Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer subscribers free web space on their servers. For a simple hobby site or small business, this can be a good way to begin to learn about creating a web site. I began this way, hosting a few hobby pages in the free space provided by my ISP.
Why should you buy a hosting plan from a professional web host, rather than use free web space? Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons: performance; flexibility; and features.
Performance is not your primary concern if you’re just hosting some photos of the grandkids to show the family. It should be a concern if you’re creating a site for your small business.
Free web space on an ISP’s server is, in my experience, frequently slower to access than professional web hosting. A good web host is likely to have better peering, connections to various Internet backbones, to allow for faster and more reliable access. Even if you’re just a one-person home business, it doesn’t look professional if prospective clients must wait several seconds for your web site to display.
Flexibility, or the lack of it, became an issue for me when hosting my pages on my ISP’s free web space. Such free space typically does not allow much in the way of configuration or customization. You place your pages and images in the free directory, and that’s it. When I wanted to make some pages private, to use sub-domains to sub-divide the site, it wasn’t possible.
With free space, you usually have no choice in the root URL, and I found this limiting. If your ISP or free space provider is BigBearHosting and your username with them is john_smith, your web site will probably have a URL such as www.BigBearHosting.net/server3/john_smith/index.html. This tells the world that you don’t have professional hosting. Worse, if you ever leave to go to a new host or if your host is sold and changes its name, a common occurrence, you’ll lose that URL. You’ll be forced to inform your contacts of the change in URL, and perhaps you’ll then have outdated stationery. You’ll also lose your ranking with the search engines.
The need for features lacking in the free hosting may be your primary indicator that you’ve outgrown it. If you want to make your site look more professional with, for example, custom error pages, that won’t be possible on free hosting. Here are just some of the range of features included in a good web hosting plan:
- better usability and management, via a control panel.
- custom error pages.
- set viewing rights for directories.
- password protect directories.
- limit FTP access for other users to specific directories.
- server-side scripts such as CGI, PHP for such things as form submission, user input processing, bulletin boards, forums, etc.
- standard use of robots.txt file, to tell search engines which parts
- of your site to index and which to ignore.
- SSI (server side includes), PHP includes, and other dynamic content.
- comprehensive reporting of “web stats”, statistics on site visitors, most popular pages, search terms used to find the site.
In addition to such web site-specific features, most web hosting plans also come with other useful stuff such as mail accounts, mail forwarding, domain name management tools, and much more.
There’s an old adage that you get what you pay for. I found that to be true when comparing free hosting with paid web hosting. Even for a hobby site, I’d rather have the tools and quality that come with professional hosting.