Setting up a website for your business can can be daunting for a number of reasons, one of which is that there are a gazillion different website hosting companies, and if you're not technical, you might not know how to pick. In this article, I'm going to narrow the options to just a few that I'm a fan of and help you decide which one is best for your business.
What do you want to get out of your website?
This is the key question. There's not a one-size-fits-all website host, because different businesses have different goals. For example, my company sells web-based software. Our entire business is our website, so we need to have total control over it, and we're doing lots of complex stuff. We have eight full-time employees just working on the site!
But most small businesses don't need all of that. Maybe you're a consultant and the site is just a way to generate leads. Or maybe you're in retail and you want to be able to show a sample of your inventory, but you don't actually sell anything online. The key is to understand what you need, because the simpler your needs, the easier it is to get your website up and running.
I'm going to break small business websites into five categories:
- Basic - Your website is basically just a digital business card. It should look professional and help people understand more about you, but your business lives offline, so you don't need more than a simple single-page site.
- Intermediate - Your main business is still mostly offline, but you want to use your website as a marketing tool. You need multiple pages to host all the different content, and you might even want a blog so you can post regular updates.
- Specialty - Some industries have specific online requirements. For example, restaurants might want an online ordering and delivery integration. eCommerce sites need a shopping cart. There are specialized website hosts for those industries.
- Advanced - If your web presence is really important to you and you want to hire professionals to design and build it for you, there are hosting options that give you more control, but they're also more complex.
- Expert - This mostly only applies if you're a tech company, and the functionality of your website is the thing you sell to your customers. If you're in this category, presumably you're already a tech expert, so why are you reading this article?
Can you tell which one of these categories you fit into? If so, skip directly to the appropriate section below. If you're not 100% sure, you might want to read all the sections to learn more about what's involved with each.
Basic (single-page website)
If you're in this category, consider yourself lucky. Setting up a simple one-page website is a piece of cake, even for the least tech savvy person.
If you think you're on the border between basic and intermediate, I'd encourage you to consider whether you really need the added complexity. Presumably your business has made it this far without a complex website, so maybe you should try a basic option first and see if that's good enough. It'll still be very professional and attractive, it just won't have multiple pages, blogs, etc.
For a basic website, my favorite host is Carrd. It's incredibly simple, and super cheap (just $19 per year). It even has integrations so you can have things like contact forms, website analytics, etc. The main constraint is that each site you make with Carrd gets exactly one page.
The idea of a site with one page might sound a bit limiting, but most small business websites could easily fit all the content on one page. You don't actually need separate pages for "about us" and "contact" and whatever else you have on your site. You can just have it all on the home page, and your visitors just need to scroll to find things (which is arguably easier for them than having to click around between different pages).
If you want to go with this option, check out this tutorial I made demonstrating how to set up a site in Carrd in just 12 minutes.
Intermediate (multi-page website)
If you don't need anything too fancy, but you think you might need multiple pages, and maybe a blog, image gallery, etc. There are a variety of site-builder tools that make this easy. You still won't have full-control over the site, because these site-builders prioritize ease-of-use over customization, but the site will look professional, and you can still do some pretty impressive things.
The two most popular website builders in this category are Squarespace and Wix. I tried them both, and I personally found Squarespace to be easier to use. That's because with Squarespace, you just pick a template and edit it to fit what you want. With Wix, they're doing a lot of "magic" where they try to guess what website you want. You can edit what they come up with for you, but I thought the editing experience was less intuitive with Wix.
If you go with Squarespace, here's a tutorial I made showing how to set up a site in just 15 minutes. It doesn't go into all the advanced features, but it'll get you to the point where you have a basic website working, and you can build on it from there if you want to.
Specialty site (website optimized for your industry)
If your industry demands some sort of specialized functionality that can't be handled by generic websites from Carrd, Squarespace, or Wix, you might be able to get what you need by finding an industry-specific website host. There are too many industries for me to share all the options here, but a few examples are...
- eCommerce: Shopify
- eCommerce / physic retail hybrid: Square
- Restaurant: appfront
Of course those are just a few specific options, so you should feel free to shop around.
If you think you might need a specialty website host, but you're not sure what exists for your industry, I'd take a look at your competitors. Identify the ones with the best websites, and try to figure out what technology they're using to power the sites (sometimes it says "powered by" in the footer, or the checkout process of the website will be something like fake-restaurant.appfront.com). This is also a situation where it's helpful to have connections in your industry so you can ask for advice.
Advanced (fully-customized site)
Unless you're pretty technical, you'll probably need to hire a profession web developer to set up a website from scratch for you. Even if you do that, you still don't want to host it yourself. There are a ton of options in this space, but the two I'd recommend are:
- Webflow - This website (Less Annoying Business) is hosted with Webflow, as is Less Annoying CRM's marketing site (not our actual web app). It's complex relative to the simpler options listed above, but not too bad, and they handle all the hosting, website optimization, etc. for you. I'm betting that they're going to continue growing and taking market share from everyone else.
- Wordpress - The 800 pound gorilla. Many of the worlds largest (and smallest) websites are built on Wordpress. It's a bit complicated and bloated, but it's very powerful. Because Wordpress is open source, you can host your website directly with Wordpress.com, or you can find other hosts like WP Engine.
Can't I host my site with the same company that sold me my domain name? If you bought your domain name from a company like GoDaddy, Namecheap, etc. They probably tried to upsell you hosting along with it. In theory, yes, you can host your site with one of those companies. It's probably very affordable, but the downside is that they're commodity hosting companies. They're using hosting as a generic add-on, not the core thing they do, so you're probably going to get a worse product and less expertise than you would if you go with a more specialized hosting company.
Expert (hosting for web-based software)
If you're reading this blog post, I can pretty much guarantee you're not in this category, but I wanted to write it up just so if you hear about these companies, you know that you shouldn't use them. It's not that there's anything wrong with these hosting providers, it's just that they're way too complicated for any non-tech business.
The main companies in this category are:
- AWS (Amazon Web Services)
- Microsoft Azure
- Google Cloud
If you're not a tech company and someone recommends one of these services to you, thank them politely and then delete their number from your phone. These hosting companies are extremely complex because they're also extremely powerful.
At Less Annoying CRM, we use AWS to host our main app. AWS is great for us because we need to be able to spin up servers on demand and host a large database with terabytes of data and multiple replicas for added redundancy. But you know what we have that you probably don't? A co-founder (my brother) who has a PhD from MIT working full time on maintaining our infrastructure. Unless you have someone like that no your team (they don't need a PhD, but they need to be a strong DevOps engineer), go with one of the simpler options.
Ok, that's an overview of all the different tiers of website hosting options. Again: I recommend using the simplest option you can get away with. Remember that it's not just about getting your website set up. You'll need to keep it up to date, and the more complex it is, the less likely you are to actually do that.