Web Hosting Review Methodology

See how we tested and rated each web hosting service

At Lifewire, we strive to provide you with unbiased reviews of products, software, and services like web hosting, so you can make informed purchases as consumers. To facilitate this type of open unbiased process, we research and test dozens of web hosts and score each one on 17 key features and data points that we feel are most likely to impact your experience as a user of these services.

In the process of generating our final star ratings for each web host, we score each individual feature on a scale of 1 to 5. We then weight each of these scores based on how important we feel that particular feature is to your overall experience, which leaves us with the final star rating.

To help you better understand our rating process, and provide a glimpse into the sort of things we look at when rating a web host, we’ve broken down the 17 key features we look at into five broader categories to further explain our methodology.

Web Hosting Resources and Fairly Comparing Diverse Services

First and foremost, it’s important to convey that our web host reviews take into account all of the options and features provided by each service, but we leveled the playing field by looking specifically at the most affordable plan offered by each service when assessing things like resources.

This can skew things a bit if you’re looking for a specific level of service like a virtual private server (VPS) or a basic hosted site builder, but we feel this is the best way to judge each web host fairly. More detailed information about options, features, and areas where individual services shine can be found in the text of our full reviews.

In terms of resources, we looked primarily at bandwidth and storage. These are the two most imperitive web hosting resources, so we assigned them a high degree of importance. We also looked at whether or not each host provides e-mail accounts and the methods by which you are able to access those accounts.

Ionos 1&1
Ionos 1&1

Bandwidth

In web hosting, bandwidth is a measurement of how much data your account can transfer during a month. Every time someone visits your site, it consumes bandwidth. If your site uses a lot of images or video content, you’ll eat through a lot more bandwidth than you would if you had a text-based site.

We assigned the highest rating to hosts that provide unlimited or unmetered bandwidth, and incrementally lower scores for hosts that provide limited bandwidth. Sites that only allow a specific number of page views received the lowest score.

However, providing unlimited or unmetered bandwidth isn’t actually possible because web hosts have physical limitations on the amount of bandwidth that they can provide. For the type of shared hosting plans we reviewed, there are further limitations based on the other sites that share a single server.

The important thing is that if a web host provides unlimited bandwidth, you won’t be charged for exceeding a specific amount of bandwidth in any given month. In most cases, you’ll only have issues if your site grows to the point where it’s causing trouble for other sites on the shared server.

Storage

In web hosting, storage refers to the amount of data that you can store on the host’s servers. This includes html files, databases, images, videos, and everything else. If you use a lot of image or video content on your site, then you need a lot of storage.

We assigned the highest rating to hosts that provide unlimited storage, and incrementally lower scores to hosts that provide a limited amount of storage. Web hosts that don’t allow any storage, and instead limit you to a specific number of pages, received the lowest score.

Like unlimited bandwidth, unlimited storage isn’t exactly unlimited. Most hosts ask you to avoid uploading files that aren’t related to websites, and using an unlimited web hosting plan as a backup service for your local files is typically prohibited. Otherwise, sites that provide unlimited storage typically allow you to build out your site, or sites, as large as you want.

SiteGround
SiteGround 

Mail

E-mail doesn’t have anything to do with building a website, but it is a resource that’s often included with web hosting. When you purchase web hosting and use your own domain, many web hosts will allow you to set up custom e-mail for it.

For this category, we assigned the highest score to web hosts that don’t assign any limits to the number of e-mail addresses you create. From there, we assigned incrementally lower scores to services that provide a limited number of e-mail addresses. Hosts that don’t include e-mail, or only allow email aliases, received the lowest score.

Mail Access

The ability to access your e-mail is almost as important as the inclusion of email in the first place. The most vital access methods include SMTP, POP3, IMAP, and web-based interfaces. To receive top marks in this category, a web host had to provide access through all of these methods. Providing only one, two, or three resulted in an appropriately lower rating, and services with no e-mail access at all got the lowest rating.

Measuring Quality of Service

Quality of service is a difficult thing to measure in web hosting reviews since a lot of it is subjective and can change over time. For many of the web hosts we reviewed, our skilled testers had experience with each service going back a decade or more, and those experiences are reflected in the text of our reviews. However, subjective experience isn’t something you can fairly quantify into a numerical value.

In order to fairly measure the quality of service, we looked at a couple of factors that could be measured objectively across each web host we looked at. These factors aren’t the final word in quality of service, but they are important in helping to establish trust in new clients.

Server Uptime Guarantees

Uptime guarantees are a somewhat divisive subject, but we feel that the willingness of a web host to put an uptime guarantee in writing is the clearest sign of their dedication to providing a high level of service. A lot of hosts advertise a 99.9 percent uptime on their sites, but they don’t actually provide any mechanism to receive compensation if that goal isn’t met. In that case, what good is the guarantee, or is it even a guarantee at all?

When evaluating web hosts, we looked for them to codify some type of uptime guarantee in their terms of service, service level agreement, or elsewhere. The web hosts that did actually provide an uptime guarantee in writing received top marks for promising in excess of 99.999 percent uptime, and some even promised 100 percent uptime. Hosts that guaranteed lower uptime received lower marks, and services that provided no guarantee at all received the lowest marks.

Experience and Staying Power

The amount of time a company has been in business doesn’t track one to one with the quality of service that it provides, but a long track record does help instill some confidence that the business you trust with your website will still be around tomorrow. We assigned significantly less importance to this category than others, since it’s possible for a startup to offer just as high a level of service as an older company, but we do feel that there is a real value in knowing that your web host has been around for decades and that they probably won’t be going anywhere.

Web hosts that have been around for 20 years or more received top marks in this category, as that kind of staying power is impressive in this industry. Newer hosts received lower marks respective to their number of years in business, and web hosts that are less than a year old or that refuse to disclose how long they’ve been in business received the lowest rating.

Bluehost
Bluehost 

Data Security and Redundancy

This broad category takes into consideration each web host’s security policies and the methods they employ to protect you against data theft or data loss. These are fairly significant factors, especially if you handle sensitive or proprietary data. Even if you don’t, protection against data loss is key, because poor policies and options on that end can result in your site going down, or having to start from scratch in the event of a hack or malware infection.

Backup Policies

Web host backup policies refer to measures the host has in place to back up your data so that you can restore it in the event of a data loss. Hosts approach this in a number of ways, and some don’t have any backup measures in place at all. Without backups, you could be left in a very precarious position in the event of catastrophic data loss.

To earn top marks in this category, we require a web host to maintain a backup policy that involves automatic daily backups, preferably to an offsite location. Hosts that earned this rating don’t require you to do anything to ensure that your data is backed up.

Hosts that require some setup, but provide daily backups as part of your hosting package, received slightly lower marks, and hosts that charge extra were knocked down to the level below that. Hosts that provide backups but have issues with frequency, like failing to provide guaranteed daily backups, received our second-lowest score, and hosts with no backup policy were scored lowest of all.

Version Control

This is something of a usability issue, but it’s also related to our backup and security category since versioning is a way to effectively back up your site each time you make changes so that you can roll back to an earlier version if any problems crop up.

When reviewing web hosts, we looked for robust version control options. To earn top marks in this category, we’re looking for integrated git or subversion, with optional PHP versioning. Web hosts that only provide PHP versioning, provide some type of custom versioning, or have no version control at all receive lower marks.

Shell and File Access

This is another factor that’s a bit of a usability issue, but we look at it as a security concern as some hosts provide more secure access to your site and files than others. To receive top marks in this category, a web host has to provide shell access, FTP/S, SFTP, FTP, and a web-based file management system. This arrangement of features provides the most amount of users with the most important options for accessing their site and files either securely or via more traditional means.

SiteGround
SiteGround

Security Policies

This fairly broad category looks at a variety of factors relating to a host’s security policies. To earn top marks in this category, we looked for hosts that provide automatic backups, 24/7 network monitoring, SSL, DDoS protection, and some type of malware scanning. This doesn’t paint a full picture of a host’s security practices, but it does cover the most critical features. This is also the rating that will take a hit if a web host is caught exhibiting a dangerous lapse in security.

Ease of Use and Quality of Life

When we look at usability factors that make a web host easy or difficult to deal with on a daily basis, we consider everything from how easy it is to set up in the first place to headaches or annoyances you might run into while building or administering your site.

These are fairly important factors overall because that can have an impact on how much time it takes you to complete various tasks, the amount of headache you have to deal with in case an issue ever crops up, and even your freedom to configure your site the way you want.

Namecheap
Namecheap

Control Panel and Backend

This is the most significant factor we look at when considering ease of use and quality of life issues. The control panel you use to administer your site, and any additional backend you use to administer your account, has a material impact on your overall experience with a web host, including how easy or difficult it is to complete various tasks.

When we look at the control panel and backend offered by a web host, we’re looking for familiar options like cPanel or Plesk that have stood the test of time. These panels are familiar to most experienced admins, but they’re also easy to understand for people who are new to web hosting, and they just work.

For hosts that use their own custom control panels, we look for interfaces that are well designed, easy to understand, and that either replicate the functionality of cPanel or provide even more functionality.

Web hosts that provide custom control panels and are slow or confusing received lower marks in this category, while hosts with control panels that are missing key features were marked even lower. In the event that a host doesn’t provide a control panel at all, we opted to give them the lowest rating in this category. This mostly applies to services that act as hosted site builders that provide very limited utility, or no utility at all, as actual web hosts.

Namecheap
Namecheap 

Site Builders and CMS

The purpose of a web host is to provide the infrastructure for you to build out whatever type of site you need, but not everyone has the necessary skills. If you lack those skills, and you don’t have the budget to hire a web designer, most hosts provide some type of site builder to get you off the ground with a minimum of effort.

When assessing web hosts, we looked for services that include some type of dedicated site builder that’s easy to understand and use, allows a layman to build a functional site, and that also includes enough advanced options to support a variety of different types of sites. Hosts that met those criteria received top marks.

Hosts with more limited site builders, and hosts that provide one-click installation for common content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, received a lower score. Hosts with difficult or substantially limited site builders received even lower marks, and hosts with no site builder at all received the lowest of all.

Customer Service and Support

Customer support is difficult to fully judge during the process of a review, because you won’t always have a real problem that needs to be solved, let alone any sort of difficult problem. We did make a special note in the text of our individual reviews in cases where customer support went above and beyond or fell below expectations, but the factors we used as a measuring stick for our ratings pertain to the type of customer service on tap and the available hours.

To receive top marks in this category, we required a web host to provide 24/7 access to support through phone, live web chat, and some type of e-mail system. The next level required access to either 24/7 phone or web chat, with other methods being optional. Web hosts with phone or web chat, but only during certain hours, were graded lower, and hosts with no live support at all received the lowest marks.

a2 Hosting
a2 Hosting

Site Control and Monetization

This is a very narrow category, but it’s a bit of a bellwether in terms of the control a host provides you over the contents of your own site. If a host places restrictions on the ways that you monetize your site, or if they enforce the placement of their own ads on your site, then it’s a fairly safe bet that your overall level of control is probably limited in other places as well.

To receive top marks in this category, a web host must provide complete control over the content on your site and can’t exercise any control at all over whether or not you run ads or other types of monetization. If a host places any restrictions on the types of advertising you can run, or only allows certain types of advertising, it’s scored lower. Hosts that don’t allow you to run ads, and also force you to run their own ads, receive the lowest rating.

The Registration Process

When we sign up for a web host, we look for an easy process that isn’t complicated by an excessive number of steps or upsell attempts. Hosts that provide a quick and easy experience that’s over in five minutes or less receive top marks in this category. If the process is fairly easy, but it’s complicated by excessive upselling or we had to wait an unacceptable amount of time for a confirmation e-mail, we marked the host down one notch.

Hosts with complicated sign-up processes that had too many steps, were confusing, or even difficult scored even lower. In the event that we had so much trouble getting up and running with a web host that we had to contact customer support, we assigned the lowest score

This is a somewhat less important category compared to a lot of the others because it’s a one-time thing. However, registering with a web host serves as a potential client’s first impression of that web host, so we felt it important to include this in our overall calculation.

Price

A lot of web hosts like to play games with pricing, and the prices you see when you visit a web host often reflect some type of introductory deal that’s only available with an extended subscription. With that in mind, we looked at both monthly pricing and extended subscription pricing in order to score each web host.

When evaluating pricing, we didn’t take introductory pricing into account. That is, if a host advertises a special rate for a specified period of time, after which it returns to a normal price, the normal price is what we looked at in order to generate our scores. We did take note of introductory pricing in the text of our reviews, especially in cases where a web host is significantly less expensive during the introductory period. 

Godaddy
Godaddy

Monthly Pricing

Web hosting is typically a long term thing, because most websites are designed to exist on the long term, and moving hosts is a complicated process. We recommend choosing an extended subscription for that reason, but we also understand that not everyone has room for that in their budget. That’s why we place a high degree of importance on web hosts offering decent monthly pricing even though most people will benefit from choosing an extended subscription instead.

We awarded top marks in this category to free web hosts because you can’t get less expensive than free. Beyond that, we looked for hosts to offer some level of service for less than $5 per month billed on a month-to-month basis. Hosts that charge more than $15 per month, or that don’t offer monthly pricing at all, received the lowest marks.

Extended Subscription Pricing

For yearly and multi-year pricing, we looked at the best price offered regardless of the term. Some hosts require one year, and others require three years, but we just looked at the dollar amount. Top marks were provided to free hosts here again, with the best paid-hosts charging less than $1 per month. Hosts that charge more than $10 per month with a yearly or multi-year upfront payment received the lowest score.

The Bottom Line

The preceding methodology outlines our approach toward ranking web hosting services, but we understand that web hosting is a very complicated subject, and you may have very specific priorities that aren’t reflected in our methodology. If you’re just looking to build a website fast and don’t care about the back end at all, for example, you might value the site builder category much more highly than anything else. Or if you already have enterprise e-mail set up through Microsoft 365, you may not care about the e-mail category at all.

If you have a specific thing that you need out of a web host, we encourage you to take a look at our web host round-ups. Our round-ups rely on the basic methodology outlined here, but take into account specific factors and needs that aren’t prioritized in the creation of our general star ratings.

While our round-ups weigh specific categories differently, they all conform to the basic philosophy that guides all of our full web host reviews. The best web hosts provide you with a comfortable and easy user experience, sufficient resources to get the job done, and pricing that isn’t out of line with the marketplace. We regularly monitor these web hosts for changes in service level in order to always provide you with the information required to make an informed decision.