In This Article
- Core Types of Hosting Options — Which One is Right for You?
- Things to Consider
- Investigating Providers and Plans
- My Current Hosts
- Other Hosts I Considered
I’ve just been in the trenches fighting the “what’s the best hosting company” battle. And, as they say, war is hell. This battle involves a competitive market with dozens of companies ranging in both price and quality, and with services and features that can be confusing.
So, what put me in the battle trenches? For the past fifteen years or so I have used a VPS for my more demanding sites and a shared server for my smaller, less demanding ones. My VPS has always been a bit expensive but it performed well until I decided to migrate all my sites to WordPress (I had originally hand-coded them).
Let me tell you right now, WordPress is not always kind to servers. As soon as I started using it on my sites, CPU load and memory usage started to get hit really hard and my server would crash fairly regularly. And that’s even though traffic to most of my sites has actually declined in recent years due to Google’s various algorithm changes. I tried many things to improve the load without much luck. There are undoubtedly some important things I didn’t try that might have helped but in the end it seemed my only VPS solution would be to pay for a more expensive plan with more resources.
As for my shared server, it has actually served me well over the years, and I even switched to a cloud version about 8 months ago when the company (HostGator) was having a sale. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider one very important issue—SSL certificates. You probably already know that Google has started considering whether a site uses HTTPS (accomplished via a SSL certificate) in its rankings algorithm. It also has started issuing warnings in Chrome when your site has any kind of registration system but doesn’t use HTTPS.
In the past, I didn’t bother using SSL because it was fairly expensive. It still is for private certificates. Fortunately, there is now a completely free option called Let’s Encrypt. Great! Sign me up. Oh, wait. In order to use it, your web host has to offer it and, while more and more are doing so, Hostgator is not one of them.
And so it was I found myself in the market to replace both of my hosting providers.
At first, I considered just finding an alternative shared server host that supports Let’s Encrypt and a more powerful, less expensive VPS (you can fairly easily add support for Let’s Encrypt on any cPanel VPS if it isn’t turned on by default).
I didn’t originally consider a specialized WordPress hosting plan because I was remembering a few years ago when there were just a few such providers (most notably WP Engine), all of which were pretty expensive and supported only one site per plan. Fortunately, as I started browsing the many hosting companies’ websites, I quickly came to realize that plenty have now started offering such WordPress plans, including many that are very budget-friendly.
Still, most WordPress hosting plans are more expensive than basic shared server plans—sometimes just a bit, sometimes a lot. So, the natural first question is: are they worth the extra money?
Of course, the answer depends on your circumstances, but I think the answer is generally yes.
This article is about finding a good WordPress hosting service, but there are other potentially good hosting options as well. If you are undecided or just curious about all the options (or unclear about what exactly qualifies as WordPress hosting), expand the section below to read more. Otherwise, just keep reading.
So, you’ve decided to go with a WordPress hosting. What should you consider in choosing a good plan?
I have read that when it comes to Web hosting there is an expression: “Cheap. Reliable. Fast. Choose only two.” That seems about right to me, though the bigger problem is that it is very easy to end up choosing only one.
Below I will list some very specific things to consider but the big picture is this: you want to consider price, service reliability, resources and technical specifications, and quality of support.
There are a lot of price points and a few slick practices in the market. It is possible to find a bargain but generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Still, there are some specific cost related things to consider, including:
- True Price
Hosting companies are notoriously misleading about price on their sites. Usually the prices shown are only valid if you purchase a long-term contract, typically two or three years, but sometimes just one year. And, except in rare cases, that price will NOT be the price you pay upon renewal. Some, like A2 are sneakier still in that a core function, like their Turbo option, is extra—a LOT extra—even though the copy makes it seem like it is included by default. Some hosts also list their discounted sale price and a “regular” price. Again picking on A2, that “regular” price is a price based on a multi-year renewal. Some companies don’t even allow a month-to-month purchase and others that do charge a setup fee for that option. Finally, some make canceling difficult and/or require 30 days’ notice.
- Setup fee
This fee rarely exists since hosts want to make it as easy and tempting to switch from a competitor as possible. In the rare cases where it does exist, it is almost always only if you want a month-to-month plan.
- Money-back guarantee – duration and limitations
Some limitations include only being available for minimum-contract purchases, only being available on higher-priced plans, excluding extra services (e.g., dedicated IP, backup, etc.), excluding a setup fee, pro-rating the refund based on number of days already used, etc.
- Fees for exceeding resource limits
Your hosting plan will have resource restrictions, most importantly CPU, RAM, and bandwidth usage. Some hosts are pretty forgiving, some will nudge you (nicely or aggressively) to upgrade to a higher plan, and some (yikes!) will simply shut off your service (usually until the next day or the next month). Then there are those that will let you exceed your limits but charge you an extra fee for doing so.
- Marketing options
Some hosts offer marketing incentives, such as free Google Adwords or Facebook advertising vouchers.
This is obviously super important. You never want your website to go offline because the hosting company or your specific server is having a technical problem. Some hosts will offer you some kind of compensation if your site goes down (usually a pro-rated refund of your monthly fee) but that is not what you want. You want the site to always be running.
I think these days overall reliability is getting to be pretty good across the major players but be sure to investigate your shortlist hosts to be sure. Later I will list some useful review and ranking sites that include performance and reliability monitoring results.
Support and Service
Sales and technical support are the type of thing that don’t matter too much when everything is going well but are super important when things aren’t. Here are some specific things to consider:
- Hours of tech support
Most major providers offer 24/7 support, but some may advertise that when in fact they only offer 24 hour sales support. Some others do offer 24/7 tech support but their “real” techs aren’t available in off hours.
- Communications channels
The main options for reaching support include: telephone, email, online ticket system, live chat, and Skype. Note that some hosts offer some options for sales but not tech support. Also, look for a good knowledge base and/or support forum as these often have answers to questions that can save you the hassle of dealing with tech support.
- Support speed/responsiveness
This is hard to get a handle on but there are usually some reviews around the Web that mention this for whatever hosts you are considering (assuming they are not fake reviews).
- Expertise of support staff
This is really tough to gauge and I am sorry to say that in general the expertise is probably not as good as you would hope. For WordPress hosting, you will probably also want to choose a host that actually offers WordPress support expertise as many hosts will simply claim that WordPress is something you installed and therefore you need to fix whatever is wrong. Obviously, tech support is not going to help you modify a theme design, but knowledgeable techs can help you find a rogue plugin that is causing your site to crash or use too many resources, can recommend a good caching plugin, etc.
- Tech skills vs. communication skills
I don’t know how to test this and it probably doesn’t matter anyway since every host I have ever used employs techs with awful communication skills. They may know their technical stuff but talking with them is like talking to a wall sometimes. In my years of experience dealing with tech support across multiple hosting companies, I have made multiple recommendations for improving some aspect of service and I have never once received any kind of response acknowledging the value (or lack thereof) of my suggestion and no action was ever taken either. I think it is a major weak point when customer suggestions have no real way to get passed on to the staff that could review and implement them.
- Test support by asking questions
As you will notice, a lot of things I discuss cannot easily be assessed from a provider’s website or most online reviews. So, take the extra step of contacting each provider on your shortlist to see how quickly and thoroughly they reply. You will probably only be able to contact sales staff, which is usually going to be much more responsive than tech support, but hey, if they can’t get that right, they probably can’t get tech support right either. And, if you can contact tech support directly, try to ask some questions about their technology, security precautions, speed enhancements, etc. to see how knowledgeable they sound.
Technical Specifications, Resources and Features
As you start investigating hosts you will see that the way different providers highlight plan features varies a lot. Some barely list any features, even if they have many good ones and some list everything under the sun, even things that are impossible to not have. So, don’t consider the size of the feature list as an indication of host quality or value. Instead look for the features you actually care about.
Below I will discuss all the features I have seen (not in any particular order), what each means, and any “gotchas” to be aware of. As you will see, there are a lot of them to consider, some of which will matter more and some less. I cannot know which will be of most value to you but hopefully being aware of the different choices will help you make a better purchase decision.
- “Unlimited” plans
Most popular hosting companies have long advertised unlimited basic shared server plans and now some are starting to do so for their WordPress plans as well. Essentially, you can have unlimited disk space, host an unlimited number of websites, and enjoy an unlimited amount of bandwidth. Lies, lies, and more lies. How do companies get away with telling these lies? Because technically it is not a complete lie since you can actually have these items more or less unlimited IF they don’t overuse the server’s CPU and memory (RAM) resources. So, a thousand sites getting one visitor a month each? Probably no problem. But, one site that gets 10,000 visitors a day? Big, big problem.And, how do you know what these mysterious resource limits are? You will probably have to read the fine print (good luck finding it) or ask a sales representative since they are usually not listed clearly on plan details pages.
And what will happen exactly if your website starts to get popular and ends up exceeding your plan’s server resource limits? Many companies will simply ask you to upgrade to a more expensive plan. But, unfortunately, some will automatically suspend your account and then send you an email notification. Even worse, some won’t even bother with the notification and you may not end up realizing your site is down.
Most people get in trouble with CPU and RAM usage restrictions but another unlimited “gotcha” involves disk space. While many hosts promise unlimited space, they also impose a limit on the total number of files and folders (collectively called inodes). Further, some hosts have terms that prohibit certain uses of their servers, for example prohibiting the use of your disk space to serve as cloud storage for your various backup needs or prohibiting file sharing.
As I mentioned, most hosting companies hide resource limits and even when you can actually find them online they are often not very clear, but Dreamhost has fairly clear guidelines to their unlimited terms that might prove instructive.
- Disk space and type
The two biggest considerations regarding disk space are what type and how much. These days SSD disks are becoming more and more common, and that is absolutely what you want as it will make your server much faster. As for the amount of space, this will need to accommodate not just your site files and uploads but also database space, email kept on the server, temporary files, statistics and log files, backup files, etc. Also, regarding space limits, something important to understand is that there are usually two limits at play. First is the overall size of your files. Second is the total number of individual files and folders (collectively known as inodes). Usually the latter isn’t a big issue, but if you happen to have a lot of small files, it could be.
- Number of domains
In the early days of WordPress hosting, most plans only allowed a single site to be hosted but these days allowing multiple or unlimited domains is becoming more common. Other resource limits will still apply so unlimited domains does not mean you can load up your server with lots of high traffic sites.
Most plans offer unlimited email accounts and forwarding addresses and you probably don’t need very many anyway. More importantly, most plans impose a per hour email sending limit, typically 200-500 per hour. For most people this is no real problem, but if you plan to have a newsletter that you will administer and send yourself it could be an important consideration.
PHP is the underlying scripting language used by WordPress and is fairly actively maintained, meaning new versions are regularly released. Some hosts are slow to upgrade though, so make sure you choose one that offers the latest version. However, even hosts supporting the latest version will probably NOT have that version enabled by default (for some good reasons). So, you want to also make sure that you have the ability to update the version, either by yourself via cPanel or via a tech support request.
PHP also has a lot of settings that can be adjusted to achieve different functionality and performance (typically via the
php.inifile). Some Web hosts allow you to modify the settings and some don’t. I would generally recommend a host that does, but for simple blogs you probably won’t really need that.
- SSL/SSH (HTTPS)
Not all hosts offer free HTTPS, though not doing so is becoming hard to justify. In the past, enabling HTTPS required an expensive private SSL certificate and implementation was kind of a pain, but there is now a free solution called Let’s Encrypt. Why isn’t every host offering this? The cynical (though almost certainly true) answer is that they don’t want to abandon the revenue they have historically been making by selling expensive private certificates. As I mentioned, the lack of free HTTPS is why I chose to leave Hostgator in search of a new host.
There are plugins (I like UpdraftPlus) and third party services to backup your WordPress site, but it is good to have a regular (daily) backup provided by your hosting provider and many do offer this. However, beware that some hosts claim to offer backups but if you read the details you see they really mean they backup for their own administrative purposes. In other words, you don’t really have access to those backups or you cannot use them to restore from. And, some hosts do provide free backups but charge a one-time fee to actually restore from one. Some better hosts (including mine, SiteGround) even perform an automatic backup prior to updating WordPress or any of your plugins so you can easily restore if the update breaks your site. Finally, some hosts will stop providing backups if you pass a threshold for amount of disk space or number of inodes used.
- Operating System (OS)
The two main choices here are Linux and Windows, with Linux by far the more common choice. There are actually many Linux variants available but for the most part you shouldn’t really care, with one exception. Look for the increasingly popular CloudLinux OS, which was developed especially for shared hosting providers to improve server stability, density, and security by isolating accounts and allocating each defined server resources. All things being equal, I would give preference to a host using CloudLinux.
- Web server software
Web server refers to the software used to process all requests for your site’s pages and serve them to the requester. There are four main options in use: Apache (the most popular), LiteSpeed, Nginx, and IIS (Windows). Do you really care which one is used by a host? Maybe. Why? Because two of them, LiteSpeed and Nginx, offer greater performance, though not without drawbacks. LiteSpeed’s major issue is that it is not free and so it is often only used on more expensive hosting plans. Nginx’s major issue is that it does not support popular Apache features like the use of .htaccess files. You don’t generally see any mixing and matching of these web servers, though SiteGround uses Apache while also using Nginx for their SuperCacher feature.
Since WordPress is database-driven software, every time someone visits your site, it must retrieve the requested page from the database. This can be slow and inefficient, especially as your traffic increases. Caching is a system employed to store static copies of your pages so that this database lookup is not needed, thus letting your site’s visitors view each page faster and reducing the load on your server.
There are two basic types of caching: site caching and server caching. You can control the former via a plugin like WP Super Cache, though some hosts also offer their own proprietary plugin for that. Server caching is up to the host to provide and is often one of the key features that differentiates a WordPress plan from its basic shared server brother. Personally, I wouldn’t even consider a plan that doesn’t offer server-based caching.
There are different server caching technologies that can be used so it might be a bit confusing or difficult to compare one host with another. Some technology focuses on caching static page elements and some focuses on caching database queries. Which caching technology is best? That is beyond the scope of this article, but the most common options you will see are OpCache (which is actually a PHP caching system), Memcached, Varnish (technically, an HTTP accelerator and not useful for HTTPS sites), and Nginx (which is actually a web server that offers caching)
When it comes to securing your website, there are two basic factors: the site itself and the network. Usually you are in charge of your own site’s security, though some hosts do block potentially dangerous plugins and may also offer a tool to keep your core WordPress installation and plugins updated. Some providers even offer a regular scanning feature to find malware and site breeches, though that is usually a paid feature.
As for network security, the goal is usually to prevent email abuse and to block bad traffic (denial of service attack, bot traffic, hacking attempts, etc.). Network security is often only available on managed plans or is offered as a paid service, but a few hosts do offer at least some basic protection included in all plans.
- cPanel website administrative control panel
This is by far the most popular control panel and it is fairly easy to use. Don’t waste time with anything else. One benefit of sticking with this is that you will already know how it works if you ever decide to switch hosts. The other big benefit is that it is very easy to transfer a website between two hosting providers that both use cPanel.
- Free site migration
Just about every hosting provider offers free migration of your site(s) when you switch from another host, though they may not offer this service or charge for it if you are moving from a host that doesn’t use cPanel.
- WordPress and additional script installation
Most hosting companies offer a one-click WordPress install option. If you already have it setup and are transferring to a new webhost, this won’t be an issue but for a brand new site it might be nice to have. In addition, most plans also provide a tool (most commonly Fantastico or Softaculous) which makes it easy to install and configure a number of popular scripts (e.g., forums, polls, chat, etc.).
- FTP / File manager
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a method of connecting to your server so you can transfer files. Almost everyone offers this and most cPanel plans also offer an easy to use GUI file manager.
- Database resources
WordPress requires MySQL (or MariaDB—they are basically the same thing) so obviously any WordPress hosting plan will offer it. The question is whether there are any limits imposed, typically in the form of the number of databases and/or the size for any single database. For most basic sites you will only need one database, but depending on what plugins you are using and how much content you have, size could potentially be an issue.
This is pretty much the standard program for working with your database. You may never need it, but it is good to have. I have never seen a host that didn’t offer it though, so I wouldn’t give it much thought.
- Server resources (CPU/RAM)
The core server resources you will want to consider are the number of CPUs (sometimes referred to as CPU cores or just cores, though some hosts will specify CPU time usage instead) and the amount of memory (RAM). The more of each the better. For memory, you will want to know if it is guaranteed or burstable and you will also want to focus on physical memory rather than virtual memory, which is when the hard disk is used to emulate RAM memory.
- Server Resources (# Processes)
Some hosts will limit the number of concurrent processes your sites can run at any time. This is not something you will probably need to worry about, but all things being equal, more is better.
- Resource usage reporting
You know that your hosting plan comes with all sorts of resource limits, but it is still nice to know what those are and to see them listed in the sidebar of your cPanel. Some hosts do this and some do not. Also, look for a host that offers detailed graphs of your resource usage over time. This can help troubleshoot problems and give you some indication when you might need to upgrade your hosting plan.
- Plugin restrictions
Some hosts, especially those offering fully managed plans, restrict the plugins that can be used. Usually this is to prevent conflicts with their server configurations or caching features, but sometimes it is because a plugin is known to be a resource hog or has had a poor security history in the past. Whatever the reason, if there are plugins you rely on, be sure to make sure there is no restriction on using them. If you are curious what kinds of plugins get banned, check out HostGator’s full list of disallowed plugins.
- Other limits
In addition to the limits already discussed (CPU, processes, memory, disk space, database, plugins), check if a host you are considering has any other limits. For example, SiteGround will not allow you to create a cron job that runs more than twice an hour.
- Dedicated database server
Most servers handle both your site’s core files and the underlying database but some separate the two, which in theory can provide enhanced speed and performance. I wouldn’t really worry about this.
You are familiar with HTTP, since that is what gets typed into the browser (http://www.domain.com). I won’t bore you with details, but HTTP/2 is the latest version of the core HTTP technology and it vastly speeds up website performance. So, having it is very good. The problem is that it must be supported by the hosting provider and it only works with HTTPS URLs, so if your plan doesn’t include a SSL certificate or you have chosen not to use it, there will be no HTTP/2 for you.
- Choice of server location
Hosts, especially larger ones, often have servers physically located in multiple locations. Some let you choose which location to use for your account, which can be helpful if the majority of your users are located in a specific geographical region.
- Free domain registration
A surprisingly common offer from hosts is to include a free domain registration with a new account creation. I guess this is mostly targeted to those just getting started with a new website and I don’t know exactly how it works. For example, is it free for just a year or for the lifetime of your account? If you have to renew, what is the price for that? Regardless of the answers to those questions, I don’t recommend this because if you ever want to change to a different host, you will need to change the DNS settings and if those are controlled by the host you are leaving, you could (in theory) be held ransom or face unreasonable delay.
- Seamless upgrades
As your site grows, it may need more resources than the plan you started with offers. Some hosts offer seamless upgrade options so you can either change plans or simply add more of the specific resources you need (memory, disk space, etc.) and not suffer any website downtime.
- Dedicated IP address
Typically, shared hosting plans not only share a physical server, but they share an IP address as well. In most cases, this is no problem. In the past, getting a SSL certificate required a dedicated IP address and still can if you want a private certificate, but thanks to Server Name Indication (SNI) you can now use HTTPS with a shared IP address. Another reason you might want to choose a dedicated IP address is if you plan to do email marketing and would like to control your sender reputation. Finally, there may also be specialized software products that recommend or require it, but I am not sure what those might be.
- Addon services
Most hosts offer premium paid features, including dedicated IP addresses, private SSL certificates, SiteBuilder, SiteLock, SEO services, private DNS, Google apps, and various marketing discounts or coupons.
- Content Delivery Network (CDN)
A CDN is a geographically distributed network of proxy servers and their data centers. The goal is to distribute your site’s content across the world so that when someone visits your site he or she will be served the content by the closes geographical node. A CDN can provide high availability, increased speed, and lower server load.
There are a lot of commercial CDN providers, but when it comes to shared WordPress hosting, the most likely CDN on offer will be Cloudflare, probably because it offers a good free plan and works closely with hosting companies to integrate the services. Note that some hosts will highlight their CDN but not mention who provides it. If you contact sales you will usually find out it is Cloudflare.
There is a lot to love about Cloudflare. Besides content delivery, it also provides security features by screening out malicious and spam traffic. It can do this because all your site’s traffic is first routed through Cloudflare servers before being forwarded on to your host server. Normally, to use Cloudflare you need to create an account and then configure your domain registrar to use the Cloudflare name servers. The nice thing about using a host that has tightly integrated with Cloudflare is that you can either use an existing account (if you already have one) or quickly create one from your cPanel, and you can also usually avoid the name server step as well.
As I said, Cloudflare is great, but it is not perfect. While the free plan offers quite a lot, some useful features, most notably full support for SSL/HTTPS, do require a paid plan, which is not cheap. Also, although using the service usually speeds up your site’s performance, there is a not-insignificant hit to something called Time to First Byte, which can end up hurting your page speed test scores. There is a feature called Railgun that can speed up the connectivity between Cloudflare servers and your hosting server, but it is also a premium feature (though SiteGround offers it for free).
Hotlinking (inline linking) is the use of a linked object, often an image, on one site by a web page belonging to a second site. So, say you have a photo on one of your posts and somebody else wants to use it (usually illegally). Ideally they would download a local copy of that photo to their server and link to it, but sometimes instead they just link to your original. So, even though someone is now reading a post on a completely different website hosted by someone else, your server is being forced to use resources to serve that image. Obviously this is not good. You can manually prevent this from happening and some WordPress security plugins do indeed offer this prevention feature, but some hosting companies offer it by default.
Many hosts offer free account analytics tools, usually AWStats or Webalizer (the former is better). These may be nice to have, but with Google Analytics being free and easy to use with WordPress, this feature is not a real differentiator.
- Multi-site management
If you run more than one WordPress site you probably already know the pain involved in doing updates. There are tools that can help you manage multiple sites from a single dashboard. I use and love the freemium MainWP plugin but I have seen a couple (still rare) hosts claiming to offer their own tool. Actually, I don’t know if they are offering a proprietary tool or simply offering one of the existing tools (like MainWP) but either way it is a nice feature that I would like to see increase in popularity.
A staging site is a copy of your live site that lets you test plugins, themes, and custom code to see if they will cause any problems before making them live. You can set up your own development site on your personal computer or even create and sync your own staging site, but the best option is to use a host that provides easy to setup and manage staging sites. Currently, this feature is usually found only on more expensive plans so depending on your budget it may not be a realistic feature to choose.
WP-CLI is the command-line interface for WordPress. You would have to be pretty geeky to need this, and if you do you probably aren’t reading this article anyway.
Investigating Providers and Plans
Now that you know what to consider in a WordPress hosting plan, it’s time to investigate the various providers and narrow the options to a shortlist. With so many to choose from, where should you start? If you want to get a quick start, skip to my discussion of the various hosting companies I have used as well as ones that made my shortlist while recently switching hosts. Otherwise, you will probably want to look for reviews and rankings online.
Online Reviews — Beware!
In searching for a Web host, your first instinct is probably to use Google to find reviews. Why not? It has served you well for other purchases and you consider yourself to possess decent to excellent Google ninja skills. Unfortunately, finding trustworthy hosting reviews is not at all like finding reviews for a new camera or other consumer product.
Because Web hosting is an insanely competitive industry (a $16 billion industry in the US alone and growing at 10% per year). If you have started investigating options already you know what I am talking about. It seems there are an endless number of companies to choose from.
Why is that relevant?
Well, to get ahead in this competitive market, most companies make heavy use of affiliate programs, paying a commission for referrals. Some of these commissions can be pretty darn good, so naturally quite a lot of people decide to make a few bucks this way and slap up a review of their hosting provider or a “Top X” list of providers, etc. Those are the small-time players (this article is one) and what they produce is hit or miss.
The bigger problem is that there are now many sites completely focused on providing reviews and information about web hosting providers. Some of these are very large and popular and rank very well in Google searches. All are playing the affiliate game. Some are completely useless, merely listing the companies that pay the highest commissions and some are biased but still provide useful information.
A Note about Affiliate Links
I have yet to come across any review of a hosting company or service that doesn’t use affiliate links. That’s because it is big business with the companies all having affiliate programs that pay out pretty nice referral fees. This article also uses them, BUT only for the companies that made the shortlist during my own research or that I have actually used in the past.
Michael at Research as a Hobby offers a table comparing the affiliate programs of various web hosting companies (the lower the “Aff Score” columns, the less aggressively that company uses affiliate programs to drive sales).
Still, it’s pretty hard to imagine making such an important purchasing decision without some kind of reviews as guidance, right? And, hey, there must be some decent ones out there. Well, there are, and even some of the completely biased ones can still be of some use.
Here are some tips for avoiding the useless ranking and review sites and finding some value in the rest.
- If you spend a fair amount of time doing online research, you will start to see the same usual suspects cropping up in rankings. The problem is in knowing whether they are always represented because of their generous affiliate payouts or because they are genuinely the best. I recommend avoiding sites listing the “best” hosts when they are populated with only these “usual suspects” (e.g., Arvixe, BlueHost, 1&1, GreenGeeks, Hostgator, iPage, InMotion, Site5, etc.) These popular hosts can be perfectly good choices, but they are also very regularly recipients of pretty awful criticism and reviews from users so if they are listed as the “best” you can be sure that either no real criteria were applied or the author simply is looking for the best affiliate payout possible.
- Be wary of any site that lists only Endurance International Group (EIG) companies. Who/what is EIG? It is a large company that has consolidated many previously independent hosting companies. Popular brands they own include Arvixe, A Small Orange, BlueHost, Dotser, FatCow, HostGator, HostMonster, iPage, iPower, IX Webhosting, JustCloud, JustHost and Site5 (see full list of EIG hosts). Note that you will never see any reference to EIG on any of their hosting site pages. A lot of people don’t like this company and try to avoid any host owned by it. The general consensus among the haters is that EIG buys a previously well-regarded independent host and then promptly crams more sites onto each shared server and reduces the quality of service provided (often by outsourcing to cheaper, less qualified techs). How true this is or whether it is something you even care about I leave up to you to decide but definitely consider with great skepticism any review site that doesn’t list any non-EIG hosts.
- Be aware that many reviews and rankings compare apples and oranges. For example, they compare one company’s basic shared server plan with another’s WordPress plan, thus making it difficult to get an accurate perspective on what you really care about. Or they might only focus on the lowest cost plans, which may or may not be what you are looking for. Or they can even mix and match, considering one company’s lowest plan and another’s mid-tier plan.
- Related to the previous point, when a site claims to list the top WordPress hosting providers and you see some on the list that don’t even offer WordPress plans and others that you know do but are not included, stop reading.
- Once you have found a useful, reliable review site, pay attention to the age of the review(s) as things change quickly in the industry (consolidation, improvement or deterioration of quality/service, etc.)
- Don’t be fooled by “special rates” available only from the review site you are reading. I have rarely seen any “deal” or “special offer” that wasn’t the standard deal price available on the hosting site already.
- Actual test-based rankings are preferable, but even those are not without issues. The biggest is the list of hosts actually tested. It would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming to test all hosts but when the review site just chooses the usual suspects, you cannot really expect a proper assessment. Another issue is that what gets tested is often a stripped-down WordPress implementation that may not resemble the demands your own site will have and usually the entry-level plan is what is being tested (and some hosts’ entry plans don’t offer all the features of their other plans, like caching, SSL, etc.). Another issue to consider is server location. Good, robust testing will test speeds from various places around the world to accommodate this biasing factor. Finally, were tests done once-off or with load testing also? Were they done over an extended period of time (say 30 days)? Still, even considering these issues, test-based rankings tend to have more value than possibly fake customer review-based sites.
- For review sites that rely on customer reviews, what is the source of those reviews? Is it user-generated with no controls in place to ensure the review isn’t fake? Are they culled from Twitter, Facebook or other social media posts? Are they the same ones used on multiple sites? Are they almost uniformly positive? No host will ever get all positive reviews, so if that is what you are seeing they are probably fake or at least largely fake.
- Ultimately, you will probably never know if some of the positive reviews are paid or fake or if some of the most negative reviews have been omitted. Still, assuming you believe that at least some of the user reviews are legitimate, focus only on the ones that provide specific, useful information about a host. Look for ones that (1) are from long-time customers, who have more experience/history to report on and (2) are from customers that have had experience with multiple hosting companies, ideally specifically referencing those companies and comparing them to the current host. Ignore reviews that only focus on the helpfulness of sales staff – that won’t be of any help actually running your site. If a review does mention good customer service, look for specifics. Just saying they had great service is useless. Saying they were getting an error message when they installed a plugin and tech support helped fix it by modifying the
php.inifile and did so professionally in less than five minutes is the kind of review that is helpful.
- After you have used the various mega review and ranking sites to generate a “shortlist” of hosts to consider, try to find a few detailed reviews of each. Look for reviews that actually include performance tests and were written by someone that has used—or even better, still is using—the service.
Why so much variability in reviews?
Ratings and reviews of shared hosting providers and services often vary greatly because so much depends on (1) your shared server neighbors and (2) your unique needs. Some people never have many technical problems or complications and thus don’t really notice bad customer service and so they are more apt to be satisfied. Likewise, if you have “good” neighbors your server will probably perform relatively well and you will be satisfied and if you have “bad” neighbors you might be very unsatisfied. You can also see different performance at the beginning of your contract if you are on a still not fully populated server and later once it is full. Likewise, a company may have a rule on how many accounts can populate a shared server but not a rule about how many domains. So, 500 accounts each with one site may differ from 500 accounts with an average of five sites each. And, of course, one popular site can use more server resources than five unpopular blogs. This is why a company like SiteGround generally does very well in ratings relative to its peers—because it is pretty strict about each account’s use of server resources. The flip side is that this strictness can piss off the offenders, which leads to some negative reviews (sour grapes).
Possibly Useful Review Sites
Where Are Your Heroes Hosted?
Another way to potentially identify a good host provider is to see which ones power the blogs you like and respect. You can do so easily via a network trace. For shared hosting, you can also usually do a reverse DNS lookup as most shared hosts have their customers use generic, hosting company branded name servers (e.g., ns1.hostingcompany.com). Of course, you can always reach out to the blog owner and ask what host they use and what they think of it.
My Current Hosts
Now you are familiar with features and other considerations for choosing a webhost as well as some useful sources of online information. If you would like to know what I think about the hosts I am currently using, read on.
1&1 is one of my three current hosting providers. It gets pretty awful reviews all around and you will rarely see it in any best-of list (if you do, don’t trust that site). Honestly, I can understand why.
In fact, I had a problem from the very beginning since I was in Thailand when I ordered my account. Apparently, that triggered a security flag in their system so my account never got completed. In the admin area the only message available said “Setting Up” and that the process could take up to 48 hours. So, I patiently waited 48 hours with no progress. So, I got on the phone and got the real story. Why didn’t they just send an email explaining the account was on hold and needed some verification?
Perhaps the biggest usability downside with 1&1 is that their system doesn’t use cPanel. That wouldn’t be so bad if their control panel were intuitive or even half as good as cPanel, but sadly it is not, which undoubtedly leads to extra support calls.
Speaking of support, once you find yourself in need there is no online option at all, only phone support. Now, normally I applaud when a hosting company offers phone support because these days many don’t. But, phone-only support kind of sucks, especially if your issue isn’t very time sensitive and you are too busy to sit on a phone waiting for a representative. Also, I might be mistaken, but I got the impression that when you call support, you first speak with someone that is more of a gatekeeper than a support tech. Their goal is to provide answers to the simplest questions and for anything more complicated they have to pass the issue on to someone else.
I actually had a few issues after initial setup that required me to contact technical support. I would like to say that they were helpful in resolving the issues, but I cannot. They were courteous, for sure, but I found their actual knowledge and expertise quite lacking.
The first issue I had was not being able to send emails via secure SMTP, which their online documentation says can be done via the typical ports (465, 567). I was actually able to use TLS via the typically unsecured port 25, but I could not get the other ports to work. In the end, I got poor responses and no resolution to this issue and just gave up.
The second issue I had was that some scripts I had were timing out and showing a strange Nginx error that had no associated documentation. After explaining multiple times and asking them to check the server error logs to tell me what was happening (because I don’t have access to those logs via my account), I got nowhere. Finally, I realized what the problem was on my own. In fact, it was that secure SMTP issue again. My script was trying to send an email and was encountering that problem I had never gotten resolved. So, I switched to using port 25 and now things are fine. But, that is in no way thanks to any efforts by tech support.
Finally, I cannot get DKIM working. I have read online that they don’t support it on their shared servers, but there is actually very little information available and I haven’t bothered to contact support yet because I don’t really have any confidence in them at this point (and SPF still works fine so it is more an inconvenience than a real problem).
Another 1&1 annoyance is that some of their additional, for-fee services are sneaky. For example, I accidentally ordered the virus scanner option because it was pre-selected in the screen for creating a new email account. Normally, you would expect premium features to be deselected by default and, in either case, to be clearly identified as a premium service with the relevant price. Not with 1&1.
There is also a technical annoyance regarding all new 1&1 accounts. With most hosts you can set up and debug your sites on the new server before actually changing the DNS name servers at your registrar (which is what starts sending live traffic to the new server). This is not only a good practice, it is really a necessity as different servers run different versions of OS, PHP, MySQL, etc. that could affect site functionality. The problem I had with 1&1 is that I wanted to upgrade the PHP version, but that change can only be made after the site is live on their server (they check that the DNS name servers are set to theirs to verify).
If you look at the features advertised for the 1&1 WordPress plans you might notice, as I did, that all three offer the same guaranteed RAM (up to 2GB). Most hosts offer more CPU/RAM as your plan price increases. There also seems to be no virtualization, which means all users on the same shared server share the CPU cores. That’s a good news / bad news situation. Good if your site is a bit CPU hungry and you have lots of neighbors that aren’t heavy users. Bad if the opposite. So, basically higher plans offer increased number of sites (vs. 1 for Basic), increased level of SSD space, the addition of the Cloudflare CDN (with or without Railgun) and Sitelock.
By now you might be wondering why I am using 1&1, which is a good question. The simple answer is that they actually have the least restrictive per hour email sending limit of all the inexpensive hosting companies. Since the site I am hosting with them sends out around 13,000 emails per day (opt-in, educational, non-promotional, non-spam emails), typical limits of 500 or even less emails per hour would require more than 24 hours. Additionally, in fairness to 1&1, besides the initial support issues, my site has always functioned reliably.
Other things 1&1 gets right are proactive malware scanning and protection (I experienced this firsthand), SSH, SFTP, and the ability to change PHP version (though strangely you cannot do the same for MySQL which is using a very old version). You also get a free SSL certificate, even on the cheapest plan, which is great, though interestingly, it isn’t the free Let’s Encrypt option.
Finally, if you are interested in giving 1&1 a try, one very nice thing is that their Basic WordPress hosting package is dirt cheap for the first year. I paid just $0.99 per month for a one year plan. Afterwards the price will be $7.99 which isn’t bad but probably not the best deal available. Still, for very little investment you get a year to kick the tires and see how you like it.
SiteGround is one of my current hosts. I use it for about a dozen of my sites, most not seeing very much traffic. I have been impressed with both the features and the support offered by this company. Interestingly, though it is actually a very popular host and has been for years, I had never heard of it before I started my investigation, probably because the last time I looked into hosting companies was about 9 years ago.
If you do some research, you will see that SiteGround consistently does very well in performance and reliability tests and has among the highest customer ratings.
SiteGround uses cPanel, but it has some custom tweaks that I quite like, especially the Let’s Encrypt and Cloudflare management tools. With the former there is even a custom feature to force HTTPS in a way that you won’t have any potential mixed content issues. I haven’t seen any other host offering that feature. For Cloudflare, SiteGround is the only host I am aware of that offers the premium Railgun option for free.
Another of their unique features is SuperCacher, a three-level (static, dynamic, and database) caching solution that works incredibly well. SuperCacher is managed by both a cPanel management page and an associated plugin. The latter even includes a tool to check that your site is compatible with the latest version of PHP, which you can easily upgrade (and customize) from your cPanel.
Yet another great feature is their WP Auto Update tool, which allows you to automatically keep your core WordPress code and all plugins updated. The tool will even perform a backup before updating so you can easily restore your site if one of the updates breaks something.
SiteGround also has a robust firewall and other security measures to protect your sites from getting unwanted traffic and hacking attempts and all accounts are effectively isolated from each other to prevent problems that any bad neighbors might cause.
As you can tell, there is a lot to like about SiteGround and I highly recommend you put them on your shortlist. However, I do offer one huge caveat: the resource restrictions are very strict and they will shut down your account automatically if you exceed your daily limits (which I guess is the major reason some people give SiteGround negative reviews).
If your account is suspended, it will only last until the next day, when the limits are automatically reset, but it can be pretty stressful. Naturally, you will want to resolve the underlying cause so that it doesn’t become a daily occurrence. Fortunately, that is where the excellent technical support will really show its value.
Your account won’t simply be suspended without any warning or notice. Once you hit a usage threshold (80% I think), SiteGround will send a warning email and then you will get another email if you actually hit 100% and are suspended. The warning is helpful, but if the problem that causes your excessive resource usage is quite sudden (like a rogue process or a surge in traffic due to a page going viral, etc.), you may not notice the email in time to take corrective action.
This probably sounds pretty scary, and honestly, it can be, but most sites experience fairly consistent traffic and resource usage that don’t come close to exceeding the limits. And, you can easily monitor your usage in the cPanel (on the sidebar and via special reporting tools), which I recommend you do in the early days. Pretty quickly, you will start to see what your typical resource usage looks like (as a percentage of the limit) and can decide how safe or dangerous your situation is. If you are regularly flirting with your limits, you will want to consider upgrading your plan or figure out what plugin, theme code or other thing is causing your site to use more resources than it should.
So, what happens if you do get your account suspended? Well, it has actually happened to me twice! The first time I didn’t notice the warning in time but when I did, I contacted technical support and they helped me figure out the issue (a problem with a plugin I was using) and then re-enabled my account. The second time was actually the same problem (I forgot to disable the plugin on one of my sites) but fortunately I did see the warning email in time and again contacted support, which raised my limits for that day after confirming that I had solved the problem.
So, to summarize the resource restriction issue, I would say this: the company is not out to screw you, they are just trying to run a tidy ship, which ultimately benefits all customers (no rogue neighborhood activity will be dragging down your site’s performance). Once you (or they) can figure out what caused the problem and get it resolved, they are happy to re-enable your account.
Regarding tech support, I have mentioned their helpfulness when my account was suspended. I also had a strange problem with my Wordfence plugin not working properly, and it turned out to be a PHP configuration issue that tech support identified and fixed for me. I had one other small issue that was also dealt with professionally and quickly. You can open a support ticket or use the chat option. I prefer the latter.
As with so many hosts, SiteGround’s initial price is much lower than the regular price, which is higher than some competitors and lower than others. Obviously, the longer your initial contract, the better the deal, but then you lock yourself into the service or risk losing that upfront investment. I personally gambled and paid for three years of service. I am only a few months in, so we’ll see if I continue to be happy, but so far, so good.
I currently host three of my websites with TMDHosting. I could probably manage to stick these sites on my Siteground account without any resource usage problems, but I thought it wise to have two separate plans in case I experience problems with one.
I am actually using one of their cloud hosting plans (Rain Cloud) not a WordPress plan as it is more powerful and robust for about the same amount of money. I was actually quite unsure which one I should choose so I contacted sales (they have a live chat option on their main site) and got good information to help make my decision. Although there are a few differences in feature sets, I think either type of plan should be more than adequate for your WordPress needs.
So far, my experience has been mostly good. I have had six tech support issues, all of which were resolved via a ticketing system (there is no live chat option). The first was simply to migrate my old site. Since I was coming from a VPS to shared hosting, there was an issue in that I couldn’t do a complete cPanel migration but rather had to choose one domain to migrate and move the others manually (as addon domains). Support did explain that I could avoid this by switching to a reseller account. That wasn’t my interest but it was good that they offered that option. My second ticket about was about switching to PHP7. You can do that yourself via cPanel but it is a bit confusing because some options are not selected by default that I thought were necessary (specifically Memcached and OpCache) and I had to go back and forth multiple times but eventually it all got sorted out and the staff was always professional (this is the kind of support issue where you clearly see the difference between technical skills and communication skills). My third ticket was more a question than an actual problem and this time the answer received wasn’t so satisfactory. Since there was no action required I just let it pass. I then had two tickets related to Let’s Encrypt, which were resolved technically very quickly (a Nginx reboot was needed) but again there was that communication skills issue. The first time I specifically asked if I had done anything wrong or what I needed to do in the future to prevent a similar issue and got no useful information in return. So, when it happened again, I was surprised that the new tech wrote that I should always open a ticket after installing Let’s Encrypt so they can clear the cache and reload Nginx. I asked in a follow up why they don’t put a notice about this on the cPanel Let’s Encrypt page but that question was more or less ignored. Finally, I had an issue setting up a new addon domain. I won’t bore you with the details but I will say they fixed that issue promptly as well. So, overall, I can give high marks to TMD for resolving technical issues and give mediocre (but typical) marks for communication skills.
As for features, TMDHosting offers most of what you would expect and more CPU/RAM horsepower than many others. There are a couple of things to consider, however. First, the cPanel backup and restore option is disabled, though they do a weekly full backup and a daily database backup and apparently you can also open a support ticket to request a backup. Still, this is not ideal so you should probably investigate your own backup solution. The other thing I would note is that they list Memcached as a feature but it turns out it is not enabled by default. You simply need to contact tech support and ask them to enable it, but they don’t make that clear anywhere, which I find disappointing (plus, why not just enable it by default?).
I first purchased a cheap shared server plan (Baby Croc, I think) from HostGator back in 2005, when it was a scrappy independent up-and-comer with a good reputation. Some years ago they were purchased by EIG, which I didn’t realize. Some people claim it has gone downhill under EIG ownership, but it has always been reliable for me and I even switched to one of their new cloud plans less than a year ago. As I mentioned earlier, I did so before thinking about SSL and Let’s Encrypt, which HostGator stubbornly won’t offer (though the Pro cloud plan does come with one private SSL certificate). Plus, I have actually been pretty impressed with the performance.
So, to summarize: if you want to host multiple sites that each will use SSL, I don’t recommend HostGator. On the other hand, if you only have one site that needs SSL, it might be worth considering.
Other Hosts I Considered
The following are the hosts I ended up putting on my shortlist when I recently was looking for new hosts. Though I didn’t end up using them, they strike me as solid choices that you should consider.
On paper there is a lot to like about A2. Their feature listing is one of the most detailed around, with nice easy expand descriptions of the features which merit describing. And those features are quite good. They are a green company (carbon neutral?). They are independently owned.
But, not all is well in A2 land. First, in contrast to the good feature listing, I was turned off by their lack of transparency in pricing. One of their big selling points is the Turbo Boost feature, but that is not included in the price listed. And, in fact, it isn’t just an extra dollar or two but almost $20 per month. That is more than many competitors charge for their entire package. Also, they list two prices, a sale price and a “normal” price. Well, that normal price is not in fact the renewal rate you would pay but rather the price you would pay initially for a three year contract if there wasn’t a sale. Got that? Just barely, I think.
The real deal breaker for me, though, was the fact that the servers just didn’t perform that well in the Signal Review test. If we were talking about a super value plan, that would be excusable, but for the prices they charge and for the features they boast (and the speed claims they make), it should perform much better.
What I find interesting about Bluehost is that almost all review sites compare their basic shared server plan, which is indeed quite inexpensive and even mentions the word WordPress on the homepage but those packages are NOT WordPress packages. Indeed, their cheapest WordPress plan is $19.99 per month during the first period and then renews at $39.99. That is just insane and thus I stopped considering it as a serious contender. Their cloud plans might be worth considering, but you would need their Pro ($25.99 per month non-promo price) to get SSL.
Chemicloud doesn’t often make it to rankings and review sites, but the technical specifications and feature list are impressive and the prices are competitive. I also like the levels of plans on offer. My only hesitation about these guys is they use MailChannels for email spam filtering. That is the same service that gave me problems with my Hostwinds account so I fear that the same might apply.
DreamHost is a similar story to Bluehost. They do offer cheap basic shared server plans that they market to WordPress users and those plans are what many review sites use, but only their DreamPress plan is actually optimized for WordPress and it costs $19.95 ($16.95 if annual purchase). Price aside, DreamHost often does well on review sites (or, at least, the ones where the proper plan is considered).
Flywheel primarily markets their plans to designers and creative agencies and they offer advanced site collaboration tools, billing transfers to your clients, staging sites, and reseller options that appeal to that market. Plus, you can manage all of your sites from within one attractive dashboard. I have read that it is more than just a hosting provider because it focuses on streamlining the workflow for web designers everywhere. The prices are high, but the reviews are among the best in the industry so if you fit the market demographic and your budget isn’t too tight, maybe give them a look.
Geek Storage is another company that doesn’t get much attention in review sites (though Michael Bely rates them highly) but has some pretty impressive specs and features. Note that they don’t market WordPress plans, but their Performance Hosting plans seem well suited for WordPress sites and even their unlimited plans should perform well since they are using SSD and LiteSpeed.
Before choosing TMDHosting and 1&1, I signed up for a Hostwinds VPS. I had high hopes, but was ultimately forced to cancel after I found (the very hard way, thanks to poor customer service) that the company uses a third party spam filtering system (MailChannels) which strips the encryption on all outgoing emails, thus producing an unencrypted warning in Gmail and, in my opinion, making delivery of newsletters and other emails possibly at high risk. The worst thing is that it took almost 3 days for customer service to finally respond to my trouble ticket and they ended up saying this is a known issue that cannot be fixed. Known? Why did it take 3 days (which included countless hours on my part looking for an independent solution) to investigate/respond? And, during that long wait I was greeted with complete silence. Not a single reply indicating they were even working on the issue. I ended up calling them to follow up and was simply told it was being worked on but no status was available. I did also open a few other trouble tickets that met with mixed results. Some were handled somewhat promptly and professionally. Some were handled professionally, but not promptly and some were prompt but not resolved the first time.
Besides that huge issue, I was disappointed with the misleading pricing listed on the website. It is misleading because it doesn’t clearly state that you need to pay $13 per month extra for WHM/cPanel. Also, the core account only includes one dedicated IP address whereas industry standard is two.
Note that I was dealing with a VPS rather than WordPress hosting, though I suspect the same email issue will apply to all their plans. Interestingly, they do apparently offer WordPress hosting plans, but you wouldn’t know it from their website as they aren’t listed on the home page or in the main menu and the details for these plans are pretty much non-existent.
Incendia Web Works
IWW is a relatively new hosting company and they only offer plans that support a single website. Their plans seems to be designed for very high performance, using CloudLinux and Nginx. Basic plans are fairly inexpensive but you will have to add $10 per month for their beefed up WordPress plans. This is probably a bargain if you are trying to host a high traffic site but a basic plan is probably more than sufficient for an average blog.
InMotion makes most best-of lists and performed well on most of the performance-based reviews I read but there was one major deal-breaker for me—no SSL certificates. Also, their prices are higher than competitors.
This one doesn’t get included very often but the reviews for it tend to be very positive. Probably the reason it doesn’t get included is because it is quite expensive, with the least expensive plan at $100.
MDDHosting is another less prominent provider (and another one that Michael Bely likes). They don’t market WordPress plans but are one of the few providers offering LiteSpeed plans so my guess is WordPress sites will perform well on their servers.
Media Temple has been around for ages and has a pretty good reputation. In the past I have considered them but always went with someone else. This time around, their price point put me off.
WP Engine is a pioneer in the WordPress hosting space and almost always ranks very highly on best-of lists. But, it is one of the pricier options ($20+ for one site) and they are pretty restrictive about what plugins are allowed. They also have some strict resource limits as well.
I didn’t really do enough research on the following to have any strong opinion, but they are not the “usual suspects” so they might be worth further consideration.
Choosing a good webhost is incredibly important and not at all easy, but hopefully I have provided all the information you need to make an educated purchase. Good luck! Please leave a comment if you have any tips, warnings or other suggestions.