When you’re starting a new business, anything “free” that helps you along can sound like a really good idea. But when it comes to free web hosting, it might not be as great as it seems.
“Free” hosting can have strings attached. You may find yourself struggling to move your site data off of someone else’s computer, or find yourself on the hook for an enormous monthly fee. By the time your site is successful, you may find the price of “free” hosting to be much higher than you anticipated!
We’re going to take an objective look at exactly what free web hosting is . . . and why it may end up costing you in the end.
- What is Free Web Hosting?
- Why Would They Give Away Hosting?
- Disadvantages of Free Web Hosting
- Free, Nearly Free, and Affordable Alternatives
What is Free Web Hosting?
Web hosting can be thought of as your website’s home: it’s where all of the important files and data (everything that’s needed to keep your website running) lives. “Free” web hosting is, of course, when that space is made available to users without a cost.
How does it work? A service allots you space on a server that they own and operate. You are responsible for creating and maintaining your own website, but you don’t have to worry about anything to do with the actual server. Sometimes the host even provides extras, like free site builders or automated installation tools.
Why Would They Give Away Hosting?
It seems counterintuitive, right? Businesses are meant to make money, but how can they make money if they’re giving out their product for free? This seems especially true of web hosting, which requires an enormous amount of hardware, space to hold the physical machines, bandwidth, power, and people to provide maintenance. That’s a lot of overhead!
Here’s why they do it:
Like many products or services today, some hosting providers offer a very basic product for free in the hopes that their clients will upgrade to a paid plan later. Paid plans, of course, typically come with more features and resources that can be quite enticing. For example, a free hosting plan might come with email support or chat boards, while the paid version might come with free 24-hour support from live customer service reps. Sometimes these paid plans are a good deal, but you can often get more features for less money over the long term by choosing an affordable, fully-featured hosting plan from the beginning.
Some plans are “free” only as long as a site stays within some arbitrarily defined limitations. If your site exceeds a certain number of visitors, or you use up a limited amount of storage space, you can find your site completely offline — until you pay for more resources. While many hosting plans will have some limitations in place, these limitations should be clearly stated up-front so you can plan around them and upgrade if needed. You don’t want your site taken offline right as you begin to gain popularity!
Some free web hosts make their money through paid ads or affiliate links. That means that when your website is hosted on their servers, you will not be able to control the advertisements that display on the site. The advertisements may include unwanted banner ads, pop-ups that you can’t get rid of, or even advertisements for your competitors! Read the fine print before signing up for anything so you’re not surprised later.
If you’re new to site design, this is an aspect of free hosting that will take some explaining. The most popular ways to build websites involve using free and open-source tools that anyone can download, access, or work with at no charge. This includes everything from user-friendly Content Management Systems (CMSs) like WordPress to advanced app frameworks like Laravel.
Some companies choose to focus on proprietary platforms. Some of these platforms are even quite well made and easy to use. Here’s the problem — if you ever want a feature the platform designers did not plan for, you’re stuck! This would not be a problem with a more popular tool like WordPress. A WordPress designer could look for a plugin, or try to code a solution. WordPress is one of the world’s most popular platforms, so it’s quite likely a solution already exists.
Relying on a proprietary platform to run your business is an unnecessary risk. If you ever need something outside the scope of that platform, you have no choice but to hope your hosting company decides to change their software. No one outside of your hosting company can change or update the platform. Who knows if your hosting company will want to! Your situation may be too specialized to justify the cost of coding a custom site add-on.
That’s not even the worst thing about these proprietary platforms. If you one day decide to move your business elsewhere, you may find it impossible to do so. Many of these platforms have no easy way of exporting site data. Even if you could export your data, there will be nowhere else you can easily upload it. The exported data will be incompatible with other site frameworks. On the other hand, something like a WordPress site is very easy to move from one server to another.
Disadvantages of Free Web Hosting
When it comes to disadvantages of a free website hosting service, there are several things that you need to weigh.
Often, a free service will give you only the most basic features with limits on bandwidth and storage space as well as the limited ability to change and adjust your site. Many of these companies are trying to get you in the door so they can upsell you to the “premium” services later. Once they get you in, then you will find that your “free” hosting actually costs. If you want the ability to truly grow and develop your site, a free website hosting service may not be right for you.
Restricted Server Customization
With dedicated servers and VPS hosting, you have full control of what goes into or comes out of your server – software, apps, anti-virus software, and much more. This is all up to your discretion. When you use a free server to host your website, they typically come with default configurations, meaning that you can’t modify the system or tweak files. This can prevent you from making changes to increase the performance of your website.
Your website will be placed on a server that is shared with dozens of other websites. This means that if one site on the server gets a traffic spike, it will slow down all the other sites. Also, if one site on the server is breached by hackers, then it could leave your website open to a hack.
Due to the strain of hosting multiple sites at the same time, it is more likely that a shared server can experience a failure. A large spike in traffic from several sites at once, a malicious hacker, or even too many web users trying to download files at the same time, could cause the full server to go down.
When it comes to free services, you’re less likely to have backup protection for your website. The “free” price tag comes at the expense of technical support and space allocation, so backing up your site becomes costly for their services. You’ll need to understand how to manually setup backup and anti-malware solutions for peace of mind.
Free, Nearly Free, and Affordable Alternatives
Despite the drawbacks, free web hosting is an ideal solution for certain situations. If you’re just learning to code, running a blog-only page, or you just want to show your boss that you can put words on a screen, then free hosting might be the perfect fit. Here are some forms of free and affordable hosting that are useful in specific situations.
Use a Blogging Service or Newsletter Platform
If you don’t actually need a website and just want to get words in front of your readers, consider a blogging service like Medium or a newsletter service like Substack. These services are free to post on, and some even have opportunities for you to make money off of your work.
If you just need to get a website online for testing purposes, classwork, or to make a pitch before building the real thing, consider using GitHub Pages. Once you learn how to use GitHub to manage your version control, it’s easy to extend this further and use GitHub to test out websites while you work on them. You can always upgrade to a real hosting plan after you’ve done all the work of designing and testing your site.
Nearly Free: Subdomains
Now, subdomains aren’t free. You need to already have a hosting plan up and running to add a subdomain. Here’s the thing: subdomains can have everything a full website has, and most hosting accounts allow you to create multiple subdomains for every “real” domain you have. They’re a great way to try out new frameworks or keep one-off projects in one, convenient place. Best of all, there’s no need to buy a new domain!
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The Bottom Line
Sit down and make a list of your website’s requirements. Do you run an eCommerce store that requires a lot of bandwidth? A simple one-page website? Do you plan on uploading lots of photo albums to showcase your work?
Once you know exactly what type of resources your site will require, you can decide if free web hosting is for you.
High quality hosting is worth the cost for a vast majority of situations. If you want your website to last a long time and create a return on your investment, choose a hosting platform for the life of your business, not just the first few weeks. That way, your site can grow with your business!