What I learned about WordPress hosting this week (Hostgator vs VPS.NET)

  • Hosting is complicated
  • Hosting is not as simple as you think it is
  • WordPress hosting is definitely not as simple as you think it is
Wow – that was eloquent, wasn’t it? The reason I’m writing this post is that I think my experiences with Hostgator and VPS.NET over the past week are probably instructive to a lot of people like me. I also need to get it off my chest.
I was at Hostgator, on their baby croc plan, for years. Looking at their pricing options today, it looks like I wasn’t even on their cheapest plan. I paid $120 a year, hosting 19 WordPress blogs on their servers. That’s a good deal, and I knew it. Of course I did not believe their ‘UNLIMITED Disk Space and Bandwidth‘ line. What sold me was the ability to create blogs as I wished. And of course when I started I really didn’t have that much traffic. I assumed that when my bandwidth use got too big, they’d tell me and ask me to pay more. My blogs, collectively, had about 1000 visitors a day over the past month. It’s been more. One of my traffic pulling blogs was hit by Panda and my commercial blogs are not seeing Christmas traffic yet.
There seemed no reason to worry.
What I didn’t know was that Hostgator would pull my sites OFFLINE for using too many server resources. They did that almost 2 weeks ago. They gave me advice on how to speed up my blogs. I followed most of it. I’ll write about how to speed up your blog next. The result was that my sites were offline for 48 hours.
Then support came back to me with something along these lines: your site is still using over average resources, we recommend you move up to our dedicated hosting plan if you want to stay up. At this point my sites were back up, but of course that message didn’t make me happy.
Since their dedicated hosting plan is more than 10 times what I was paying them ($139 First Month, $174/mo recurring at present), and since I was not likely to pay that much to a host that had just pulled my sites offline without warning, I asked about their cheaper VPS hosting plans.
I had previously moved a client over to Hostgator VPS. I had not been happy with the service, but hey – perhaps it was time for me to bite the bullet too.
So I looked up their VPS plans and found that they start at First Month: $15.96, Recurring: $19.95.
I ran that by my support contact and was told – and this had me reeled even more than I already was – since you’re on a TOS ticket, you can’t upgrade to one of our cheaper plans. I did not appreciate being made to feel like a criminal.
I was smart enough to realize that they could not possibly force me to upgrade, but that of course they might pull my sites offline again without warning. Given that traffic will hopefully go up over Christmas, I needed a new host. So I went ahead and looked up Yoast, fellow Dutchy and WordPress SEO guru. In short: a trusted colleague, though I don’t think affiliate marketing is his main game. His article on WordPress hosting is a classic.
When I’d looked at that article for that client of mine, I’d been smart enough to realize that VPS hosting is about hiring your own virtual server. So I went with managed VPS for that client. That server doesn’t necessarily come with all the settings you want. In fact, I’ve now learned, VPS means hiring a virtual server that comes as clean as possible. It’s a bit like buying a PC without any Windows on it. Then you tell the tech personal that, yes, you do want Windows. Well, if it had  been that simple, I’d have managed. It wasn’t.
Now we come to it.
VPS Hosting is like Reseller Hosting, except that the latter comes with pre-installed software to make life easier on the reseller. 
However, knowing that instinctively or not – I was in panic mode last week and therefore moved all my sites to VPS.NET. I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly. Their sales people told me they’d move my sites. Unfortunately, this appeared to be limited to moving the files and databases. I still had to set up nameservers and tech support didn’t know WordPress well enough to increase PHP memory. Instead, they disabled all my plugins. (*) In the end they did get my sites up and I installed akismet for the time being. That way at least my visitors and Google got to see my content while I figured out my next step.
Of course the real message here is: I should have known to increase PHP memory. I should have been (or had on hire) a sysadmin as their manager informed me. Well, I don’t. Since I’m working on a book and busy making money through keyword research and affiliate marketing, I am not really interested in becoming a sysadmin. I’m already enough of a geek as it is.
Long story short: through my friends at Squid∩ Community (specifically AJ and Bev) I found a Hostgator Reseller who knows WordPress and moved all my sites to her servers. I’m talking about Anne Corcino at SEO Praxis. She has me on a plan that will increase with traffic. Currently I pay less than $50 a month. The economics of that are a bit of a puzzle, but since everything works I’m not going to complain. If she had offered VPS I would have gone with that, because Yoast has convinced me that at my traffic levels it is probably a good idea. Also, one of my sites uses a lot of images and CDN (hosting your images on a seperate server) makes sense in those circumstances.
SEO Praxis’ main selling point: their service. They do NOT assume I’m a geek who wants to do as much as possible himself.
Now why did I not go for managed VPS? Well, really, I need HEAVILY managed VPS. I also need my sites up. I don’t want to try out every host out there only to find they aren’t what I need. I need tech support that assumes I’m a somewhat tech-savvy blogger (which I am), not a sysadmin waiting to happen. And with only 1000 visitors a day, the expensive plans seem rather overdone. However, I did make a wishlist for my ideal host (and if this is you, please contact me):
  • WordPress specialist
  • Managed VPS, but with standard stuff installed, optimized for hosting many WordPress sites. For me VPS means being able to fiddle with settings, install extras or have tech-support do so. It does NOT mean starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. I have wondered whether what I need isn’t really called ‘reseller hosting’ instead.
  • Easy install extra WordPress sites (fantastico works for me).
  • Moves sites in: This cost Anne Corcino a full day for 19 sites without me having to stress or do a thing other than supply login info.
  • Checks error logs about yearly and translates into actionable advice.
  • (Helps with things like DB clean up. However, there are plugins that make this manageable for me to do – see my next post.)
  • Keeps tabs on stats and warns when upgrade is necessary.
  • CDN for images
  • Price based on traffic levels, not number of sites.
Cost: 100$ max a month (at current traffic levels), sysadmin work on an hourly wage on top of that.
Since my sites are now back up and reasonably speedy too, I have no reason to want to move again. However, I do think I’ll reevaluate in spring: that’s the time I can best afford to have down time. I’ll be looking at hosts specialized in WordPress hosting. On twitter someone suggested what I might need is ‘semi dedicated hosting’.
I think one issue here is that there is a gap between the ease of use of installing WordPress and the hosts who aren’t yet prepared to deal with people like me who generate actual traffic. Dare I say it? They don’t know how to deal with women like me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence I ended up with a host/sysadmin who’s a woman.  The irony here is, of course, that I ended up with a reseller of the same host  I was already on. I have to hope Hostgator treats their resellers a bit better than their low end clients.
(*) Although VPS.NET isn’t the type of host I need, their sales team did do a full refund. The whole experience  cost me a lot of stress and energy, but in the end it did not cost me undue money. VPS.NET would probably have been fine for me if they’d put one of their ‘level 2’ techs on my account right away: the guy they teamed me up with in the end seemed like a WordPress expert. VPS.NET was definitely fast and I suppose if I’d been only a bit more of a geek I might have stayed there.

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