How much does an eCommerce website cost?

Ah the age old question of cost! It can be quite the mystery as to what the hell an eCommerce website will cost you. Today we take a look at what key factors will influence the cost of your eCommerce website.

It’s about time. Mostly.

The biggest determining factor for how much your eCommerce website will cost is time. How long will the project take? Who needs to be involved? How much does it cost to employ the necessary people for the duration of the project? Answer those questions and you’ve established a huge aspect of eCommerce website costs.

The In House eCommerce Team

If you’re hiring an In House team to build your eCommerce website you’ll probably need a minimum of 3 people (but potentially many more depending on the scale and scope of the project).

  • eCommerce Project Manager (PM) – a jack of all eCommerce trades. This person ensures the project gets done on time and within your budget. They will often also be Lead QA, Lead BA, Content writer and will often get their hands dirty with code if required/allowed. On bigger project the PM will recruit and manage individuals for these specific disciplines.
  • Lead Developer – the main person responsible for producing the code – either 100% bespoke (not recommended for about 80% of projects) or on top of an existing eCommerce software platform (see below). On bigger projects there could be at least 2 or 3 additional developers led by the Lead Developer.
  • Lead Designer – in this definition the Lead Designer is the person taking the initial early Visual Design/branding stage straight through to the low level HTML/CSS/JS. On larger projects it’s likely that you would have a number of frontend developers who are solely responsible for frontend engineering.

So you’re looking at a team of a minimum of 3. But very quickly you could require a team of 9-10 people if your project scope requires it. So how much does that cost? The job market for people with eCommerce expertise in 2015 is about as red hot as it’s been in 15 years so you’re probably looking at an average of $100,000 per person per annum.

So a team of 3 will cost you in the region of $300,000 per annum. A team of 10? In the region of $1 million per annum. WHAT? Yip, good eCommerce people ain’t cheap folks 🙂

Your mileage may vary depending on your location in the world but $100,000 per person as an average all things considered including healthcare costs, employer taxes, office/hardware etc. is pretty reasonable. If you’re based in San Francisco or New York it’s definitely considered cheap!

There’s been a pretty seismic shift happening in the web agency world of late where large well known agencies have been gobbled up by big organisations who now believe it’s not smart to rely on an external agency for what is now a critical part of running any business with big ambitions in 2015 – design and software engineering excellence. But for many businesses their scale and revenue cannot justify the investment an in house team requires.

My recommendation would be that a full eCommerce In House team should only be considered for businesses who are turning over in excess of $3m per annum.

Why $3m? At that point you can hire a team of 3-4 people and your costs will be in the region of 10% of turnover. Before reaching this point my recommendation would be to rely mostly on external agencies as they should be able to provide many of the benefits of an in house team at a lower price point. (NOTE: We’re specifically talking about an eCommerce team here – NOT the entire team required to run your eCommerce website. You’ll also need to think about the people you need to manage order fulfilment, shipping, accounting, stock etc. but that’s for another day!)

The one person I would not outsource to an agency from day one is the person responsible for the commercial success of your eCommerce website. This could be you! As you grow, this is going to be an eCommerce manager who will most likely manage your agency/freelance team and eventually your in house eCommerce team.

So your maturity as an eCommerce business is vital to determining how best to go about building an eCommerce website.

The stages of eCommerce maturity

The first thing to consider is where you are at in terms of your own eCommerce experience. We’re not talking necessarily just about technical skills here. We’re talking about your own personal experience when it comes to owning and operating eCommerce ventures. This is incredibly important when it comes to determining the costs associated with building you an eCommerce website.

Why? A wide range of skills are required to run a successful eCommerce operation; world class sales and marketing expertise, top class branding and packaging, a 6th sense for customer price sensitivity, excellent customer service and fluency in digital marketing and how eCommerce management systems work.

For those who’ve never run an eCommerce website before, this list can seem intimidating. Well it should be! Running a successful eCommerce operation is not easy and it takes time to acquire these skills. If you’ve gained them already through running your own eCommerce websites or by working for another eCommerce website you’ll already be ahead of the game when it comes to talking to building a new eCommerce website.

If you’re entering into the eCommerce world without experience in these areas, be prepared to spend a lot of time learning the ropes. If you’re considering working with an agency to build your eCommerce website, a good one will want to know what level of eCommerce fluency and expertise you have as this incredibly important to almost every aspect of building the website. Typically if you’ve less eCommerce fluency things can take a lot longer as there will be a steep learning curve for you during the project. The agency will also most likely have to factor in a longer lead time for training and post project completion support as you get to grips with running an eCommerce website.

For those who have extensive eCommerce experience it’s usually possible to get to the root of exactly what is required much quicker which can help reduce the time required to complete the project – thereby reducing overall project costs. We can determine your eCommerce maturity be using the following framework.

eCommerce Maturity Framework (EMF)

This maturity framework is really just a high falutin way of establishing where in the grand scheme of things your eCommerce business is. Are you a multi million dollar eCommerce operation with a big team in place who are looking to increase conversions by 5% per annum? Or are you a one man operation who can just about turn on a computer who wants to start selling your beloved hand painted sea horses online? These are 2 very different types of situations requiring very different approaches.

eCommerce Maturity Framework

eCommerce Maturity Framework (EMF)

  • Small – You’re probably just getting going. You may be a one or two man operation. You probably don’t know a lot about eCommerce. You can benefit a lot from the guidance of an external agency. Your budget (or lack thereof) also prohibit you from building an in house team.
  • Medium – You’re a pretty successful eCommerce operation with revenues in excess of $1m per annum. You’ve developed some pretty sharp eCommerce skills to get to this level but you still need the assistance of an external agency to help drive your business forward.
  • Large – You’re an eCommerce business turning over in excess of $5m per annum. You’ve reached a point where it now starts to make sense to build an eCommerce team internally. You can still keep working with an agency if you wish (particularly for one off specialist projects), but you should definitely give consideration to building a team in house.
  • Enterprise – You’re an eCommerce juggernaut with revenues in excess of $10m per annum. You NEED an in house team just to keep up. You’ll likely have a ton of projects that you need to execute on an ongoing basis to continue to grow the business. At this level, an in house team is a necessity to realize long term benefits of having a team of people focused just on your business.

Using the EMF to help make decisions about how to build your eCommerce website

Simply put, you can use the EMF to assist you make decisions about when is the right time to build an in house team. It doesn’t make financial sense in general to build an in house team for SMALL and MEDIUM sized eCommerce websites. But once you go beyond $5m per annum it starts to look like a more compelling option. LARGE and ENTERPRISE eCommerce websites are in a enviable position where they can start to build a team to work on long term, visionary projects that require significant investment that’s just not possible for smaller operations. In this situation you will want to build that kind of expertise in house as it becomes a source of sustained competitive advantage in your business in the long run.

So what about Small and Medium sized eCommerce websites?

So you’ve determined you not ready for an in house team just yet. What are your options? The good news is that you have tons of them – if anything, too many! Here’s what I would recommend.

Newbie eCommerce Website

For anybody who is a newbie to eCommerce your objective should be to spend as little as possible in the beginning. The harsh reality is that the vast majority of eCommerce entrepreneurs will fail. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It may mean though that you will attempt this eCommerce thing a few times with different ideas and products in different markets before you start to build some traction.

For Newbies, CommerceGurus Recommends: Shopify

Shopify is about as simple as it gets. You don’t need to worry about your own hosting or servers. You won’t have to worry about software and server upgrades, server security, ssl certificates, order emails and so on. Shopify take care of all of this for you.

Shopify pricing

Shopify pricing

From as little at $14.99 per month you can be up and running with your own eCommerce website in a matter of minutes. That’s hard to beat! What’s more, Shopify is designed to scale with you as you move up through the different stages of the EMF. There are many enterprise eCommerce websites with sales in the millions that continue to use Shopify. If you have no existing website (and associated hosting costs) then Shopify is a no brainer, particularly if you don’t want to go down that road at all. On top of your monthly costs, you are also likely to spend money on how your eCommerce website looks (which is what is known as Shopify Themes). Themes typically costs between $100 and $200 for Shopify.

Shopify Costs for a Newbie eCommerce website (per annum)

  • Starter Package on Shopify: $179.88 per annum (14.99 * 12)
  • Shopify Theme: $200
  • Domain Registration: $15 per annum

Total: $394.88 

So for under $200 per annum and a one off $200 for your theme you’re getting a world class eCommerce platform.

Custom Shopify Theme Design

As you get more and more traction you may wish to consider creating a custom theme for your store. A custom theme will differentiate your store from others that use your previous “off the rack” Shopify theme. A custom Shopify theme will cost considerably more than the off the rack one you might have previously purchased. Custom theme design prices will be based primarily on 3 factors:

  • The complexity of the design you wish to implement.
  • The scope of the project.
  • The expertise of the agency/freelancer you choose.

The third variable, agency expertise, is perhaps the most important. Typically a well known, experienced Shopify expert who create custom theme designs full time and who is based in a Western country is going to cost considerably more than a new expert based in a developing economy. You will need to choose an Shopify Design expert that’s right for your project. A good indicative cost for a custom Shopify theme would be in the region of $2,000 – $5,000 for a small eCommerce website. Prices for medium, large and enterprise eCommerce websites can be significantly higher (e.g. $20,000 – $50,000).

So if Shopify is so damn amazing why isn’t every eCommerce website in the world just using that you may ask? Shopify is what is called a Software as a Service (SASS) product meaning that you do not have direct control over the software – which is fine and dandy – as long as the software provides all the functionality that your business needs. For most conventional eCommerce businesses, Shopify should be more than sufficient. But for those that need something that Shopify doesn’t provide what alternative options exist?

For intermediates and experts, CommerceGurus recommends: WooCommerce

Regular readers of this blog will know we are especially fond of WooCommerce. In a few short years WooCommerce has become one of the most popular eCommerce platforms in the world. If you already have a WordPress site in place and have experience managing websites running WordPress, WooCommerce is an excellent starting for both Small and Medium eCommerce websites with intermediate and expert eCommerce fluency. If you’re a small, newbie eCommerce website with little or no prior WordPress eCommerce you would be better sticking with Shopify unless you’re prepared to spend a good bit of time and money to figure out how to use WordPress, setup your own hosting, payment gateway and so on which can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. (HINT: DON’T go down this road if you’re just looking to get something up and running quickly).

But if you’ve already figured out WordPress you’re in a great position to jump into WooCommerce quickly.

WooCommerce costs for a typical intermediate/expert website (per annum)

So your annual costs for running a typical WooCommerce powered eCommerce website will be between $735 and $2000. This is a bit higher than the entry level Shopify plan (although the entry level Shopify plan is quite restrictive for all but the simplest eCommerce websites). When you go the self hosted route you will have a multitude of costs which you’re most likely paying to different providers.

Even if you already have WordPress hosting, it may not be suitable for running an eCommerce website. You’ll also have a myriad of additional costs for things like SSL certificates that Shopify would previously have looked after for you. You will also most likely need some commercial WooCommerce plugins which will vary in price (there are also plenty of excellent free WooCommerce plugins but we’re focusing on costs for now). A typical WooCommerce plugin will cost between $50 – $200.

In our experience it’s common that a typical WooCommerce website might end up using between 5 and 10 commercial plugins. Each of these plugins will typically have an initial cost plus a renewal an annual fee for future upgrades and support. (Find out where to find the best WooCommerce plugins).

Custom WooCommerce Themes

Just like with Shopify, there is a massive ecosystem of WooCommerce experts creating a wide range of WooCommerce themes and plugins. In fact it is this ecosystem which makes WooCommerce so compelling. Chances are there will be a plugin out there for the majority of use cases that you as an eCommerce website owner might think of. And if there’s not, you can either build it yourself or hire a WooCommerce expert to build it for you. This removal of constraints is a key differentiator from Shopify. If the nature of your eCommerce business requires something a bit different from the general shopping cart experience, it could be that WooCommerce gives you a platform that you can shape to meet your needs.

What does a custom WooCommerce theme cost?

In our experience, when we create a custom WooCommerce theme for a client, we’re generally doing a lot more than creating just the theme. We’re usually leading an eCommerce implementation project from start to finish. In this scenario, you’re typically talking about the following:

  • Requirements Gathering/Discovery – this starts with establishing your eCommerce maturity using the EMF framework we revealed earlier. We then move on to define the goals of the project, including defining the scope, features and deadlines for delivery. For larger projects this will extend to creating high fidelity prototypes of all aspects of how the shopping experience will work. When we work with SMALL eCommerce websites, this is typically a 3-5 day exercise. With MEDIUM and LARGE eCommerce websites, this is typically a 15-20 day exercise. For ENTERPRISE eCommerce websites this process can take 2-4 months to complete.
  • Design – The Design Process typically splits out into 2 distinct sub phases.
    • Visual Design – The client and the designer work together to agree the overall visual design concepts for the new eCommerce website. Traditionally, client concepts were created as pixel perfect concepts in Photoshop and refined ad infinitum based on scope constraints to signoff. Nowadays it’s much more common to design within the browser to produce rapid HTML prototypes to fully consider the multitude of different types of browsing devices.
    • Frontend engineering – Once the Visual Design has been agreed, the frontend build is completed. This used to be a reasonably straightforward task. With the evolution and advancement of frontend frameworks, responsive design,  javascript frameworks, pre-compilers and linters, the frontend engineering phase has become critical to delivering highly innovative and engaging eCommerce user experiences.
  • Development – The development process will typically involve the following:
    • Install and configure WooCommerce
    • Install and configure all required WooCommerce and WordPress plugins
    • Implement any custom features and functionality as per the agreed project scope
    • Developer QA and Testing
  • Testing
    • Beta release and UAT test cycle
    • Performance testing
    • Cross browser testing
    • Code Freeze
  • Handover and Training – it’s at this point that once the code is frozen, all products and associated content are loaded for production use. Typically for SMALL eCommerce websites, we expect and recommend the customer do this. Typically this is possible for smaller eCommerce websites as there might only be a handful of products.
  • The cost of imagery – this one is not to be underestimated. We talked before about the importance of your product imagery on eCommerce websites. If you don’t already have great product imagery, you might need to set aside a separate budget for product photography ($500 – $2,000 would be typical for a small eCommerce website with a limited product range).

A typical budget for a WooCommerce custom eCommerce project would be between $10,000 and $20,000 for SMALL to MEDIUM eCommerce websites. Scope and eCommerce maturity will significantly influence which end of the scale a project will fall into.

How much for Large and Enterprise Websites?

As you can see, there are a ton of things to consider just for Small and Medium sized eCommerce website – never mind the larger ones 🙂 We think that deserves a blog post of it’s own which we’ll be working on very soon so make sure to sign up for our newsletter to be notified when it’s published.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best WooCommerce Hosting Plans – Part 3 – VPS Providers

In Part 3 of our Best WooCommerce Hosting Plans we take a look at the VPS market and share our recommended VPS for WooCommerce hosting.

Why so long for Part 3?

In the 4 months that have passed since I wrote Part 2 of this guide we’ve been crazy busy here in CommerceGurus HQ. We launched the wildly successful Adrenalin WooCommerce theme  at the end of October which took off like a rocket and meant we put our blogging duties were neglected. We’ve also been working on a number of exciting consulting projects and have a few more themes in the pipeline for 2015 so stay tuned for more frequent posts in the near future 🙂

WooCommerce Hosting Still Sucks!

My experiences the past few months helping to support our Adrenalin customers continues to highlight the sad state of affairs that the vast majority of WordPress hosts are not suitable at all for WooCommerce. It’s quite common for WooCommerce to add a second or two to the load time of a vanilla WordPress install with no other themes or plugins installed. The situation gets much worse on your average WordPress install where a user might have 20, 30 or more (shudder) plugins installed and fails to do Plugin Due Diligence. Plugin Due Diligence is the simple process of making sure that the plugin you’re about to install is:

  • Reputable – who is this developer? what’s their track record? Do they have a blog? Are they active on social media and on support forums? What do other people say about them?
  • Fast – how well is the plugin coded and how much additional load does it add to my site?
  • Up to date – when was the plugin last updated? Does it support the latest versions of WordPress and WooCommerce?

Most people don’t conduct serious Plugin Due Diligence and then end up with a slow eCommerce website. You might get away with that with a simple WordPress site as you can always fall back on a caching plugin like W3 Total Cache.

But the big problem with WooCommerce is that a caching plugin won’t hide a lack of Plugin Due Diligence or underpowered crappy hosting (or both).  WooCommerce features like dynamic carts on every page with your subtotal/item quantity displayed render caching plugins pretty much useless. Not entirely useless but pretty useless (caching is still ok for users who’ve not added anything to their cart – but they’ll most likely notice a huge slowdown once they add something to their cart which will impact on conversion!). You’ll no longer be able to create static copies of your site because if you did then your users wouldn’t be able to see a dynamic cart. You might get away with this on a simple content focused blog but if you’re serious about selling online, speed is so important.

The search for the perfect WooCommerce host.

All of these factors described expose the fact that most big WordPress hosts were not designed to be optimized for eCommerce. This is a huge problem in our community. Most WooCommerce users are not aware of this. Most assume as WooCommerce is “just another plugin” that their crappy shared host should be fine. That’s not the case.  In my view, WooCommerce needs a completely different type of hosting solution – one that is focused on in memory caching like memcached and performance tuned database instances. To date, there’s been very little in the way of WooCommerce specific tuned hosting. Compare this to the Magento community where there’s tons of Magento specific hosting services. Right now the perfect WooCommerce host doesn’t exist – and that’s a damn shame.

So I know you’re probably thinking at that point “Hang on I thought this post was about the best WooCommerce hosts – not a rant about crap ones!” Well it is, it’s just taking me a while to get there 🙂 It’s important to set the context that it is my opinion that this is an underserved market and that the hosts we’re recommending here are damn fine hosting companies but no one has created the perfect WooCommerce hosting platform yet.

I think there’s a huge opportunity for a clever host to dominate this market in 2015.

In the meantime let’s take a look at our VPS recommendations for WooCommerce.

A note about our judging criteria

NOTE: Our shortlist of recommended VPS providers is completely based on personal experience in hosting eCommerce websites over the past 15 years. In that time we’ve developed a pretty good spidey sense for what makes a good host. We’ve seen good hosts come and go. Of course we’ve also spent the time to review the low level numbers provided by hosting industry experts before ever signing up with a host. But the shortlists below are largely based on personal experience as customers of each host.

Best Unmanaged VPS for WooCommerce

TL;DR WARNING: Do NOT select an unmanaged VPS unless you’re comfortable with managing a Linux server via the terminal/command line.

An unmanaged VPS is not for the faint of heart. If you’ve never managed a Linux machine via a terminal session/command line before then I wouldn’t recommend you go down this route if you’re in need of an immediate host for your WooCommerce powered store. That said, if you’re just getting up and running and are keen to learn the dark arts of Linux sysadmin, then by all means proceed down the rabbit hole of an unmanaged VPS. Be prepared for a few months of learning how to do things via a command line, how to setup web servers and mail servers from scratch, how to secure your VPS with your own firewall, how to harden your web server, how to manage backups and rotate log files. The list of tasks goes on and on. If you’re in a time crunch you absolutely don’t need this additional overhead. But if you’re keen to experiment with your own machine – then cool – go for it! You’re also going to have to get used to your hosting company saying “sorry can’t help you!” If you’ve come from the comfort blanket of managed hosting this can be unsettling for a while – especially if it’s in the middle of a crisis and you’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on with your server!

If you’ve already got the sysadmin/devops chops then going the unmanaged VPS route for WooCommerce has some significant benefits. YOU get to build your own highly tuned VPS that you can optimize for first class eCommerce performance. This is THE major significant advantage going the unmanaged route has over the managed VPS route. By going unmanaged you can build out your WooCommerce server to utilize nginx, PHP-FPM (or PHP-HHVM if you’re really brave), memcached and Varnish. Plus you also gain a lot more control over your database instance and can make your own performance optimizations based on what’s right for your site. This can be incredibly valuable (and almost a necessity for high traffic WooCommerce stores) as your store starts to grow. Quite simply, the major advantage of this approach is that it’s possible to tune an unmanaged VPS on a next generation custom LEMP stack and throw a lot more traffic at it than you would get away with on most managed VPS providers – which means you’ll save a lot in monthly hosting costs if you invest in your sysadmin capabilities. It will be up to you as what what makes most sense for your business.

Shortlist of Recommended Unmanaged VPS providers for WooCommerce

Honestly, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending ANY of the 3 hosts below. They all provide top class unmanaged VPS machines. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Linode 
  • To this day, Linode are still the first host I go to when I want a rock solid host for production sites of any kind.
  • They are a 6 out of 5 host on basically any criteria you can think of to judge a hosting company.
  • In recent years they’ve come under increasing competitive pressure from the likes of Digital Ocean (DO) but they’ve responded brilliantly in kind with new SSD plans and pricing to compete with DO and similar contenders.
  • For WooCommerce sites I recommend no less than the Linode 2GB plan ($20/mo.) I would also recommend starting with the Linode 4GB ($40/mo.) if you’re getting any kind of traffic to your online store.
  • I also strongly recommend the first thing you do is to enable backups of your Linode (another $5 per month on the 2GB plan). The Linode backup system is worth it’s weight in gold for an eCommerce site and it’s one of the best in the business.

Digital Ocean (DO)

  • Digital Ocean appeared out of nowhere a few years ago. A combination of ultra cheap servers ($5/mo), high performance SSD disks, a great API for managing droplets (what DO called their machines) and some super slick marketing meant that DO has quickly gone from the new kid on the block to one of the biggest hosting companies in the world.
  • DO droplets are awesome. The DO control panel is incredible for managing Droplets.
  • Personally, I still have some concerns with trusting DO for my production sites. The backup system in DO is still not as well developed as I’d like it to be. I’ve also had issues with it’s reliability over the past few years. In one case it took me sending a support ticket for their sysadmin team to realise backups had not run on one of my droplets for a few months. That’s NOT the kind of experience that gives you warm, happy feelings inside when it comes to running an eCommerce site.
  • What I do love about DO is it has become my development playground. Low powered machines for $5/mo. is a great way to spin up a new machine for a few weeks to experiment with something new before moving to production.
  • I would NOT recommend the $5/mo. droplets for production use with WooCommerce sites. The DO 2GB droplet is the same price as Linode – $20/mo.

Rackspace

  • Rackspace is a stalwart of the hosting business. It’s servers are trusted by some of the biggest eCommerce players in the world.
  • Rackspace are more expensive. For a 1GB machine you’re looking at about $25 per month. So for the equivalent 2GB minimum we recommended for Linode/DO would be approximately $46.72 per month.
  • So why go with Rackspace rather than DO or Linode? If you’re completely comfortable managing your own machines then there’s probably no reason to do so. But if there’s even a chance that you might need some form of managed service in the future then I would recommend Rackspace. Their managed service is the best in the business.

The Winner – Best Unmanaged VPS for WooCommerce

If I had to just choose one unmanaged VPS provider over the others on the shortlist it would have to be Linode. While competition in this segment of the market is heating up, Linode for me are still head and shoulders above the competition – particularly given the importance of a stable, rock solid host for eCommerce.

Best Managed VPS for WooCommerce

There are tons of managed VPS hosting providers out there. Do yourself a favor – avoid at ALL costs the VPS plans offered by the likes of Bluehost, HostGator and GoDaddy. Just don’t do it! A managed VPS will always be more expensive that an unmanaged one given that the hosting plan also includes some form of technical support that you simply won’t have with an unmanaged server. For many WooCommerce users currently on shared hosting plans and with little or no server/system admin skills, you should avoid unmanaged VPS plans and go straight to a managed VPS plan.

Shortlist of Recommended Managed VPS providers for WooCommerce

I’ve used the services of pretty much every host on the list below in the past few years. Again, I’d be happy to recommend pretty much any of these hosts. Again I’m setting a minimum requirement of 2GB RAM and ideally SSD disks. You won’t find a huge amount of variance on the price of each host on this list at that spec as this is an extremely competitive market. All of these hosts will each have their own unique strengths and weaknesses (e.g. Knownhost don’t provide a Live Chat but their email response times are pretty good) Nearly all of them will be offering CentOS machines running Cpanel, Daily backups, Managed Support (with decent experience with WordPress. ), Free Migrations, Root/SSH access. Some will also offer a number of different locations across the globe which can be useful if your audience is concentrated in one particular area. In some cases these providers may also offer an unmanaged plan for approximately $15-$20 cheaper. Again, avoid this unless you’re happy managing your own servers each month.

Siteground

Perhaps the most WordPress centric of all the providers on this list. Siteground have been lots of waves in the WordPress community the past few years as they get more involved in the community itself, but also for providing servers that are optimized for optimal WordPress performance. I’ve a had a lot of dealings with Siteground the last year and I can safely say know WordPress inside and out. Their servers are also hard to beat.

Recommended Plan: Cloud 1 Plan – 2GB RAM, 40GB SSD, 1TB Bandwidth – €51/mo. (approx $58/mo.)

Knownhost

Knownhost are probably considered to the best managed VPS hosting company in the world right now. Their support is legendary and their servers are rock solid. I’ve run several VPS machines with Knownhost over the years and have never had a single issue with them. Top quality hardware and a support team that really know their stuff.

Recommended Plan: VPS-SSD-2 Plan – 2.25GB RAM, 40GB SSD, 5TB Bandwidth – $50/mo 

Rackspace

We’ve already discussed Rackspace earlier on when considering unmanaged VPS providers. Their support team are right up there with Knownhost as one would expect from one of the biggest hosting companies in the world.

Recommended Plan: General1-2 mPlan – 2GB RAM, 40GB SSD, Bandwidth n/a, – $55/mo.

WiredTree/Futurehosting

I’m grouping WiredTree and Futurehosting together purely because while I’ve used both of these providers before, I’ve not spent sufficient time with them to really put them under stress – but they have excellent, long standing reputations in the managed VPS market.

Wiredtree Recommended Plan: Pure SSD VPS – 2GB RAM, 40GB SSD, 4TB Bandwidth – $55/mo.

Future Hosting Recommended Plan: SSD3 Plan – 3GB RAM, 50GB SSD, 3TB Bandwidth – $44.5/mo.

Other notables which come highly rated (but which we’ve not tested)

A Small Orange – Some people swear by A Small Orange but I can’t ignore their recent acquisition by EIG which has been the death knell for many a good host over the years.

EuroVPS – Based in Amsterdam which can suit European based sites/stores more so than many of the other VPS providers who don’t have European data centres.

Liquidweb – Rock solid but a good bit more expensive.

The Winner – Best Managed VPS for WooCommerce

I’m really torn on picking a winner for the best Managed VPS for WooCommerce. If you had asked me this question 12 or even 6 months ago my answer would have been unequivocal – Knownhost. Knownhost for me are head and shoulders above the competition in terms of consistently superior customer service and rock solid, high performance machines. I continue to be a customer of Knownhost to this day and I’ve NEVER had a single fault on their machines. But and this is where my earlier rant comes full circle folks, Knownhost suffer from the same impediment as nearly every other managed VPS provider on the shortlist. They don’t as of yet provide a VPS platform that’s been optimized for WordPress and WooCommerce.  In fact, NONE of my shortlist do as of yet offer machines that have been optimized for high volume eCommerce/WooCommerce stores. But one does come close. Damn close. And for this reason I’m going to make them the outright winner in this category – Siteground. Remember folks there’s very little to choose amongst all of the managed VPS providers on my shortlist. But Siteground do offer one major differentiator that the others do not. The Siteground Supercacher. The Supercacher is actually a series of different caching mechanisms that you typically won’t find on any shared or managed VPS provider. Normally you’d have to go down the unmanaged DIY VPS route to avail of these. Which is why it’s so interesting and promising to see a managed VPS host introduce these technologies to the masses via an easy to web user interface. In a nutshell you get all the good stuff like Varnish and memcached without the significant sysadmin overhead. And it all works swimmingly well. Siteground have also tuned their servers to be optimized for WordPress and performance in general which makes a huge difference with some managed VPS providers who are essentially just giving you untuned stock cPanel/WHM instances. On top of that here are some other major differentiators that are normally reserved for Managed WordPress hosts (which we’ll be looking at in Part 4!).

  • Git repo
  • Free CDN
  • WordPress Staging Environment (worth it’s weight in gold – you can test all your new plugins/themes/code changes in the safety of a sandboxed staging environment before going live).
  • Automatic WordPress version updates

I’ve been using Siteground for over 12 months at this stage and I’m mightily impressed by what they’ve been able to achieve to differentiate themselves in this hyper competitive market. Their support is pretty good too. I don’t think they’re quite as good as Knownhost from that perspective but they do have a live chat support service that Knownhost don’t offer. Siteground for me are an example to all other VPS providers as to what they need to be doing to compete and differentiate in 2015. I’m hopeful that others will follow shortly and I hope to see someone really go to town and produce a compelling managed VPS plan optimized specifically for WooCommerce in 2015.

Turbocharge your WooCommerce store load times

Today we take a look at some of the most effective ways to speed up your WooCommerce powered store.

Let me get straight to the point. For most people, WordPress is slow. And WooCommerce is even slower. Why is that? A few reasons:

  1. Lack of caching in core – by default, WordPress reads all content from the database. Same goes for WooCommerce. You mighn’t notice this too much when you just have a small blog with a couple of posts. But throw in WooCommerce and a couple of hundred products and you’ll start to see things slow down.
  2. Underpowered, shitty shared hosting – we’re on a bit of a mission to get WooCommerce store owners to stop using shitty shared hosting providers for their WooCommerce stores. You get what you pay for – and you’ll really feel the pinch if you skimp on hosting when it comes to eCommerce.
  3. Bloated WordPress installs with tons of plugins and bloated themes – It’s not really the number of plugins that’s the problem. It’s more store owners and WordPress users in general feeling like it’s ok to just install any old plugin without realizing that it could be a complete dog, full of bugs, poorly written and causing performance bottlenecks on your website. You need to develop a really good sense for detecting if a plugin is impacting on the performance of your website. Know your average load times and know them well. When you install a new plugin see if it makes any difference to your load times. Same goes for themes. A lot of themes are not very well coded when it comes to WordPress standards and can cause significant performance issues for your website.

It’s important to remember that WordPress itself can be made to run very very fast. Heck WordPress.com gets approx. 131 MILLION unique visitors per month which makes it one of the most visited websites on the planet. The problem is that the default experience for most people is not this superfast traffic devouring machine. It’s a slow, easily broken mess. Managed WordPress hosting goes some way to helping solve this problem. Managed hosting services are putting in place hosting infrastructure similar to that used by WordPress.com so that the rest of us can enjoy the kind of speed that WordPress.com has. Speed is important for any website. But especially so for eCommerce websites.

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Speed is one of the most important aspects of a highly successful eCommerce website. Think about it. When was the last time anyone complained that placing an order on Amazon was slow? Pretty much never. In fact, if anything, it’s almost too damn easy and quick to place an Amazon order 🙂 Studies have shown that if you’re site is loading any longer than 4 seconds, you’re losing orders and lots of them. Once load times go up to 10 seconds, you’re losing well over 90% of your traffic. If you’re losing this much traffic, think about what that is doing to your conversion rate. For many, the simple act of getting a decent web host can significantly increase conversion rates, simply because you’ve made it easier and quicker for customers to complete orders! So let’s assume you sort the hosting issue, what else can you do to turbocharge your WooCommerce site?

Minify all the CSS

If you’re using one of our WooCommerce themes, we’re already minifying Javascript by default for speed optimization. But if you’re looking to shave some additional time off your page load you need to install BWP Minify. Better WordPress Minify is one of the better WordPress minification plugins available.

Configuring BWP Minify for the Captiva theme

Just to take the example of how we tune our demo speed with BWP Minify.

  • Open BWP Minify -> General Options.
  • Deselect “Minify JS files automatically” – by default Captiva minifies all js files that can be minified. If you leave JS minification active in BWP Minify this may cause your site to malfunction.
  • Select “Minify CSS files automatically?”

Here’s a screengrab of our General Options config:

bwp_settings

Click to view larger version of settings page.

 

  • Go to -> Manage enqueued files
  • Scroll down to “Managed enqueued CSS files”
  • Add a full list of CSS handlers to not be minified under the “Styles to NOT minify”
    • admin-bar
    • dashicons
    • layerslider-group-css
    • cap-captiva
    • js_composer_front
    • background-style
    • aio-tooltip
    • cap-responsive
    • ultimate-headings-style
    • stats-counter-style
    • info-box-style
    • timecircle
  • Doing so will ensure your site continues to load correctly after minification is complete.
  • And you’re DONE!

I’ve seen minification alone knock 5-6 seconds of page load speed for some websites. So go forth and minify! We’ll be back soon with more tips on how to turbocharge your WooCommerce website.

 

 

 

 

 

Best WooCommerce Hosting Plans – Part 2

In Part 2 of our Best WooCommerce Hosting Plans we take a look at the different options that you should give consideration to before selecting a hosting provider.

A brief primer on various hosting flavours

The first thing you must realize is that not all hosts are created equally. There are all sorts of different types of hosting providers that you should have a grasp of before making a decision as to where to host your eCommerce website. We’ll briefly explore each of these today.

  • Shared WooCommerce Hosting
  • VPS WooCommerce Hosting
  • Cloud WooCommerce Hosting
  • Managed WordPress and WooCommerce Hosting
  • Dedicated Servers for WooCommerce

Shared WooCommerce Hosting

In Part 1 we pretty much ruled out shared hosts for WooCommerce. There are a tiny number of exceptions to this. We’ll come back to that a little bit later. To summarize what we touched on yesterday, with all types of hosting you pretty much get what you pay for. If some host is promising you unlimited sites, disk space, databases, domains etc. it’s pretty much bullshit to start with. You just go ahead and put a high traffic eCommerce website on one of those hosts and see what happens 🙂 If your site doesn’t crash (which it probably will) you will most likely get an email from your unlimited host telling you you’ve breached some acceptable use threshold and that you need to update to a more expensive hosting option. Safe yourself the hassle and avoid shared hosting for WooCommerce unless you’re prepared to live with the consequences.

VPS WooCommerce Hosting

The next level of from Shared hosting is a Virtual Private Server or a VPS as it is more commonly known. A VPS is definitely a big step up from a shared host. There are also different types of VPS packages which broadly fall into 2 categories:

  • Managed VPS hosting
  • Unmanaged VPS hosting

Nearly all shared hosting packages are effectively managed hosting packages where you have some access to technical support at the hosting provider when you run into trouble. With a VPS hosting package that isn’t always the case. Hence the differentiation between Managed and Unmanaged VPS hosting. Managed VPS hosting is a necessity for most people unless you have really well polished server management skills. Unmanaged VPS hosting tends to be a good bit cheaper but then you are on the hook for all sysadmin tasks. Avoid this option unless you know what you’re doing.

Cloud WooCommerce Hosting

Cloud hosting is essentially the same as VPS hosting. We do treat it as a separate category as there are a number of hosting providers who we can group together into what would be considered true “cloud” hosting providers. Although nearly every hosting company on the planet has jumped on the cloud bandwagon and are rebranding all their hosting plans as cloud hosting plans. For our purposes, we will define pure cloud hosting providers to be large scale hosting providers who provide unique scaling capabilities through their own proprietary cloud platforms that have defined the industry rather than rebranding generic hosting plans. Cloud hosting is very appealing for merchants who have large seasonal traffic spikes. It means you can operate most of the year with reasonably cost effective hosting and then ramp up as demand requires during peak busy periods like Christmas.

Managed WordPress and WooCommerce Hosting

Managed WordPress hosting is a relatively new phenomenon compared to the other types of hosting included on our list. WPEngine pretty much pioneered the market but since then a plethora of really impressive competitors have emerged and I would now clearly classify this as a hosting category in of itself when we talk about WordPress and WooCommerce hosting. Managed WordPress hosting has huge benefits for WordPress site owners, in particular when it comes to site speed, performance and overall stability. Most Managed WordPress hosts operate highly tuned devops stacks that usually incorporate nginx, Varnish, Memcached amongst other tech to deliver superior performance. Again if you’ve got the skills there’s nothing stopping you from doing this yourself but trust me don’t even go there if you do not know what you’re doing. The disadvantages of Managed WordPress hosting primarily are down to cost and perhaps a slight lack of control over the fine tuning of your hosting environment. But these disadvantages may not really be disadvantages for those who value superior stability and performance.

Dedicated Servers for WooCommerce

The final type of hosting is generally the most expensive. Dedicated servers are what high traffic websites and applications HAD to use before some bright spark designed cloud infrastructure. Dedicated servers are machines 100% dedicated to you normally in a top class data centre. As a result, costs tend to be quite a deal more expensive than any of the other types of hosting on this list. In addition, it’s more than likely that anyone going the dedicated server route will also have access to technical resource to configure and manage servers. For the purposes of our later reviews we’ll not be spending too much time looking at dedicated servers. There really are very few reasons why someone would want to start an eCommerce website on dedicated machines in 2014 unless you need total control over your tech stack or are looking to compete with Amazon 🙂

I think for me the most interesting things are happening in both the Cloud and Managed WordPress hosting categories – which is where we intend to spend most of our time in upcoming reviews. Tomorrow we’ll briefly look at our preferred VPS hosting provider.

See you tomorrow!

Ahem – psst… tomorrow became 4 months 🙂 Part 3 is live – enjoy 🙂

Best WooCommerce Hosting Plans – Part 1

Hosting is a minefield. Everyone has an opinion on who’s the best and who’s the worst. Downtime for a website is bad enough. But downtime for an eCommerce website means lost revenue. Today we kick off a new series on the best WooCommerce Hosting plans that money can buy.

Some background

Over the years I’ve used more hosting providers than I care to remember. I’ve spent countless hours reading reviews and listening to experts telling me why their preferred host is the bees knees. I’ve seen good hosts go bad and I’ve seen mediocre hosts get their shit together and come good. The simple fact of the matter is that there are almost an infinite number of hosting options available in 2014 and that it’s more difficult than ever to know who to trust with your hosting business. We hope that this series helps WooCommerce store owners to make better hosting decisions.

Scope of our hosting reviews – shared hosting be gone!

I’m very very close to a 100% ban on shared hosting for WooCommerce. Why is that you may ask? There are tons of what I like to call “middle of the road” shared hosting companies out there who specialize in low cost, low quality, average speed hosting which might be just about acceptable for a brochure based website or a simple blog. But any website that is primarily an eCommerce website with it’s primary purpose being the sale of goods and services online needs something more reliable and more robust than shared hosting. Then there’s also security. Do you use an eCommerce payment gateway which processes credit cards directly on your website? Have you heard of PCI compliance? If not, well, sorry to be one to inform you but 99% of shared hosting providers won’t be PCI compliant which could end up costing you tens of thousands.

The curse of WooCommerce hosting

I think WooCommerce suffers a little because of it’s simplicity and low barriers to entry. Because it’s so easy to get up and running with WooCommerce on your existing shitty middle of the road hosting provider – it might appear at first use that that’s all you need. I’ve seen many people new to WooCommerce learn this the hard way when they start to add thousands of products to their database or when they suddenly discover that their host doesn’t allow dedicated SSL’s/IP addresses etc. Then there’s also the fact that you’re now potentially responsible for custom billing data. You do not want this sitting on the same server as Many Jane’s blog about breeding Peruvian hamsters* (which is in effect what will be happening on a shared host).

* no offence intended to any hamsters or Peruvian readers for that matter.

I am willing to make one exception which we’ll explore in a later part of this post series. For now I’d like to close off this short introduction post with my ideal WooCommerce hosting feature list:

  1. Dedicated IP addresses available – important for SSL’s and for SEO.
  2. No restrictions on the number and type of SSL’s that can be configured within the hosting environment.
  3. SSH/Shell access available and enabled by default.
  4. Minimum of 24h/nightly backups with 30 day rotations. Ideally more regular, recurring backups could be configured to allow for much smaller windows of transaction loss.
  5. Simple process for restoring backups from archive. Backups alone are not sufficient. A rapid, well tested and highly visible restore process is essential.
  6. Support via email, live chat and knowledge base. Ideally phone escalation would be nice. Deep subject matter expertise (e..g. WordPress and WooCommerce) would be ideal.
  7. Top class security/firewall/threat detection infrastructure. This is even more essential on an eCommerce website.
  8. Performance – this almost goes without saying – but overall machine and network performance has to have been validated elsewhere first.
  9. Stellar uptime record.
  10. Nice to have – seamless staging area which can be used to rollout new features with minimal impact to live production systems.
  11. Nice to have – CDN integration.
  12. Nice to have – Git/SCM integration.
  13. Trustworthy. Ethical.

Right now I can count on one hand the hosting companies who come close to meeting everything on this list. To date, I don’t know of any hosting that can fulfil the full list and do it at scale.

Continue with Part 2