The Difference Between a Web Host and a Web Publisher
It may seem like a simple question to those of us with a few websites under our belt, but when I was first starting out I was utterly lost as to the difference between these two. I searched for a simple explanation that would help me in my lengthy journey to start my own blog, but found nothing quite as descriptive or clear as I would have liked. So with that in mind, I hope this can help a few new people and serve as a welcome into the web design community!
What is a Web Host?
Web Hosts essentially rent out space on their servers to users like you who want to start their own sites. Think of the internet as a huge continent divided into territories owned by different “countries,” or hosting companies. You only need one little plot of land to build a house, but to get that land you have to approach one of the land owners and buy a plot of space that resides in their territory.
Sure, you either own your plot of land or you rent it out yearly, but that doesn’t mean you own the entire territory. Just like moving into a neighborhood, there are rules you must follow as to what you’re allowed to do with your little plot. This can include content guidelines (some hosts won’t provide service to adult oriented websites, etc.), and all hosts require their clients to follow applicable laws and regulations of their respective countries. After all, just because you own the land your house is built on doesn’t mean you can set up a water park in the front yard!
So, why would anyone bother to pay for an independent web host when they could just sign up for a Blogspot or LiveJournal account? Well, there are a few perks that come with purchasing your own space on a web hosts’ server, otherwise known as a domain. Purchasing a domain allows you to choose a domain name for your website. This can be .com, .net, .org or all three! There are a handful of other options now that seem to be growing every day, like .biz and .co, but those are still the 3 most common. Having an independent domain name can go a long way towards boosting a site’s credibility. It shows your customers that your business is independent and established, or lets readers know that you’re serious about publishing content on an independent platform.
So, What’s the Difference?
The line is admittedly blurred in practice, as nearly all web hosts offer some form of publishing service, and vice versa. You can buy a domain name off of publishers, like WordPress and you can build a site from scratch or upload themes with only a web host. It is possible to build a website on a hosted domain solely through something called FTP (File Transfer Protocol) access provided with your hosting account.
However, as mentioned before, this requires fairly extensive coding knowledge, or the ability to upload an independent theme. The whole process is rather messy and best saved for advanced coders. There are many reasons for this, not the least being that website themes, particularly those designed for blogs, are already search-engine optimized. What this means is that, simply by using a premade blog theme, the theme creator has already done a good share of promotional work for you by building a website framework that search engines find easy to get to. This is called SEO or Search Engine Optimization, a topic we’ll go further in-depth on in future installments.
Okay, then, now that I’ve convinced you that solely building your website through a web host is a pain in the neck, why bother with a web host at all? You may not need to. The hosting provided through sites like Blogger, WordPress and TypePad may be enough for your needs. You can even upgrade to a custom domain for a fee, and your visitors need never know you didn’t pay for space on a server from the beginning. This is often a more economical way to go about things, but there are benefits to having a web host, too.
Depending on your needs, including traffic, content type and freedom of advertising, among others, a web publisher may or may not be the right option for you. Many publisher/hosts will charge an additional fee on top of the custom domain upgrade to advertise through programs outside their own, including the ever-popular option, Google AdSense. This can come as a surprise and frustrate many site owners who are under the impression they have more control over their site than they really do.
Web Hosts vs Web Publishers
What is a Web Publisher?
It’s easiest to explain what a web publisher is by first explaining what a web host is not. Going back to the house analogy, you can buy a plot of land to build your house on but that price does not include the lumber, wiring and skills needed to actually build a house. For that, you have to hire a contractor, or a web publisher, and from there you still have a variety of options: You can build the house from scratch with your own detailed specifications on everything from the wall color to the layout, or you can select from a sample of pre-existing model homes.
The easiest route to take is, of course, to build a home based off of preexisting plans and it’s the same way with a website. That’s where publishers like WordPress come in. There are literally thousands and thousands of contractors, or theme developers, who have already sketched out the building plans for fully functional websites using a variety of coding languages including HTML, CSS and PHP. Consider these the building materials as well as the special skills needed to bring your site to life. If HTML and CSS are the bricks and mortar of your website, then PHP is the electricity that makes all the modern amenities run just right. Sure, you can build a house without electricity, but it’s not going to be up to code with the rest of the neighborhood.
We can discuss the intricacies of coding later. For now, it’s good enough that you’re aware of the different acronyms you’ll hear bandied about as you foray into the tangled web (pun very much intended) of site design. The level of input you have over the specifics of your site’s layout depends largely on the theme and how much work you’re willing to put into tweaking the details (or hiring someone else to do so). Generally, the more customizable a theme is, the more coding knowledge is necessary. The more “user friendly,” the more basic the options will be. There are always exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, I recommend that new bloggers stick to simple, user friendly themes before diving in and getting their hands dirty with the CSS.
Unless you’re like me, in which case you’re dead set on using the most customizable theme there is for your first website without knowing a lick of PHP and learning everything through trial and error along the way. If that’s the case, we should both probably spend more time reading Hubs on how to be patient, but alas!
Fortunately, many of the themes offered through web publishers are free. There is quite a lot of variety to be found by browsing themes submitted to publisher databases, but even more can be found through independent websitess. I’ll link a few popular destinations below. Many of the most popular themes have both a free, standard version and a paid premium version. We’ll discuss those more in the next installment of this series, “How to Choose a WordPress Theme For Your Blog or Website."
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s summarize the major differences between a web host and a web publisher.
A web host:
- Leases space on the internet for your website.
- Provides you with a unique domain name (.com, .org, .net, etc.).
- Does NOT (usually) come with a premade website.
- Allows for an advanced level of customization.
A web publisher:
- Makes your website available to view on your domain.
- Provides ready-made themes to build your website.
- Allows customization from beginner to advanced levels depending on the platform.