HostGator

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Dallas-based HostGator is a well-known budget hosting company. It’s now part of Endurance International Group, along with Domain.com, Bluehost, iPage, SiteBuilder.com and more.

The company has been around since 2002, and its experience was obvious from the moment we visited the site. Product areas are clearly highlighted at the top of the page. Each section presents you with three plans, core features are shown upfront, and a ‘compare’ page tells you much more about what’s on offer.

HostGator’s prices aren’t quite as clear. The bottom-of-the-range Hatchling plan has a headline price of $4 (£3.20) a month, but what you won’t see on the front page is that’s for buying 36 months upfront. The price jumps to $6 (£4.80) a month if you pay for one year, $7 (£5.60) on renewal.

Fortunately, you do get a lot for your money. Even HostGator’s basic Hatchling plan has no limits on bandwidth, web space, subdomains, MySQL databases, FTP and email accounts. There’s also one-click WordPress installation, cPanel-based site management and a 99.9% uptime guarantee covering both server and network failures.

The Baby plan – $6 (£4.80) a month over 3 years, $9 (£7.20) a month over one, $10 (£8) on renewal – adds support for unlimited domains, and gives you the option of using a dedicated IP and a private SSL certificate. HostGator offers certificates for $150 (£120) a year, or you can install a certificate you already own for $10 (£8).

The Business plan – $6 (£4.80) a month over 3 years, $9 (£7.20) a month over one, $15 (£12) a month on renewal – makes this easier by including a dedicated IP and SSL certificate, and throws in support for anonymous FTP as well.

Overall, HostGator’s long-term prices are fractionally higher than average, but we like the simple product structure. Unlike some of the competition, the bottom-of-the-range plan doesn’t have any daft restrictions (such as only one FTP account, or only 10 emails) to force you to upgrade, and the full-strength Business plan doesn’t try to tempt you with oddball extras you don’t really need. If you’re creating a personal site, Hatchling is almost certainly fine; if you’re a business or selling online and need private SSL, use one of the others. It’s as simple as that.

Impressive hosting specs don’t always translate into a good service, of course, but HostGator’s 45-day money-back guarantee is on hand if you need it, outperforming the 30 days or less offered by most hosts (some have far less breathing space – Easyspace only gives you 7 days).

Account setup

HostGator is generally good at letting users compare products side-by-side, and you should quickly spot the best plan for you. There’s still scope for nasty surprises, though, as we discovered when we clicked ‘Sign up now!’ for the $4 (£3.20) a month Hatchling plan, and were presented with an invoice total of $182.13 (£146).

We’d been hit by a double whammy of pricing tricks. The first: HostGator’s low headline prices are often only available if you pay for three years’ hosting upfront. And the second: the company automatically added SiteLock malware detection and automated daily backups to our cart, bumping up the total by another $39.94 (£31.50).

Other hosts use similarly sneaky techniques, and it’s not difficult to cut the total figure here. Clear the checkboxes for the add-ons, choose one year instead of three and the bill drops to $71.40 (£57). Of course, this also means the starting monthly rate isn’t as appealing at around $6 (£4.80), and we’d generally prefer it if sites didn’t add products to our cart without asking.

Once you’ve chosen your preferred plan, everything else is very easy. HostGator drops the usual multi-page signup wizard in favour of placing everything on a single page: domain details, hosting plan, billing and payment information (credit card and PayPal supported), and more. This makes for more horizontal scrolling, but we prefer it – you can see exactly what the company is going to need, enter it in whatever order you like, and make changes without relying on the Back button correctly restoring page state.

Get past the site design and HostGator’s signup procedure works much like any other service, maybe a little better. Fill in your payment details, confirm them if you’re asked, then an email arrives with basic startup details like name servers and the account is ready to go almost immediately (there’s no ‘activation’ delay here).

Creating a website

Logging on to HostGator’s customer portal gave us access to many more functions than we were expecting. As well as the regular account data (packages, renewal dates, billing and security information), there are icons for high-level site tools covering email accounts, FTP, a file manager and more. Although this looks more intimidating, we see it as a plus, because it enables carrying out the basics (setting up a first personal email for your domain) without needing to get into anything more complicated.

Experienced users can jump straight into cPanel where they’ll find all the same high-level features, and have even more low-level adjustments to explore. If you’re used to cPanel you’ll be at home right away, but even if you’re not, it won’t take long to find your way around. The Popular section at the top of the page contains most of the key tools you need – File Manager, Email Accounts, FTP Accounts and so on – and because cPanel is an industry standard there’s a vast amount of help around.

Website creation features start with a basic Website Builder. This really is basic – 100 or so templates, a maximum of 6 pages, HostGator branding in the footer – but it’s an easy way to get a small personal site online, and many hosts don’t include any form of Site Builder unless you pay a premium.

QuickInstall-powered one-click setup is available for WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and other apps. Navigation seemed a little unreliable with the program leaving us at blank screens a few times, forcing us to go back and try again. We would have preferred something like Softaculous, but as you might only use the system once it’s really not a major issue. The core scripting of installations is solid, too, and we got a copy of WordPress up and running with no hassles at all.

Performance

Support is an important element of any web hosting package, and HostGator gets off to what looks like a great start with its many options: a web database, customer forums, live chat, a sort-of ticket system (live chat initially but then you get an email), US-based telephone support (including a toll-free number), there are even fax numbers and direct mailing addresses if you can think of a reason to use them.

This isn’t quite all it seems. We’re keen on web forums, but HostGator’s offering (check out the basic public view here) sees questions handled by other customers rather than official moderators. When we checked the Shared Hosting Support forum we found only eight questions had been posted in the last month. Four of those had no reply, three only had updates from the person who started the thread, and only one got an accurate answer from someone else (which was ‘no you can’t’, essentially).

HostGator’s support articles are much better. They’re available from a separate site (browse it here) or directly from cPanel. Entering a few keywords displays the best matches right away, or you can run a full search to find everything. Articles are sensibly named and there are enough to give you a good chance of finding what you need. Entering ‘import WordPress’, for example, gave us articles including ‘Transfer WordPress from WordPress.com to your self-hosted WordPress’, ‘How to Transfer your WordPress Blog from one host to another’, and ‘Changing the Domain of your WordPress site’.

We’re not so impressed with the video tutorials. Instead of implementing a proper video player or presentation component, HostGator just provides links to SWF files (Flash animations). If your device doesn’t support Flash then clicking these will do nothing at all, except maybe asking if you want to save them.

There are also some design glitches. Searching for PHP in the support site listed 25 hits, with articles on the old PHP 5.3 and PHP 5.4 listed first, with PHP 5.6 at the bottom. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when we ran the search from cPanel it only displayed the first 15 hits: PHP 5.6 wasn’t listed. Bizarrely, even running a specific cPanel search for PHP 5.6 didn’t display the v5.6 article, and clicking on PHP 5.4 or its parent Hardware & Software category still didn’t show that page. 

This isn’t just about PHP, of course. What it means is you could run very specific searches from cPanel and in some cases the system will never show you the document. You’ll never even know it exists. You could presumably get around this by always running searches at the support site rather than cPanel, but we’d rather see HostGator sort its search results more accurately and make sure articles are easier to find, wherever you look for them.

If you can’t solve problems online, escalating the issue to live chat and ultimately tickets is a possibility. We’ve found HostGator’s agents are responsive and generally do a good job of answering questions.

As a final HostGator check, we pointed our site at Bitcatcha.com and a few other server speed tests. Our server seemed to be located on the western side of the US, so there may be a slight lag when you’re visiting the site from the UK, but otherwise there were no issues and the tests showed faster than average global access times.

Final verdict

This web host is more costly than some, but it’s still good value with loads of features and no annoying limits – even with the budget plans. A smart choice for the demanding user.

Full disclosure: the author has had a personal hosting account with HostGator for many years, but other than providing some background knowledge, that doesn’t affect this review. He has never had any affiliate or other relationship with the company beyond being a customer, and never will.

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