WooCommerce is now the worlds most popular open source eCommerce platform. Despite this, there’s still very few hosting providers that have nailed how to do WooCommerce hosting well. Today we take a look at what we consider to be the best WooCommerce Hosting providers in 2016.
A brief history of Open Source eCommerce
- 1 A brief history of Open Source eCommerce
- 1.1 Barren and non existent
- 1.2 Early leaders
- 1.3 Magento lands like a bomb and takes over
- 1.4 WordPress becomes a dominant CMS – but for eCommerce?
- 1.5 Jigoshop arrives changes everything
- 1.6 A forking mess – WooCommerce is born
- 1.7 The problems with WooCommerce hosting
- 1.8 WooCommerce Growing pains
- 1.9 The importance of website speed
- 1.10 Criteria for being the best WooCommerce host
- 1.11 Best WooCommerce Hosting – the shortlist
- 1.12 The future of WooCommerce Hosting
- 1.13 Who do YOU believe offers the Best WooCommerce Hosting?
Barren and non existent
I will never forget the first time I sold something online. It was a theme for a long forgotten open source CMS called PHP-Nuke (which was the WordPress of it’s day back in the early ’00’s). After spending months creating my first theme it was time to setup a shop to sell it. At this time (around early 2003) the open source eCommerce landscape was basically non existent. I ended up using Regnow from Digital River which was extremely popular at the time with anyone selling software including CMS themes. The software itself was an awful antiquated piece of crap – and that’s saying something given this was 2003! Digital River (owners of Regnow) were one of the biggest eCommerce businesses in the world at the time (actually they still are).
Since then, open source eCommerce has come a long way. We had a period of time during the mid 00’s were osCommerce was pretty much the only viable open source option – even though it basically sucked – everyone used it. Apparently it’s still being actively developed and is still widely used – kudos to them – but I won’t be going back there any time soon 🙂
We then had a series of contenders as potential successors to osCommerce like Zen Cart and Joomla’s Virtuemart (again both still alive and kicking but not setting the world on fire with their innovation and ease of use) but each had their own quirks and didn’t feel very polished as platforms to be given serious consideration.
Magento lands like a bomb and takes over
Magento came from nowhere around 2008 and quickly became the best open source eCommerce platform by some considerable distance. To this day it is probably still the best open source eCommerce platform. Magento is one huge disadvantage that has stopped it truly dominating the open source eCommerce landscape. It’s a tank. And just like a tank it requires 3 or 4 people to drive it properly! If you’re quite technical you can figure it out on your own – but be prepared for lots of hair pulling and late nights as you get to grips with it – which is fine if you’ve tons of time on your hands and like that kind of tinkering. We’ve had a few other promising platforms like OpenCart pop up since which I really like – but they still need strong technical skills to master.
WordPress becomes a dominant CMS – but for eCommerce?
In parallel with this, WordPress was making huge inroads taking over as the defacto open source CMS and several eCommerce plugins started popping up like WP eCommerce, Shopp and Cart66. Despite an obvious huge demand for a really top notch eCommerce plugin for WordPress – nothing really ticked all the boxes. WP eCommerce had a lot of features but was riddled with bugs (things look to be changing over there now but I think it’s too late) Shopp and Cart66 are both great and show lots of potential – but seem to be hamstrung by a small community which limits it’s ecosystem.
Around this time, the WordPress ecosystem was crying out for something better.
Jigoshop arrives changes everything
Clearly the folks at Jigowatt were also paying attention to this latent demand and when Jigoshop arrived on the scene in May 2011 and it was similar to when Magento first appeared. Jigoshop was simply jaw dropping and a massive improvement on anything we’d seen in the WordPress community for eCommerce to date. It’s initial themes were 100% responsive – something that was unique not just in WordPress eCommerce plugins – but in any open source eCommerce platform. It meant Jigoshop got noticed very quickly and started attracting lots of attention and early adopters.
A forking mess – WooCommerce is born
WooCommerce arrived in September of 2011. The story of it’s birth can be summarized as “It’s complicated“. Mike Jolley and Jay Koster who were working on Jigoshop for Jigowatt at the time (and pretty much leading the development of Jigoshop) ended up joining WooThemes – who had previously tried to develop their own eCommerce plugin but had halted development given the size and scope of the project. Despite a complicated birth, WooCommrce exploded. For the first time in the WordPress ecosystem a big player (WooThemes) brought a compelling eCommerce plugin (WooCommerce) to the mass market and it took off like a rocket. A wonderful combination of factors make WooCommerce irresistible:
- Open and rapid development – WooCommerce was openly developed via Github with active development from many in the WordPress community leading to rapid maturation of WooCommerce in it’s own right – distinct from Jigoshop.
- Freemium business model – WooThemes pretty much transformed their business from a leading WordPress theme shop to the pioneering force in freemium business model in the WordPress ecosystem. Having a compelling core eCommerce plugin for free with a ton of commercial extensions for just about any eCommerce use case was something the WordPress community never had before.
- Backing by big player in the WordPress ecosystem – As one of the most successful businesses in the WordPress ecosystem, WooThemes had access to a huge customer base to which they could put WooCommerce front and centre to help jump start WooCommerce adoption – and boy did it work – and continues to work. Within 4 short years of explosive and expontential growth, WooCommerce would become the most popular eCommerce platform – not just in the open source or WordPress community – but the most popular eCommerce platform – ever – of any platform – including the big boys like Magento. This rapid growth culminated in the acquisition of WooThemes by Automattic in May 2015 for an undisclosed sum, rumored to be in the region of $30 million USD.
The problems with WooCommerce hosting
The WordPress hosting marketplace is diverse, hyper-competitive and extremely varied. From crappy $5 per month EIG controlled cowboys and daddys to high end managed services like WPEngine, Kinsta and co. In theory there should be a ton of options for any discerning WooCommerce site owner right?
Even the best WordPress optimized hosts don’t really make WooCommerce a first class citizen. But isn’t WooCommerce just a WordPress plugin I hear you say? Why should WooCommerce be given any special treatment? Well anyone who has run WooCommerce on a reasonably busy eCommerce website will tell you pretty quickly that website speed becomes a real concern very quickly.
While WooCommerce is a WordPress plugin – WooCommerce is NOT WordPress.
Huh? WTF are you talking about?
WordPress can be easily tuned for performance with any one of a plethora of decent caching plugins like WP Rocket (the best premium option) , WP Super Cache (the best free option) and Zen Cache (my second favourite free option. Hint: Don’t use W3 Total Cache anymore – it’s not being actively developed). Some of these plugins will also help speed up WooCommerce – but here’s the rub. They can only do so much. WooCommerce – and most eCommerce software by it’s very nature – it’s database intensive. Why? Transactions. Stock levels. Currency. Complex variations. Shipping costs. Pretty much all of these rely on real time data calculations that cannot be cached – or can’t be cached for long periods of time – which is what conventional WordPress plugins are very good at. A simple example is the humble Cart/Checkout symbol you see on pretty much any eCommerce website including WooCommerce powered ones. That number is highly dynamic and user specific. It cannot be cached using conventional WordPress caching methods. Where things get even trickier is that most WooCommerce compliant caching plugins will simply cache any user sessions that don’t have active cart sessions – and as soon as they do have an active cart session – poof! there goes that cache hit – it’s all now coming direct from the database.
WooCommerce Growing pains
The net effect of this is that many store owners might first have a great experience with WooCommerce, but as their business begins to grow and traffic increases they quickly start experiencing the growing pains associated with scaling WooCommerce. The problem becomes a lot more acute if you run an eCommerce website that gets bursts of traffic from TV Ads, Launches, Facebook etc. as concurrent uncached customers all attempting to checkout at the same time is guaranteed to kill your conventional WordPress optimized host in minutes – right when you needed it most. The problem is also amplified over time as your WooCommerce related data sources grow – customer records, order records, product catalog records – as these grow you will start to hit tipping points where the performance of your website starts to degrade significantly if you’re not aware of what’s going on.
To be fair to the Woo team (and now the Automattic team!), they’re a very smart bunch and are well aware of the type of issues I’ve described and are making great strides to improve overall performance. WooCommerce 2.5 was a big leap forward in terms of WooCommerce performance thanks to the introduction of a much better session handler. We can assume that further performance improvements will continue to be introduced in future WooCommerce versions.
But a fundamental difference will always exist between a simple static content orientated WordPress website and a highly dynamic eCommerce store running WooCommerce. And no amount of performance optimizations will change that.
So if you start off using WooCommerce thinking that your shared host that handles WordPress easily will suffice for that new webstore you’re about to roll out then think again!
The importance of website speed
We’ve touched on the importance of website speed before – but it’s worth stressing again. Google cares about site speed. A lot. Google made speed one of their fundamental principles since it’s foundation and has extended that to the rest of the web in recent years. Simply put, a slow website is going to be penalised in the SERPS. Many website owners spend huge amounts of money on ongoing SEO while neglecting the speed of their website. Website speed is one of the biggest SEO factors that you have direct control over.
Moreover, your potential customers care about speed. Research from Amazon concluded that a 1 second slowdown on Amazon.com would cost in excess of $1.6 BILLION per annum. Think Amazon might be a special case? There’s tons more findings here showing a direct correlation between website speed and conversion. It makes complete sense when you think about it. Are you more likely to buy from a really slow website that takes 8-9 seconds for pages to load or a website that loads in 2-3 seconds?
I’ve worked with clients where we’ve reduced their WooCommerce load times from 10-11 seconds down to 3-4 seconds and seen conversion rate increases of 35%
So let’s agree that speed is of paramount of important to the success of WooCommerce websites 🙂
With that in mind, who are the Best WooCommerce Hosts that have a proven track record in offering WooCommerce optimized hosting plans? Let’s take a closer look at our top picks for 2016.
Criteria for being the best WooCommerce host
Before I unveil my top picks for Best WooCommerce Hosting, it’s important to state the criteria for being a great WooCommerce host. My criteria is actually very straightforward. Any host I recommend here should already by a top tier WordPress host. I define a top tier WordPress host as any host who has had a consistently good reputation in the WordPress community for at least 2 years and who excel in all the main vital signs of a good WordPress host such as:
- Customer Support
- WordPress specific optimized infrastructure
For plain old WordPress websites there are a good few hosts that I’d say are difficult to choose from as you’ll find on good review sites such as ReviewSignal. But here’s how we separate the men from the boys so to speak for the best WooCommerce hosts.
This one might be a bit obvious – but I’ll start with it anyway 🙂 Your host should know what they’re talking about when it comes to WooCommerce. And not just in a “yeah we’ve heard of WooCommerce” way. I mean they should know the kinds of issues WooCommerce site owners run into all the time on crappy hosts such as ssl issues, payment gateway issues, plugin conflicts, outdated themes breaking WooCommerce, the ability to have a separate staging site for testing major updates and so on. These are all essential for a host that truly specialises in WooCommerce. The problem is, as of February 2016, there’s not a single host on the planet who I would say truly knows and understand WooCommerce to this level. The good news is that the hosting companies are waking up to this and some have started to embrace this opportunity.
This should also be obvious given the context of this post but let’s make it clear. The hosting stack should be tuned for speed – specifically for WooCommerce. Database query response times should be blisteringly fast and the DB should be running on SSD’s. Heck it’s 2016 – the whole frickin stack should be running on SSD’s at this point.
Advanced Caching options
That means caching solutions that are compatible with WooCommerce session handlers, stock updates and so forth. It should be possible to cache active cart sessions with advanced nginx caching rules (which we know are possible on our own custom Virtual Machines – but this post assumes we’re not going to that level just yet!).
Downtime is never good. With a brochure based WordPress website it’s highly embarrassing. With a WooCommerce website it can mean the difference between a record year and going bust. A WooCommerce optimized host should have an exceptional reputation when it comes to uptime and levels of redundancy to ensure downtime is kept to an absolute minimum.
Best WooCommerce Hosting – the shortlist
So let’s get to it. These are my top picks for Best WooCommerce Hosting in 2016.
Top Overall Pick for Best WooCommerce Hosting – Siteground
Siteground rock. I’ve covered them before in Part 1 of our How to start a blog series. They’re my unicorn host. It just so happens that they’re one of only a handful of hosting providers who pay special attention to WooCommerce.
Here’s a short video I made showing how to setup a new Siteground account
So what do Siteground do that make them my top pick for Best WooCommerce hosting?
Well, for starters, they’re one of the only hosts I know of that offer a specific WooCommerce bundle which means WooCommerce comes pre-installed at signup. In addition to WooCommerce coming pre-installed, WordPress is also hardened with SSL, Akismet, VaultPress and Jetpack all setup and configured. These might not seem like much to those very familiar with WordPress and WooCommerce – but trust me – there are tons of people just getting started with WooCommerce for whom this is brilliant. With the Siteground WooCommerce bundle my guess is that the average WooCommerce store owner is probably saving 15 – 20 hours of tinkering and figuring out things like SSL/https setup and configuration, backup configuration and management and a ton of other stuff.
Think of it like a 20 hour headstart on other WooCommerce hosting options.
The WooCommerce Bundle starts at $16.95 per month which is a steal considering the backup and Akismet licenses and a dedicated IP would be $11 per month alone if you buy them separately.
Siteground also meet more aspects of my Best WooCommerce Hosting criteria than any other host. Their support team are well used to the little quirks of WooCommerce and know how to tune things for speed better than anyone else I know of. In fact, in terms of Shared Hosting and their VPS plans, Siteground are pretty much the best in the business. This is down to the investment they’ve made in bringing best in class caching strategies to their shared infrastructure in a way that no other host has done yet with the same success. It means that for an extremely competitive shared hosting price you can avail of caching mechanisms like Varnish and memcached without the overhead of having to tune and manage them – which can take years to perfect (trust me – I’ve been there and done that). From a reliability perspective, I’ve had 100% uptime on 2 Siteground accounts I’ve been monitoring for the past 6 months or so.
Alternatives to Siteground
They’ve gotten so good in recent years that the only reason I ever use other hosts is when I can’t use Siteground for whatever reason – and those reasons do exist from time to time. Some clients have their own hosts. Some clients need data centres in locations that Siteground don’t operate in. Some clients have pre-existing hosting agreements with the big cloud providers like Amazon. But don’t fear we’ve got other options in our shortlist to cater for these times 🙂
Best alternative WooCommerce Hosting Provider – Cloudways
Cloudways is an interesting alternative to Siteground. In fact, Cloudways provides a compelling alternative to most other hosting companies. It’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend them for anyone who is used to “cpanel” type hosting companies – because Cloudways exists to serve another type of customer. Once you start to generate a lot of traffic to your WooCommerce store, lots of people will tell you to head on over to Digital Ocean or Linode or Amazon AWS or Google Compute Engine or any other of the big cloud hosting platforms. What they won’t tell you is that can take years to master to those platforms. Chances are this isn’t something you should be doing – even if you want to do it. Not unless you’ve already got the sys admin/dev ops experience.
Unless that is – you take a look at Cloudways. Cloudways have built a “cpanel” like user interface on top of the big cloud services like Digital Ocean, AWS and Google Compute Engines. I may be overselling it to say it’s exactly like cpanel – but it’s the easiest way of explaining the value that Cloudways is bringing to the table.
They help to simplify the process of taking advantage of the big cloud providers without having to learn sys admin or hire someone to do it for you. Their software controls the process of spinning up machines in your desired cloud provider and they deploy your chosen application in minutes – tuned to their specs. It’s very compelling for those who want to move to one of the big cloud providers but don’t want to take on the system administration responsibility.
Cloudways and WooCommerce
Like Siteground, Cloudways have also spent a lot of time tuning their caching profiles specifically for WooCommerce. If you can’t use Siteground for whatever reason and aren’t attached to having a cpanel based host, I would definitely consider Cloudways for your WooCommerce hosting requirements.
Best WooCommerce Hosting for Very Large WooCommerce Websites – Kinsta
If you’re really lucky you’ll reach a tipping point with your WooCommerce website where you need to significantly scale up your hosting to handle an influx of new customers and orders. When that day comes you will need to migrate to either dedicated infrastructure or very high powered virtual machines running on virtualised bare metal machines. The one host I know of who meet that criteria who spend a lot of time working with busy WooCommerce stores is Kinsta. Kinsta are a rapidly growing managed WordPress host who have always taken WooCommerce support very seriously. (unlike WPEngine for example – their default caching config STILL doesn’t play nice with WooCommerce – which is just nuts at this point). I know of several large WooCommerce stores with 7 figure revenues per annum who have had great success on Kinsta. Kinsta will be a lot more expensive than either Siteground or Cloudways – their entry level plan is $287 per month. Kinsta don’t play around with the low end of the market – which is a testament to their focus on serving the higher end of the market that need world class managed WooCommerce hosting.
The future of WooCommerce Hosting
I expect the WooCommerce hosting marketplace to rapidly evolve in 2016. While it’s still a relatively young platform, WooCommerce is becoming big business. WooCommerce store owners also have other compelling eCommerce platforms to consider like Shopify. For WooCommerce to start to compete with platforms like Shopify we’re going to need to see hosts like Siteground and Cloudways to continuously improve their WooCommerce plans. I predict we’ll also see a number of WooCommerce specific hosting companies emerge to try and serve this specific segment of the managed WordPress hosting marketplace. Exciting times ahead!
Who do YOU believe offers the Best WooCommerce Hosting?
I’m sure there are tons of other great hosts out there who are providing great service to WooCommerce store owners. We’d love to hear who you think offers the best WooCommerce hosting. In the meantime – keep on selling and hustling!