Once every year or so, I get obsessed with making improvements to my site. Last year it was modernizing and customizing my WordPress theme. This time, it’s:
- Better hosting (more reliable, much faster)
- SSL (greater security, even faster)
Switching from Bluehost to Lighting Base for Faster Hosting
My site will never get millions of page views per day. But traffic has already exceeded 40,000 in several different months this year. With my peak months of December through April coming up, I thought it prudent to prepare the site for heavier traffic, possibly over 100,000 page views in December.
Since I started this site in March 2009, Bluehost has reliably hosted FilterJoe with no major issues. I paid $612.50 for 8 years, which amounts to $6.38/month, though I abandoned the last 6 prepaid months. The total cost would have only been $500 if I hadn’t started paying for a dedicated IP address in February 2015.
The way Bluehost and other budget hosting businesses keep prices so low is by grouping thousands of web sites per server. Most of these sites have very low volume so it usually works out. However, if one site gets hacked, it can cause problems for every other site sharing that server, because they all share the same IP address. I did experience these negative side effects once in February 2015—Bluehost had to take steps that negatively impacted all sites on the server to keep it from going down. After that incident, I began to pay for a dedicated IP address unique to FilterJoe, in order to insulate me from similar episodes in the future. I didn’t have any issues thereafter.
Those who complain about Bluehost probably don’t understand what to reasonably expect from inexpensive shared hosting. They may also be misled by Bluehost’s unrealistic claims of high speeds and unlimited everything for an incredibly low price.
If you have reasonable expectations, such as mediocre tech help, slower-than-average speeds, and occasional brief outages, you should be pretty happy with Bluehost. They offer an amazing amount of flexibility and value for the price. If you’re running a simple blog (or several small sites) and you know what you’re doing, you can get a heck of a lot for under $5/month.
However, this site has become my livelihood. Given that, switching to a faster, more reliable, and more expensive host is something I should have probably done a year or two ago. I decided that with my first 100,000 page view month possibly coming up in December, I could procrastinate no longer.
To be clear, Bluehost was more than adequate for sub-50,000/month page views. It’s hard to gain clarity on what volume becomes “too much” for shared hosting, but I was able to guesstimate from various anecdotal forum comments. For a simple WordPress blog like FilterJoe, somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 page views per day, or 150,000 to 300,000 page views per month is where I’d likely run into serious issues, including the possibility of being terminated by Bluehost for excessive strain on their servers.
For blogs that have occasional large traffic spikes, Bluehost might not be appropriate at all. Massive traffic spikes exceeding 10,000 page views per hour can cause more than 25 concurrent users attempting to connect at the same time, which is an unreasonably large load for a shared hosting plan. Bluehost will “throttle” accounts using so much CPU in order to keep other sites running smoothly on the same server. Other shared hosting services have similar mechanisms in place. They have to.
FilterJoe does not have the kind of content that goes viral on social media, so I’ve never experienced a massive traffic spike. But this site is too important to my livelihood to risk continued use of budget hosting.
Details aside, I had a remarkably good run with Bluehost for nearly 8 years.
After doing a bit of research, I realized that the next step for me was something called managed WordPress hosting. Managed WordPress hosting makes more sense than other options such as VPS. I won’t discuss the details but I will say the obvious—a company that makes it’s living by hosting WordPress installations on servers optimized for that purpose is going to better serve WordPress sites than a more generalist bargain setup that tries to be everything to everyone.
I chose Lighting Base after considering many competing alternatives. Lightning Base not only seemed like the best fit for FilterJoe (and my wife’s 2 small sites), but it was among the fastest and clearly the best value.
So how has it been after switching to Lighting Base?
Update: In June 2018, early two years after switching, I still say “Great!” I haven’t even thought about who my host is for many months. I had a WordPress issue last year where an obscure bug in the WordPress iOS app was wiping out my comments. At that time I easily retrieved database backups from Lightning Base, thus saving my comments. Since then, there have been no issues that caused me to log in to Lightning Base, which is just the way I like it!
Lightning Base is a small organization where founder Chris Piepho personally oversees every new customer migration. I asked many questions electronically. The answers were thorough and came quickly. The migration from Bluehost to Lightning Base wasn’t just smooth. It was easy.
And yes—the speed boost is nice. Try clicking around the site a little. If you’re located in the U.S., you’ll notice that it’s very fast. The vast majority of my traffic is from the U.S. and I never get big traffic spikes. Therefore, I decided that I don’t need to use Cloudflare or some other CDN at this time. It’s plenty fast without it.
So why should I care about a little speed boost of a second or two? After all, my simple site already felt about as fast as an average site with Bluehost. Well, it turns out that site speed matters.
Supposedly, over 1/3 of users will abandon a site that takes more than 3 seconds to load. Furthermore, Google knows that users don’t like slow-loading sites. So when Google’s search algorithm ranks pages for quality, one of its many ranking signals is how fast a page loads. Faster loading pages will appear slightly higher in search results, all else being equal.
Going with a faster host means a better user experience on average, as well as slightly better rankings with Google search.
Switching to SSL for a More Secure and Faster Site
While devoting all this effort to increasing site speed, I explored a few other avenues for increasing speed as well. I achieved modest gains from changes too minor to be worth mentioning, but I did make one major change: SSL (HTTPS).
SSL is used to make web pages more secure. When you see a URL with HTTPS instead of HTTP, it’s using SSL. You may also see a lock symbol in the URL bar when this is enabled.
Lightning Base offers SSL for free, thanks to SNI. So I took them up on the offer on September 7. Since then, I’ve fixed most of my pages with mixed content, which means you’ll see the lock symbol on the vast majority of FilterJoe pages. The few pages that don’t have the lock symbol load one or more http images from another site.
Given that FilterJoe is an informational site, increased security with SSL hardly matters, though it does mean that it’s more difficult for hackers to eavesdrop on visitor activity. Probably not too many readers of articles about baseball or batteries care about that. However, there is a speed benefit that has to do with HTTP/2, the new HTTP protocol that is faster, but is only supported for sites that have SSL.
So now that SSL is enabled with FilterJoe, it has an additional speed boost even beyond what I got from upgrading to a faster hosting service. As I already mentioned, faster means slightly higher quality in the eyes of the Google search ranking algorithm. Well so does SSL.
Google plans to increasingly reward SSL-enabled sites over the next few years, while penalizing those without SSL. Furthermore, starting in January, Google will be issuing warnings to users on its Google Chrome browser for sites that allow login over HTTP instead of HTTPS. This is just the beginning. Within a few years, most sites will be using SSL, or else they will be considered high-risk by many Google services and get penalized accordingly.
It takes a bit of work to change over an existing site to SSL (especially tracking down and getting rid of unsafe content). That’s partly why I haven’t written anything for over a month. For a new site, getting started with SSL these days is easy and slightly helpful with respect to Google. In fact, given this new reality, I’d go so far as to say that all new sites should have SSL enable from the get go.
And what about hosting. Should a new WordPress site start on budget shared hosting such as Bluehost or something higher quality and more expensive? I think the answer would depend on what the goals are for the new site. If it’s a business where money is a more plentiful resource than time, or if the site owner has aspirations for 100,000 pageviews/month, then managed WordPress hosting is the way to go.
Managed WordPress hosting does not have to be extremely expensive, especially for low volume sites. The lowest price tier for Lightning Base is 9.99/month, and that includes SSL (note that Bluehost shared hosting costs almost as much on any plan that also includes SSL). FilterJoe’s traffic is high enough to require the $19.99/month plan at this time. As traffic rises, so too will my monthly cost with Lightning Base (or any other managed WordPress host).
Managed WordPress hosting will be more expensive than Bluehost. But that’s a small price to pay for faster speeds, greater reliability, and superior service.
Bluehost is fine for owners of low-traffic sites that need self-hosting at a low cost. But for anyone starting a new WordPress site with significant aspirations, consider getting SSL. Also consider getting managed WordPress hosting with a quality organization, such as Lightning Base. In the long run, you’ll save yourself a lot of time.