How to Choose the Best Hosting Provider for Your Ecommerce Site

Will Etling
Will Etling
November 26th, 2019
Estimated read time: 7 minutes, 24 seconds

Since it’s humble beginnings in 2003 as a spinoff of the CafePress blogging platform, WordPress has grown into a powerful content management system (CMS) that directly supports a significant portion of the internet.

That’s not an exaggeration. WordPress runs 35% of the entire internet and powers major brands like TED, CNN, Spotify, and TechCrunch.

As a leader in ecommerce for businesses selling software, SaaS, and digital products, we have first-hand experience with the impact of WordPress for growing businesses. In fact, we built a WordPress plugin that helps companies set up an online store in WordPress—no complex coding required!

With that in mind, I am sharing how you can choose the right web host for your WordPress-powered ecommerce website.

Types of WordPress Hosting

Although most of us in the web developer community probably think of the traditional LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack and run-of-the-mill shared hosting when we hear “WordPress,” there’s actually a variety of directions you can go nowadays when choosing a host for your next WordPress project. Traditional shared hosting is still probably the most popular, but you could also use a managed WordPress host, which abstracts some of the server configuration for you. WPEngine, Kinsta, and GoDaddy’s managed WordPress offerings are all popular examples of this approach. Other more cutting-edge solutions exist, such as Shifter, which generates fully static files and is almost like hosting your *entire* site on a CDN.

The Importance of Speed

Speed is crucial when picking a hosting platform. Make sure you know what kind of traffic you are expecting, and pick a platform and plan from the beginning that can handle that type of traffic. Remember that shared hosting is just that—shared. Your website will run on a server with many other sites, and so if something happens to dramatically increase the load on that server, it could impact you, even if the traffic or load increase isn’t coming to your website. For this reason, shared hosting is the least expensive of the various types, and plans start at less than $5 per month. Unless you’re just blogging about your pets and don’t care about uptime, I recommend investing slightly more than that to ensure your business can run smoothly.

For more speed and to ensure that other people’s problems don’t become yours, consider jumping up a notch to a virtual private server (VPS). A VPS is a nice mid-point between shared and dedicated, and has gained popularity as the tools and machine learning to balance virtual server loads have improved. With a VPS, traffic spikes or security issues on other people’s applications or websites are contained before they impact other people using the server. Think of it as shared hosting, but with a much smarter and stricter set of guidelines for the various users who are sharing the space. As the cost of managing virtual private servers has decreased, major players like DreamHost have begun to offer VPS packages for as little as $10 a month. Yes, that’s twice what you might pay for a shared hosting plan, but it is a far more reliable way of hosting your website, and offers more flexibility down the road if you need to increase the speed or specifications of your server.

If you know that your WordPress ecommerce site is going to be—or already is—a massive hit with a great deal of concurrent visitors, you may need to jump up from a VPS to a dedicated server. As the name implies, a dedicated server is a powerful computer that is entirely devoted to hosting your project. No other customers have access to the server, and so its resources will always be devoted to you. Dedicated plans often feature large storage plans often starting at one or several terabytes, a fair amount of RAM (16GB is a common starting point) and advanced features like automated backups, malware remediation, dedicated IP addresses, and more.

It’s important to note that just because you get a lot of traffic, doesn’t mean you necessarily need a dedicated server plan. If you are mostly delivering content such as product listings, product detail pages, blog posts, and informational pages, your server shouldn’t be working very hard. Any WordPress-based site worth its salt will use tools like caching and a content delivery network (CDN). I personally like KeyCDN for its ease of use and many WordPress-specific features.

A little background information, a cached page is just a temporary, rendered copy of the original. When you view a webpage that has been cached, it avoids running the PHP logic in the template or retrieving data from the database, and instead just shows you the most recent “saved” version.

A CDN is a network of servers all over the world, that duplicate your resources—think images, CSS, and JavaScript—and then delivers them to users from the nearest available geographic location. So, if a user in Copenhagen loads your website, and you have a CDN enabled, all those large image and CSS and JS files will be delivered from somewhere close by – Amsterdam or Oslo, perhaps—instead of coming all the way from a data center in, say, Arizona.

Security is Essential

When it comes to keeping a WordPress ecommerce site up and running, you want to make sure that your hosting provider is secure. Security comes in many forms—you can expect and hope that the basics like a secure datacenter and up-to-date server operating systems are a standard feature of any large hosting company.

However, there are increasingly obvious differences between hosting companies and how seriously they take routine maintenance. Ideally, a good hosting service will both offer and encourage its customers to upgrade their software such as PHP, Apache, MySQL, or cPanel on a regular basis. If you’re considering different hosts, some good questions to ask them might be: How often do you offer updates to core software like PHP? How proactive are you about notifying your customers when they are running outdated software on their server?

Beyond the security of the servers and the software they run, there’s also the security of the connection between your customers and your website. If you use a third party to securely handle your checkout and payments (like FastSpring, wink wink) then you don’t need to worry about the security of the checkout. However, you’ll still want to use SSL to get the padlock icon in the address bar and build a sense of trust. Any hosting plan worth its salt these days will offer free, auto-renewing SSL certificates from a service like LetsEncrypt / AutoSSL. Remembering to provision and install basic SSL certificates is a pain, and a thing of the past, so don’t sign up for any plan that doesn’t offer this convenient feature.

Location, Location, Location

We tend to think of the world wide web in abstract terms, and most casual internet users rarely consider *where* the data they’re accessing is physically located, or what route it has to take to get to them.

If you are serious about performance and uptime, you should definitely give datacenter location some thought. The very cautious might want to avoid data centers located in disaster-prone areas – whether that means earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, or something equally catastrophic.

Where your host is located will also make a difference in speed. If you know that your customers are clustered in a specific geographic region, pick a host or data center that’s near them! If they are scattered around the world, it may make more sense to pick a location that is close to you, so you can communicate with your hosting server more quickly while your build your website. And don’t forget the CDN that we mentioned earlier – don’t make your users wait for static assets to go halfway around the world, when you can easily serve it to them from nearby.

Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, it should be a simple equation—find hosting that balances your needs and doesn’t break the bank. If you are running WordPress with no extra scripts or non-WordPress functionality, consider a managed WordPress solution. If you need major performance and enjoy tinkering with server settings, get a dedicated server. And don’t look at plans that don’t offer automatic, easy SSL certificates and common features like unlimited bandwidth and automatic software updates (or at least notifications).

When it comes time to actually set up your WordPress site to sell your software or digital downloads, don’t forget to check out FastSpring. We handle all the taxes, compliance, delivery emails, etc, so that you can stop thinking about your ecommerce and get back to working on your app, software, video games, or other software, SaaS, and digital products!

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