SiteGround

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There are two directions web hosts can take with their low-end shared hosting. One is to drop the price and hope users don’t notice the limits and restrictions. SiteGround takes the other route, charging a little more but making sure you have all the core features you need.

The StartUp account – £2.75 ($3.40) a month initially, £7 ($8.70) on renewal – has unlimited traffic, emails accounts and databases. There’s one-click install of WordPress and other apps, a powerful cPanel-based management console, and features that some hosts don’t even offer in their premium accounts: basic free SSL, daily backups, Cloudflare CDN and more.

One potential catch is that none of the SiteGround plans include a free domain. You can register one during signup, but that can be expensive – you’ll get a better deal by registering elsewhere.

The only significant limits here are that the StartUp account is for one website, and you only get up to 10GB of web space. While that seems relatively low, keep in mind that most web hosting contracts say storage is for your website, not data. Even hosts who promise ‘unlimited’ space won’t allow you to store 500 ISO’s or your entire MP3 collection. If your website code plus database will be less than 10GB, you’ll be able to use SiteGround’s StartUp account.

The GrowBig account – £4 ($5) per month initially, £10 ($12.40) per month on renewal – can host multiple domains and bumps up the available disk space to 20GB. There’s a one-year free wildcard SSL to cover all your sites, an Nginx and Memcached-based SuperCacher scheme to accelerate performance on busy sites, and the system keeps the last 30 backups to help you better recover from malware or other problems.

The top-of-the-range GoGeek plan – £8 ($10) a month initially, a chunky £20 ($25) a month on renewal – gets you faster hosting on sites with fewer users, free PCI compliance, WordPress and Joomla staging (creating a copy of a site for testing), one-click Git Repo creation and more.

The SiteGround site has links to many other app hosting plans, including WordPress, Joomla, PrestaShop and WooCommerce. These don’t have the extras you’ll get with some other companies, though – curated add-ons, custom themes – and are really just the regular shared hosting plans, at the same prices, with a slight change of emphasis on the features (they’ll transfer a site for free).

The product range extends up to a range of dedicated hosting plans. These seem expensive to us, starting at £147 ($180) a month for 500GB storage and 5TB bandwidth, but the ability to choose a US, European or Asia-Pacific data centre could make this a more interesting proposition for some.

Account setup

SiteGround’s simple product structure makes it very easy to choose a plan. StartUp is fine for most people hosting a single site, GrowBig covers hosting multiple domains, and GoGeek gives you extra performance, though probably not enough to justify the price.

We chose Startup, clicked Get Started and were prompted to register a new domain (£12.95 for a .co.uk – that’s $16) or specify a domain we owned already. We chose the second option and were offered a ‘free transfer’, but fortunately this didn’t mean we had to transfer the domain, and you’re free to leave it where it is. SiteGround is actually offering to transfer an existing site to your new web space. This only applies in simple situations, where domains are the same, but it still might save you some time.

SiteGround’s final ‘Review and Complete’ page displayed the plan we’d chosen, allowed changes to be made and had forms for all the extra details required: name, email and physical addresses, phone number and payment details (only credit cards are supported). While this makes for lots of scrolling, we prefer to be able to see and check everything the company needs on a single page. It reduces the chances of nasty surprises, or clicking Back and running into issues with expired pages or resubmitted data.

There were some plusses here, too. The headline ‘£2.75 per month’ ($3.40) price was available if we signed up for a year only (some hosts only give you the best price on three-year plans). The cart listed only a single chargeable add-on – SiteGuard malware scanning for £15.60 ($19.30) a year – and that wasn’t checked by default.

It’s easy to miss, but you can also choose your preferred data centre. The locations are London, Amsterdam, Milan, Chicago and Singapore. Don’t worry if you’re unsure, because you can always change your mind later.

There’s also a monthly ‘trial’ option, as well. That’s not exactly appealing as it costs you £2.75 ($3.40) plus a setup fee of £9.60 ($11.90), and as SiteGround offers a 30-day money-back guarantee it’s hard to see why you’d go for this. But if you can think of a reason, it’s available.

Submitting our order initially displayed an error complaining that our password was too short. We’d used 16 characters so this didn’t seem likely, but it turned out their password algorithm failed if you use a ‘<’ character (‘qwerty

That introduces some scope for potential problems later on – for example, if you can change the password somewhere else and ‘<’ characters are allowed – but that's an investigation for another time. We replaced the offending character, then our password was accepted, and we were able to log in to the customer area immediately.

Creating a site

Most web host customer portals seem designed to sell products rather than provide genuinely useful features, but SiteGround is a major exception, and its portal is one of the best we’ve seen.

The page does open with some sales promotions on the left, but there are also plenty of useful tutorials available. A two-minute ‘Get your site up and running’ guide, a ‘Getting started’ tutorial alongside ‘Learn about cPanel’ and ‘Learn about email’ pages are just a click away.

We clicked the My Accounts tab, expecting to see only the hosting product we’d purchased, but SiteGround also displays just about every associated detail you need to know: domain, name servers, shared IP address, cPanel username, your server location (US, Europe or Asia), FTP details, email servers, backup and restore options, an Access cPanel button, and more. There’s no need to hunt through separate applets or support pages to find what you need, as with many other hosts – it’s all conveniently available in one place.

When you’re ready to get started, a Weebly-based SiteBuilder is on hand to help you. There are some good-looking if basic templates, and unusually you can add as many pages as you need (other free plans typically restrict you to five or six). There’s branding in the footer and you can’t set a custom favicon, but overall it’s better than the average free product, and you can remove the restrictions and add more features by paying from £5 ($6.20) a month.

WordPress and other one-click installations are handled by Softaculous. That’s one of the best systems for discovering applications you might want to try – eCommerce, say, or photo galleries – and even newbies will quickly have their chosen packages installed.

If you know what you’re doing and want to work manually, SiteGround offers all the usual options: cPanel’s built-in File Manager, FTP, SSH and more.

One of the most interesting features is SuperCacher, a custom SiteGround system which uses various techniques to cache frequently-accessed data in RAM, improving performance. If you don’t have many visitors it won’t matter, and whether it’ll help busy sites depends on how they’re built, but it could be a major plus for some users. Read more on the technology here.

Performance

SiteGround markets itself as having ‘amazingly fast’ support. Phone and chat questions get ‘instant’ responses, the company claims, and tickets get a first reply within ten minutes. Sounds great – but how does the company perform in real life?

We tried the live chat for a simple question – are there any limits on the number of pages you can create with the Site Builder? – and flagged it as pre-sales, thinking this would highlight it as a likely simple question and get us a speedy response. We actually waited two minutes, a long way from instant, although still very acceptable. The agent’s answer wasn’t ideal – he didn’t quite direct us to the right area to look for the SiteBuilder limits – but he also said that as far as he knew there were no page limits, and that was correct.

How would the website knowledgebase handle the same question? We ran a search on SiteBuilder to find out, and the results were, well, to put it frankly, rubbish. We got six hits, all of them apparently relating to a previous SiteBuilder used by the company, and one was so old that it told us: “The SiteBuilder can be used with Internet Explorer 5.0 and above”. (IE5’s last release was in 2001, and it’s not been supported since 2010.)

One of the matches was ‘How to edit my website?’, which sounded like it should be an in-depth article packed with helpful tips and links. In reality it’s barely 230 words, and written so long ago that the key advice is how to migrate from Microsoft FrontPage (discontinued in 2006) to Dreamweaver.

We tried another search term, ‘import WordPress’, hoping to find how to get a site from another host onto SiteGround. This turned up nothing useful. Trying other terms located an article with a promising title – ‘How to transfer my WordPress from one host to another?’ – but the contents were horribly short on detail. Compare that link with just HostGator’s example to see how it should be done.

There are some useful articles here, occasionally improved further by the ability of SiteGround customers to add comments and questions to them. But even these are hard to find thanks to dubious article sorting. Out of 81 WordPress-related articles, for instance, SiteGround displays these first: ‘I am using WP Clef and have been locked out of WordPress’; ‘How to Disable/ Enable the WordPress Cron’; ‘How to increase WP Memory Limit’. We’ll bet these won’t be the top priority WordPress issues for most users.

We’re not impressed by the web knowledgebase, then, but it’s important to get that in perspective. It’s only one avenue of support, which some people might largely ignore anyway, and SiteGround’s other options are far, far better.

There’s a choice of chat, ticket and telephone support, and the phone option stands out in particular. You don’t need to get a PIN number or other ID before you call, plus it’s an 0800 number so there’s no charge, and the voice menu system is short. Our call was answered within two rings (yes, we’ll call that instant), and our simple question was answered accurately with no hassles at all.

Server speed was a little above average, too, according to Bitcatcha and our other performance tests. There are way too many variables to guarantee you’ll see the same results, but SiteGround’s caching tools and choice of data centre location give you more opportunities than most to resolve any issues.

Final verdict

The prices may look relatively high, but SiteGround gives you loads of functionality for your money, including many tools you won’t find elsewhere. It could be a smart choice for the more technical home and small business users.

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