I don’t have a credit card and am unemployed, so web hosting has always become a problem for me. This condition forced me to look for free web hosting services since I ever considered learning web development. It was a rather unhappy odyssey – posting boringly in forums, whining for account approval, moving hosts here and there (probably more than five times)...
Journeys, however, always award us with invaluable experiences. Here I outline 7 characteristics of a successful free web hosting service, based purely on my knowledge (some of these may apply to paid hosting as well):
- no forced ads: if every page of your website is required to show the ads of the web host’s owner, you will know that the host is for HTML dummies and i-want-a-website wannabes that don’t like Blogspot or WordPress. Sure, you got the hosting, but it is like creating free content for the host to display his/her ads. Add to the fact that your wonderful web design is totally ruined by the omnipresent ad-frame.
- they require something from you: they usually require forum activity. Guess what, server maintenance costs money and time, so a host without a viable source of income has a very good chance to be busted in the next week. Posting in forums is arguably the best way to pay for your hosting (you post, host gets money from forums ads) – just make sure that you don’t need to post everyday only to maintain your account. Subsidy from paid accounts might be cool, but you need to be aware of constant attempt for conversion from free to paid account.
- server has minimal problems: look for these in the support forum. Usually a good hosting will resolve most problems quickly, and nobody ever says “I am disappointed with [insert forum name here]. I think I will try another host.”
- old: just like universities, older hosts are usually better than younger ones. Closing down free hosting services are very easy, the admins can start over with a new name in a matter of minutes. The age of the host measures the amount of time members put faith on the service. 4 or 5 years of service are long enough.
- lots of members: the number of forum members usually represent this, although you must take spam and register-and-abandon users into account. I don’t really think 1000 members are enough; when you see 50000 people hanging around the forum, you know it’s going to be all right because a portion of them must be putting a lot of faith to the host. (Also, the abundance of members implies age and more ad revenue.)
- no feature handicap: Oops, they don’t allow you to send emails to “prevent abuse”? Beware, they might want to extort your money for email delivery (enabling this feature may cost you more than a standard paid hosting – what a clever business model indeed). Look into the features offered very closely and make sure you will get everything you need (.htaccess support, PHP safe mode, number of databases, parked domains, addon domains, subdomains are often overlooked). Note that not being able to access SSH is normal, because it needs so elaborate settings for certificates and permissions that it is not worth the effort (well, the fact that you don’t have money for web hosting suggests that you don’t need industry-grade security anyway).
- beware of nonsensical features: hosts offering unlimited bandwidth always think that they can lure lots of people to use their hosting, and when you got Dugg, Slashdotted, DDoSed or just received some sudden popularity – poof, your account is gone. Actually, 1 – 10 GB of bandwidth per month is what you usually get. Also the same for hard disk usage – 50 MB is usual for the lowest package, 200 – 500 MB is generous enough. Unlimited parked domains / addon domains / subdomains / databases might be more sensible because they don’t directly consume server resources, but rest assured that you will get a word from the host long before you create your 1000th database.
Obviously, these parameters are personally set by me – it is perfectly possible that a webhost does not comply with these characteristics but does wonders to your website.
I do not want this to sound like a commercial, but the best free web hosts I have found so far are Liway and Frihost. Liway has unlimited parked domains / addon domains / subdomains / databases and a unique system for forum activity, ensuring fair share of points for active members. Frihost has a very generous disk space and bandwidth limit, and earning points in the forums is not very hard (also > 70000 members). Please let me know if you happen to know a better free web hosting!