Email hosting vs free email providers

Email hosting vs free-email providers

Have you ever wondered about how many email providers there are? When you really think about it, you quickly realize there are hundreds of platforms worldwide, and they break down into several different types.

Many of us probably had our first personal email accounts with whoever provided our Internet (think AOL, Freeserve, Tiscali, and the like), before transitioning to providers like Hotmail and (around 8 years later), Gmail. 

It was these later providers who really took email to the next level. By making it more accessible, allowing us multiple addresses, free storage, and online access from anywhere (as opposed to a stodgy, old-fashioned Outlook application on our home PC), email suddenly got easier. Your chosen ‘brand’ said as much about you as the email you chose. Take that from a bonafide Hotmail user of over two decades.

Email for today

But it’s 2024, and times have changed. Especially when it comes to business email, which is primarily what we’re going to focus on here.

Recently, there have been several major stories about data theft, or data harvesting from the bigger companies, including Google and Microsoft. More than this, though, many free email providers parse (scan) email data and sell it to advertisers. Until 2017, Google itself admitted to doing this.

Alternative free email providers are also not immune from similar issues… Because the value of data can pose problems besides security — it can add financial value. This year, we saw Skiff, an independent email provider offering a free email plan, get bought by Notion. As a result of this, their entire suite of products, including their email platform, is being sunsetted. This is likely because they ended up in a position where their data (the millions of members) was more valuable than the revenue the suite of products generated, and so the new owners saw little point in continuing the service. 
But there’s another kind of email provider. Ones that put security and privacy first, and are more centered around business. These providers are often referred to as ‘professional email’ providers and usually have a small fee each month. But how do free vs paid email hosting options compare?

Why pay for something you can get for free?

Why not use free email? It’s easy to imagine that getting your email plan for free from one of the big companies means you’re winning. After all, in a recession what matters more than cost? So why would you need paid email services?

Well, firstly, it’s like the mantra goes, if the product is free, you are the product. And, in a world of laws like GDPR, businesses especially cannot afford to risk their customer’s private data. Being caught in a data breach could have far worse financial, and reputational implications.

Recently, my own beloved Hotmail (now branded Outlook, of course) introduced a fee on my account for the first time, retroactively deciding to reduce my disk space quite substantially unless I paid up. RIP ‘freemail’. 

It was an unpopular move (in my office of one, at least). Having filled the free space over the years with copious emails (I’m incredibly popular with spammers), and of course, gigabytes’ worth of attachments that serve as a poor form of backup (tell me you aren’t ignoring the same sad reality in your inbox…)

It felt underhanded, and at the time, I didn’t realize there was an easy solution. But there is — more on that later.

Similarly, to get Gmail’s most advanced features you also have to upgrade. Branded Google Workspace, these plans attempt to mimic what a lot of other paid email providers do by allowing you to use your own domain, but by being coupled with a whole load of features the average business probably doesn’t need, its considerable price-tag of around $7.20 per user, per month soon racks up if you have a sizable business.

So even the “free” options aren’t so free anymore, and we haven’t even started yet.

Self-hosting your company’s webmail

Yes okay, I hear you at the back. It is possible to host your own webmail. In fact, all you need is a domain and the right hosting plan to do this. Apps like Roundcube are free and included with most cPanel-style CMSes. These mean you can pretty much click and create email accounts.

The downside (because there always is one when something looks too good to be true), is relatively poor, outdated design, and lack of features. Some of them look like they were born in 1998, and haven’t aged terribly well. And by that I mean, look exactly the same as they did then.

Also, going back to ye olde security, these free DIY email apps are unlikely to have the same security even the free platforms offer, let alone something more robust. 

Real professional email

And so, we finally reach the meat of this digital feast. Paid providers. We’re not talking about the paid ‘freemail’ options that we’ve already mentioned.

These offer something quite different. Quite simply, they are designed for business and have unique tools and features that make mastering business communications much easier. 

Perhaps most importantly, these providers allow you to include your business domain in email addresses, so you get professional-looking yourname@yourdomain.com addresses. 

These addresses immediately convey legitimacy to anyone who receives them. They make it clear you are from the business and not a scammer impersonating (who might register an address like yourbusiness@gmail.com.

Things to consider when choosing email for business

But, as with anything, there are important considerations to bear in mind when you choose your business email. 

Features vary from company to company, so it's a good idea to know what to look for. Their benefits generally break down into the following areas.

Security and Privacy

Encryption: Ensure the service you choose offers a level of encryption you’re happy with, especially when it comes to storing your data. While some free services might mine this very data to sell to advertisers, as we mentioned, one of the key selling points of premium email providers is that not only do they not do this. Some services actively encrypt your data when its stored on servers so that even if their security was compromised, your data wouldn’t be revealed.

Two-Factor Authentication (2FA): Support for 2FA adds an extra layer of security by requiring a second form of verification beyond just a password. Usually, this will be in the form of a phone, or dedicated device.

Actively monitoring new threats: Perhaps the most important thing of all is picking a company that is still actively updating their security measures to deal with the latest threats. You can probably ascertain this information quickly by scanning their homepage for recent updates, checking their company blog, or seeing if they have good live support.

Data Centers: By storing data using a distributed storage method, there is a level of redundancy to your email storage. This means data is very unlikely to be lost in the way it might if you store all your messages on your personal computer, and this goes wrong.

Customization and Branding

Domain Name: As we mentioned, the ability to use your domain name for email addresses is a great feature that almost all professional email platforms offer putting your brand at the heart of what they do.

Enhanced filters: Allowing you to more effectively manage emails is another key selling point for professional email services. When you’re receiving vast numbers of emails, being able to sort and classify them in different ways allows you to maintain a clean and pragmatic mailbox.

Multiple users mailboxes: Crucial to many businesses is the ability to add multiple users for members of staff. Additionally, aliases and catch-alls (like info@yoursite.com) can be a useful feature when it comes to protecting the identities of workers, or for allowing more than one person to monitor the same mailbox.

Reliability

Uptime Guarantee: You want peace of mind that you can access your email any time, day or night. Reliability is a key factor when it comes to choosing your professional email provider. Look for guarantees of around 99.9% to be sure you’re getting the right level of uptime. Sometimes, companies will offer reimbursements if they fail to meet their guarantees. It’s worth checking their policy on this so you know where you stand.

Scalability: You may not have multiple users now, but your business will hopefully grow. Choosing a service that can grow alongside your business, allowing you to easily add or remove accounts, might save you a lot of time and energy later.

Customer Support

Rather like we mentioned about ensuring the company is keeping up-to-date with online threats, a good customer service department is a must — especially if you’re new to professional email. There are options out there with 24-hour live chats, ensuring you’ll never be waiting long for help if you ever need it.

Spam Management

Look for robust spam filters that effectively block junk mail while minimizing false positives (legitimate emails marked as spam). Ideally, you want a spam filter that works well out-of-the-box but also allows you to override it when needed. Most of all, you want to clearly be able to review what has been quarantined, because we’ve all been there when an email doesn’t arrive due to an over-active spam filter. 

Connection & Integration Options

Having our emails at our fingertips at all times is not only expected in the modern age, it’s a necessity. A provider that’s accessible at all times, wherever we are is a must. The best professional email platforms offer easy integration into existing email clients, such as Outlook or Gmail.

Introducing Spacemail

Spacemail, by Spaceship, is a new state-of-the-art email platform built from the ground up for businesses. It has all the tools we’ve mentioned in this article, from advanced anti-spam management to frequent security threat updates. 

You can easily integrate it into your existing software for use on any device, or access it via the secure online webmail portal using your favorite browser. With a 24/7 customer support team of experts, there to lend a hand whenever you need them. 

Later this year, we’re launching an easy migration tool for Spacemail, which will allow you to move any existing email content you might have to your Spacemail plan. This will make it easy to switch, safe in the knowledge that you won’t lose easy access to important emails you have in your existing account. Try Spacemail today, starting from just $0.37 a month. You can even choose a free 30-day trial. You have nothing to lose by giving our brand-new, state-of-the-art email platform a try.

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Jamie Long

Jamie is a UK-based writer and author who has worked for Spaceship since it began. He is also a classically trained musician with a strong interest in comedy and writes novels in his spare time.
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