Who isn’t enticed by the flashy banners and scrolling links advertising “FREE WEB HOSTING!” anywhere and everywhere on the web? With everyone and their brother now owning a blog or website, these free services are just as popular today as when they first hit the market around 1995. Any webmaster worth his salt remembers the days of Geocites and Angelfire and the frustrations that ensued. And as we’ve all learned by now, anything that’s “free” is bound to have a caveat…so what’s the deal with free web hosting? It seems like such a great proposition on the surface: you give me a place to park my web page and I’ll let you post a few ads on said page. Simple!
Not so fast. As it turns out, with free web hosting (and nearly everything else on the web), you get what you pay for.
The Longevity Issue: Have you noticed that you don’t really hear about Lunarpages or Tripod sites anymore? That’s because like most free hosting services, these giants of industry eventually went paid. One of the biggest pitfalls of free web hosting is that your site is often about as stable as a house of cards: if your free host decides to go the way of paid or (que horror!) shuts down altogether, your site and the countless hours spent on it could be down the drain. Hosting is an undeniably important element of your site, much like the foundation of a house. In real life, would you build your house on top of a fault line? Probably not.
The Question of Ownership: So, who owns your website, exactly? If you’re online with a free web host you’re likely using some sort of subdomain (freehosting.clickfire.com) or folder on the host’s site (www.clickfire.com/freehosting). This technically means you don’t actually “own” your URL or even the content on your site, if your host wants to play dirty. So what happens if you want to switch hosts? You risk losing your URL altogether which can cause a butterfly effect across all your other marketing efforts, just like changing the name of your business would in the real world. Some free hosts allow you to buy a premium, traditional domain name, but once you’re buying, you’re no longer talking about free web hosting…
The Bait and Switch: So you’ve found a great free hosting service and so far, everything’s working out exactly as planned. Then one day when you’re checking your email, between the eBay notifications and endless suggestions from Netflix, you find this (taken from an actual email received 1 year after signing up for a “free web hosting” service):
Your hosting account ‘xxxxx’ has expired on May 10, 2011. Currently, your website and e-mail addresses are not operational. To avoid further downtime, please renew the account.
To renew your account please follow these steps:
1. Login to your hosting Control Panel here:
2. Click on the ‘Renew Plan’ link located in the upper left corner of the Control Panel (under Upgrades).
3. If you have added any additional service upgrades to your account, you can select which you’d like to renew as well.
After you complete these steps all you have to do is to proceed to the secured payment page. We accept multi-currency payments via two methods – credit/debit cards and PayPal.
If you have any questions regarding our service or if you need someone to help you with renewing your account or domain name, feel free to contact us by opening a new ticket inside the Control Panel (click Open New Ticket in the Help Center section).
Thank you for using our services!
It’s only then you remember that you didn’t actually read all the fine print and, wait, was there any fine print? Either way, your free web hosting service now has you in a stranglehold, pay up or get out. Since most people aren’t overly excited to give back the domain they’ve been working on for months or even years, hosting companies like this usually get what they want: money. And since you’re between a rock and a hard place, hosts know they can charge you a premium to keep your site running. Ever join one of those companies that offered “12 CDs for only one penny!” only to have a collection agency call when you didn’t buy 24 more at retail price? Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
There are a lot of things to consider when you’re choosing a hosting company for your website, particularly if you’re planning on running a business off the site. Though paid hosting can feel like a wasted expense, try to think of it in more tangible terms: do most retailers choose to rent out commercial space for a fee or do they simply set up shop at the nearest abandoned building? It’s important to remember that with paid hosting services, you’re getting more bang for your buck – the peach of mind knowing you actually own your site, additional bandwidth, site space and editing tools and most importantly, reliable customer service.
If you’re considering going the way of free web hosting, remember to vet your choice thoroughly. The longer a hosting service has been around, the better, but make sure you ask yourself: how is my free host making money? Odds are, you won’t be able to ride for free forever, so consider at what point you’re going to get dinged for some element of the service and decide if it’s worth the additional risk. Most site owners eventually determine that paying for web hosting is a necessary evil, much like Twitter and, you know, health insurance. The more you shell out for a competent web host now, the less you’re likely to have to pony up later.
6/19/11 – Heather Jean also contributed to this post.