Website visitors tend to care more about speed than all the fancy visuals or features web designers love to add to their clients websites. Additionally, Google rewards a fast site too with a higher search ranking. Yet site speed is largely overlooked by website owners until it becomes obvious there’s something wrong…
Some facts – An Aberdeen Group study showed a 1-second page load delay caused a 7% decrease in conversion rates and 11% fewer page views. Also, it had 25% of visitors abandoning business websites after waiting just 4 seconds to load. For eCommerce sites, it was 40% abandonment after just 3 seconds.
There are tweaks with content and caching that will speed up sites. But few realise a WordPress websites top speed, stability and security is largely determined by the host used, not just the plugins added. The host server, which is the engine that publishes your site to the world, is the real key to sustained high speed, reliability, even ranking. (Reference)
Some host industry background and a tutorial
Hosting is a competitive, volume-based business. It’s largely unregulated. Countless, unsubstantiated claims are frequently made on performance and suitability. Even some big names use snake-oil sales techniques and half-truths to entice. There’s often doubt upon the technology employed, where sites are hosted or supported from. Unlike other professional IT services, there are no standards or qualifications needed to sell [or resell] hosting services.
The sector is unstable, under constant ownership as well as technological change. For example, one $49/mth local host we used and recommended for years was unexpectedly sold to a large [Auzzie] company a while back. It turned bad within months as the new owners sacked support staff and more then doubled the number of users on each server, to reduce prices; boost sales. They knew most people, lacking knowledge, buy on price. A ‘good deal’ was what improved sign ups. Clients would just ‘assume’ it would still be fast and reliable.
1. This Shared Hosting – What is it exactly?
You’re sharing a hosting server with others, yet they’ll seldom say how many. Our tests indicate it can range from just 100 to 2,000 with 500-700 being common. However the cheap plans from godaddy, hostpapa, openhost, crazy domains and several other big names have over 1,000 per server. This is why they are cheaper, have better deals and become popular. Yet it also explains why they will be slower and less reliable. Cloud systems do complicate calculations, since several servers can now work in a cluster. However, the regardless of the technology, the lower the monthly cost, the more people will be sharing the same server(s) – Hence needed resources available to run your own site or sites is less. A lot less.
2. Hosting Truths – Beware the ‘Unlimited’ scam
Unlimited hosting – These are the popular $5-35/mth shared [or reseller] hosting plans. Some are good, most bad. You’ll get erratic speed, more downtime, less security, use old hardware, outdated software. Yet the host sales pitch always includes comforting words like business hosting, ‘cloud’, scalable, WordPress-optimised, fast, secure, guaranteed, unlimited space, domains etc.
Remember, these packages are conjured up by marketing people. ‘Unlimited’ is easy for them, done in software and costing them little money. There’s few user benefits of unlimited as most sites only need finite disk space, domains and databases. But ‘unlimited’ is obviously a far better sales pitch and people mistakenly believe all resources are unlimited and will let them grow.
This means web designers, developers and even IT people, who you’d think would know what makes a good host can be lead astray by the hype and vague promises. That feature list tells us little. Whether it’s 5GB, 20GB or unlimited space or 1, 5 or 10 domains has no effect upon the speed. Guarantees or claims of ‘300% faster’ or ‘cloud’ are quite meaningless, telling us nothing. We just don’t know the speed until we sign up and then try it out. This is always the issue. But what about hosting reviews?
3. Those Hosting Reviews – Fact or Fiction?
Host review sites unfortunately don’t tell you much either, other than the cost, features and some biased, uneducated opinions. Popularity is listed but is more a case of the blind leading the blind, or just better marketing by the company. Any good reviews may be from those not even using WordPress, but simple html sites than use fewer resources. WordPress, especially busy ones need more than most other sites.
One reviewsite we found listed 9 local providers out of 20 locals we know of. Yet all except one of those reviewed are on my banned host list. Most notably the top 3 (right) should be avoided, for reasons mentioned earlier.
The review site did say comparisons are primarily around price, features and support. But understand that speed, even security, is not really a ‘feature’ and therefore seldom part of the review. The 99.9% reliability they all boast? That’s up to 100 minutes downtime per week, or over 80 hours per year! A 99.99% uptime figure (under 10min/week) is better for business, but isn’t easy to achieve on a small budget. But uptime differs from speed. To get both is rare with shared hosting, although the common sales pitch implies you get both. Speed is relative, but can be measured, discussed below.
We’ve known some clients insist upon using Amazon EC2 hosting, which boasts multiple features, including auto scaling. But this feature only affects reliability and ability to take on more load. Amazon EC2 host offerings we’ve found are some of the slowest and worst value available, proving it’s easy to be taken in by all the sales hype and promises made. And we’re not knocking Amazon. Many of their other cloud services are stunning, just not their webhost offerings.
Most people mistakenly think all hosting is the same and going for the best deal is safe. It isn’t. In fact as a general guide, the more popular a host company and the cheaper their price, the more problems you’ll have around performance. Mid-sized, less well-known companies, tend to do better in speed, even support.
4. Cheap shared hosting – How much power do you actually get?
But how much ‘horsepower’ do you get for your $10/mth? Very little. Our tests indicate that these cheap shared hosts allocate less CPU resources than you’d get in say, an old smartphone or an 8-yr-old PC. Additionally, the software running on cheap accounts is likely the same vintage as Window XP, which explains why some hosts have more security problems and get hacked more often.
CPU processing power is drip fed to each account in a very controlled, measured manner. Bluehost is at least honest enough to call it CPU Throttling. But beyond the power gripes, shared is inherently less secure. You’re more likely to be hacked by other accounts on the same hardware. This to me is the main reason shared hosting sucks and why businesses or eCommerce sites especially should avoid it.
This lack of power directly affects your website speed. Even adding or updating plugins or WordPress are more likely to break something too, needing a support call. Yet the most common complaint is how slow WordPress runs when editing or updating content. Not good if you’re a blogger. The use of caching or CDN options helps speed for normal site visitors, but not site editors or contributors. These tools are often just band-aids addressing the symptoms, not the root cause, being a simple lack of host power.
Looking to run a high traffic site or blog? Lacking raw power means as little as a dozen people visiting your site at the same time could overload it! Some hosts provide a ‘resource meter’, telling you how many times today you may have run out of allocated CPU and precious I/O resources when too many visited your site. However there are online tools we can use to test site loading, discussed later.
5. Beyond Shared Hosting – Private Servers
A modern, high speed VPS (Virtual Private Server) is a huge step up in hosting and should be the default option for all business or eCommerce sites where speed, reliability and security is critical. A good VPS has 10-20x more CPU resources available, runs later software, maybe using fast solid state drives (SSD). Ordering a VPS takes some skills, more like purchasing a new, high spec $2000 laptop where you’d specify CPUs, RAM, disks, software etc. This is quite unlike shared where you’re buying totally blind, reliant upon another’s bogus claims and promises made.
Countless provide VPS hosting, some appearing cheap, but these you’ll have to learn to do more yourself, installing the needed apache software, or employ someone (like us) to do it for you. And contrary to all the hype, any ‘cloud’ options seldom helps website speed and should initially be avoided.
If setting up your own VPS seems too costly and/or complex, then Inmotion hosting out of the US have some superb value, pre-configured managed plans. No geeks needed. The US$29.95/mth VPS1000 is fast, safe and incredible value for money, saving approx 50-70% over local equivalents. Ideal for business as well as those running busy blogs or eCommerce sites.
6. First clue – Check your Website Speed
An noted, a slow website has many causes, but the host is the biggest single factor. Yes, caching plugins help, but are just a band-aid, primarily designed for high traffic sites, not to overcome lack of raw power. In some cases caching can generate new problems and never boosts site editing speed.
Yet high speed is the one thing site visitors (and Google) appreciate. A display time of under 2-3 seconds is best. Checkout your website at webpagetest.org Speedindex is the best indicator and a figure of under 3000 (3 seconds) is the goal, with 1400 ideal, achieved by the top 10% of websites. (Ref)
Webpagetest is the best one for here, since you can specify a test from Wellington. All others (like pingdom, google etc) can only test from the US or Europe so are less useful. N.B. Any Pagespeed figures seen should be ignored as these are unreliable and meaningless.
7. Second clue – Check your site and host under load
This is a different test from the speed one and tools like loadimpact can help determine at what point your host will fail when too many visitors arrive at once. Load testing is very important if you anticipate a lot of traffic and site updates. This free test loads it to a modest 25 visitors at once which should be fine for most small business sites and a good shared host should be able to pass this. The green line on the chart is the one to watch. It can start high, then ideally drop down and stay relatively flat to the end of the test.
Summary of problems found with cheap hosting
- Slower, since CPU resources are shared with more sites
- Less reliable, more daily/weekly downtime, more errors
- Harder/slower to update content, plugins, do backups
- Reduced Google ranking, visitors and conversions
- More likely to be hacked or infiltrated
9. Good Support – How Important?
The thing with support is that you shouldn’t need it often, perhaps a few times a year. A well powered, well configured host just keeps going and odd issues quickly fixed. Excessive support calls is a sign of deeper problems on the host itself, being too underpowered, or specific WordPress site issues.
However, established companies have variable abilities. Like the hosting provided, there’s no way to know until after you sign up and need it. Some understand WordPress, providing good forums, others know little. The good ones offer several ways to make contact like a webform, email, phone and my favourite, 24/7 online chat support facilities. To avoid disappointment, I just assume all host company support and services are bad until they prove otherwise.
Lastly, a note on shifting hosts. This process alone is not without significant problems, often taking amateurs, even web designers, a lot of time to sort out, even if they have a suitable backup plugin. Then, the host you move to is most often little better than the last. This situation is not uncommon.
Time for a Performance and Hosting Review?
As independent WordPress engineers, we can help with
- a full review of your website performance.
- Carry out onsite performance optimisation
- Help select a faster, more reliable hosting package
- Assist with the transfer, be it to a NZ or offshore provider
- Add in security, backup, performance monitoring tools
- Provide a before/after speed test and report.
We match you up with a host that is best suited to your needs, be it low cost shared, or a high powered VPS (private server). We also put it under your own name and control – No longer are you beholding to any website designer, developer or IT person, or even me. You own it, but we can step in to mentor you and assist when needed.
To learn more on hosting, read our article ‘the honest truth about hosting‘ on our meetup group website. It explains the differences between shared hosting, reseller packages, VPS and dedicated. It also lists the hosts we love and the ones we hate.