Why we recommend WordPress-specific hosts
When we work with a new client, we frequently recommend investing in premium WordPress-specific hosting (well, we always recommend it for brand new sites that don’t have hosting, and usually recommend it for existing sites on budget hosts).
Hosting is one of those things that most people think about once, when they first get it, and then don’t consider much in the future unless something is obviously wrong. That’s not surprising—that’s how I approach lots of similarly specialized services, like car insurance. But it’s not ideal if your business is growing.
I remember chatting with a new client, and I off-handedly mentioned some of the downsides of using a budget host. She responded, “I’m on a ‘budget host’? Why?!” Her business had grown leaps and bounds since the original decision had been made, but no one had ever told her that her entry-level hosting was holding her back.
To be clear, budget hosts are fine when you’re starting out. When cash flow is tight, keeping monthly expenses to a minimum is a praiseworthy goal. But most of the clients I work with are at the next phase in their business (after all, we develop custom WordPress websites—if you’re just starting out, you might be better off using Squarespace anyway) and would benefit from an investment in quality hosting.
What do I mean by “budget” and premium “WordPress-specific” hosts?
A quick way to spot a budget host: their price is the biggest feature they advertise (though when you dig down a little, you’ll see that the advertised prices actually apply to long-term commitments, not lower-risk month-to-month plans).
Typically, budget hosts run between $3 and $10 per month.
Budget hosts are also the ones you’re most likely to find if you do generic searches for hosting. That’s because hosts (almost all of them, not just budget hosts) pay big commissions to sites who send new customers, so there are plenty of folks only too glad to sing the praises of whichever host is currently paying the highest amount—usually the budget hosts. (I have no problem with affiliate commissions in general, but the hosting industry is fraught with such bad commission-driven advice that I intentionally don’t share affiliate links for hosting, to reduce even the appearance of selling out.)
Premium WordPress-specific hosts (also called managed WordPress hosts), on the other hand, are much more likely to promote their quality and features, and (unsurprisingly) a focus on WordPress. The two we recommend most often are Pantheon and Flywheel, though there are other good ones out there (we just have more first-hand experience with those two).
Typically, WordPress-specific hosts start around $30 per month and go up from there depending on your needs (secure ecommerce being the one we most often run into that warrants an upgrade).
Why we recommend WordPress-specific hosts
No one wants to pay more for something than necessary, and you’re probably wondering what you get for that extra $20ish per month (as you should).
This is why we use WordPress-specific hosts ourselves and recommend them to our clients:
- Resources and business strategy. Budget hosts survive by scale alone: the more customers they can serve, the more profitable they are, but their profit margins are so tiny that this usually means packing way too many sites on every server and staffing support centers just enough to prevent a mass exodus of customers. Premium hosts, on the other hand, survive by providing an experience that’s good enough to justify their higher costs, so their interests align with the customers’. These two distinctly different approaches set the stage for everything else on this list.
- Overall performance. Based on testing and on my own experiences, sites on WordPress-specific hosts just load faster, mostly because these hosts are built from the ground up to make WordPress sites run well. This isn’t the be-all, end-all (if you have loyal visitors, they’re not going to be deterred by a one-second delay) but sites that load faster make for happier visitors and might even impact your site’s ranking on Google.
- Reliability. Site speed is one thing but some budget hosts struggle mightily with downtime, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to predict which hosts will have a problem. That’s because it depends largely on which of their thousands of servers your site ends up on. If you are lucky and get on a server that runs well and your “neighbors” (other sites on the same server) are well-behaved (not mailing out spam, and have low-to-moderate traffic + optimized websites), you might have no trouble at all. But you can also end up in a “bad neighborhood” and find yourself with frequent site outages, which can undo the benefits of your marketing in one fell swoop.
- A good contingency plan. What happens if your site gets hacked—or if you accidentally delete something you spent days working on? Hopefully, you just restore a backup and get on with your day. But if you are on a budget host, then you’re responsible for setting up backups, checking them regularly to make sure they work, and restoring them if needed. The WordPress-specific hosts we recommend, on the other hand, do robust daily backups automatically and on-demand (if you know you’re about to try something questionable, for instance), and restoring them is as simple as clicking a button. And hackers? They proactively monitor your site for issues and fix hacks, for no extra charge.
- Helpful tech support. Tech support at budget hosts is often hit-or-miss—you may get a great support rep one time and an incompetent one the next—but more concerningly, many budget hosts specifically refuse to help with anything “related to scripts”… and they include WordPress as a “script,” despite the fact that they advertise “WordPress” hosting, and even despite the fact that the issue may not be related to WordPress at all. WordPress-specific hosts, on the other hand, not only are willing to help but are proactive and often provide good advice before you have an issue.
- Tools that make it easy to try new things, safely. We do a lot of work on “staging servers,” meaning that we can show you the new version of your site, for instance, while your existing site is still humming along. We can always set up a separate server, but the hosts we recommend make this a one-click process. That means you can also use it for more mundane purposes, like testing whether a new plugin will look good with the rest of your site before risking the integrity of your public site.
Some of these points are critical, and some are “simply” time-savers—but don’t discount that benefit, because if you’re paying someone else to work with your website (or DIYing and have billable work you could be doing), these “little improvements” can more than pay for the difference between budget and premium hosting.
At the end of the day, it’s your site and your cash flow, and we won’t browbeat you. We have good systems and recommendations for working with budget hosts, too. But if budget constraints limit your choices now, I’d still encourage you to keep quality hosting on your wishlist and maybe even put a calendar reminder to revisit the question in 12 months’ time.