Part 3

A Non-Geeky Guide to WordPress Hosting

hosting

WordPress is our platform of choice for all of our websites because of the freedom and power it gives us.

Ownership is part of that which means you need to take care of  finding a web host your website.

Choosing the right one is critical.

I have seen, too many times how costly and frustrating bad hosting can be for many businesses.

From hacked sites, being blacklisted by search engines, to sites being down for unreasonable periods of time. Poor installation that causes items in the admin panel not to work. Not enough memory causes server errors and plugins to not to work properly. Web hosts blocking certain scripts and functions that your site needs to work.

We’ve experienced these things as well, including one time when our web hosting go down for an entire week during one of our biggest product launches. In 2014 alone I estimated that hosting problems cost us close to six figures in lost revenue.

For inexperienced users, navigating the cesspool of reviews and recommendations is like walking through a field of land mines.

Your average business owner isn’t familiar with web hosting and the requirements that are really needed to support their websites.

Which is why we created this guide.

This guide isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation. It’s geared specifically for artisan small businesses and entrepreneurs who use WordPress or WooCommerce for their website or eCommerce platform.

This guide is for you if:

  • You don’t want to spend your time with the technical details of server configurations
  • You’re a professional who is serious about their business
  • You’re a small business owner who’s livelihood depends on their site
  • You want the best tool for the job and the best value

Good hosting doesn’t have to cost a fortune. However if your business depends on your site then it's worth investing in.  In fact you’ll find that using cheap hosting providers actually cost you much more in the long run.

What is a Managed WordPress Hosting Provider?

Managed Hosting services are specifically optimized for the WordPress platform, and they specialize and work with only WordPress.

WordPress requires some complex configurations on the server end for optimized performance which this type of managed hosting handles well. Especially if you are running WooCommerce. In addition, there’s maintenance, backups, speed configurations, software updates and security that needs to be managed and monitored.

The responsibility for those things are up to you to manage and setup, unless you choose a service or web host who will handle that for you.

Which is why I recommend Specialized Managed WordPress Hosting.

For any business running WordPress or WooCommerce on their site, top quality hosting is a must. If you are serious about your business, cheap shared hosting simply isn’t a going to cut it when your website is your livelihood.

Almost every web host offers WordPress Hosting, and many claim to specialize in it, and even make it easy to install. However, there are some key differences between generic hosting providers and specialized managed WordPress hosting.

Specialized managed WordPress hosting provides service and support by taking care of things like security setup and monitoring, backups, and configuring things like caching, CDN’s and SSL’s. They are experts that specialize in WordPress and it’s the only thing they do.

With shared generic hosting you have to handle all those things, and for things like caching, backups and security you need to install additional plugins and configure them yourself.

For those who are not technical, or have no desire to take on hosting management and dealing with troubleshooting server problems, specialized managed hosting for WordPress is a must.

While managed hosting doesn’t solve everything, it does take some pretty hard core things off your plate.

The dirty secret behind most WordPress web hosting recommendations

Some in the web industry and so-called experts have done a good job of convincing people that hosting should cost less than $5-$10 a month. These same folks are all recommending shared hosting with places like Bluehost, Hostgator, Godaddy and others.

Some even offering a ‘personal’ discount code for you to use.

It’s almost impossible to do a google search without coming across some type of scammy review site littered with affiliate links and fake ratings.

Even some well-known theme and plugin developers recommend cheap hosts.

Most people assume that because the recommendations come from an experienced developer or well known personality, that they must be legit.

Unfortunately many aren’t aware that these places receive commissions and financial incentives through affiliate programs, consulting and endorsement fees.

In many cases these industry ‘rock-stars’ are not using the hosting they are recommending that others use. In fact, it would be interesting to see, how many would actually recommend cheap shared hosting plans if they weren’t getting a commission.

Web hosting is big business and a very competitive industry. As result the information is often corrupt or just bad. Even sometimes when people may have good intentions.

There's nothing wrong with affiliate recommendations and earning commissions based on that. We have and do use affiliate links as well.

Full disclosure - 2 out of the 6 recommendations below are affiliate links: Flywheel and WP Engine.

We have not been compensated by any of the recommended services below (or any other web host) for writing this article.

 

The High Cost of Cheap Hosting

Often times people are lured to a web host by cheap pricing, unlimited everything and a one-click auto-install WordPress feature.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that WordPress will be configured properly, or that the host can handle WordPress specific issues. Most web hosts are designed to work with a number of different software platforms, which means the hosting platform is not designed or optimized specifically for WordPress.

In addition to that, you still have to configure you’re site for security and you are responsible for backups. Unfortunately most people don’t find this out until it’s too late. It’s not fun to find out that your site was hacked and now you have to figure out how to fix it because your host is telling you it’s not their problem.

The worst part however:

“41% of websites that are hacked happen due to vulnerabilities in their hosting platform”  

-Torque 

Unicorn features and other myths you should know about cheap shared web hosting

The myth of unlimited
Many shared hosts claim to offer unlimited sites, unlimited disk space, unlimited email accounts, and databases. There is no such thing as 'unlimited.'  These ‘unlimited’ features often lead to these companies up-selling you on more expensive features when you call support for help with hosting issues.

Or worse, throttling your site and taking it offline.

Many hosts have exceptions to these unlimited features buried in their terms of service. If your site needs more bandwidth, like many image heavy or WooCommerce sites do, that puts a strain on the shared servers. If your site ends using a lot a bandwidth, they will throttle the resources for your site and in some cases take your site offline.

Bait & Switch
Shared hosts entice people with an extremely cheap price. Since most people have no idea about web servers and resources needed it’s an easy sell.

They just want to get you in the door, because once you've signed up they can offer you more services.

Also keep in mind that the cheap plan is only cheap for the first year. After that the price will jump to around $15 or more a month. And that’s only if they don’t force you to upgrade, which is what many of them are counting on.

Crowded Neighborhood
Shared hosts never tell you that you are sharing a server with hundred or even thousands of other websites. All of which are using the same resources. Shared hosting plans are vague on what the processing power and available bandwidth limits are as well.

So even if your site isn’t using a lot of resources, there’s a good chance some of your neighbors are. Which will affect your website’s performance. Especially if some of those accounts get hacked.

Which you are on your own to fix.

Busy business owners don’t have time to troubleshoot server and hosting issues. Every minute you spend trying to troubleshoot these things, is time away from your business.

Trouble shooting web hosting issues is best handled by experts so you can focus on your business.

Essential WordPress Hosting Features

The features below are essential for any site running WordPress or WooCommerce.

  • WordPress is pre-installed for you
  • Automatic daily Backups & with one-click restore option
  • Optimization and Caching for a fast site
  • Expert WordPress Support
  • Security, Malware & DDoS protection
  • Hacked site recovery - most managed hosts offer this
  • Reliability and uptime
  • Staging Sites
  • SSL & SSL Installation
  • Scalability - can you upgrade to more resources as you grow
  • Adequate bandwidth & storage space
  • CDN
  • Free site migration services
  • Automatic WordPress Software Upgrades
  • No long term contracts

One thing I didn’t include was email hosting and domain name registration. I don't recommend getting either through your web host, for reasons I explain here and here.

Geeky Web Hosting Terminology & What it Means

Disk space, processing power (CPU) and bandwidth affect the performance of your website the most. Other things like plugin and theme quality, as well as image size will affect performance too.

Here are some web hosting terms and features you may come across.

Bandwidth - The amount of data transferred when your site is being used. Bandwidth is used when people visit your site, view images, download files from your site, when database queries are sent, when emails are sent, when someone purchases something and other things. The more bandwidth you have, the more traffic and activity your site can handle.

The amount of bandwidth needed will depend on page size, number of visitors and page views. Typically a good web host will tell you the number of visitors each plan can handle, which should give you a good guideline. Beware of hosts that offer unlimited bandwidth.

CPU: or central processing unit refers to the web hosts server processing capabilities where your web site is kept. The CPU handles all the information requests and execute scripts and programs. When you use shared hosting this means your website is on the same server as several others (sometimes 100’s or 1000’s), all using the same system resources. Depending on the type of resources available, this can affect your site performance tremendously.

Which is why on shared hosting plans, it’s hard to determine how much processing power is available.

Dedicated IP - An IP address that is used by your website only.

Disk Space - The amount of space allocated to you on a server for storing images, pages, files, media, and more.

DNS - or Domain Name Servers, is the IP address for your domain name that controls your website or email settings.

Domain Name or Domain URL: the name and url address of your website. Ex: www.yourbusiness.com The Domain name is what is entered into the browser to access a website. You must purchase and register a domain name in order to use it.

Domain Registrar: This is where your domain name is purchased. When you purchase a domain name, that name is yours for as long as the contract period which is typically one-two years. Before it expires it must be renewed or that domain will become available for sale again to anybody.

MySQL Database: WordPress uses a database to store all of the content and information from your site. Everything from your pages, blog posts, to your store products, passwords and customers.

Server: Where your website files live on your web host, where they are ‘delivered’ online. When you buy web hosting you are ‘renting’ space from your hosting provider.

SSDs: or Solid State Drives are data storage devices that are much faster, reliable and secure than a standard hard disk drive (HDD)

SSL : Or Secure Socket Layer, is a security technology that allows sensitive information like credit card numbers or login credentials to be transmitted securely using an encrypted link. Ecommerce sites use SSL for secure credit card transactions. You will see “https://“ in the website of address in the browser bar, and lock to

a means of encryption commonly used for Ecommerce sites so accepting credit cards is secure. You will see "https://" and sometimes a lock in the address bar when you are using an SSL encrypted page.

.htaccess file - .htaccess is a configuration file for use on web servers running Apache Web Server software. Many managed WordPress hosts use Nginx servers, which do not support .htaccess files.

FTP or File Transfer Protocol, is method of uploading and downloading files to your web server.

SFTP stands for Secure File Transfer Protocol or SSH File Transfer Protocol is also a method of uploading and downloading files to your web server, however its a much more secure method than FTP. Most shared hosts do not allow this type of method for transferring files.

To transfer files to your web server, you need some type of FTP client, like Filezilla or Transmit

Web Hosting: A web host is where your website lives. When you buy web hosting you are ‘renting’ server space from your hosting provider, which allows people to access your site. In order to run WordPress or WooCommerce, you will need to purchase web hosting.

The Best WordPress Hosting Services

The hosts mentioned below are all very good options, and there are certainly others not mentioned here.

While features and cost will vary by hosting company, all of the hosts recommended here offer advanced web hosting for WordPress and include the features mentioned above.

Flywheel

We host many of our sites on Flywheel and is one of the web hosts we highly recommend. It’s extremely user-friendly for non-technical people, and the Tiny plan is very inexpensive if you are just starting out. In fact the Tiny Plan is comparable to shared budget hosting, except you get dedicated server resources that you don’t have to share.

Their customer support is exceptional and they are incredibly responsive, and to be honest I’ve rarely had to use it. I also love that I can have the error logs emailed to me with one click from the admin panel.

If you currently have a WordPress site, Flywheel will move your site from your old web host to their hosting for free. This is a huge time-saver making it easy to switch.

The hosting control panel is very clean and easy to use. And it’s fast, not only on the front end but the admin panel as well. They receive above average ratings for quality and support. You’d have to look really hard to find someone with something bad to say about Flywheel.

Flywheel is a fantastic choice, especially for non-technical people. Designers in particular like Flywheel because it’s so easy for their clients.

If you’re running WooCommerce I’d recommend starting with at least the Personal Plan at $30 at a minimum. We run WooCommerce sites on both the Professional Plan, the Agency Bulk plan and we have an Enterprise level plan which can better handle higher traffic and eCommerce demands for Seniors Ignite.

It’s always easy to upgrade to a bigger plan if you need more later which is what we did with Seniors Ignite.

Kinsta

Kinsta is boutique web host with powerful features and exceptional performance. It’s a great option for high traffic or demanding eCommerce sites, or for someone that really wants top-shelf technology. Next to Flywheel, they consistently get high marks for service and performance.

For high traffic sites or businesses looking for an extremely high performance eCommerce site they are a great value.

Pagely

Pagely was the very first Managed WordPress Host. Pagely is better suited for larger sites, businesses with specialized needs, developers or for anyone who wants the best and latest technology available.

WP Engine

WP Engine is another solid choice. They are one of the bigger hosting companies and one of the earliest Managed WordPress Hosts.

Pressable

Pressable is owned by Automattic, the company behind WordPress. They were rated one of the top performing hosts in 2016. All of the entry level hosting plans vary by traffic and are a good value.

I do not recommend Site Ground’s entry level plans including the GoGeek Plan

I only mention this because I've seen so many rave about Site Ground Hosting, and I often see it mentioned as a Managed Host.

Site Ground’s entry level plans are shared hosting plans. While they are the highest rated shared host, I would not put Siteground's entry level plans in the same performance category as the WordPress hosts mentioned above.

I decided to try the GoGeek plan which listed many of the features above like free SSL, a Staging Site, Free migration, Caching, CDN SSD and unlimited site installs. It was even recommended for WooCommerce.

I decided to give it a try because I had heard from quite a few experienced WordPress designers that Site Ground's setup was different from most shared hosts and optimized for WordPress.

I wanted to see for myself if it was as good as I'd heard. I was not impressed at all.

To start with, installing WordPress was a pain in the ass. I know my way around hosting panels and I'm comfortable doing a manual install. But for a non-technical user who is not experienced this would be frustrating for them.

Siteground offers apps that do the installation for you, however most people that I work with aren't interested in dealing with that part.

Most business owners aren't any more experienced installing server software than they are putting a muffler on a car.  So when I recommend hosting I'm looking at how easy it is for a non-technical user.

With Managed Hosts like Imagely and Flywheel, WordPress is already installed for you. You signup, get an email and login to your new site.

After using better Managed Hosting Services, the Siteground admin panel was cluttered and not user friendly at all. Setup is not completely hands-off like it is with Flywheel or Imagely.

On top of that there’s a little configuring to do with the cache, you need install their caching plugin and setup a few other things that you don’t have to do with the hosts mentioned above.

Trying to search Site Ground's knowledge base was frustrating as well. There were no clear instructions on getting started in a way that was easy for your average user who is not experienced with WordPress or hosting configurations.

Once I had a theme installed, I tried installing a 2 mb file with demo content using the WordPress importer. Unfortunately it kept timing out and the admin panel went blank.

2 MB is a pretty small file, and normally this would take a few seconds on our current host so I was a little surprised. After trying a few more times I assumed there must have been an issue with one the plugins, so I disabled everything and tried again. It still didn't work.

When I contacted support they said there are limits on how long a script could run since the server was a shared one. The guy helping me said the plugin (the WordPress Importer) or file must have been to resource intensive which is why it was throttled.

They were quick to respond and very helpful, however I was a bit annoyed because it’s not unreasonable to expect to be able to install a 2MB file without issues. I’ve installed plugins alone that are 5x that size.

If I’m unable to import a small 2MB demo file I’m not going to be able to run a WooCommerce site that will use far more resources than that.

The introductory price for Site Ground's GoGeek plan is $15 a month, and after one year it goes up to $30 a month. That’s not cheap for shared hosting. That’s the same price as Flywheel, where you get 10x the performance.

Siteground’s shared hosting plan is not up to the task for people who depend on their website for their business.

For the configuring and setup required with Siteground, you’d be better off with Cloudways which is more powerful and less expensive.

Cloudways is a great web hosting platform, and they have a pre-configured WooCommerce app that is great. However, since it does take some configuration and setup that’s not as suited for your average user.

Site Ground does offer Managed Cloud Hosting that is more powerful than the shared hosting plans, and their dedicated servers get top ratings. I don’t have any experience with those plans, so I’m not sure how hands off it is.

The creative folks we work with aren't really interested nor do they have the time to search around a web hosting knowledge base learning about installing caching plugins and how to setup their site for security.

Siteground's support was very responsive, however I have a hard time recommending it over others because there are other options that are better suited for non-technical business users.

What Managed Web Hosting Can’t Do

No matter how optimized a web server is for speed and performance there are some things that even the best hosts and configurations cannot overcome. Speed issues can be tricky to troubleshoot.

Improperly Sized Images. Images account for a lot of your page load time, and if they are too big and not properly optimized it will affect how fast your site loads.

A bad plugin or theme can cause problems if it conflicts with other plugins, uses lots of resources or is poorly coded. Out of date plugins and themes can cause problems as well.

Many people will tell you that having too many plugins will slow your site down. This isn’t necessarily true. You only need one bad plugin to cause problems. We run about 50 plugins on one of our WooCommerce sites with no issues.

Most eCommerce sites depend on multiple plugin extensions to run their store.

Resource intensive plugins and scripts can slow things down

Some plugins just need more resources, especially WooCommerce and related extensions. If you are running a membership site where there are many people logged-in to your site, that requires more server power. Even on a lower traffic site, WooCommerce related processes can be pretty demanding with multiple users on your site.

In addition to having a quality web host, what made the biggest difference for us was getting the size of our images under control and combining CSS & Javascript files, and only loading certain files when we had to. Optimizing those things will make a tremendous difference in performance.

Theme & Plugin Updates

Managed WordPress hosts will automatically update WordPress software for you. WordPress theme and plugin updates are something that many hosts do not do, unless for some reason there is a compelling security reason to do so.

The reason for that is that's is that everyone's theme, plugins and setup are different. This is where monthly maintenance services for WordPress are great. They'll take care of things like updating your theme and making small updates to your site for you. The prices are very reasonable and when used in combination with a good host it takes the technical management of your site off your hands completely.