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What is the best website hosting option for my accounting firm website?

girl look confused at sheet of paper with word 'hosting' written on it
What on earth does website hosting even mean? You know (or you know now on reading this) you need it for your website, and it seems important…and it also seems like a whole hazy technology sector you’re not even sure you have the capacity or interest in understanding… and can someone please just tell you what to do?

Even as a Client Marketing Manager within PF, I’ve been there. Previously, I would simply ask our web team what to recommend in terms of website hosting, and that’s the answer I’d give our client. But, I wanted to understand hosting. ACTUALLY understand it.

So, I talked to the head of our web development team. I told him I wanted to understand why we recommend the hosting we do to our clients and he obliged with an analogy that changed everything.

What is website hosting?

Hosting covers a lot of things and there are many details hosting companies will tell you which end up being smoke and mirrors.

Fundamentally, hosting is holding your website on a computer in a remote location. Each website is saved on a computer and that computer serves the website to the world. This computer shows your website when people access it through your website URL (such as https://wearepf.com/).

That’s all hosting is, in its best form.

What makes hosting complicated?

Keep in mind that paying for hosting is different from paying for a website URL (or ‘domain’). The URL is the address you send people to – like https://wearepf.com/. As the owner of your accounting firm, you need to own the domain (for example, Karen Reyburn owns https://wearepf.com/ and http://theprofitablefirm.com/ and about 12 other URL’s), and you might own it through GoDaddy or 123-reg.co.uk or some other site.

After you have the URL, you need to pay a hosting fee so that your website can be shared with the world.

It’s not as easy as purchasing a computer to host your website. For one thing, if you were to rent a whole computer to host one website, it would become very expensive. So here’s how hosting works…

A hosting computer is like a parking lot

The analogy our web team director used is that of a parking lot.

Imagine the server, the computer your website is hosted on, is a parking lot. It’s quite a big space, a very big parking lot (meaning there is a lot of power in the server).

The parking lot is designed to handle a lot of traffic. It can have a lot of people parking in there.

So website hosting companies take a very large parking lot and they sell packages to you (and other businesses and people) as individual spaces in the parking lot. There could be thousands of individual spaces and you have the right to park your website in that space. When you pay a hosting fee, you are essentially paying to rent a portion of a computer to use to share your website with the world.

Your URL (https://wearepf.com/, for example) is the address to tell the world how to get to your parking spot. Hosting is the actual parking spot. It’s what allows someone to actually see what’s on your website when they go there.

If hosting stops working, people go to your website URL, and nothing comes up. It’s broken or they get an error. They’ve got the address, but when they go to the space, nothing is there.

When hosting is working (which it’s supposed to do all of the time), someone clicks a link, they go to your website, and it comes up. Brilliant. Hosting doing its job.

Keeping that analogy in mind, which hosting service do you need? What company is the best to host your firm’s website on?

 

1. Cheap hosting: You get what you pay for

Companies like GoDaddy will sell you a parking spot for very cheap and you’ll have a limited number of options within that spot.

Now, that’s all very well and good, if you don’t have a lot of traffic or you don’t really mind if you have slow periods.

To go back to our analogy, let’s say you share your parking lot with Wal-mart on Black Friday. The entrance to your parking lot is going to be so backed up that many people won’t even try to get in.

This would be similar to sharing your hosting computer with an e-commerce store. There is so much traffic on that server that if you’re looking to convert visitors, you’re going to have trouble. If someone has to sit and wait for your website to load, they’re going to leave.

So, as a general rule, for this reason, we don’t recommend the lowest packages that someplace like GoDaddy offers. You’ll end up having trouble and the people trying to find your website will have trouble, and it will prevent you getting business and everyone will be frustrated. It’s not worth it if you’re serious about your marketing.

 

2. “Premium” cheap hosting: smoke and mirrors

Companies like GoDaddy do offer so-called ultimate and maximum packages. Now, they sound much better in theory, but in reality, they’re just offering you more parking spaces, which isn’t what you need. You still need to actually get IN there. So you need a faster way to enter.

They’ll tell you about things like “increased CPU’s”. Great. That helps a little bit, but only if combined with a lot of other improvements. An extra CPU basically means that after you get in the parking lot, there is another junction to get out away from the entrance. So you’ll get to your parking spot a little faster once you actually get in the door.

But you’re still going to have bottlenecks during busy times, even if this may function pretty well on low traffic days.

They may say things like “FTP”. I’ll quote our web team director by saying “this is marketing rubbish”. An increased FTP is not needed, especially for an accounting website.

Or they may offer that you can have more websites on the same hosting package. That’s basically like saying you can park five cars on top of each other in the same spot. This is going to be incredibly messy and not worth it.

 

3. Semi dedicated hosting: helpful, but expensive

Semi dedicated hosting is more like a multistory parking lot. You get a floor to yourself, but there’s still only one way into that lot. If someone has a block party, you’re going to have to wait like you would in that parking lot you’re sharing with Walmart on Black Friday.

Semi dedicated hosting is pretty expensive, and it’s not the best solution for most WordPress sites.

 

4. Virtual Private Server: too much trouble

Another type of hosting is the Virtual Private Server (VPS). This is essentially owning a virtual computer.

In our parking lot analogy, this is like somebody breaking in with tape and cones and dividing the area into five different parking lots, each with their own entrance.

This addresses all the problems we talked about before with access and speed. A VPS would solve those issues, but it’s going to cost you quite a bit per month for a decent one.

And worse? You’ve got to manage it yourself. So, if something breaks, you have to then find a server tech to repair it.

 

5. WordPress Engine: ideal for accountants

This is where managed WordPress hosting comes in. Hosting companies like WP Engine and other services like them take the parking lot and say, okay, we’re only going to allow one type of vehicle into this parking lot. So, pick a brand – let’s say Toyota. They’re only going to allow Toyotas into that parking lot, and they have to be only customized with specific things.

This allows them to be a lot more custom when it comes to hosting. They can say “we’re only going to host WordPress website and certain plugins”, and it means they can tweak their server so that it runs all of these WordPress elements at their best, which reduces the load on the server, which in turn allows more traffic to come in faster.

It’s kind of like opening the gate a bit further to allow more traffic in.

This doesn’t give you your own IP address completely. It is still shared with other people. So it’s in some ways more like semi dedicated hosting. However, there aren’t a huge amount of websites on each IP address, so the chances of getting gummed up are much lower.

And, importantly, because it’s managed, if “gumming up” were to happen – if your site was to go down or there was to become a lot of traffic – these guys managing it would pick it up automatically and allocate more resources so that your traffic could get in the door.

With WP Engine, if you click a button on their homepage, you can start talking to support immediately. You want support to be there for you to make sure that everything is running to its optimum and if something does break they are there to help you. If you jump on their support, WP Engine will fix whatever needs fixing on the technical end of their hosting for you pretty much within a matter of minutes, depending on the time of day.

You need to own your hosting

This is why you need to own the hosting contact. It doesn’t mean you have to know anything about hosting and it doesn’t mean you need to be sitting there with WP Engine’s support at 4am on a Saturday when you realise your site is down. But because you own it, you COULD do that if you needed – or one of your team or your IT company could do it for you.

If your website goes down on the weekend or late at night, you either need to sort it yourself, or you need to have someone you pay who will sort it for you. Then you (or your designated, amazing IT person) can go straight to your hosting provider so they can resolve the issue quicker so there’s less impact for website users.

When we say “your IT company”, we mean a person or company you pay to deal with these problems on your behalf. PF, as a creative agency focusing on strategy, content, and design, is not an IT company. We used to provide hosting on behalf of accountants, and we realised quite quickly that when there are problems, they often happen at strange hours (outside business hours), and you want to be talking directly to someone who knows what they are doing. If you’re a small firm, you could contact WP Engine support directly. If you’re a larger firm with multiple websites and you don’t want to be on support chats at the weekend, you’ll have a designated person or IT company who understands hosting, who can liaise with WP Engine on your behalf.

Because of that, we stopped offering hosting through PF (we were just the middle person liaising with another middle person, anyway), and now when you get your website built by PF, before it launches we will tell you to get your hosting set up. We’ll tell you who to use (we recommend WP Engine), and how to set up the account, and then you’ll provide the login details securely to our web team so they can set the whole site up and link it to your hosting for you. We’ll provide all the information to you or your IT company and then, if problems arise at the weekend or at weird hours or anytime, you’ve got everything you need to help fix it.

Breaking all this information down…

Our recommendation for accountants is WP Engine. Depending on what you’re going to have on your website, you may need a different level of hosting, or different features. For example, if you’ve got a membership login section, this would slow things down so you may need to consider hosting this on a sub-domain. Make sure this is something your web developer is considering or has considered when building your new website.

Most firms sign up for a monthly “website maintenance” retainer with PF, so we can post blogs for you, add pages, make edits, check your plugins, make sure everything is working okay. It doesn’t include hosting (because you need to pay for and own the hosting fees), but it does mean if something goes wrong, you can ask PF to look into it. If it’s a hosting problem, we’ll send you to WP Engine and you’ll have all the details you need to talk to them and get that sorted. If it’s another problem and we can help, we will. (And if it’s the middle of the night, well, you’ve got your WP Engine details and they can give you support then.)

If you’ve read all of this and are thinking “who even cares? Why does it matter? I’ll just have PF build my website!”, that’s okay too. Just be aware when we get close to the site launch date, we’ll ask you to “buy hosting” and we’ll send you to a WP Engine link, and you’ll pay a fee and send us your login details securely and be all set.

To start your website journey, join the Accelerator and learn how your website fits within the big picture of all your accounting firm marketing.