Decades and decades (okay, just *a* decade) ago, hosting a website was expensive. As with all maturing technologies, the cost has come down and you have more choices. If you like the whole techno-geeking stuff, you can pay your local Internet Service Provider for a static IP address, set up a web server on a computer attached to that IP, and host your own. All things considered, this is *not* the service of choice for most small businesses, and rarely needed for most authors. The second choice is to pay someone else to host your website, and let them deal with all the minutiae of keeping the servers ticking.
If you want to go the first route, I am not the best reference for you, though you may find some of the points below interesting. For those paying to host their sites, read on.
What do you need to know about your site host?
How much is it going to cost me?
Depending on where you go, you can pay as little as nadda to upwards of thousands of US dollars. On average, though, the prices for a decent hosting package are settling between the US$3 and US$15 per month mark.
Quick note here - there ain't no such thing as a free site host. If it's not a promo deal, you're paying for the hosting by watching ads, or allowing ads to take up valuable space on your site, and almost always with no control over what gets put in those ad slots.
What should I look for in a hosting package?
This is one of the places where things get more personal. If you plan to podcast from your site, you want more space to store your podcasting files and more monthly bandwidth to serve them. A basic plan that gives you under 100mb of storage and less than 1GB of monthly bandwidth isn't going to be useful. However, if you just plan to send out text-based files, like your web pages, 50mb to 100mb of storage with 1GB bandwidth per month may be more than enough.
To give you the math...
1,000 bytes (b) = 1 kilobyte (kb)
1,000kb = 1 megabyte (mb)
1,000mb = 1 gigabyte (GB)
The average web page file is between 2kb and 3kb and accent pictures average between 5kb-50kb. In a purely vanilla website, assuming each page view requires five images, the html and the style sheet, let's figure each download to average about 80kb per page view. That means a 1GB bandwidth allowance will let your pages be served 12,500 times. If you have a 15 page site, that's about 800 visits per month, or a little over 27 visits per day, which is pretty decent starting out.
If you add podcasting, well, 1GB of monthly bandwidth doesn't cut it. A rule of thumb for mp3s is that each minute of recording is 1mb of file size. A five minute recording then becomes a 5mb file. If you were to just serve that one file, 1GB of bandwidth would let you send it out 200 times per month, or just under 7 times per day. If you're podcasting, though, the likelihood that you'll have only one 5mb file to serve is slim to none. On a low volume site, you would do best to have at least 10GB of monthly bandwidth. That's why there are podcast hosting services like Podio Books or Podcast Alley.
Where are the servers located?
Why does this matter? Well, for one location defines most of the applicable laws. If you plan on hosting topics that could be subject to censorship in a given region, hosting out of that region is asking to have your site shut down. Another point on local laws is what kind of fiscal burden they place on your site host--who passes that down to you. In Texas, for example, one of the Private Investigators associations has successfully lobbied to make computer technicians subject to PI licensing requirements. There's also the matter of supporting your local economy.
What Server Side Scripts do they Serve?Server-side scripting languages are the types of involved code-behind stuff that make for the truly "dynamic" sites, where the pages are made on the server based on the programmed code. If they support PHP (most do) and MySQL (a free database server platform), then you can usually set up a WordPress blog on your site with a few instructions and maybe a call to their tech support line or two. ASP and ASP.NET are only served from Windows OS servers--it's a Microsoft invention.
Why do you care about this? Later on, when you want to add extra perks (or pay someone to add them), knowing what Server-Side Scripting languages you can program in will help.
Where can I get hosting?
If you're going to go the route of the no-money-out-of-pocket site host, Microsoft's OfficeLive for Small Businesses is actually a pretty good deal. I set up a site at http://shaybee.web.officelive.com/ just to see how it worked. They do offer extras for a fee--like shopping carts--but the basics are good, like setting up the web pages without having to learn a lot of the code-behind-the-pages. In fact, their site builder system is easy enough to use that, with just a little bit of CSS know how, you can create some pretty nifty static sites quickly and easily. And, aside from being so darn easy to use, they serve ads to *you* and not on your web site.
If, however, you want more control over what goes on behind the scenes, or you want to run a blog at "yourdomain.com", you may find paying for a hosting service to be more useful.
I host shaybee.com through Planet Small Business. The admin screens are fairly easy to use, they offer FTP uploads, and setting up sub-domains is pretty easy, in case you want to run blog.yousite.com. At the same time, most of their tech support is via email, even for basic stuff.
Dixiesys.com has also been recommended by a member of the Writing and Publishing Group.
Feel free to add notes about different hosting companies in the comments for this post.