (solid-state disk) storage for all its hosting plans, making your site’s back end more reliable than hosts who still use traditional hard disks. If something does go wrong, InMotion provides automatic site backup and free file restoration to get you running again —a service that would set you back $15 at HostGator or a whopping $79 at Media Temple. Finally, InMotion Hosting offers a 90-day money-back guarantee. That’s about three times longer than the industry average.
Bluehost Bluehost nearly earned our top recommendation thanks to its solid server uptime rating and competitive prices.
Bluehost was almost our top pick. It only narrowly lost to InMotion’s stellar customer support and ease of use. If you already had your heart set on Bluehost and aren’t sure that InMotion Hosting is worth the slightly higher price point, we’re not going to talk you out of it. But, the very same little things that pushed InMotion to the top spot are what held Bluehost back.
Don’t misunderstand us: Bluehost still has great customer service. Its agents are incredibly helpful once you get them on the phone, but it took us longer to reach a human and you may find yourself calling them more often. Bluehost’s knowledge base is pretty good, but it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as InMotion Hosting’s articles.
Bluehost hit our three C’s of a beautiful backend: clean, crisp, and colorful.
That’s not a deal breaker, but this might be: If you call Bluehost support, a service agent will ask you for the last four characters of your password. Yes, it’s weird and no, it’s not normal. Bluehost claims that all user passwords are hashed, and says that the verification method checks the characters against the stored password without revealing it to the customer service agent — but this verification method still requires the customer to give part of their account password to another human. User opinions are understandably split about this practice; if it makes you uncomfortable, go with a different host.
If you don’t mind doling out part of your password to customer service (or setting up a security PIN as an alternative), Bluehost is still a good option. Like our top pick, the company has a third-party-verified 99.99 percent server uptime rating; 24/7 phone, web, and ticket-based support; an easy-to-use cPanel back end with one-click application support; and an upgrade path for users that need to move to a VPS or dedicated server (with no site migration fee if moved within 30 days of upgrading). It also chalked a faster response time than our top pick in our Siege benchmark tests and, starting at around $3 per month, it’s $2 cheaper too. The service isn’t quite as good and it only offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, but it’s still a solid choice.
Best Web Host for Experienced Users
Media Temple While it may not be the best fit for first-time or novice users, Media Temple stood out thanks to its impressive speeds and reliability. Advanced users should feel right at home.
Of all the web hosts we tested, Media Temple stood up to our Siege benchmark the best. That’s kind of because it cheats — Media Temple’s shared service runs on a series of clustered servers that can lean on each other to handle heavy traffic spikes without stuttering. It’s basically more of a cloud server than a traditional shared setup, but it’s incredibly reliable. If you aren’t ready for a VPS or Dedicated server, but want a little more power than a normal shared server, Media Temple might be the right choice for you. However, it’s not cheap: The company’s Shared “Grid” service starts at a steep $30 a month ($23/month if you sign up for a three-year contract).
Media Temple’s control panel is modern and gorgeous, but we don’t recommend it for beginners.
Either way, we don’t advise starting out with Media Temple for your very first web host: The company eschews cPanel in favor of its own control panel system. To be fair, it’s a gorgeous back end, just not as straightforward as others. It probably wouldn’t be an issue for seasoned webmasters, but beginners might get confused. If you do go all-in with Media Temple, you won’t be on your own: The company’s support department offers fast, prompt, and kind service. If you don’t mind getting on the phone every now and then, you won’t have any problem.
These guys hit all our criteria including a clear upgrade path, 99.95 percent uptime, upfront pricing, and the customer service and knowledge base to make building and maintaining a website as easy as it should be. They just weren't our favorites, but they may be yours: FatCow, GoDaddy, HostGator, iPower
Did You Know?
Web hosting is always on sale.
You may have noticed that we haven’t talked a lot about price. There’s a reason for that: Web hosting pricing is almost never consistent. Click through to the product page for any of our top picks and you’ll see the same thing: discounts, discounts, discounts. Chances are, your chosen web host will always be running some sort of sale, making the “normal” price largely irrelevant for some companies. Be cautious of low prices; the “best deals” usually require long-term commitments that might not pay off in the long run. Make sure you’re happy with a hosting company before promising to pay them for three years of service.
If you’re paying full price for your web host, you're probably doing it wrong.
One company owns more than 70 web hosts.
You’ve probably never heard of Endurance International Group (EIG), but you’re definitely already familiar with some of the web hosting companies it owns. EIG is the parent company behind some of the best known web hosting companies on the market, including Arvixe, HostGator, eHost, iPower, FatCow, IX Web Hosting, iPage, and many, many more. Even our runner up, Bluehost falls under EIG’s umbrella.
According to EIG’s 2015 Annual Report filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, it maintains more than 70 brands — and while they share a billing platform among other things, they are tailored to fit different consumer needs. “The SMB (small and midsize business) market is broad, diverse, and fragmented in terms of geography, industry, size, and degree of technological sophistication. As a result, we use a multi-brand approach to precisely target the SMB universe, identify the best ways to reach different categories of subscribers, and tailor our brands and service offerings specifically toward those audiences,” the company explained in the report. “For example, our Bluehost brand targets SMBs with greater technical expertise and a desire to build their own solutions, while our HostGator brand targets SMBs who value relatively higher levels of support. This multi-brand approach allows us to manage our subscriber acquisition costs effectively and to provide a diverse base of subscribers with a highly relevant experience on our platform.”
Many of the company’s brands look eerily similar (which is pretty disconcerting to the casual shopper). FatCow and iPower, for instance, use a near-identical site design and back end management setup. Many EIG companies seem to use the same tech support as well, though when we prodded a FatCow agent for more details, they explained that while they all work in the same building, employees are individually assigned to different web hosts. That’s also reflected in the company’s annual report: “When calling our customer support services, most of our subscribers reach our customer support teams located in one of our six US-based call centers. Our teams in each call center are trained to provide support services for a discrete subset of our brands.”
Despite being owned by the same parent, Bluehost seems to operate like an independent entity, serving its users with a completely different back end control panel, comparatively unique hosting options, and a different (and higher quality) customer support system. Even so, if you’re looking to switch providers, it’s good to check the EIG company list to make sure you know who, exactly, you’re buying that new server space from.
It’s easy to build a website.
So we’ve picked out a reliable host with good support documentation, an upgrade path in case business expands, and a crackshot customer service team. How hard is it to actually get a site up and running? Not just easy, but surprisingly easy.
See that little blue box? It’s left over from when we “clicked to install” WordPress — which we did.
Any web host worth its salt will offer a straightforward, easy-to-use back end packed with tools to set up email accounts, oversee database information, add and organize domain names, manage files, and much, much more. There was a time when webmasters would use this control panel to manually install web applications, PHP, and other scripting languages or database management systems like MySQL — but these days you don’t have to. Modern hosting control panels come with a catalog of one-click-install web applications that can build a website for you.
Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but it almost is. Your web host’s control panel will make it easy to install common CMS products like Drupal, WordPress, or Joomla, but you still have to know how to use those to build a website. Fortunately, that’s not too hard.
Installing WordPress takes between one and five clicks. Add a few more clicks for setup, and you’ll have a basic website online. Tacking on a shopping cart is only as hard as searching for “eCommerce” in the free plug-in directory. We did go the extra mile to upload our own WordPress theme, but even that was pretty straightforward. We were able to build functional web stores (complete with working cart systems and PayPal integration) on each of our final contenders in just a few minutes using only the built-in tools.
It didn't take us long to get out test site up and running.
In fact, that’s the point — most web hosts wrap their back end in a familiar, standardized interface like cPanel or Plesk that’s geared for simplicity. These control panels are convenient, sure, but they’re also a great jumping-off point for anyone who wants to learn more about managing a web server. “You’re able to manage your DNS; you’re able to manage your hosting; your .htaccess files and PHP.ini configuration files. You’re able to manage your entire website stack in a single cPanel interface, and that’s very valuable for someone who’s learning,” Web hosting expert and systems engineer at Ookla (Speedtest.net), Brennen Smith, told us.
He’s right — a beginner may not understand everything they see in a Plesk or cPanel interface, but almost everything in the control panel is clearly labeled. If you’re not sure what a Cron Job or SSH access is, you can Google it, return to the interface, and try it out. “It’s a great place for people when they’re starting off,” Smith says, “And that extends to small business — to have that kind of safety net. Like training wheels.”
Despite the popularity of cPanel and Plesk, some hosts opt for a custom control panel instead — and that’s okay! Three of our finalists use custom setups: iPower, FatCow, and Media Temple. The vDeck control panel that powers FatCow and iPower (which are both owned by EIG) is about as easy to use; it’s just organized a little differently.
GoDaddy uses cPanel but has some cool customizations too.
Of our top picks, only Media Temple’s custom Account Center had a much more difficult learning curve. The one-click app installs are buried deeper in menus, and the interface can leave newcomers to web hosting feeling a little lost. It’s still good, but it’s confusing enough to not be our first pick.
You don’t need to do it all yourself.
With one-click web app installations, automatic updates, and tons of pre-cooked site themes to choose from, it’s never been easier to set up your own site. But, if you’re not comfortable doing the technical bits yourself, you don’t have to. Most web hosts offer special managed- or WordPress-specific hosting that take the set up and maintenance off your hands, assigning a technical expert to your account to manage server space, keep things up to date, and help you solve problems.
This can get expensive, one expert told us, but might be worth it for the right business. “Managed hosts typically take care of upgrading and patching the OS, and depending on the host and its niche, may even manage your application fully, giving backups and ensuring your business’s service stays up and online, and doesn't get hacked,” explains Arthur Ketcham, Director of Engineering at Klassica Studios. “This prevents most of the worst emergency situations you might otherwise have to manage yourself.“
It may not be necessary for smaller sites, but for businesses that expect a lot of traffic and aren’t confident they can manage server administration on their own, managed hosting can be a good option.
The Bottom Line
There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all web host, but Shared hosting is a good place to start. We recommend InMotion Hosting for its painless onboarding process, easy-to-use back end, excellent customer support, and good scalability.
Figure out exactly what you want from your website. Believe it or not, buying web space is the easy part of getting online. Making the most of that space is a completely different challenge. Ask yourself what you want from your new company website. Are you trying to build community and brand awareness? Do you want to set up a company blog or a web store? Are you trying to create a portal that will let customers book appointments with you?
InMotion Hosting InMotion grabbed our attention with effortless onboarding, then brought it home with a well-stocked knowledge base and generous customer support.
Figure out how you want your website to impact your business before you buy web space. Websites don’t just happen; they need to be planned, designed, and created. Knowing what you want before buying space will give you time to plan and, if you need to, hire staff to help you reach your goals. Speaking of which...
Consider hiring a professional. Like we mentioned, building a website is really easy if you’re willing to build on top of a pre-existing design or template. But if you want something specific — a custom look or cool module — a web designer or developer should be your first call. This should be part of your planning phase: Working with a designer or developer before you buy web space will give you a chance to hammer out exactly what you need your site to do and how you’re going to make it work.
Look into Google Apps for Business. Almost every host comes with basic email support, but it’s not always very good. If you’re accustomed to using a desktop email program, you’ll probably be fine with whatever your host already offers you — but if you’re used to robust webmail services like Gmail, your host’s default email web app probably won’t cut it. Google Apps will endow your domain with a good webmail client, Google’s Hangout chat messaging system, Google Docs, and a shared calendar system, plus iOS and Android apps to get it all on the go. At $5 a month, the service isn’t free — but it’s a great alternative to your host’s default mail system if you need something more.
More Web Host Reviews
We've been researching the top web hosts for quite some time and we've compiled a list of previous reviews covering several different categories and use cases below. In the coming weeks, we'll also be updating these reviews with our latest findings, so stay tuned.