March 2003 -- Volume 6, Number 4

A Review of Selected Free Website Hosts and Tips for ESL/EFL Professionals

Introduction

If you are reading this now, I have a hunch you teach ESL/EFL and have an Internet connection. If you teach ESL/EFL, I am sure that you use your computer for typing exercises, quizzes and tests and keeping them on your hard disk. If my previous guesses are correct, I bet that once in a while you have asked yourself questions like, "If my computer is connected to the Internet, how come I don't use it more for teaching?" and "How do others use the Internet for teaching?"

Here are some things you can do to make the Web serve you once you have a website:

  1. Keep your files (projects, assignments, exercises) for backup and/or easy access from any machine
  2. Make interactive exercises for self-paced practice activities and a navigation system for self-access
  3. Create a class portal to build a learning community for collaborative learning
  4. Put all the grades online for password-protected viewing
  5. Conduct online polls and manage online message boards for discussions
  6. Create online presentations and demonstrations and keep them online
  7. Create and manage online dialogue journals, diaries, and collaborative writing projects
  8. Keep your own collections of links to
    • online games
    • online reference materials,
    • online dictionaries and encyclopedias
    • online newspapers and magazines
    • full texts of books and articles
    • other EFL sites providing various activities and exercises
  9. Place your students' papers online for other students to access and assess them as part of their learning experience, etc...
This list, while not exhaustive by any means, gives you a good start. If any of these ideas appeal to you, you are in luck because it is not that difficult to create your own website and with certain web hosting services, you can do it for free. [-1-]

What are free web hosts?

Free web hosts are websites that allow users to create their own websites and store them online for no charge. First of all, it probably makes sense to explain why the free web hosting arrangement is possible at all. Free web hosting is an attempt of commercial structures to increase web traffic and the consequent exposure of end users to advertising. Advertisers pay for their advertisements to be seen per view or per click. In both cases, the more potential buyers see ad banners, the greater the chances are that they will click and buy. This makes web space providers interested in attracting more amateur website builders.

There still is a price that you pay for using this free space: Ads. Banners take part of the screen space making it necessary for the user to scroll. They distract the attention of the learner, making your educational web site less efficient. And if you host your site on a server that imposes pop-up ads instead of (or, even worse, in addition to) banner ads, then your users have to waste part of their browsing time clicking "X" to close the annoying popup windows that cover a part of the screen they are reading.

The idea behind it is to tempt you into getting some free web space which you start using before you realize the full impact of the ads. Then the ads act as a nuisance factor by disturbing you and your users until you upgrade--not because you need more space (in 90% of the cases self-proclaimed webmasters never fill up the space they get for free with content they create), but only to get rid of the annoying ads. To get rid of such ads, you can pay for a web host and the minimum fee you have to pay for such commercial hosting is usually about $5 a month, with price increases for additional space and/or services. For example, I currently pay about $20 a month for two commercial hosting plans, in addition to the annual domain name fee. If you can afford it, it is worth considering paying for your web hosting to get rid of the nuisance factors of free space.

Factors to consider when choosing a free web host

If you have decided to create a website and want to use a free web host, the following aspects have to be taken into consideration:
  1. The amount of web space you get
  2. What else you get in addition to just space, such as:
    • FTP access
    • FrontPage support
    • POP3 e-mail accounts
    • control panel to manage your account
    • password protection
    • CGI scripts support
  3. The type of nuisance factors and limitations involved:
    • popup ads/ banner ads / watermarks / links etc.
    • traffic limit
    • lack of additional features, some of which may be critical for your website to function the way you want it to
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Finding a free host with the features you want

How does one go about finding a free host? You can use Google by typing "free web space" or "free web hosting" in the search box and hitting Go. You will get a long list topped by the following URLs:
  1. http://angelfire.lycos.com/
  2. http://www.tripod.lycos.com/
  3. http://geocities.yahoo.com/
  4. http://www.fortunecity.com/
These are the "giants" of free hosting, featuring millions of accounts and boasting of having created "online communities", but providing no human support. FAQ and forums are what you can count on if you need help, but there are no "Contact Us" links to write to and get a response with a human touch. Other than that, they are reliable, have low downtime figures, and are fairly convenient to use. Unfortunately, with all the above hosts you will have to use trial-and-error methods–- subscribe, upload your site, and see what happens. If you don't like it you move house–- migrate the site to another server. Actually, migration is a natural process–-but it should occur when you need more space or a different set of features, not because you get dissatisfied with the level of service you get from your hosting provider.

If you want to look beyond the "giants", you can take a look at consumer reports at http://www.freewebspace.net/ which is a good web host search engine. This is what I did, and the following is what I got today, 18 Jan 2003. I suggest you do it on your own when your time comes since free web space is a very dynamic field. Providers that had great rankings last year may have sunken to the bottom of the table or disappeared altogether. [-3-]

Overall ranking (http://www.freewebspace.net/php/topList.php?cat=overall )

RankNameRating
1NeoPages.net8.8 (Total Votes: 35)
2Host.sk8.1 (Total Votes: 25)
3Tripod UK7.9 (Total Votes: 17)
4Brinkster7.6 (Total Votes: 54)
5Worldzone7.5 (Total Votes: 24)
6Hypermart7.3 (Total Votes: 28)
7Netfirms6.7 (Total Votes: 58)
8mycgiserver6.7 (Total Votes: 14)
9Liquid2k6.7 (Total Votes: 30)
10Space Towns6.6 (Total Votes: 16)

On the same website, you can also check support, speed, and features ratings to see how these sites fare. I have only had one encounter with Netfirms (http://www.netfirms.com ), and can say they were quite good while I was using their service. (2000-2001)

But how do you know what features you get? Try a different approach and use PowerSearch (http://www.freewebspace.net/search/power.shtml) which lets you select the criteria and narrow your search to whatever you need since each of us has his/her own preferences. If you don't know exactly what you are looking for, list as many features as you believe you might need in the future, and see if this set brings results.

In the case at hand, the following criteria were used: More than 10 MB space, no ads, language = English. I got 16 hosts and went through the reviews. Ten of the hosts looked so bad I immediately removed them from the list. Here is what remained:

SpaceUploadCGI-scriptsAddressReviews
Brinkster30 MBBrowserNo/youexcellent
Host Department10 MBBrowserCollection/youNo frames support
FreeWebz.com100 MBBrowser FrontPageCollection/youmixed
Liquid2k20 MBBrowserNo mixed
Portland15 MBFTPCGI-BIN mixed
Surfsites.net10 MBBrowserNo/youmixed
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The stories of those which have not made it to the above table are fairly similar, by the way: They started well, but with time became less and less reliable and user-friendly. I can only guess why. My experience with Netfirms shows that whenever they approach their resource limit or face some system malfunction, the free accounts are the first to experience downtime (providers have both free and paid-for accounts).

Pay attention to the fact that Brinkster appears on both lists. It is a no-ads host with a high overall rating. If I had to choose a host for my website today, I would probably give it a try.

With Brinkster there are no ads that disturb your users. What probably serves as a nuisance factor is the way you have to upload your files. If you are planning to upload ten pages and then update it once a month adding three more, this is still acceptable. But if you are talking of numerous files you need FTP (file transfer protocol), and thus a different free host. And if you are using MS FrontPage to build your website, you have to make sure that the host supports HTTP--the protocol FrontPage uses for publishing.

Some of the hosts, including the "giants", offer utilities for building a website even if you know nothing about HTML, FTP and WYSIWYG. It is usually some sort of drag'n'drop online website builder that lets you use prefabricated blocks to build your website. Some of them are pretty good, but with these builders there is no way to back up your site to your computer or disk, so if something goes wrong you lose it all. This is hardly an option for someone who has spent so much time building a site, and needs a way to return it to operation as quickly as possible.

A note about domain names

A domain name is the name of a website that you see in the "address" box of your web browser. If, in addition to creating a website, you want to specify your own domain name, in most cases you will be charged about $35 a year to own a name like www.myname.com. At http://www.godaddy.com you can buy a domain name for less that $10. However, if you don't need some special domain name, you can get a less personalized subdomain name from your free web space host for free: http://www.hostname.com/yourname/ for example, or http://yourname.hostname.com.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that there can be no single recommendation. Different users will have different needs. Also, whatever I say today will be outdated before too long. The right approach to the task of finding the right free host for your website is:
  1. Define the features you need for your site to function
  2. Use the power search engine to get a list of suitable hosts
  3. Compare it to the list of top-rated hosts
  4. Make up your mind

Lev Abramov
The Schiffman Institute
<lev.abramov@schiffman-institute.com>

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