Computer / Internet / Online Hosting · January 1, 2022

Looking for a New Shared Web Host and the SSL Trap

I use shared web hosting services for several of my personal websites. None of them get much traffic and they’re not critical (except maybe to me) so I can’t justify the cost of expensive web hosts for them. So I’m a budget hosting buyer.

That said I’m always on the lookout for a good web hosting deal. Last year my domain hosting service, Namecheap, had a special on shared web hosting so I thought I’d give them a try as I’ve always been satisfied with the domain hosting services they provide.

Last year their “Stellar Plus” plan was offered for $26.16 for the first year. (It’s currently $35.44 for the first year)

The “Stellar Plus” features are similar to plans offered from other shared web hosting services including

  •     Unlimited Websites
  •     Unmetered SSD
  •     Free CDNbeta
  •     AutoBackup
  •     Unmetered bandwidth
  •     Free website builder
  •     Domain name and privacy protection
  •     Free automatic SSL installation
  •     Free Supersonic CDN
  •     30-day money-back guarantee
  •     Free in 24 hours website migration

It’s pretty common for shared hosting companies to offer deals for the initial contract increasing after. If you’re willing to the do the work porting your websites over from host to host you could save a lot of money switching from one service to another each year and getting the first year deal.

As I’m a bit lazy I’m not inclined to commit to doing that so I always consider the normal hosting price as well should I decide to stick with a host after the initial term. If the normal pricing after the initial term is exorbitant I’ll pass on signing on for any specials they may offer for the initial term as it would commit me to moving the websites at the end of the year.

I found the Namecheap “Stellar Plus” hosting adequate albeit not fantastic. I was happy enough with the service at the first year price of $26.16 but I could tell performance wasn’t up to par with other web hosts I had used previously. In other words it was a $26.16 service but definitely not a $68.88 service.

That’s because I experienced some down times and some general site slowness with Namecheap – nothing I can quantify other than a general feeling that it wasn’t up to par performance-wise with other web hosts I had previously.

But it was the SSL pricing that made the decision to switch a no-brainer. Namecheap offers free Positive SSL certificates for the first year. But after the free year the prices for the SSL certificates jump to $34.95 per year. As I was using five SSL certificates to continue with Namecheap my yearly cost would have been 5 x $34.95 plus $68.88 for the service (= $243.63). (That’s not mentioning the technical issues I had with Namecheap’s auto-generation of the Positive SSL certificates to begin with.)

As I didn’t really need “premium” SSL certificates it was an additonal cost that definitely wasn’t worth paying for.

I could have installed free SSL certificates from elsewhere but this was an additional hassle I could eliminate by using other shared web hosting services that offer free SSL installations baked in.

Additional shortcomings are that Namecheap only offers servers located in Arizona in the U.S. A lot of other shared hosting providers allow you to pick a server location.

So I went shopping for a new shared web hosting service.

I started with the PC Magazine 2022 Shared Web Hosting reviews.

I was looking for similar features I had with Namecheap – shared hosting with unlimited websites and free SSL certificates primarily.

All the shared web hosting services I looked at had a 30 day or longer money back guarantee. (A gotcha though is that if you got a “free” domain registration as part of the web host deal you will have to pay for the yearly domain registration fee.)

PC Mags picks were Hostgator, inmotion, Dreamhost and Hostinger. Several of these services offer a free first year domain registration but I didn’t consider that as I already had domains. As previously mentioned the “free” domain registrations are a bit of a trap if you’re experimenting with hosting services. If you already have a domain registered and think you might want to cancel a hosting plan during its trial period I’d suggest passing on the “free” domain as that’s a non-refundable fee that they’ll charge you for when you cancel.

Hostgator’s “Baby” plan price for unlimited websites had a starting price of $3.38 ($40.56 per year). Hostgator has either hidden or eliminated any mention of its regular pricing after the initial contract as I couldn’t find it. That immediately took them out of consideration – any service that isn’t up front about its pricing isn’t a company I’d do business with.

inmotions “Launch” plan sale $5.99 for 2 years ($71.88 per year) increasing to $12.99 ($155.88 per year) after the initial contract.

Dreamhost “Shared Unlimited” plan sale $3.95 for 3 years ($47.40 per year) increasing to $10.99 ($131.88 per year) after the initial contract. (Curiously Dreamhost Monthly and Yearly prices are $2.99 and $2.95 respectively – cheaper than a longer term contract.)

Hostinger “Premium shared” sale $2.59 for 4 years ($31.08 per year) increasing to $5.99 ($71.88 per year) after the initial contract.

Note that all these unlimited website hosting offers only provide a single free SSL certificate. It’s presumed that you could add free SSL certificates from elsewhere and guaranteed that they will sell you additional SSL certificates. While SSL isn’t required, these days it’s pretty much the standard.

From a price perspective none of those options seemed that great, especially after the initial contract ended.

So I decided to look elsewhere. After further shopping around I found iPage hosting.

They offer most of the features I was looking for including unlimited websites, unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth at an astounding price of $1.99 per month for a 3 year plan ($71.64 total = $23.88 per year). Like the other providers they offer only a single “FREE SSL certificate” but I assumed I could manually add free SSL certificates. We’ll get back to that in a bit.

So I signed up. The first thing I noticed was the iPage doesn’t offer a cPanel interface. Instead they use the “vDeck” interface which is a simplified control panel. Because it’s simplified you lose a fair amount of functionality you get with cPanel.

It wasn’t long before I realized the shortcomings of this budget web host and its’ vDeck interface. The single SSL certificate is a major problem because of the way iPage is set up. You get one free SSL certificate and the minimum pricing for additional SSL certificates through iPage is $9.95 per month. Most importantly iPage has otherwise blocked any ability to install SSL certificates manually – so you either pay them or do without. This caused me to cancel my iPage hosting, and to their credit they quickly refunded my fees without hassle.

The lesson learned is that if the web host doesn’t offer cPanel that you may not be able to add free SSL certificates to your account.

Ultimately the problem with shared web hosting pricing these days is a lot of them are intentionally obfuscating fees, especially when it comes to SSL certificates. Offering a single free SSL certificate with an unlimited website hosting plan and no way to add them manually is a trap for those not paying attention.

That’s the trap I fell for in iPage: although it looks as though their shared hosting plan is suitable to host multiple sites, for someone like me the single free SSL certificate (and inability to add more free SSL certificates) means it’s really only suitable to host a single site at their base price. Otherwise for each additional SSL certificate you need to tack on around 10 bucks a year, at a minimum, to the price. Rapidly that bargain $1.99 monthly price rises a little less than a dollar for each SSL site you want to create on iPage.

However, comparing it to other single site shared hosting prices iPage is still a decent deal at $1.99 a month and had I only needed to host a single site it would have been a viable option. But since I wanted to host multiple websites with SSL I went looking elsewhere.

Ultimately I found Hawk Host.

There I chose their “Primary” plan priced at $2.99 per month (for 2 year plan). With their 25% off coupon I got two years of hosting for $53.82! (That’s about $2.25 per month!) They offer unlimited websites, bandwidth and free SSL certificates. The only shortcoming is you only get 10G of storage but an additional 10G of storage is only $10 for 2 years. For my uses 10G is more than enough, but I opted to get the additonal 10G just to be sure. So my grand total was $63.82 for two years of hosting ($31.91 per year).

Note 1/22/22: I just got a bill for $10 from Hawk Host for the additional 10G of disk space for February. With the additional 10G of disk space option I would have paid an additional $120 per year – meaning my grand total for 2 years of hosting would have been $240 + $53.82 = $293.82!

This oversight is clearly due to a reading comprehension problem on my part as the cost of the additional services is clearly stated on the Order Summary totals during checkout. But I had been able to convince myself that the additional 10G of disk space was $10 extra total for 2 years as reflected in the initial billing charge which is obviously not the case.

It’s further evidence that adding services à la carte is a mistake and will likely cost you more in the long run. Many plans offer unlimited disk space as part of their monthly price – Hawk Host’s monthly “Primary” price for unlimited bandwidth and 20G disk space (using additional services add-on of 10G of disk space) equates to a staggering $12.99 per month rate, ($2.99 “Primary” plan plus $10)  which isn’t at all competitive.

But Hawk Host does offer a “Professional” plan with unlimited disk space for $5.99 per month for a 24 month term, so it’s a little surprising that their additional 10G disk space add-on is priced the way it is. Logically adding the 10G of disk space shouldn’t cost more than the “Professional” plan, so the 10G extra disk space should be priced at most $3 per month.

As I didn’t need the extra disk space I requested a cancellation for that additional service which they did promptly.

Hawk Host allows you to pick from several server locations in the US, as well as providing a cPanel interface.

Most importantly the unlimited free Let’s Encrypt SSL certificates are generated automatically whenever you create a new addon domain in cPanel!

If you needed lots of storage you’d have to opt for the $7.99 per month “Professional” plan which means this is probably not the best choice – there are plenty of other shared web host providers offering unlimited everything for less, including at least one in the PC Mag review.

So far I’m happy with the speed and features of my Hawk Host shared hosting plan and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others. But it’s cheap and you usually get what you pay for, so time will tell.

Many years ago I signed up for a new web host and it worked well for a period of time – but not long past the trial refund date performance seemed to degrade. They had moved my server and I speculated that the hosting service had an “A” tier and a “B” tier and after the trial period of time I was moved to the “B” tier servers.

So we’ll have to wait and see how things go with Hawk Host. I’ll be sure to give updates should things turn sour.

Ultimately the lessons learned when it comes to budget hosting services are: don’t order à la carte services and if you want to be able to use free SSL certificates make sure that’s an option.