Once a domain name has been bought, the next step is finding some hosting for your site. A domain name is just an address and does not provide any storage for the interlinked files that make up a website. You need somewhere for your website application to live! There are two options:
- Purchase some hosting. When building an eCommerce site, you can buy some web-accessible file storage or ‘hosting’ from a web host to make your eCommerce site available online.
- All-in-one website solution. Website platforms such as Shopify allow the merchant to create their website from the same interface without worrying about hosting the technical details.
If you wish to manage your own website application, you will need to find a company to host it. A web host is a company with many computers connected to the Internet. These computers hold the application files which make up a website so that anyone with access to the Internet can view them. Hosting services are a widely available commodity, charged on a monthly or yearly fee. Choose your host carefully as they provide the backbone of an online enterprise. A web host must be reliable as if servers are down, a website will be unavailable and shut for business. Look for the following features when choosing a web host:
Some hosts will specialise in managing specific platforms such as WordPress and Magento. They will be able to optimise the setup for your platform and provide guidance configuration. If they do not specialise in your platform, check that they deliver the technologies needed.
A web host must be reliable and fast. If your website is offline because the host is down, the site will be losing sales, and money spent driving traffic will be wasted. A good web host will guarantee its uptime and look for a minimum uptime of 99%, preferably 99.5% or higher.
If the servers’ location is important, for instance, if you collect personal information, you will need to find a host that can comply. Large hosts may be able to let you choose your server location.
When a visitor views a website, the files that make up the website are transferred to the visitor’s computer and displayed on the web browser. Data transfer refers to the number of bytes transferred to visitors when they browse a website.
When buying hosting, look for details on how much traffic the hosting plan allows and compare that against your current and predicted traffic. As an online business grows and becomes better known, traffic requirements will increase, so check a host’s policy towards additional bandwidth. This will usually be a charge per Gigabyte (GB) over the stated data transfer limit. Be wary of hosts that advertise unlimited bandwidth, as there will undoubtedly be a limit somewhere. The bandwidth you need will also decide the type of hosting you need (see next point).
The cheapest hosting is on a shared server, where one server will run many of websites. On a shared server, the performance of your site will depend on the load all the other sites are putting on the host. Shared hosting limits your access to the server, for example, restricting you to uploading files via, preventing shell access, restricting the programs you can run and limiting the amount of database access.
The next tier up is VPS (Virtual Private Server) which is a virtual machine (a simulated computer) running on a server. Hosting companies will run many virutal machines on one server, however performance is usually better than a shared server. If you use a VPS, you should have the skill necessary to perform essential server maintenance and management.
For better performance, you could lease a dedicated server, that is, a physical server leased solely to you but located in the host’s data centre. Another option is a cloud service like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. The significant benefit of cloud servers is that they can scale effortlessly. If you need to cope with a big traffic surge, just pay your provider more money. Whether you go down the decided server or cloud route, managing a server requires a lot of technical knowledge.
An online shop is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and technical issues can arise at any time. For this reason, only choose a hosting company that offers twenty-four-hour support. Many sales happen outside nine-to-five office hours, especially at weekends, and your business cannot afford to wait until Monday.
Also, consider how much support you will require. A host will answer technical questions, but they will not manage your site, and so if you are non-technical, you may want to consider a managed service.
Your eCommerce site should be secure, and you should make sure your hosting company has proper security in place to protect your server and website. Remember, it will be you who is accountable should anything go wrong.
SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is the industry-standard security technology for establishing a secure link between a web server hosting an online shop and a web browser. This link ensures that all data passed between the web server and browsers stays private. SSL’s working is invisible to your customers, apart from a lock icon that shows that the customer’s data is securely transferred.
To use SSL for a domain requires the purchase of an SSL certificate specifically for that domain. A hosting company should provide SSL certificates or at least support the use of SSL certificates bought from an SSL certificate provider.
Running a business requires a branded email address. A web host should provide POP3 email addresses for the hosted domain, accessed via an email client such as Microsoft Outlook.
There are a mutiple factores to consider when choosing a hosting company. Building and managing a website is something that requires a lot more knowledge besides basic HTML.
ECommerce platform such as Magento are powerful, but they are challenging to configure and manage. An alternative option is to use one of the leading website builder software platforms, such as WIX, or Shopify, Squarespace. The benefits of these platforms include:
- Easy to use and set up. These platforms enable businesses to set up their website from one interface and hide most of the technical complexity from the user.
- Templates. A wealth of ready made templates enables attractive websites to be built quickly.
- 3rd party apps. Shopify and Wix have a vibrant ecosystem of developers extending their functionality through apps.
- ECommerce platforms. Shopify supports 3rd party apps which enable businesses to sell through other channels such as Amazon and eBay from the same application.
- Cost-effective. Shopify and Wix business plans start at <£50/month.
- Payments. Support for multiple payment types, including PayPal and Stripe. Shopify also offers a payment system called Shoppay.
These platforms (especially Shopify) have been growing in popularity and sophistication and now support a thriving ecosystem of users, app developers and professional services.
The disadvantage of using an all-in-one solution is that they are proprietary to a particular company, so it will not be possible to move elsewhere without re-platforming. If your site is built using an open-source system like Woo-Commerce or Magento and you do not like your site’s performance, you can quickly move to another host. A hosted application like Magento is also more configurable, but what you gain in configurability, you lose in usability.