[This is part of a series of articles for which the introduction and list of articles is here. If you haven't read the introduction yet, it would be helpful to read it first.]
In a way the subject of the next article (registering a domain name) is more immediate, in that you want to do that as soon as possible, even if you’re not ready to put up a site. Domain names tend to get snapped up when you’re not looking.
However, even though web site hosting and domain name registration are two different things, they are often handled through the same companies, and it can be slightly easier to take adgvantage of that (not necessary, just a little easier).
Finding a web site hosting company takes a little work. I will not go out on a limb and directly recommend web hosting companies to you, because they all have their plusses and minuses, and some of you will inevitably come back crying to me that I recommended so-and-so to you and now you’re unhappy and it’s all my fault.
Look on sites like c/net for reviews of hosting providers. Be a little wary of sites devoted entirely to reviewing and listing the “best” web hosts. Many of them are legit, but some are shills for particular companies. At the very least, compare the opinions of several review sites. Ask friends, business associates and well-dressed strangers in the street about their experiences with their web hosting provider (assuming they even know who it is). You may at least find some to avoid.
There are hosting services who bill themselves as particularly Mac-friendly (though most UNIX-based hosting is OS agnostic) and there are even some hosts who aim their services specifically at illustrators and other creatives, like GiMUR.net (run by the founder of LCSV4), DogBark.com, Laughing Squid and Huevia, though I don’t have direct experience with any of them.
There are also portal sites for gallery artists that offer site hosting as a benefit of membership; and illustration directories that offer a gallery space as part of your listing with the directory, though these are likely to be more limited than regular web site hosting, and can cost as much or more, in exchange for the service of inclusion in their directory.
“Free hosting” – Avoid any so-called “free” hosting that forces your site to display ads, banners, pop-ups or other forms of onerous limitations in exchange for the “free” service. It’s unseemly, unprofessional and will do your reputation as an artist more harm than good.
Blogs as free web sites - If you are absolutely so poor that you can’t afford $8 a month, consider that many national level blogging sites offer blog accounts for free, without forcing advertising (at least for now). If the blogging account allows the use of “pages” instead of “posts” (as WordPress.com does, for example), you can create a functional web site for free. It’s more restrictive than regular web hosting, and the URL is likely to be something like yourname.blogger.com instead of yourname.com, but it may do. Also, the blogging services offer default or third-party custom templates that make for a variety of free designs, even if you share them with other sites.
Cost - National level web site hosting providers offer basic “shared” web hosting (which simply means you share a web server with other sites, the normal arrangement) for $10-$15 a month or less, if paid for by the year, sometimes with a modest ($15 or so) “setup fee”. You can also arrange to pay for most plans by the month or quarterly, at a slightly higher cost; which may be worthwhile if you are unsure about the host. You can always opt for yearly payments later.
Basic “shared hosting” if fine. You don’t need anything fancy, and you probably don’t need a business account to start. Given a choice between “Windows Hosting” and “Linux or Unix Hosting” (meaning the type of operating system on the server where your site site hosted) I choose Linux or Unix, as it is often cheaper, I believe it to be more reliable and flexible (a personal bias) and the only advantage I see to Windows Hosting is that it enables the use of Microsoft Front Page, which I will strongly advise you against.
Extras – See if the options from the basic plan from one company appeal to you more than another. Do you want a blog as well as a web site? Do you want a discussion board? Do they offer the ability to host additional domains without charge (in case you want to have yourname.com and yournameillustration.com point to the same site)? Take a look at the sample stats page, that shows your site’s statistics for number of visitors, etc., when comparing different hosting companies. What is the storage and bandwidth allotment? Most national level hosting plans offer more than enough, but if you plan to feature tons of huge image files, more may be better.
Control Panels – Most hosting plans include some kind of “Control Panel” that allows you to add and administer e-mail accounts, set up FTP access, password-protect directories, add features like blogs and discussion boards and so on. This is one area where hosting providers vary widely, so take a look at their Control Panel samples when comparing hosting providers.
Add-ons – You only need basic hosting. Many hosting providers (most, in fact) will confuse the issue by trying to get you to sign up for all kinds of bells and whistles at extra cost throughout the sign-up process. You don’t need them! Check for the services included in the basic package when comparing different providers, but don’t order fancy add-ons. You can always add them later if you really want to. Even eCommerce and shopping carts aren’t necessary at this stage. It’s actually easier to sell through PayPal initially. You can add a shopping cart later if you really need one. (However, you may want to compare eCommerce offerings when comparing providers.)
Templates and “site builders” – These have the appeal of promising to allow you to build a site with no web design or HTML knowledge. I don’t want to turn your off to them out of hand; perhaps there are good ones out there, but my experience with these things is that they are limited and inflexible, and enough of a pain to learn to deal with that the same learning curve would give you a basic working knowledge of HTML, something you can apply anywhere, not just to one proprietary template system.
Dynamic template systems offered by hosting providers are different than static HTML templates, which are just pre-made page designs. I’ll talk about those in a future section on design.
Your hosting info – When you arrange for your web hosting, they will normally send you an email with the detais of how you set up FTP access to your site, use the “Control Panel” and set up email accounts. Immediately print out a copy of this email and file it. Send a copy of it to yourself and keep both coipes in your email records. Send a copy of it to your fastidious Aunt Mille and ask her to keep it on file fo you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked new clients about FTP access to their site pages and had them say “Oh, I know I got that, but I don’t know what I did with it. Do I need it?” You can always call up the provider and ask them to send you the info again. I just want to impress on you that the info in it, notably logins and passwords, is stuff you (or your web site designer, if you go that route) will need.
Registering your domain at the same time – As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it can be slightly easier to register your domain name through your hosting provider, than to register it separately, and the sign-up process will ask you if you want to register a domain at that point, or if you already have a domain registered elsewhere which you want to assign to the new hosting account. I’ll go into domain names in more detail in the next post in this series.