You’re ready to get started with a self-hosted WordPress.org website and now need a hosting provider. Or, you have a provider, but are about ready to pull your hair out from frustration. Either way, this is a checklist of what to look for when selecting your new hosting company, and a few recommendations.
First Question: cPanel or Managed?
When it comes to WP hosting there are two basic types of hosting: a full cPanel environment, and a managed WP environment.
Managed WordPress is a service that several hosting companies offer. In general Managed WordPress servers are specifically designed to accommodate WP sites. This has both advantages and disadvantages.
One of the biggest advantages is that sites are usually faster right from the start. You don’t need to worry about caching plugins, the server handles all of that for you. There are also normally backups included, typically taken about once per day. Since companies which offer this service are specifically hosting WP sites, their tech support also usually knows more about WP and can help with common issues.
The disadvantage of Managed WP sites is that it does put some limits on what plugins you can install. These limits don’t impact most businesses, but you should be aware that they exist. The other disadvantage is that if you need services beyond just a website, you’ll have to pay extra for them.
For example a lot of small businesses need email accounts, these will need to be set up separately from your hosting. Also if you have several sites, each one will have to be hosted separately (and you’ll be charged per site), which can add up to a higher bill. The other disadvantage is if your site isn’t 100% WordPress. Perhaps you have some other scripts or sections to your website — they won’t be compatible with hosting on Managed WP.
If you are on a tighter budget, need to host several sites, need email service (without paying extra for Gmail for Business), or need to host anything besides WordPress, then you will probably end up on Linux cPanel (or similar) server.
It’s very important to note that hosting company XYZ offering a “control panel” is not the same as cPanel. cPanel is specific licensed software that many hosting companies provide. It is industry standard which means any developer coming in already knows how to use it. It’s also stable, reliable and powerful.
The disadvantage of cPanel is that you are pretty much on your own for administration of the site. You’ve got the standard toolbox, but you are responsible for knowing how to use those tools.
Some companies have done excellent jobs with their personal control panels (such as Cloudways), whereas others have done absolutely terrible jobs (such as Dreamhost).
Questions to Ask a Potential Hosting Company
The minimum requirements are listed on WordPress’s official site, here.
Those are the bare minimum, but you are looking for a company that’s going to offer more than the minimum. Here are other items you should ask about (and if they say they don’t support these move on to the next company).
Ability for YOU to change your PHP settings. PHP settings are important because some very popular plugins are large and need extra resources.
- Setting PHP memory_limit of 128MB
- Increasing PHP max_execution_time to 300 seconds
Easy access to PHPMyAdmin. While you likely never want to go anywhere near PHPMyAdmin, but if you work with a developer, they will need this.
You Need More Than Just Basics
Protection from other websites on the same server. Unless you have a dedicated server, you will be sharing the server with other websites. I’ve seen cases where one website on a server was infected with a virus and that virus then spread to other websites on the server. You don’t want this to happen to you.
True Story: In fact, other websites on your server don’t even have to infect you. I had a website that got a Google warning saying that their-url.com/~someone-else/… was an infected page. The reason was that with the server setup at their hosting company you could access other user’s sites on your domain if you knew their username.
The solution: I added
Disallow: /~*to their robots.txt file so that Google could no longer find any of these urls
Upgrade capabilities and amount of time & effort involved. Almost every company will say that they can upgrade you from a shared plan to a virtual private server (VPS) plan.
But can they make it painless?
I’ve seen companies where they take of everything at no extra cost. I’ve also seen companies say you’ll need to back up everything, your sites will go down during the transition and then you’ll have to manually reload everything.
Real and Free Technical Support
A lot of companies advertise 24/7 support, but either charge for off hours support or their idea of technical support is filing a trouble ticket.
You need to be able to reach tech support department 24/7 at no additional charge in a reasonable amount of time. Being kept on hold or waiting for chat support for an hour is not a reasonable amount of time.
If you are waiting on hold for tech support, make sure they provide an estimated wait time. If I’ll be on hold for 2 min or 10 min, I want to know. Spending 10 min on hold goes a LOT faster when you know it will be 10 minutes. When you are just told “all operators are busy, please wait for the next operator” it’s very frustrating.
I greatly prefer chat support. This is for a few reasons.
- First, I like to be able to copy & paste text back and forth and exchange links with the tech support rep.
- Second, if it’s 11pm and the rest of the house has gone to bed, I don’t want to be talking on the phone.
- Third, it’s not location dependent. If you travel or ever have a developer from outside your country, there are no international calling fees.
- Fourth, no awkward silence. If you need 30 seconds to think about something, you don’t have the person on the other end of the phone trying to make small talk to fill the silence.
- Lastly, you know that commercial with “frog” vs “fraud” where the customer & service rep go around in circles each talking about something completely different? That doesn’t happen with text. You both talk about the same thing.
Note: I’ve found a trend, price you pay of hosting frequently has an impact in amount of time spent on hold. Very inexpensive hosting = much longer hold times. VPS, managed WP = shorter waits.
Email – cPanel Only
Most cPanel plans come with some kind of email account.
You need more accounts than you think you do. Pretty much everyone starts out with one or two email accounts for their website. But if your site grows (and you did want it to grow, right?) you may discover that you want some additional accounts. So make sure that your provider allows for more accounts than you think you’ll need.
You need email spam filtering. You hate spam, we all hate spam, but not all email providers will filter out the spam. Make sure that they both have a spam filtering ability and you know how to turn on the filtering. A number of companies there is an extra step after you set up an email account to turn on spam filtering. An extra step or two usually isn’t an issue, since you normally don’t create new email accounts that often.
Traffic & Speed
As you add more content, plugins, and features to your site, you increase the overall size of your site. Larger websites generally require more work on the part of the server. Depending on a given company, this can impact how quickly your site loads.
The other major impact is the amount of traffic that you receive. Most websites start out with little to no traffic and then work to slowly increase their traffic. However, some companies may launch large advertising campaigns or create a piece of content which goes viral. In this case your website could have a very sudden increase in traffic.
You should always ask a potential provider about the amount of traffic that a given plan allows for. This will vary from company to company. Be sure to ask for practical examples. How many visits per month, day, hour, minute? How are traffic spikes handled?
You also need to find out what happens if you exceed this amount of traffic. Depending on the company the answer could range from “we’ll give you extra resources to make sure your site stays up” to “your website will slow down since only certain resources are allocated until you upgrade to a higher plan” to “sites that exceed their limits violate the terms of service and service may be suspended”. Option 1 will cost you more, Option 2 is pretty common and will only cost you more if you find out you need it — although your site will experience some pain before it’s transitioned). Option 3 means you should look elsewhere.
Uptime is the percentage of time that your website is up and visitors can access it. Some companies offer money-back guarantees if a certain amount of uptime is not met. Some offer it on all plans, some only on certain plans.
If a plan offers a money back guarantee, that means they loses money if they don’t meet the guarantee. Companies don’t like to loose money, so typically this results in better quality hosting.
Even if they say “independently monitored” or claims certain numbers, that is frequently for the average site. Which means that some sites will do better, and some will do worse. I’ve seen sites which claim independent monitored 99.9% uptime but an individual site got about 99% uptime.
What’s the big deal about 99.9% uptime?
The big deal is that there are 8,760 hours in a typical year (when it’s not a leap year). So for every 0.1% drop in uptime you lose 8.7 hours of your site working. So a site getting 99% uptime is actually down over 3 days per year. If you are trying to run a business, that’s just not acceptable.
There should be a page at your hosting provider or a twitter account or something where notices are posted if a server is currently down. This is for your own peace of mind. If you go to access your site and you can’t, panic can set in pretty quickly. But if you just have to check one page or one twitter account to see that there is an outage and they are currently working on it, you’re not happy, but your panic level should drop quite a bit.
A twitter account is especially nice if you are considering a company because you can take a look back in time to see how often these outages happen and about how long they last. Most outages will be for shared accounts, however they do happen for other levels as well.
Refunds & Cancellations
Trying out a company for the first time is always a bit nerve-racking. Most companies offer at least a 30 money back guarantee. Others offer 60 or 90 days.
Risk-averse folks may particularly like companies which offer cancel anytime plans. With these arrangements you will typically pay for a year term (to get a lower monthly rate), but they offer a pro-rated refund if you decide to cancel before a year is up.
What cPanel Hosting Plan Do You Need?
Most companies offer 3 tiers of plans, but the resources available at each of the tiers varies from company to company.
Shared hosting is your basic starting point. Most websites start here. Unless you have plans to rapidly grow your website and a marketing plan to make that happen, you will normally start with a shared account. However, you should select a company with the ability to easily move you to a higher level if your website outgrows shared hosting. When you talk to a company, make sure they can move you quickly, easily, and without additional cost (besides the new price for the larger plan).
Now there are some companies that offer more than standard resources when it comes to shared hosting, but you will pay more. For example Media Temple offers Grid hosting which is a shared environment, but it is roughly triple the price of most other shared providers. However, the quality and resources offered on their Grid plan rivals many companies VPS plans.
VPS is designed for sites that want more resources. This could be more speed, more bandwidth, the ability to handle 20 websites running on the same account, or larger websites handling a bit more traffic.
Frequently if a small business website begins to scale up to a larger audience or starts offering more features they will scale up to VPS. Back when I had only a couple of websites under development at once I used shared hosting. Now that I usually have 15+ sites under development at a given time, I need the resources of VPS.
This is for grown-up sites. Sites that are big. Sites that can handle tens of thousands of visits per minute. Sites that usually have their own development staff. If you are reading an article on how to select a company, the chances are this option isn’t for you, at least not yet. But, signing up with a company that offers this is a good idea, it shows they aren’t just looking for small sites, but want to be with you as you grow.
This is also the point where some companies consider moving away from hosting companies and to cloud server solutions. The most popular cloud solution is Amazon AWS. With any cloud server solution you loose the safety net of hosting companies and go from needing development staff to also needing server admin staff.
If you are doing online point of sale to customers, you will likely want to collect credit card info for transactions. If you only have one or two products/services, you can do this just with a link to PayPal, but if you want to have a nice cart and checkout onsite, you’ll need an SSL certificate.
Most hosting companies offer an SSL certificate — although not all of them offer it with all plans. They also vary in how much support you get for setting up that certificate.
When installing an SSL there may need to be several changes to your website (including possibly your WordPress theme’s files) to make sure that all of the resources for your site pull from https: addresses. If they don’t all pull from https: then customers will get browser warnings saying that the site may not be fully secure. Depending on the browser or options on their browser, it could require them to click several things just to access your site. That’s bad for business, so make sure if you add an SSL later you know what you are doing or have some support.
What provider should I choose?
The answer really depends on your situation, so I’ve outlined some companies which are good for specific situations. There are other good quality companies out there, but I’ve just listed a few of the larger ones.
Limited Budget – Less than $10/month
SiteGround: Good servers, support can usually be reached in around 10-15 min.
Site5: Good tech support, reasonable prices, pretty good servers at entry price point.
Small Budget – about $10-15/month – monthly billing with no long term contract
Cloudways: They provide a lot of apps for quick install of platforms like WordPress and their tech support actually helps. You can load several sites on a server, email will cost you extra (they have a deal for premium email for $1 per email address per month).
WordPress Managed: $20+ / month (although less per site for multiple site plans)
Please check out my article on WordPress Managed Hosting providers for the latest recommendations.
Selecting the right hosting company can be a challenge, but the questions here should help you narrow down the right company for you.
Disclaimer: Most companies offer referral rewards for sending new subscribers to them, so if I like a company then I sign up for their referral program. This means I may receive a small monetary reward if you sign up through one of the hosting links on this site.