WordPress.com Business Hosting Review — It’s Good

A few months back, we were asked what we thought about WordPress.com’s Business Plan. It now allows people to bring their own plugins and themes, so it’s newly relevant to us and our readers, they said. They were right.

That question was followed with an offer that we could review and teach it to our readers. We’d do that with an affiliate link, getting a small commission if you sign up. We didn’t really know what WordPress.com Business plans were, but were intrigued. After some research and testing, we can recommend WordPress.com Business in enough use cases that we’re happy to review it for you.

What’s WordPress.com Business?

The first issue we had with the idea of offering an opinion on WordPress.com Business Plans was pretty simple: we didn’t know what WordPress.com Business Plans were. If you don’t either, here’s the pitch…

Imagine you took all the “hosting WordPress” experience that the people over at WordPress.com have, and added into that controlled environment the ability to run your own plugins and themes. (WordPress.com has not historically allowed that.) And, further imagine that it was just $25/month, a fully $10 less than a comparable WP Engine plan. And that, again unlike WP Engine, you had no “pageviews” cap.

So, again, the core offer is:

  • WordPress.com infrastructure
  • Your own plugins and themes
  • Jetpack and Akismet included for free (this is WordPress.com, after all)
  • Cheaper than many “managed WordPress hosts”
  • No upgrade tiers or prices
  • No file or bandwidth caps

Why WordPress.com at all?

It’s a persistent thorn in the side of passionate WordPress prognosticators (like myself) that people confuse and ignore the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. (The latter is what we here at WPShout practically always mean when we say “WordPress” and most of our readers do too.)

WordPress.com does have some real things to recommend it though, not the least of which is that they’ve had a ton of experience serving hundreds of thousands WordPress sites for the almost the whole decade-and-a-half of WordPress’s life.

Further, through a mostly unknown-to-average-people program, they host some of the most famous and high-traffic WordPress sites in the world, under the brand of WordPress.com VIP. VIP is an impressive program to be sure, but it’s also an expensive one. The sales page for it — as is common for very expensive “Enterprise” software and SaaS applications — doesn’t list prices. Like at all. So you know it’s not cheap.

The Power of VIP, the control of WordPress.org, and the support of WordPress.com

This is basically where WordPress.com Business plans come into play. WordPress.com VIP is super good at serving high-traffic, high performance websites. WordPress.com is great no-nonsense, it-just-works hosting. And people love being able to install and run their own WordPress plugins and themes. WordPress.com Business aspired to give us the best of those three facts.

It’s fast simple hosting, with a veneer of WordPress.com for people who want it, and with the core WordPress(.org) experience people know and love. You can easily pull in your favorite plugins and themes, and they run quickly. It’s a good experience.

What’s not great about WordPress.com Business?

I think it’s my duty to tell you frankly: I’m not immediately moving all my sites to WordPress.com Business, and I don’t think you should either. It’s not the final and perfect solution for hosting all WordPress sites. It’s just a good option that too few people are considering.

Most of the complaints I list below will be felt most immediately by people used to maintaining and developing WordPress sites on a more classic hosting environment. If you’re new to WordPress, I think going to WordPress.com Business when you need plugins is super easy. An average business owner who just wants WordPress without all the complexity that the classic system entails, will probably not need a single one of these features.

You do not have SSH or (S)FTP access

Perhaps the most important hallmark of “hosting that’s for me” that WordPress.com Business fails at is that you’re not given any access to the underlying filesystem of your site. That means your can’t use an FTP program like Transmit or FileZilla to upload or download files for quick “cowboy coding”. While it’s certainly a bad idea, select use of cowboy coding is one of the core practices that makes me good at client service.

It should go without saying, though, that if you’re not a developer who cowboy-codes your own plugins or themes in production, this is a non-issue for you. But if you’re not in the habit of always setting up a development environment, you’ll need to be for WordPress.com Business hosting work.

There’s a Substantial Plugin Blacklist

One of the notable downsides of some managed WordPress hosting providers is that they have opinions about how you should do WordPress. They have specific plugins they list as ones they don’t want you to use. Generally, this isn’t the end of th world, you mostly don’t need the contents of, say, WP Engine’s blacklist, in my experience.

This is a little harder with the WordPress.com list of “incompatible” plugins, which includes a few we’ve used and recommended here on WPShout. I think it’s fair and correct to say that the list isn’t overwhelming or too restrictive. But if you’re looking for hosting, it’s a good idea to make sure that none of your “must haves” are on their list of those they don’t allow: WordPress.com Incompatible Plugins List.

If you don’t like WP.com, You’ll Hit Speed Bumps

One of the biggest little pains to me while fooling around with WordPress.com Business hosting, is a feature it got from WordPress.com itself. Rather than just being a totally stock WordPress experience when you switch from the WordPress.com interface, you still have a speed bump provided from the WordPress.com must-use plugin, called, “WP.com Site Helper”.

Mostly the Site Helper plugin is unobtrusive and not overwhelmingly in the way. In fact, but for this one big annoyance I had with it, I’d have no idea it was running.

If you don’t know and love the WordPress Admin Bar, this isn’t likely to be an issue for you. But me, I love it. And loving it means that I use it a lot. Specifically the top-left button (excluding the WordPress logo, that I always ignore). It’s what I think of as the “backend-frontend button.” It’s the one that I can click when I want to return to the user-facing version of my site from the administration area. And I use it to jump into the “Admin dashboard” when I’m on the user-facing part of my site. And I didn’t realize how much I relied on it until WordPress.com Business’s account system took it away.

The little backend-frontend button is not available on WordPress.com Business hosting accounts

I submitted a support request inquiring about the loss of this button. I got a quick and courteous reply, that crushed my heart a bit. Christopher S. wrote:

That feature of the admin bar is not currently on the WordPress.com Business sites; however, it is something we’re looking at adding back.

Well, I really hope they do. It’s, as I said, the biggest little disappointment I hit with using WordPress.com for normal WordPress site hosting.

You can’t turn off Jetpack, Akismet

This one is less of an issue, especially if you’re considering buying hosting from WordPress.com at all. But for some people I’m sure this will be an annoyance or deal-breaker: in addition to the “WP.com Site Helper” plugin, which you’ll find on your “Must-Use” list, both the Jetpack plugin, and the Akismet plugin, are effectively must-use on WordPress.com Business, because you’re not able to click “Deactivate” on them.

For me, this is not a big deal. I wouldn’t really ever want to run a WordPress sites with comments allowed that didn’t use Akismet to stop spam comments wasting human attention. And I run the Jetpack plugin on many of my sites, just to get some of the features of it that I like: related posts, lazy-loading images, the Photon CDN, a secondary stats engine, proofreading, etc.

In buying WordPress.com hosting (the Business plan included) you’re effectively paying for premium accounts of both Jetpack and Akismet. That’s great, and a huge cost-savings when compared with buying those features separately for other hosting.

But if you’d prefer to pay a different host for premium WordPress hosting, no other host to my knowledge requires that you enable these plugins.

There’s no phone support

One of the reasons that Fred and I love SiteGround (see our review) is that we can quickly call a telephone number to get support. And when we do, we’re generally greeted by an intelligent and helpful person who speaks English well and often can fix our problem themselves, and we’re talking to them in under a minute. Fred feels like the person support at SiteGround is less helpful than they once were, but I think he’s gotten better at solving simple support needs himself.

But the quality of SiteGround’s telephone support is depressingly rare. Other hosting companies that offer the service at all will often have wait times of five or even thirty minutes. Being on hold on the phone for twenty minutes is not something I like when I’ve got an urgent-to-me problem burning a hole in my pocket.

WordPress.com (Business) gets around this issue in a clever (but not ideal) way: they simply refuse to offer telephone support. So they make it very easy to file a chat or email ticket with them, but they simply will not answer the phone. I think it’s a reasonable solution. I prefer no telephone support to bad telephone support, but I realize not everyone agrees.

Why Select a WordPress.com Business Plan?

I’ve just told you the reasons that a Business plan from WordPress.com may not be the best WordPress hosting for you. Now let’s cover why it might be…

WordPress.com Support is good

Having just told you how WordPress.com doesn’t offer phone support, how can I tell you that the support is good? Because when I submitted some real issues to them, I got a response promptly which was both intelligent and helpful. On the two issues I submitted, I got responses on a Wednesday evening in 11 and 31 minutes.

Their support form also has an interesting and possibly smart feature: in addition to offering details about your issue in text, they ask you to select one of six feelings. I don’t know if it affects response times (I think at least “panicked” must), but I submitted both of my tickets with a leisurely intent, and so I think they probably respond quicker at times.

As I mentioned above in the telephone section, I also feel that this work-flow: submitting an email support request, getting an email back promptly, is vastly superior to getting an not-great response after being on hold for 14 minutes.

Speed and performance of WordPress.com

One of the harder benefits to quantify accurately is site performance. But I tried, with a comparison to our hosting benchmark here at WPShout, SiteGround (that review again). On the whole, I found that using ApacheBench, that the two were close-enough for our trivial usage example.

The thing that’s hard about load-testing a site is that synthetic benchmarks (like I did against these two sites) only get you so far. After all, my computer hitting the same page (or sequence of pages) once isn’t nearly the same as having a Super Bowl advertisement bring a few million people to your site in a mere minutes. Nor does it capture the results of millions of adds-to-cart per second on a WooCommerce site, etc.

But that said, we do real traffic here at WPShout — about 50k pageviews per month — and I have high confidence that both WordPress.com Business and SiteGround can serve that volume of traffic without breaking a sweat.

Some Great WordPress.com Features for Free

If you’re reading sequentially, I largely covered this in my notes against WordPress.com hosting: you get Akismet and Jetpack features baked-in automatically. You also get the baked in core auto-updating that WordPress.com makes available to you.

There are some other features that are notable which you’ll get free with WordPress.com Business hosting:

  • Jetpack Related Posts are what we use here at the bottom of all our content on WPShout
  • Backups (via Jetpack/VaultPress) are baked in
  • VideoPress (which I honestly don’t understand and wouldn’t use) is baked in too
  • Google Analyitics via a Jetpack plugin (usually requires the $9/month Jetpack Premium plan)
  • Improved Search from Jetpack (usually requires the $29/mo Jetpack Professional plan)

All Your own Plugins and Themes

The biggest feature that’d be a surprise to someone who comes from the world of WordPress.com is that in addition to having your own domain and hosting, you have the ability to run any plugins and themes you want.

As mentioned above, you don’t have file-system access, so writing your own custom plugin while on WordPress.com (always a bad idea) is really not possible there. But loading any plugin you can make a ZIP of is. This is great, and an unprecedented opportunity on WordPress.com. (Even VIP customers have never been allowed to run unaudited plugins on WordPress.com’s infrastructure before.)

This is, I’ll grant, something you also get on WordPress hosting from anyone else. But on WordPress.com it’s good to reiterate that your own plugins and themes are available.

Easy auto-updating plugins

As a security thinker, I think it’s important if not vital that you make sure that you’re updating all your plugins on a regular basis. It’s essentially just as important that you update plugins and themes as that you update WordPress core. But no one has really made this quite as easy as it is on WordPress.com.

Jetpack has a feature that offers free auto-updating for your WordPress plugins on any WordPress site. But because your site will be auto-configured for this on WordPress.com Business, it’s much easier to use. Just say that you trust, say “Yoast SEO” to be auto-updated, and it’ll silently happen for you. Easy as that.

Now I know that auto-updating plugins has burned at least a few WordPress professionals in the past, as so they’re gun-shy about it. But that doesn’t make it any less important from a security perspective. An un-updated known-vulnerable plugin is always a security issue. No exceptions.

For those who like it, completely familiar WP.com experience

I’ve never been a WordPress.com user, and it’s a foreign interface to me that I’d rather not use. But I think that the WordPress.com interface is familiar and loved by many, and it’s great that being on WordPress.com means that Business hosting plans have it baked-in. It’s a powerful option for people who are used to it, or want to give it a try. And I think it’s a bit prettier than regular WordPress(.org) administration.

But for those who don’t like WordPress.com’s interface, there’s a convenient escape valve: click that “WP Admin” link at the bottom of the WordPress.com sidebar, and you’re in the WordPress(.org) interface you know and love.

No caps on page views, storage, bandwidth, or anything else

One of the less-obvious downsides of hosting like WP Engine, Pressable, or our much-loved SiteGround hosting is that you have some caps. Of course, some of us are cynical enough to doubt any “free and unlimited” plans in the world. But to my knowledge, WordPress.com Business means it. It’s really offering you unlimited disk space, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited pages views, etc. In contrast, WP Engine’s $35/month plan is capped at 25,000 page views.

If you know differently about WordPress.com’s caps please email me: david@wpshout.com. If you’re still seeing this section in this review, no one has convinced me that this isn’t true and what you should expect while buying WordPress.com Business Hosting accounts.

WordPress.com Business Hosting: No worries, fully managed experience for less

I know that Bluehost offers “WordPress hosting” for less than $25 per month. But I don’t want it, and I don’t think you should either.

And I know that WP Engine isn’t much more, at $35/month. But I really think that the combination of features (including Jetpack premium features) and power of WordPress.com Business accounts is one of the better combinations I’ve ever seen.

WordPress.com Business hosting is not perfect (I want that admin bar button back). But it’s very good. And that’s a huge compliment coming from me. It’s just a polished, managed experience. It’s unlimited, in a way that’s rare for people selling great managed WordPress hosting. But it really is, and so you should definitely be considering it.


2 Responses

Comments

  • Andrew says:

    You mentioned there’s no SSH or FTP access to the file system. I’m assuming plugins that access the database like Adminer is also not allowed.

    So does this mean there’s no way to import or export a site if you decide to move away from WP.com in the future?

    This is the biggest question I had since they launched it a year ago but haven’t been able to get an answer. I was gonna test it myself, but looks like they only allow yearly commitments.

    • Josh says:

      Andrew, they have a 30-day refund policy, so you can still test it for a month even if you pay for a year upfront. The only exception to that is domain names, which if you buy through wordpress.com have to be cancelled within 48 hours to qualify for a refund.

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