Website hosting is a big topic. So big that one of the oldest and most active forums on the entire internet is dedicated to people discussing the various ins and outs of different web hosting companies.
Think of this article as an overview of the blog/website hosting topic. There are links here to more in depth content, so you can explore as many details as you want, but this article is designed to give you a high level view of the information you need in order to make an informed web hosting choice.
In addition to the details linked here, if you’re looking for truly mind-bendingly detailed talk about all the intricacies of web hosting technology, give the folks at Web Hosting Talk or r/webhosting a visit. You can read until either your heart swells with contented joy or your brain explodes. Your guess is as good as mine as to which will happen first.
In fact, that’s the path I initially followed. (the obsessive reading, not the head exploding)
I spent several weeks painstakingly going through post after post of comparisons and speed tests, looking for reviews, and tracking “limited time special offers.” And you know what it got me? Nothing.
I mean, I learned a lot about the topic, but it was all stuff that didn’t end up helping me choose a place to host my wordpress blog.
Going to other blogs helped a little bit more, but I ran into a lot of blogs that would put up 5 or 6 different hosts, say a couple of words about each, and then recommend them all. Say what?
Here’s the problem – web hosting companies have pretty lucrative affiliate programs, so people who “review” web hosts have a strong incentive to promote as many as they can. I’m not saying that people are being dishonest – lots of hosts actually are pretty good, and maybe they really do feel warm and snuggly with 10 different web hosting companies – but it’s hard to trim the list down to just a couple of good recommendations when many options are “pretty good” and willing to pay you a lot of money for sending them referrals. I’m a happy capitalist – I participate in some affiliate programs, too – and as long as people aren’t lying I have no problems. It’s just not super helpful to a newcomer to offer 10 links that all kind of seem the same.
When I was a newcomer, that’s the problem I had. I couldn’t tell the difference between different web hosts.
So, I got a little sneaky. Like the butler from Mr. Deeds. I went to some of the big blogs and looked at who they were actually using to host their sites, regardless of who they recommended on their articles about web hosting. This wasn’t always an easy thing to figure out, because when your site gets big, you start using fancy things like CDNs to offload traffic from your main servers. That can make it tough to track things down. But track it down I did. And I discovered that most of the bigger blogs use just a handful of different wordpress hosts, despite the huge array of choices available in the web hosting market.
I’ll talk about these below, and tell you who I use, but first, let’s be clear about the kind of web hosting I’m discussing, and what factors should actually influence who you choose to host your wordpress blog.
WordPress Hosting vs Traditional Website Hosting
First, if you’re going to get busy writing blogs, you’re not actually looking for a web hosting company, you’re looking for the best blogging platform you can find. A WordPress website is not the same as a traditional “website,” and it needs a different kind of hosting. Yeah, it’s true that almost any web hosting account will offer the option or ability to install and use wordpress for your blog, but that doesn’t mean it’s what they’re focused on, or that they do it well.
Some web hosting companies are hybrids, like Bluehost and SiteGround. These two companies get reviewed a lot, and they both offer solid entry-to-mid-level wordpress hosting. They are partially managed (more below) and aren’t going to blow up your blog or be dumb about big security issues. I call them hybrids because they are simultaneously “traditional” web hosting companies and wordpress hosting companies.
There are some advantages to choosing a hybrid web hosting company. Things like email, direct file editing, and nitty gritty server control are going to be easier in a hybrid environment.
I looked into this option, but decided my server-fu wasn’t up to the challenge. I wanted to spend 99% of my time actually building and growing my wordpress website, with very little time dedicated to any kind of server management or fiddling.
A better fit for me was a true, dedicated WordPress hosting company. A company who’s only focus is on websites running WordPress. Since this is their laser focus, they’re really good at implementation, security, and support. As a trade off, you lose some of the functionality that a hybrid host offers – you’ll have to find a separate email hosting solution, for example.
Managed Web Hosting vs Unmanaged Web Hosting
Unless you have a team of engineers, unlimited time, and a lot of experience managing a server, you do not want unmanaged hosting. You want managed hosting.
With an unmanaged host, the technical side of running the server is up to you. Configuring settings, taking care of security, managing updates, scheduling backups, even rebooting if something goes wrong – all your responsibility.
I’ve done things this way in the past and, at the time, it was no big deal. It was even kind of fun some times. I felt like I was running The Matrix. But, I also wasn’t running a site that required a lot of babysitting, and it was no big deal to wipe things out and start over from a backup if things got haxored. Which they did. A lot.
Now that I have some experience under my belt, I realize that I don’t have enough experience under my belt, and I prefer to leave the important stuff to the server ninjas. I mean, I can change the oil in my Vespa, but I sure don’t want to open up the engine and start fiddling with the pistons. Are there pistons? Is that a thing in scooters? I don’t even know. Which sort of reinforces the point I’m trying to make.
A managed wordpress host takes care of all the important server details for you. They handle security, they do updates, they create backups, and if you have a problem you just contact them and they do the fixing. It’s amazing. And easy. And consumes very little time. Some of the big names in this space are Kinsta (xoxo), Flywheel, and WPEngine.
Now, it could be that you actually are a server ninja, and your kung fu is strong when it comes to these kinds of things. In that case, you’re going to rock it, because one of the cheaper, less managed plans from BlueHost or Siteground is going to be perfect. But, if you’re not kicking server butt Kill Bill style, don’t pretend like you are. Just stuff it and buy a managed WordPress hosting plan. You’ll sleep much easier knowing that your own private army of elves is busy spinning gold while you’re resting.
Speed gets beaten to death in every single web hosting review. I think it’s because speed is such an easy metric to test. It’s concrete, it gives a real number, and it’s easy to understand.
It’s also trivial for the dude (or dudette) writing the web hosting review article to run a few tests and spit out pretty pictures and graphs telling you a particular web hosting company’s response times, or how well that web hosting company handles load.
For the heck of it, I used one of the popular testing tools to run some speed tests on managed WordPress hosts that I like. If you like pretty pictures, these are for you. Hugs.
Tests like this are probably almost worthless.
Let me be clear, speed is important. Google uses speed as one of its ranking criteria, and there’s solid data showing that even small increases in delay have big negative effects on user engagement. In fact, the number of people who say “screw it” and leave a website goes up exponentially with how long it takes the web server to respond. By the time you get to a 1.5 or 2s response time, a ton of people have given your site the big sayonara.
But the thing is, unless you use Bargain Bob’s Basement Hosting or do something dumb – like base your WordPress website in Singapore when your readers are in the US – you’re going to be fine.
The differences between response times for all the big hosts is measured in milliseconds. If milliseconds are important to you, congratulations, because you’re probably already running a web service or business that has made you rich.
In that case, you need your team of engineering poindexters to set up an AWS instance or Google Cloud and let the blazing hardware and fat pipes those companies control take care of your web hosting needs. But, then you also don’t need to read this article. So, you know, stop.
Load handling might be a slightly bigger real-world issue – you don’t want your web host to crumple when your latest post about kitty cats goes viral – and this is where managed WordPress hosting takes the upper hand again. With a managed WordPress host, there’s a team of superheroes constantly watching and analyzing your service. If your traffic starts to spike, they’re going to do…superhero stuff…to make sure that the system doesn’t go down. That’s the kind of service you’re paying for with a managed hosting plan.
SUPPORT AND COMMUNICATION
The best hardware and fastest connections in the universe don’t matter when your server is down. When your server has problems – and it will – you need the ability to quickly get in touch with your support team, and you need a team who can quickly sort things out.
In the unmanaged space, the support team is you. Good luck with that. This is so crazy that I can’t even think of anything else to say about it. Unless you’re batman with the cyber, this is a terrible idea.
In the managed wordpress hosting universe, the support team will take of the actual fixes, but you still need an efficient way to get in touch with them. Hybrid wordpress hosts like Bluehost and Siteground usually work via a ticket system – you log on and submit a support ticket, and the team investigates. I don’t have any first hand experience with this support system, but I do know that people generally seem fine with it. There are a handful of super negative reviews, but that’s how it goes with anything online, right? There’s always some really pissed off person yelling really loud about how pissed off they are. I personally don’t put a lot of stock in things like that. I look for consensus and track records, not low volume incidents.
I do have experience with the support systems at two of the big players in the managed wordpress hosting space – Kinsta (xoxo) and WPEngine. They both have similar, “direct contact,” systems that work instantly. When you’re logged into your dashboard, there’s always a little icon in the lower right-hand screen that connects you directly to chat support. You tell them what’s wrong, and they fix it. Easy peasy. Sometimes they even fix things you didn’t know were wrong. I’ve had my host (which is a fully managed WordPress host) fix something I’ve asked about, and simultaneously fix another issue I wasn’t even aware of. That’s pretty cool.
Cost. Money. Moolah.
Did you know that a huge number of the searches for web hosting on Google include the word “free”?
Everyone is searching for free hosting!
My friend, please sit with me a spell, and listen.
If you are even remotely serious about building your blog, growing it, and ultimately making a few bucks, you should steer clear of free hosting. There are so many issues with this it’s hard to know where to even begin.
No matter how enticing it seems to “start small and scale up,” starting with free is not the way to go. Nothing is free, and this is going to cost you more time and money than you can afford. It’s going to be hard to manage, hard to get support, and when it’s time to move on it’ll be hard to migrate.
I’m a big believer in the old saying that you get what you pay for, and this saying applies to web hosting just like it applies to wagyu beef or organic potatoes. If you want a premium product, it’s going to cost you a premium price.
Kinsta, Flywheel, and WPEngine – the big three players in the managed wordpress arena – are not cheap. The managed wordpress hosting options from Bluehost and Siteground are cheaper, but you’ll still pay 5x-10x as much as you would for a hybrid host. But you’re going to get a lot for that money. Instant support, top notch architecture, obsessive security, and as much hand holding as you need. I need a lot of hand holding and hugs, so I love it.
If you’ve got the scrilla, my personal, heart-to-heart recommendation is to go with one of these three managed WordPress hosts right from the beginning. They all have introductory plans that don’t cost $100 a month, and can scale with you as your blog – and your income – grows.
This is the logic I followed when I chose the host for BlogReactor, and I’ve been happy.
Here are a couple of cost comparisons for introductory plans at truly top notch managed WordPress hosts.
Kinsta’s pricing goes up from the $100/mo you see on this three panel image all the way to the stratosphere, but you won’t need those levels of hosting until your blog is already returning a steady income, so don’t worry about it. The way to compare all of these options is to look at the cheapest plan you think you can get away with, not the most expensive plan they offer.
Of the “Big Three” (Kinsta, WPEngine, and Flywheel) managed WordPress hosts, Flywheel has some of the most competitive pricing. The one shortcoming is that the cheapest plan costs about 50% as much as the mid-range plan, but only gives you 20% of the allowed visits as the mid-range plan.
If you’re a little light on the scrilla side, or don’t need quite as much host-based expressions of love and affection as I do, a hybrid host is a viable path to follow. Siteground is the most economic option, and has a relatively solid plan for just a few dollars a month. It’s so cheap that you should probably go all-in and get the Geek plan right from the beginning. Fear not, you’re going to derive enormous value from this small investment.
A word of tempered caution, however. Managed WordPress hosting meters traffic a little differently than traditional website hosting. Instead of keeping track of how much data you’re moving around, most WordPress hosts are going to watch how many visitors you get. You can check this 60 Second Knowledge Base article on what is a wordpress visitor for some details, but be aware that it’s usually a good idea to sign up for more visitors than you think you might need. They add up.
Hosting is a big topic, but the basics are easy. Choose a real host, not your cousin Tim’s garage startup. Pay attention to usability, support, and the host’s ability to grow with you. Don’t get too hung up on the “speed” metrics that you see plastered all over many reviews, they don’t actually mean very much. Getting a real host is going to cost some money, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. All of the “big” hosts have solid starter plans. BlogReactor is lovingly hosted on the Kinsta platform by a team of server superheroes who do their best work all day, every day.
Some More Things to Read:
- Are Website Speed Tests Valid?
- CDN WordPress
- Web hosting definition
- What is a WordPress Visitor?
- Scale up as you go, or go big from the beginning?