With so many hosting companies available, there’s pressure to pick the best available. I know I went back and forth trying to find the perfect host for my site. “The Paradox of Choice” says an overabundance of choices actually stalls our decision making and leads you to constantly second guess yourself. The last thing you want after signing a long-term contract with a hosting company is to wish you chose another host.
Hosting is crucial for both site speed and security. (See our Security page for more info on hosting and security.) If you dream of sub-two-second load times, you won’t get there with cheap shared hosting. And being able to choose your own host is a huge benefit open-source platforms (like WordPress) have over proprietary software.
But how do you judge a host? What should you look for? Who’s the best host? I can’t answer the last question because there is no right answer, but I can tell you how to evaluate hosts.
What hosting companies are out there?
While there are thousands of hosting options, there are two big players in the industry: EIG and GoDaddy. EIG (Endurance International Group) is a holding company that owns 80+ hosting companies, including Bluehost, HostGator, iPage, etc. You probably know GoDaddy. As of 2012, GoDaddy hosted over 5 million websites and 52 million domains. The company has also acquired hosts like Media Temple to become even larger.
I’ll start by saying neither company is well respected in the web development community. EIG has a terrible reputation for buying smaller, high-performance hosts and dismantling them. The company bought A Small Orange in 2012, and user satisfaction has plummeted since. EIG also acquired Site5 and Verio in 2015 and threw customers into panic, who are skeptical about anything associated with EIG.
Without a doubt, EIG’s greatest failures were with Bluehost and HostGator. Both were considered excellent hosts pre-acquisition, and now both are considered garbage. I won’t overload you with links, but I encourage you to research customer reviews for both companies. You’ll find plenty of horror stories. Bluehost is actually a recommended host by WordPress, but it’s important to note that Bluehost is a long-standing sponsor of WordCamp and regularly donates to the WordPress Foundation. It’s also worth noting that EIG is an investor in Automattic, which is owned by the same person who co-founded WordPress and owns the wordpress.org domain.
So which hosts would you recommend?
It depends on your needs and your budget. Smaller companies with limited web traffic can get away with shared hosting plans, while a business looking to publish a lot of content will need a better host that can handle the bandwidth without losing performance. Here are some recommendations on hosts:
Shared Hosting: Shared hosting is where multiple sites are hosted on the same server. Each site shares the resource capacity of the server (memory, bandwidth, etc.), but there’s no limit for how much resource a single account can use. Shared hosting plans are generally the least expensive.
SiteGround and InMotion Hosting are the two highest-graded shared hosting providers available (for WordPress sites). We’ll stay away from EIG-owned companies and GoDaddy. I can personally vouch for SiteGround. Excellent support, in-house caching available (server and database), staging sites and Git integration, and very competitive prices make SiteGround a strong option. InMotion has a solid reputation as well, but I’ve never used them.
Managed Hosting: As mentioned in a previous post, Salty Key uses managed VPS hosting for this site. On a VPS, each site is guaranteed an allotment of resources not shared by other accounts on the server. Standard VPS hosting means you’re responsible for server maintenance and may have to install some of the software yourself, like PHP and MySQL. (DigitalOcean and Linode both offer inexpensive, unmanaged VPS hosting.) Managed hosting means all maintenance is handled for you.
The gold standard of managed WordPress hosting is WP Engine. Flywheel is a less expensive option (for entry pricing), and Elliptical Hosting is a great local (New Orleans-based) managed hosting provider. There are other managed WordPress hosts that are great, but the pricing is structured to host multiple website installs (it’s not worth it for a single site). Pagely is a superb host if you can afford it. Liquid Web is more affordable, but still geared toward agencies looking to host multiple sites.
Do I need managed hosting?
If you need server resources beyond shared hosting, I would recommend it. You can save money using DigitalOcean or Amazon Web Services (AWS) and get good results. In fact, many of the hosts I’ve mentioned use AWS or Linode as their cloud infrastructure provider. Pagely uses AWS, and WP Engine uses Linode (although I read they may switch to Rackspace). So, in essence, both Pagely and WP Engine are acting as resellers.
However, I still advise managed hosting. First, the companies mentioned above are much better at configuring and optimizing server software than the average developer. Second, they handle things like updates, malware scans, backups, etc. Third, if your website gets hacked or breaks, the last thing you want is unmanaged hosting. The money spent on cleanup will far outweigh the added cost of managed hosting.
How can I spot a good host?
Normally I would say to read reviews, but you never know who you can trust. A site or blog may recommend one host, but what you don’t realize is that site has affiliate links that pay them whenever users click-through to that company’s website. Or that a particular host is an advertiser of the site. Many of these “reviews” are very political.
I measure a host by how well it meets the following criteria:
- Uptime. Uptime is the amount of time your site is accessible to users. If your site experiences no downtime, uptime is 100%. Most hosts promise 99% uptime, leaving more than seven hours of downtime per month — plenty of time to account for scheduled maintenance, equipment failures, unexpected outages, etc. What uptime guarantees does your host make?
Caching Services. If you read an article about speeding up your WordPress site, you’ll likely see a recommendation for caching plugins like W3 Total Cache or WP Super Cache, but the truth is that caching performed at the system level will outperform any caching plugin performed at site level. Does your host provide server-level caching? If not, you may want to choose another host, or make sure you have another caching solution.
Pro Tip: Some hosts will provide caching support for e-commerce sites, allowing you to easily remove certain pages (cart, checkout, etc.) from system caching from your control panel.
- Proactive Security. Does your host run routine malware scans? Do they offer brute force protection? DDoS protection? SSL support? A server-level firewall? Most attacks on the web are due to server vulnerabilities. In the event of an attack, I can remove malicious code and restore backups, but if the server gets hacked, there’s nothing I can do. How quickly will your web host respond to an attack?
Disk Space/Bandwidth Limits. This can become a problem if you’re on a shared hosting account. Bandwidth is how much data you are allowed to transfer to visitors over a period of time. (Not to be confused with data transfer, which is the actual data transferred every time your website loads.) The more traffic your site receives, the more bandwidth it consumes. Also, the larger your site (page size), the more bandwidth consumed as well. Some web hosts will throttle site performance (or shut you down completely) as bandwidth usage increases.
Pro Tip: You can test how well your server handles excessive amounts of traffic with LoadStorm.
Disk space is how much web storage is allocated to your account (or the capacity of your HDD or SSD). Since drives are cheap, most hosts are generous with web storage restrictions. Available RAM (memory) affects the strain on the server’s processing power (CPU) and the performance of your site. RAM is the temporary memory that holds your site’s scripts and their data while they execute; this memory is needed by all programs that run on the server. If you exhaust your memory limit, your site may crash.
- Daily Backups. Salty Key has its own backup solution (in addition to host-generated backups), but automated backups is a must for any good host. How often does your host backup your site? Is it a full site backup (database and files), or database only? Can you access these backups? Can they be downloaded to a local drive? Will the host restore the backup for you? These are questions you should find out before settling on a host.
- Support. As mentioned in our latest security post, it’s easy to go into panic mode when disaster hits your site. How reliable is your host’s support team? Do they offer live chat? Can you call them? Will they help resolve your problem? Good support from a web host is invaluable when the house is burning down. Every web developer knows that.
There are other factors to weigh when evaluating a hosting company, but these are a good start.
Pro Tip: This tool from SiteGeek tells you: (1) how many sites a hosting company hosts, and (2) how many domains were transferred to and from a host. If you see a large number of domains moving out of a particular host, that could be a huge red flag.
Beware of reseller hosting accounts.
A reseller account allows you to resell hosting packages (at markup) to other people through a hosting company like GoDaddy, HostGator, etc. Basically, you act as the middleman between the end user and the hosting company.
Web agencies will often try to sell clients on hosting through their reseller accounts for two reasons. First, it allows them to markup the cost of hosting and create recurring revenue. Second, if you fail to make a payment, they can deactivate your site until payment is made. That’s not why you need to be cautious of reseller accounts, though. The problem is explained by Jack Reiner at Elliptical Hosting:
When you host with a reseller, you are not the customer of the hosting company. The reseller is the customer. This means the hosting company will not work with you. And you can get locked out of your own web site.
If your reseller “disappears” or should you have a falling out with them, the hosting company will not provide you admin access to your web site or email.
I’ll add another scenario: suppose the reseller goes bankrupt and can’t make payment to the hosting company. That means you lose access to your site. Even worse, the hosting company will likely delete the reseller’s account, meaning you may be unable to recover the site files (and any emails). You may have to pay for a whole new site!
I’m not saying that all resllers are bad. Many agencies are able to get good deals with hosting companies and provide a better product for clients (for less money) than if the client bought hosting directly from the hosting company. Plus it’s easier for agencies to do maintenance work on client sites through a reseller account than to manage a bunch of separate hosting accounts.
However, be cautious when dealing with fly-by-night agencies that insist on hosting your domain and your site themselves; always have a fallback plan in case things go south with that agency.
Beware of domain registrars that offer “free” hosting bundled with domain and email purchases.
If you buy a domain through GoDaddy or Network Solutions, chances are you’ll get an offer for free (or very cheap) hosting to go with your purchase. The free web hosting acts as a sweetener. Sounds tempting, but if it’s offered for free, how good is it?
I have a development site hosted with an unnamed registrar (I won’t name names) that’s running an outdated version of PHP. (See all currently supported PHP versions.) It’s a shared hosting account, so I can’t update it myself. Outdated PHP runs less efficiently and poses a security risk. WordPress has even stated its recommended PHP/MySQL requirements, so it’s not just me saying this. This registrar clearly doesn’t care about hosting.
There are other domain registrars — Namecheap, eNom, Register.com — that offer cheap hosting, but I can’t comment since I’ve never used them. (And I don’t plan on it.)
GoDaddy is fine as a domain host. They’re cheap. Since Network Solutions actually charges you to redirect a domain, I can’t even recommend them as a domain host anymore. (It used to be a good company until it got bought by Web.com.)
Beware of ISPs offering web hosting services.
This should be a no-brainer. If you use Cox Communications (or any other ISP) for web hosting or business email, you’re asking for terrible service. No explanation needed.