Getting started with your first website is a big deal if you’ve never done it before. Even if you have, it can still be an absolute minefield of information overload in trying to just a simple website up and running. In our Blogging for Beginners series, we’re going to fix that.
I’ve seen too many people end up with crap, slowly performing websites and blogs on awful hosts being charged a small fortune by awful companies (quite often recommended by Internet Marketing ‘gurus’ ) who don’t give a damn. So today in Part 1 we’re going to spend some time covering the most crucial aspect of getting your blog started – your hosting. For those just starting out, hosting is where your blog will live online. For those of you who already have a blog up and running, chances are you’re probably paying over the odds for some crappy hosting with one of the big hosts (most of which are owned by the one giant conglomerate by the way called EIG. More about that in another blog post!). Part 2 will go into a bit more detail about how to tune and configure your WordPress your blog once you’ve got everything setup.
- 1 A very short story about my beginnings online!
- 2 So what’s a Unicorn host?
- 2.1 Let me tell you a little bit about why they’re so special.
- 3 Bonus!
I will be up front right from the get go and give full disclosure – there are affiliate links in here. This means if you do decide to purchase the things I recommend I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. I don’t ever recommend a product or service that I’ve not used myself and found to be something that I love to use on an ongoing basis. I frequently pass up higher commissions for products and services that I find to be inferior to those I recommend. My recommendations are based on what I find to be the best products and services to help you make a living online – not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to purchase something.
A very short story about my beginnings online!
I’m not 100% sure but I think I registered my first domain name and setup my first website in 1998. I know for sure I wrote my first line of HTML around the beginning of 1998 as it was part of my college degree – so my first domain couldn’t have been much longer after. Back then the first dotcom bubble was just getting going and I’m pretty sure I was able to register a ton of domain names for free using a now defunct domain registrar called Namezero if I remember correctly. As I young college student money was scarce so free domain registration was manna from heaven. It would later turn out of course that there was a catch to these magical free domains and that while I could control the DNS records for these domains, they technically weren’t mine. They were still owned by NameZero. Once the dotcom bubble burst I lost a shedload of domains that were probably worth a pretty penny since then. Oh well! No point crying over long spilt milk 🙂 In addition to free domains, free hosting was awash everywhere. Of course what you got was paltry compared to even the worst hosting company in 2015, but again we were poor and it was frickin free! Once the VC bubble money was spent it wasn’t long before these free services started vanishing quickly. The free riding was over and since then I’ve gone through dozens and dozens of hosting companies. I’ve followed a path that I’d say many experienced online geeks go through:
- The Shared Host Hopping Phase: You started with cheap, shared hosting. You eventually realize the error of your ways after experiencing unplanned downtime, crap support and if you’re really unlucky – data loss. You then discover everyone already knows your host is crap so you do a bit of research, find the current flavour of the month and move on to the next one. Everything is rosy in the garden until your new host goes bad – and the cycle repeats itself. You eventually figure out that most Shared hosting providers who sell “unlimited everything!” are – in fact – completely full of crap and are basically selling a lie. You know there’s got to be a better way so you do a bit more research and come to realize that you pretty much get what you pay for when it comes to hosting – no matter what a hosting company might promise.
- The Cloud / Virtual Private Server (VPS) Phase: At this point you might have been lucky enough to build a site or two with decent traffic and decide to migrate to a Virtual Private Server (or VPS). A VPS is a big step up for you – you’ve paying a lot more than you used to but you’ve now got so much more control to do things you couldn’t do when you were on shared hosting – plus you’ve got so much more server power and resources that your sites should now be much faster – that’s the theory anyway. It’s then you realize that with this power comes great responsibility. When you were on a shared host, they looked after everything to do with your server. If MySql was down – you would log a support ticket and they would jump on it for you (assuming they were a good host to start with). But with a VPS – more often than not – you were expected to manage and maintain your own server instance. At this point you had 2 choices: a.) Pay someone else to do it for you or, b.) Learn how to manage your own server. Because I don’t like spending money I chose b – and 10 years later I’m still learning 🙂 It’s probably safe to say that I’ve spent thousands of hours learning Linux system administration over the past decade – but I know deep down I shouldn’t really be wasting my time with this kind of stuff. While I enjoy it as a hobby – from a business perspective it’s a poor use of my time. I should have bitten the bullet a long time ago and paid someone else to do it for me while I get on with running my business and generating value for my customers. Faced with the same choice again, I would definitely have chosen a.) Still though, this experience does have it’s advantages – it allows me to quickly identify a quality host from a poor one. It’s given me a fantastic bullshit detector for hosts that over promise and under deliver. It’s put me in a position where I can sit here and put together what I believe is the absolute best way of getting your own new blog up and running on a world class web host that beats the pants off all it’s competitors by a significant margin. It allows me to save you about a decade of mistakes and bad decisions in your journey online with crap web hosting companies. Which brings me to Phase 3.
- The Managed Hosting Phase: This is the point at which you eventually realize that you need those neckbeards to keep your web servers up and running after all 🙂 Managed Hosting combines the best parts of shared hosting ( a good support team who know what they’re doing ) with the best of parts of a Cloud / VPS machine ( more power than conventional shared hosting ). But what’s more – what you really need is a host that not only knows their way around servers – but who also know your chosen publishing software inside and out. Enter Managed WordPress Hosting. If you’ve never setup a blog or a website before you may have never heard of WordPress. Suffice to say, WordPress runs nearly a quarter of the web – from your Grandma’s cat pictures blog to huge websites like The Rolling Stones, Beyonce, The New Yorker, Vogue and so on. Ok I’ve made my point, WordPress is all you need and it’s what we’ll be spending our time on here. Trust me, you’ll never need or want for anything else. Managed WordPress hosting is a reasonably new phenomenon. But it’s rapidly becoming the only way I’ll host my websites. Why? A web host that knows your software platform inside and out means that there’s a 99% chance that they’ll have come across just about any issue or problem you experience with your website. That is incredibly valuable. A Managed WordPress Host allows you to skip my mistakes and get on with running your website, writing content, taking orders and building your audience. The problem with some managed WordPress hosts is that they can be expensive if you’re just starting out. But I believe that over the past 12 months I’ve found what I like to call my Unicorn web host.
So what’s a Unicorn host?
A Unicorn Host is the closest thing to perfection that I can find in a host. And trust me, I’ve spent 15 years trying to find one! I’ve christened the term a Unicorn host because for a long time I had a vision in my head for what a host should be and while many have come close – each would fall down in some incredibly frustrating way and I’d move on to the next contender. They were as elusive as the mystical Unicorn 🙂 Well for the past year I’ve been using my Unicorn host and I can safely say at this point after giving them a serious stress test they’re the closest ANY hosting company I’ve used have come to meeting all my criteria.
That hosting company is called Siteground.
Siteground are not new to the hosting business. Many moons ago when I built Joomla sites for a living (shudder) I recall seeing this new upstart in the hosting business. They became quite popular hosting Joomla websites but once I built my last Joomla website I never really came across them again… until about a year or two ago when they seemed to suddenly start popping up everywhere around the WordPress community. At first, I was very sceptical about why a company that had previously had a big focus on Joomla making claims at being WordPress hosting experts. In fact I pretty much dismissed them outright without even giving them a shot. But then something interesting started to happen. Very well respected experts across the WordPress community started singing their praises. Not only that, but I could see Siteground people starting to pop up at WordCamp events across the world. (WordCamps are awesome WordPress meetups that are organized in many major Cities and towns around the world on a regular basis.) I told myself that perhaps I’d been a bit quick to dismiss Siteground. It was also at this time that I had a new client project just starting who needed a new hosting platform. I decided to give Siteground a shot. And boy am I glad I did! In the intervening 18 months I’ve since moved all my clients over to Siteground hosting and have never been happier with a host – and that’s why I’m happy to call them my Unicorn host 🙂
Let me tell you a little bit about why they’re so special.
1.) Speed, Speed, Speed.
What most people fail to realize when they start out using WordPress is that it is inherently slow on the vast majority of shared web hosts. This is because every single time someone opens one of your web pages, WordPress needs to execute a database query to drag your content out of it’s database. By default, databases are much slower at doing this kind of thing that good old static webpages. But let’s face it – no one builds static websites anymore. But what we’ve gained in terms of flexibility and ease of use in WordPress we’ve lost in the speed at which our users can view our websites. For some people this speed difference isn’t really that noticeable. But for Google, it’s very noticeable. And a slow website will kill your rankings in search engines.
In real estate the phrase “Location, Location, Location” is well known. I think one of the equivalents for the hosting industry should be “Speed, Speed, Speed.” The speed of your website is one of single most important things you as a website owner have direct control over that influences the quality of your website in the eyes of the search engines. (After content of course!). Google are on record many times stating Site speed to be an important factor in their ranking algorithms. Content is hard. Your site speed shouldn’t be. Despite this, the vast majority of large web hosts don’t seem to give a rats ass about the speed of your website. Sure they might tell you otherwise – but actions speak louder than words. Most large webhosts, including those highly recommended by some of the leading figures in the Internet Marketing industry sell you underpowered shared hosting plans that are in no way configured and optimized to ensure your WordPress website loads as fast as possible. But this problem is not just limited to shared hosting. The same can be said for the vast majority of VPS server providers too. Managed WordPress hosting providers recognize this is a huge problem for all but the smallest WordPress websites and have built huge businesses building highly optimized hosting platforms that speed up the slowest aspects of WordPress. Siteground have taken the best aspects of Managed WordPress hosting services and applied them on a much wider scale to their hosting plans – including their entry level shared hosting plans – something which is unparalleled in the WordPress hosting industry. Once you’re up and running with WordPress on Siteground you’ll get access to the flagship feature of their hosting offering – the aptly named Siteground Supercacher.
You’ll get access to 3 of 4 different caching options on all shared plans except the cheapest entry level StartUp plan (the 4th, HHVM – is only available on Cloud hosting plans – which you won’t really need if you’re just starting out. We’ll cover this in another post at a later date).
The 3 levels are:
Level 2: Dynamic Cache: creates copies of your dynamic content and stores it in server RAM, meaning the web server doesn’t need to query the database every time a user loads a webpage. The server can simply retrieve the page content from RAM – which is much, much, much quicker than a database query.
What’s so special about that you may ask? Aren’t there tons of WordPress plugins like W3 Total Cache that will do this for me? Well yes there are – but did you see the screenshot above? There’s one big “ON” button and a “Flush Cache” option. That’s it. Have you ever spent some time trying to configure W3 Total Cache? I’ve been doing this stuff for years and it still manages to confuse me! The Supercacher is so much simpler and It Just Works. Second, Dynamic Cache is always much much faster than a caching plugin. A caching plugin only gets triggered AFTER someone has requested one of your web pages and the web server then asks the PHP backend to generate the page. Dynamic caches store copies of the generated page in RAM meaning the web server or PHP backend never have to rise from their slumber to generate the page once it’s been generated the first time. Pretty clever if you ask me.
Level 3: Memcached: Memcached is the technology that probably speeds up about 50% of the modern web. It’s not specific to WordPress. Simply put, it’s a storage engine that’s specifically designed to make dynamic applications like WordPress that rely on database queries run on steroids. If this thing is so good why don’t all WordPress hosts use it? Heck why doesn’t WordPress just build it in? Well I’ll tell you why – if only it were that simple – Memcached can be tricky to setup and tune it correctly. It takes serious sys admin skills to tune it correctly. In fact, in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing it can actually slow down your site. Which is why most web hosts don’t go down this road – they simply don’t know what they’re doing and/or don’t care enough. Thankfully Siteground do. Siteground is the only web hosting company in the world that provides a Memcached option on shared hosting plans. And that’s fricking awesome for you!
Again you just set it and forget it – no complex configuration to worry about – simples.
WordPress has never been this fast.
Seriously. I challenge you to find a better, faster shared WordPress host. These guys really, truly know how to make WordPress blazingly fast. They go to the ends of the earth to make technology that would cost you thousands of dollars to setup and configure yourself via the command line instantly accessible via big shiny green on/off/purge buttons in your control panel. This is industry leading, pioneering stuff folks. I can’t compliment them highly enough on that aspect of their service.
2.) Best WordPress Hosting Technical Support
3.) Power features on advanced plans (specific to the GoGeek Plan)
If Industry defining Speed and Support are not enough to convince you why Siteground are the best, then the full scope and range of features on their more advanced plans will. Siteground run on Cpanel which is the industry leading Control Panel that the vast majority of hosting companies use. But they have extended it and developed their own power features on their more advanced GoGeek plan that seals the deal for me. These are features you typically only get with the more expensive Managed WordPress hosts like WPEngine or Pagely. Again, it’s another example of how Siteground are taking features and services typically only available on much more expensive hosts and making it available to the rest of us at much more affordable prices. This includes:
- Staging – You won’t realize how valuable and important a staging site is until the first time you fuck up and break your live WordPress website at the worst possible time. A staging site is a copy of your live site that you treat as a sandbox for experimenting with new plugins, themes, configuration changes etc. that you can do safely in a “dress rehearsal” environment that won’t break your live website. This might not be so important to you today if you’re just starting out. But trust me, once your website starts getting some traffic and making a few dollars, a staging sites becomes a must have feature. I won’t use a web host that doesn’t offer this feature anymore – it’s that important.
- PCI Compliance – If you intend on selling stuff via your website the 2 words “PCI Compliance” will most likely pop up at some point. Trust me, PCI compliance can be a very expensive and time consuming process you will want to avoid at all costs. The Siteground GoGeek Plan is PCI compliant which saves you this world of pain.
- SSD disks for your database – Simply put, Solid State Drives (SSD’s) are much, much faster than traditional hard drives for certain types of computing functions. Siteground GoGeek operate SSD disks for MySql meaning your website gets even faster on this plan.
4.) Tons of valuable free stuff!
- Free domain name – this is really great for those just getting started. We’ll be covering domain names again in a separate blog post – but Siteground will give you one for free – typical cost is approx. $10
- Free transfer/migration – if you’re with an existing host and think it’s going to be too much effort to move to Siteground, think again. Siteground will move your WordPress website for FREE! While I’m able to do this myself, I’ve had Siteground move many sites for me in the past for my customers and they do it quickly and properly with no issues.
- Free daily backups – I shouldn’t have to tell you how important this is. But I do. You should have your own offsite backup strategy. That’s for sure. Don’t ever rely on just your hosting company for your website backups. We’ll be coming back to that again in the future. Backups is one of those things that should be easy for hosting companies, but it’s not. In fact, for many hosting companies that tell you they provide backups, their not worth much at all. Typically, they’ll keep backups of the entire server your website is on and they’ll only retain them for a couple of days. Meaning if you don’t spot an issue quickly the hosts backup is useless to you. The GoGeek plan comes with a free Premium backup service that provides access to 30 days of backups and an instant restore option – something that even a lot of the large Managed WordPress hosts don’t yet offer.
- Free SSL – if you’re going to be selling stuff on your website you’re probably going to need and SSL certificate. Siteground will give you one for free for the first year. Typically these can cost anywhere from $10 – $250 per year (and more if you need special encryption protocols). https has also become an important ranking signal for Google’s algorithms so running your entire site over https is also now considered a really good idea.
These additional free goodies save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars in some cases.
As I’ve touched on earlier, I’m a bit baffled as to how Siteground provide all of the features above for such competitive prices. I know of more than one Managed WordPress hosting company who have removed their entry level plans, simply because they can’t compete with what Siteground is offering. Right now, Siteground are running a sale and you can sign up for the entry level shared plan called Startup for as $3.95 per month – which is nuts if you ask me considering the value you’re getting. I don’t actually recommend the Startup plan to most people, as I really feel that the power features you get from the GoGeek plan provide a lot more value for the price – currently on sale and reduced by 50% to $14.95 per month (normally $29.95 per month). But if you’re just starting out and don’t need those power features just yet then the Startup plan is perfectly fine. You can always scale up to a more advanced plan in the future when you need it 🙂
What’s more is they offer a 30 day money back guarantee on all shared hosting plans – so you really have no excuse to give them a shot 🙂
As a world class procrastinator, I tend to put things like this off and inevitably never get around to taking action – don’t make my mistake – take action today and get yourself setup on Siteground and see how awesome they really are.
I’ve created a video tutorial showing you how to setup your first blog on Siteground from the initial Siteground signup process, through to the steps required to setup WordPress for the first time. This is really a sneak peek at what’s coming down the line in Part 2 of our beginner blogging series. We hope you enjoy it – chat soon!