I talk about WP Engine (WPE) a lot. We’ve been a WPE customer for 4 or 5 years now.
Moving our WordPress Cpanel hosting to WPE was a game changer of sorts for our business to the point where we now have a 6 figure business unit that provides hosting to our smb customers partly built on top of the WPE platform.
In this post I break down the pros and cons of WPEngine and why or why not WPE is a fit for your business. It’s kind of a WPEngine review in a way but is effectively the same as a conversation I have at least once a week with business owners to explain why good quality hosting is so important and why we’ve built our hosting business on top of WPE.
Managed or Dedicated WordPress hosting vs Unmanaged / Shared / Cheap Hosting
It’s probably wise to talk about Managed or Dedicated WordPress Hosting versus regular hosting before we go any further.
A dedicated WordPress provider is a host that hosts only WordPress websites, their hosting platform is optimised for WordPress which means WP websites hosted there will typically be faster, more stable and more secure.
Each dedicated WP provider has different levels of management. WPEngine provide a dedicated WP environment, WordPress core patching plus a bunch of other useful features whereas Traffic Planet (another managed WordPress provider) provide fewer management features. Typically the cost will go up in line with the features a host provides.
Hosting is more important than you think
Today we manage the online assets for several hundred small to medium businesses and the most common pattern we see again and again is that bad hosting=bad marketing performance.
Your hosting is the foundational component of everything you do online. I shouldn’t even have to explain this as you know it yourself – you visit a website that is slow or unreliable and you quickly lose interest and go elsewhere right?
Running the numbers…
Generally speaking, a managed or dedicated provider is going to be more expensive upfront than a cheap as chips hosting company like Bluehost or *insert any other $3/month host* BUT the features a managed provider offers are still significantly cheaper compared to handling that aspect yourself. If you run the numbers properly you’ll probably find the total cost of a managed or dedicated WP provider is less than a company like Bluehost.
Here’s an example – to manage WordPress core updates on an ongoing basis would take roughly 5-10 hours of time each year, minimum, to do it properly. By properly I mean thoroughly reading the update details, taking a backup before the update, applying the update and testing afterward vs blinding hitting the update button and hoping for the best.
Even a basic web developer will set you back $20/30 per hour so when you factor the total cost of properly managing a website the $3 or $5/month provider doesn’t see so cheap after all. You could handle these updates yourself without paying a web developer but if you’re running even a moderately successful business your time is worth a lot more than 20 or 30 bucks an hour.
How to choose the right provider for you
Unfortunately most businesses choose a hosting provider based solely on price instead of features and making any business decision based solely on price is usually less than ideal.
Price is certainly one factor to take into account but it’s not the complete picture. From a business and commercial perspective you need to be thinking about a bunch of other factors when deciding on your hosting provider including:
Backups – are backups being done? Where are they stored? How do you restore from the backup if something goes wrong.
For backups I live by the mantra 2 is 1 and 1 is none…all our WP sites have two sets of backups, WPEngine and Blogvault. Experience has taught me that more often than not a single backup system will have gaps in it that you only come across when it comes to a real life restore.
Speed – again, you know yourself how much slow websites suck. Faster websites are always better.
Reliability and quality of the platform – this is an important but often overlooked component. You can get a website on Bluehost running pretty damn fast but it’s shared hosting and unreliable which means the website is going to suffer a lot of downtime…99% uptime means the platform is down for more than 3 days a year, that’s a TON of downtime.
Security – is the site behind a real firewall? Most websites are not protected behind a firewall and most shared hosting providers have poor security – that means you’re going to need plugins like Wordfence to properly protect the site from being hacked which means more time and cost overhead.
Where is the hosting physically located? – generally speaking your website should be closest to where the majority of your customers are. If you’re a business that deals with people internationally then a content delivery network (CDN) is essential as it improve the website load speed for visitors geographically further away from your hosting.
Are there features specific to your business or the way you’re using your website?
For example does the hosting provider need to support some obscure plugin or third party piece of software?
***IMPORTANT: there are actually 4 parts to hosting***
You might not realise there are actually four parts to hosting and lumping them all together as “hosting” can lead to problems especially as your business grows and/or if your website the primary marketing and sales tool in your business.
The four components are:
1. Your domain name – purchased from a domain registrar
2. DNS hosting – this turns hostnames, eg www.domain.com into IP addresses
3. Email hosting – self explanatory I think, the server/provider where your email lives
4. Web hosting – the server/provider where your website is hosted.
Generally speaking, you’ll get the best performance and stability by having all 4 parts of your hosting with different providers. Here’s who we use:
1. Domain names – 80%+ of the time we use Namecheap. They’re cheap, their platform is secure (they support two factor authentication), they have good support and their platform is easy to use.
2. DNS hosting – we almost exclusively use Cloudflare because it’s lightning fast, rock solid and has a bunch of other useful features we use such as an application firewall and website accelerator.
Almost nobody online talks about the importance of having a fast, reliable DNS host – no matter how fast or reliable your web and email hosting are, if your DNS hosting sucks then you’re going to have problems
3. Email hosting – for clients we recommend either Zoho Email, Google Apps or Office 365. It really depends on the type of business they are and what devices they use. Generally we prefer to have our client’s IT company handle email hosting because usually there is some level of ongoing IT support required here.
WP Engine – What we don’t like about it
I figure it’s more useful to start with what we don’t like about WP Engine rather than what we do like. There’s a handful of things that are not great but we work around them, depending on what type of site you have, these could be a show stopper for you.
Quirks and issues around SEO
There are a handful of quirks around SEO, no real show stoppers but if you have an aggressive SEO strategy you’ll need to be aware of them. More details on what they are and how to work around them in this article: https://www.thesearchengineshop.com/wpengine-seo/
Some plugins won’t work or are not allowed
Some plugins and customizations don’t play nicely with WPEngine. They’re either flat out not allowed or they need a feature that is disabled on the WPE platform.
I get why this is the case. As a managed WordPress provider they need to maintain the integrity of their hosting environment but this often means sites that would benefit significantly from exactly the type of management WPE provides can’t run on the platform.
Here’s the list of disallowed plugins:
In the handful of cases where we come across this problem we use Traffic Planet Hosting instead.
Traffic charging model
WPE have a weird way of billing traffic, they charge for “visits” instead of bandwidth. For some sites this could become an issue.
Here’s their definition of visits:
On the flipside of this, they do provide fairly detailed visit and traffic breakdowns so if you are heading towards the traffic quota you can identify why. Often this is due to hotlinked images on a high traffic site.
We’ve found using Cloudflare on our WPE sites cuts the visit count down by 20-50%
Caching Problems with *Some* Types of Sites
Their caching doesn’t play nice with some types of sites especially ecommerce sites. We most often have issues with Woocommerce sites and cart/checkout pages needing to be excluded from caching.
It’s not a show stopper as you can get pages that shouldn’t be cached like shopping cart pages, excluded from the cache but it is annoying and definitely a pitfall for less tech savvy people.
The caching can be disabled but then you lose a lot of the speed benefit of being on WPE. Any customizations and exclusions need to be run through their support team.
Expensive Wildcard SSL Certificates
You can buy SSL certs directly from WPEngine and they’ll handle the installation and renewals which is a nice time saver. The standard SSL cert is $50/year which is priced competitively enough (and definitely worth the time saving vs getting a 3rd party cert) but the wildcard cert, which you need to run a custom CDN hostname AND SSL, is expensive at $199 a year.
They do allow 3rd party certs though so we usually pickup a $99/year wildcard cert from Namecheap instead.
No Let’s Encrypt Support yet
WPEngine don’t yet support LetsEncrypt – I mention this point because WPE currently doesn’t support Let’s Encrypt and several of their competitors do now. It’s not a show stopper but an important point to highlight.
It’s you’re not familiar with it Let’s Encrypt is a new-ish project that provides free and automated SSL certs which the goal of encrypting the web. More info at https://letsencrypt.org/about/
What we love about WP Engine
WPEngine has been rock solid for us albeit our experience is largely with the Sydney and Tokyo data centers. Like any host they do have downtime though. The majority of downtime we’ve experienced has been planned server maintenance and short windows where individual WordPress instances are updating and are down for a 1-2 minutes each.
CDN – Content Delivery Network
WP Engine uses MaxCDN for their content delivery network. We click a button and a few minutes later it’s up and runing. The CDN distributes the site’s content to 100s of servers around the world putting the content closer to visitors (and therefore speeds up the load time for them) and allows the website to handle more visitors at once.
As per our WPEngine SEO article, it’s worth the extra effort from an SEO perspective to get a custom CDN hostname setup and if you’ve got a substantial number of visitors coming from Australia and Asia you’ll want the “flex zones” feature of the CDN turned on which enables a whole bunch of extra CDN locations.
WordPress Core Patching
WP Engine take care of core WordPress updates rolling these out in a managed fashion once updates are stable. They take a backup before the automated update and have some automated testing after the update and will rollback the update if something goes wrong. Occasionally a critical security update is released for a popular plugin and they’ll roll these out too.
Collectively we’ve had 1000s, maybe 10000+ updates roll through the sites on our platform over the last few years and have only seen automated rollbacks 3 times. The only other times we’ve had problems are with sites running Woocommerce where a Woocommerce plugin didn’t like the upgrade and caused some problem with the site. It’s not uncommon for Woocommerce to do this though.
There’s more details about their update process in this blog article on their site: WP Engine WordPress Update Process
In the hosting console you can also push updates out faster or defer them, here’s a screenshot of the hosting dashboard where you can control the updates:
Backups and snapshot capability
WPE take a snapshot backup of the site once a day and we also have the ability to go in and do manual snapshot backups.
For a small site the backups take less than 60 seconds and is an excellent feature to use if you’re making a change that might break the site! You also have the ability to backup and restore staging sites which is great too.
Note that there are some gaps in WPE’s backup system where some files may not be backed up. For us, backups are just too important to mess around with so on all our sites we use Blogvault as well.
The primary reason we use Blogvault over other solutions like Vaultpress is that it gives us visibility into what it’s specifically NOT backing up (SQL tables and files) and allows us to include those in the backup.
Choice of data center
WPE offer you the choice of several different data centers. At the time of writing you can choose to be hosted in the US, Tokyo or London. We’re on one of their higher plans and have our sites hosted here in Sydney Australia.
We’ve been a WPE customer for around 4 years now and over that time they’ve upped their game significantly with 24/7 access to phone and livechat support. As with any helpdesk the support experience differs depending on who you have on the other end, overall we’ve only had one really sub-par experience out of 100s of support tickets.
The problem we had was back in 2013 when we pushed a Woocommerce site live, the first one on WPE. At the time they were running skeleton support staff outside US business hours. At the time we weren’t aware that the site needed caching exclusion rules in order to work properly so we ended up with a half functioning site for 12 odd hours until a proper admin arrived at their office and sorted it out.
The staging area is effectively a cloned version of the site that allows us to play around with changes, plugins, updates, customizations and so forth without breaking the live site. The staging area saves our developers bucketloads of time and headaches because we can easily see the impact of changes before they’re made on the live site.
The staging area copy is controlled within the WordPress backend itself as below. We rarely copy the staging site back to the live site as most of the changes we’re making on the staging site are plugin updates or testing plugins or customizations and with these it’s generally less risky to manually make those changes on the live site once we’ve confirmed they’re OK.
Easy Site Migration
WP Engine provide a plugin that makes it easy to migrate from your existing provider to WPE. The plugin works perfectly in 99% of cases….if you have some customisation you may need some fiddling to get the migration done correctly.
Click play on the video above to see how the site migration tool works.
For a managed WordPress host the single website price for WPE is competitive enough at $29USD/month – again the price is kind of misleading and seems high at first glance but when you take the total cost of ownership into account it’s quite a bargain.
On the second tier plan ($99/month for 10 installs) the price per site drops down to 10 bucks a month which is a bargain but then not everyone is hosting 10 sites.
Pay for a year in one go and you get 20% off or 2 months free.
WPE have what they call Evercache – aside from the problems listed in the cons section with sites that need to keep track of individual user sessions, it works really well and is basically pushbutton. It’s reliable and generally problem free especially when compared to messing around with more complicated caching plugins like W3 Total Cache.
Two Factor Authentication for Extra Security
WPE have recently introduced two factor authentication for the hosting admin console (not WordPress backend). Not every provider offers 2 factor authentication so it’s definitely worth a mention here. For us it’s critically important as we have multiple staff accessing the hosting console on multiple devices and sometimes from public wifi where security may be somewhat questionable.
Security Scans by Securi
WPE is partnered with Sucuri to do security scans on their platform. It’s not entirely clear on their website how often scans are run but it *seems* like a scan is run every 24 hours.
We have put the scanning to the test a handful of times when we’ve inherited a site with malware. In two instances we have migrated the still infected site to WPE and within a few hours received an alert telling us the site has malware and they are cleaning it – the process is almost identical to that of purchasing standalone Sucuri.
We’ve also migrated sites that have outdated plugins with known critical security exploits and received automated emails advising of the problem and a notification that WPE is automatically updating the plugin to fix the problem.
There is some more information on the WPEngine site but it’s quite vague, more info here: https://wpengine.com/support/malware-scans-cleaning/
Features We’re Not Using
There’s a handful of features of the platform we’re not using so can’t comment on how well they do or don’t work:
Large FS support which allows you to expand your hosting storage onto Amazon S3, more info here: https://wpengine.com/blog/unlimited-storage-with-wp-engines-proprietary-largefs/
WordPress Multisite – we don’t use multisite so can’t comment on their implementation of it.
GeoIP – most clients we host are small business or serving a specific geographic area so we don’t really have a need to use GeoIP.
Transferrable Installs – this is the ability to move WordPress instances between WPEngine accounts which we don’t have a requirement for.
GIT Push Support – we don’t have a requirement for GIT so can’t comment here either, more info at https://wpengine.com/git/
Is WP Engine for you?
Is WPE right for you? Well, if you have a WordPress website that you’re relying on to generate money or as a marketing tool, your unique daily visits is still in the thousands and the site doesn’t have a bunch of custom coding on it then I’d say yes.
If you have a bunch of custom code or addons that site outside WordPress then Traffic Planet Hosting would be a better option as they’re more flexible on what can run on their platform.
WPE have a 60 day money back guarantee so if you’re on the fence about whether or not it’s worth moving across you can sign up and if you’re not liking the experience cancel and get a refund.
If you use our link here to signup you can get 20% off your first WPE payment too.