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WPEngine review and web hosting explained – best WordPress hosting? Find out.

In Tech Consulting by Steve Wilkinson0 Comments

The web host you select is crucial to the success of your website. It is also a very important component of your productivity. It impacts the amount of time and effort you can put into making your website work for you (instead of you working on it).

I’m going to share what I’ve learned over the last 20+ years of working with websites and web servers/hosting, a general overview of web-hosting, and why we picked WPEngine to host our websites as well as our client websites.

This is a long article (and I’ll keep adding to it), so feel free to jump down to the section that most interests you:

Note: some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means that if you follow them and make a purchase, I’ll receive a commission. It will not cost you any more, but would help me a lot to keep producing content like this article, and our upcoming podcast. Thanks!

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Background

Maybe it’s my IT consulting / data operations engineer background, but I’m pretty picky about doing tech things the right way. Except, of course, when I cheat a bit on my own personal projects and experimentation.

You see, I got into website hosting in a bit of a round-about way. This, combined with my background, has given me some good insight on the topic, and heavily influenced our choice to use WP Engine for our own sites, as well as those of our clients.

I’ve been into website design and web-related technology since the Web began. But, I was typically working on a website for some other company, or on hosting that wasn’t my own to control/decide. I just worked with what was presented to me or available.

In the mid-90s, I used and managed a Microsoft’s ISS server. I doubt it was the best, but websites were simple back then – just some static text files and a few tiny images; maybe a server-side script.

Enter WordPress

A decade later, a friend introduced me to this new platform called WordPress. I initially started with a blog, but quickly realized this would become the platform for entire websites. It just had too many advantages over trying to build and update static pages.

But, along with this power, came new and complex challenges. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a matter of directory/file security, but vulnerabilities in WordPress core and plugin/theme code. Threats to basic web serving started to escalate as well, as hackers with more computing power started new magnitude-type attacks like DDoS and brute-force methods.

At the time, a friend (who I’m eternally grateful for!) let me use space on his co-located monster server, in trade for some help supporting it. It was a great deal, as it allowed me ‘free’ website space in trade for some time. And, we’re not talking any ol’ server here, this box would still compete well with many of the best dedicated hosting options out there. It had gobs of RAM, SSD main/database storage, high-end RAID for big files, terabytes of storage, quad-Xeon processors, etc. It was a serious machine on a serious internet connection.

I never worried about things like caching or optimizing WordPress. It just wasn’t a problem, especially since I wasn’t dealing with any overly high-traffic sites. But, that doesn’t mean we were without problems…

What is time worth?

Running your own website takes quite a bit of time. But, adding on the time it takes to run a website and server down to the hardware and network level, takes considerably more. You need to ask yourself, ‘how much is my time worth?’

I spent hours, which turned into days (sometimes whole weekends with little sleep) pouring over log files to block IP addresses, researching and fixing hacked sites, or restoring site files manually and resetting file-permissions, once, after an unforeseen series of hardware failures. Murphy is alive and well, and things will happen.

What is stability – and peace of mind – worth?

Then there is just the peace of mind which comes with website stability. Even if your site is a hobby, it is no fun to have it be down or hacked. But, when the website is for a business or organization, money and reputation are on the line. While problems can usually be overcome, it’s so much better to just avoid them in the first place. Let your imagination run a bit here… being off-line for a while is probably the least of the potential problems.

What is productivity worth?

Premium products and services are often about more than simply not having as many problems. They are often about better and more efficient ways of doing things (or a more enjoyable experience).

Once I decided to make the move away from DIY web-hosting, I also looked at the features which could save me time, beyond up-time, speed, and stability.

3 types of web hosting beyond DIY

There are three major types of web-hosting (and arguably a fourth that is more about scale/infrastructure) once you move beyond doing everything yourself. Each adds some benefits and typically a cost increase.

Shared hosting

This is the most common kind of web-hosting we typically see advertised or promoted. Unfortunately, this kind of hosting has kind of set a price in most people’s minds about what hosting should cost. This is the $3.77/mo, or even $9.95/mo type of plans. In fact, the issue is less about price, and more about how the sites are being hosted, managed, and supported.

The quality of these plans can vary greatly, but you have to consider what you’re getting for those low prices. At $3.77/mo, how much of anything is someone going to give you for $45 per year? Think about that for a moment. How much does a computer cost? Electricity to run it? A technical support person’t time/salary? When you put it in those terms, you start to realize you won’t get much, or they’ll be losing money quickly!

The benefit of shared hosting (over DIY), is that because these ISPs specialize at this, they usually have the hardware and basic network / operating system support covered. They probably even have some hardware out in front of the web server to help prevent DDoS type attacks. If you’re lucky, they’ve done some OS-hardening to make the servers less susceptible to certain kinds of hack attempts. And, they usually have a ‘panel’ type web interface to help in setting up accounts and services (as opposed to using Unix command line for install and configuration).

The downside, is that to meet those prices, they have to pack a LOT of websites onto each server. Each site is usually a subdirectory, and more prone to being attacked by security vulnerabilities across the server, or from any site on the server. And, it probably should go without saying that while their staff might know something about WordPress, they don’t specialize in it (they often support most every type of website and/or CMS), nor can they provide too much support (before losing money).

VPS (Virtual Private Server)

The next level up is more of a walled-garden approach to the shared hosting above. Think of it like a bunch of mini-servers running on a single server piece of hardware. This helps eliminate some of the cross site security concerns, or a problem in one site taking the others down with it. It also allows server resources to be distributed more evenly and fairly. Each ‘virtual machine’ can have settings for RAM, CPU usage, network usage, etc. If some other site gets huge traffic or has some problem, it is constrained to those criteria, and won’t impact your site.

The upsides are pretty obvious. The downsides, though, are that based on price you might still get less support than you think, and you’re often not dealing with any better in terms of interface and tools (sometimes less!) to help you get your site running and performing appropriately. While you’re walled off from other sites, you still have to deal with most of the technical stuff above the base-OS/network/hardware level.

Dedicated server

Much like a VPS, but you’re getting the whole machine. You have more power for your site, but the same downsides. Support will depend on the plan pricing, and you usually just get a cPanel (interface for administration). Again, the base-OS, network, and hardware are taken care of, but you manage the rest.

‘The rest’ can be a lot of stuff you might not be aware of. You still have to understand WordPress well enough to install and tune it. You have to know how to secure it against hacks, or fix it when it does get hacked. You have to implement/manage backups. Anything you do to the site could potentially crash it, and then you might have to learn how to rebuild it from a backup (assuming you did one). Are you going to manually backup, or buy some service or plugin? The list goes on and on.

Managed hosting

WPEngine is managed hosting, so we’ll be talking more below about the features and benefits. But, think of this as a whole layer of support and specialization on top of any of the previous plans. Instead of just taking the OS, network, and hardware aspects off your plate, they also manage aspects of whatever platform they specialize in (in this case, WordPress).

They will custom-tune the system for the platform, provide backups, provide specialized support and recommendations, and often take care of some level of the administration of the platform (or provide custom tools to help you do so). They may even provide add-on support, like hack recovery, or content delivery networks, staging servers, etc.

The value of these things SHOULD NOT be underestimated! I often tell people that it would take 5 or 6, $six-figure tech geeks to cover what these kinds of services provide, whereas more basic hosting only covers 1 or 2. In fact, I’d say it’s worth much more than the price difference between the plans would lead one to believe.

Cloud-based or distributed

I should mention this ‘4th’ type, which is over-arching (and why I didn’t give it one of the three categories). Any type of hosting could now be spread across multiple physical servers or even across many servers located around the world. It typically will fall under the VPS model (as low-end shared hosting probably doesn’t use it, and dedicated server is usually a physical machine). But, it could certainly be managed hosting, and will often be advertised as cloud or distributed hosting, as a feature (over basic VPS). By being distributed, it can quickly scale and is more fault-tolerant.

Why managed WordPress hosting?

Before formalizing cgWerks as a website design business, I had been helping friends, a few small businesses, and a non-profit with their websites. When one of these grew rapidly, it spurred me to formalize my business services, but also take into account the serious needs of a more mission-critical, and growing website.

I realized that even if I went with a higher-end VPS or dedicated server, I’d still be dealing with a lot of the headaches I had been on our own server. I’ve always been one to focus more on solving business problems and improving productivity, not re-inventing the wheel. I’d much rather put time into implementing something useful, than fixing stuff that shouldn’t have broken in the first place.

So, I went shopping for hosting, and quickly started to discover the world of managed WordPress hosting. While it was considerably more expensive (especially in terms of cost/traffic), I was impressed with the suite of services and tools provided.

Using managed WordPress hosting as the base of my website design offering, allowed me to focus on where my skills are best used, sourcing and implementing new features for clients.

Why WP Engine?

WP Engine
Before landing on WPEngine, I did a lot of research and reading of reviews. When I joined, it seems they had just experienced some rapid growth and growing pains. The reviews were quite mixed, but after reading more about their founder, philosophy, and the tools they had built, I became convinced they were the way to go.

Since then, the managed WordPress scene has kind of exploded. Others have grown as well, providing some stiff competition. And, older hosting giants have joined the game, offering their premium managed WordPress hosting packages.

While I can no longer absolutely claim WP Engine is the best – as I haven’t experienced all the others – I can say they are certainly a leader… quite possibly the best. While I keep an eye on the field, I see no reason to consider switching. They have outperformed my expectations.

That said, there are a number of managed WordPress hosting providers I have heard excellent things about. For example, I could easily go with Pagely, as I’ve heard such good things from people I trust. I’ve heard good things about Flywheel.

The big thing about WordPress managed hosting, are all the things you don’t have to do. You don’t have to look at a cPanel with hundreds of options. You don’t have to connect FTP (SFTP) unless you want to. You don’t have to worry about directory structure. Setting up a new site (install) is push-button simple.

Their portal/Dashboard is clearly laid out with everything you need right there and pretty easy to understand. Want to do a quick snapshot backup before you update that plugin? Click of a button. Want to restore a daily or snapshot backup because your WordPress site is white-screened after an update? Click of a button (or two), simple.

And, for admin type things you can’t figure out, a quick call, text chat, or support ticket will quickly get you on your way. They’ve even helped with some things which weren’t their problem, and have provided advice on plugin solutions or configuration best practices. While they aren’t going to build your site for you, their support is much more than, ‘fix it because it broke.’

Simple staging server deployment (and backups!) are a life-saver for site development. Within a few minutes, you can have a snapshot of your site ready on a staging server to test or make changes, and then push back to the live environment (with care). Both live and staging environments have the same push-button snapshot, as well as daily, backup systems. I can’t tell you all the times this has come in handy for testing, troubleshooting, or letting a plugin support rep find a cure without messing with the live site.

Mixed reviews?

If you start researching WPEngine, you’ll run into three types of reviews.

The first type are the loud critics. These reviews are often quite unbalanced, even if the critic had some initial reasons for leaving or concern. Sure, I’ve seen a few justified reasons while reading these reviews. They often happened during that rough, rapid growth time mentioned above. From what I could tell, WP Engine did try to keep these people happy, but were unable to retain them. But, the justified reasons often come with a lot of unreasonable ones as well. Many of these type of reviews are quite over the top if you know much about managed hosting.

The rest in this category seem to be from people who just don’t seem to understand the issues involved. Some are from high-traffic sites who got surprised by the cost overages. They based their expectations on their Google Analytics numbers. The problem is that Google Analytics tries hard to measure real users, and exclude all the bot traffic. While WPEngine has, IMO, a pretty fair way of measuring traffic, it takes Bots (good and bad) into account to some extent, as ALL traffic impacts a server. (Note: WPEngine made changes to how Bot traffic is measured a while back, which decreased my billed traffic by about 1/3 to 1/2.)

Others were dead-set on using some particular plugin, only to discover WPEngine didn’t allow it. Some where basing their businesses off of these plugins, and left, quite mad. But, to be fair, these plugins are often not ones that should be used anyway, and have some obvious problems in terms of server-load. I suppose it can be argued that with one’s own VPS or dedicated server, they can run them, even if they are poor or resource hogs. But, there are often better ways of doing such things, and WPEngine typically helps figure that kind of thing out.

The second type, are mostly positive reviews, much like this one. In fact many rave about WPEngine, and I’m really no exception. While I’m going to provide what I see as the good and the bad, my overall experience has been incredibly positive. They’ve made me a fan. The detractors say the positive reviews are due to affiliate commissions. But, I’m sure many, like me, became fans first, and then decided ‘why not’ about the affiliate opportunity. Yes, some sites just try to earn affiliate commissions, but I (and many others) only recommend products we know and use (affiliate opportunities or not).

The third type of review comes from people who left over pricing. I get this one, trust me. WPEngine isn’t cheap. And, when you’re looking at higher-traffic sites that don’t generate revenue, WPEngine might simply not be an option, no matter how good they are. As I noted above, I feel some of these people didn’t consider the costs very carefully. But, others did, and ultimately decided to leave. Price, while I think well worth it, is a very legitimate concern, and a good reason for leaving (or going with something else in the first place).

Just be careful to see if the reviewer is being fair in terms of value. If they are saying stuff like ‘ripoff’ and such, then they probably don’t understand the value. The good ‘left because of cost’ reviews will often admit the features and service were excellent, but just more than they could justify. Fair enough.

WPEngine – the good, the bad, (and the ugly?)

First, I should say that for managed WordPress hosting, you should expect (demand?) excellent up-time, robust/stability, and great service. WPEngine excels at all of these.

The Good

Security / Performance – You really don’t have to worry a lot about regarding security and performance… most of it ‘just works.’ They deal with the caching (it’s quite advanced) and most of the preventative security measures. And, if your site does get hacked, they’ll quickly get Succuri on the case. I’ve used this a couple of times over the last few years, and it’s at that moment when you realize just how valuable the service is.

Custom portal – If you’ve setup a WordPress site on typical shared hosting with cPanel, you’ll appreciate how simple and straight-forward it is on WPEngine’s interface. Given my background, I can easily figure out either, but I bet that’s not the case for many new users on cPanel. I’d guess those same users could figure out WPEngine, at least much more quickly.

Backup – This is such a big one! WPEngine does daily backups automatically. Then, with the push of a button, you can make a snapshot backup whenever you like. It’s so easy, I always do one before updating anything or making any big changes (sometimes even little ones). Restore is also push-button easy. These backups are available for both the live site and staging server.

Proactive Security – As mentioned above, they proactively do quite a bit to prevent you from having security-related problems, or being hacked, in the first place. And, they have real experts on the case, and real scanning tools, unlike some other hosting providers. (Marcus’ story  is pretty sad… especially for a hosting company recommended on WordPress’ site!)

Caching – Setting up and fine-tuning caching can be quite tricky, as well as many other performance oriented tweaks needed to make WordPress fast. You can throw hardware at it (as I did in the past), but even then, it won’t be this fast.

CDN – A content delivery/distribution network serves static files from a world-wide distributed network of servers, so they can come from the nearest point to the end user, and take load off of the main server. WPEngine has this for Pro and above plans. It can be added to the base plan. But, it’s quite valuable to have in terms of scale and performance.

Staging server – I use this all the time to do testing or allow a support agent from a plugin or service to work on fixes on a copy of the live site, but not the live site. It is also possible to move the live site to staging, make changes, and then push it back to the live server, which is nice for big site refreshes.

Updates – WPEngine will automatically push WordPress updates. They have a sophisticated system which ‘looks’ at the site pre and post update, and if anything doesn’t go well, it gets rolled back. Of course, you can postpone their automated service and do the updates and testing yourself. They do security updates quickly, and usually wait a while on major WordPress releases, sending out notices about when it will occur.

Imported/automated SSL – They offer a number of SSL options, from free to paid automatic certificates. They’ll also help you bring in and setup a 3rd party certificate.

Integration w/ Amazon S3 for certain large storage situations – Because storage is limited for the plans, they have integrated a method for certain situations to enable Amazon S3 storage for nearly unlimited file space.

GIT integration – A code and version control system, often used by teams, but can certainly be used for individual development environments. It allows you to push and roll-back changes made to the site code.

The Bad

The infamous (joking) ‘disallowed plugin list‘ – WPEngine has a list of plugins that they don’t allow in their environment. That said, most of these shouldn’t be used anyway, as there are better alternatives. A lot of people complain about this, though. Is it really in the bad column?

Disabled WordPress features – They disable some standard WordPress features by default, such as post revisions. I think they will let you re-enable them, if you need them. Check with support. I admit that sometimes I wish it was on.

Cost per traffic volume – Their value is in other areas, but they are expensive for a given volume of traffic. Higher traffic sites will want to run some numbers and take that into consideration.
(Note: I see about a 5:1 ratio of WPEngine billable visits to Google Analytics ‘Sessions’. However, the ratio is higher on lower traffic sites, and I don’t have any high-traffic sites to check. I’m talking hundreds, or less, real visitors per day, not thousands or millions like some sites. My theory is that there is a certain ‘noise’ level, and that higher traffic sites climb out of that noise, which lowers the ratio. I’d LOVE to hear from some high-traffic sites as to their WPEngine billable visits ratio to some Google Analytics stat like ‘sessions’ or ‘users’.)

No DNS or email, just WordPress – WPEngine doesn’t provide domain registration, DNS servers, or email. However, I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing. You’re MUCH better off using an email service like Gmail, and should keeping your domain and DNS services apart from your hosting anyway. (1)Less reputable hosting services have been known to hold sites hostage via DNS, and the included DNS services with many hosts are poorly setup after-thoughts. DNS is crucial! The world’s best hosting won’t matter if your DNS gets messed up or hijacked.

Regex redirection – WPEngine’s default method of URL redirection is Regex based, which is powerful, but difficult for users who don’t know Regex. WPEngine support will help with this, though. You can also install WordPress based redirection plugins, but for performance, you’d want to do the big stuff at the server level.

They sometimes remove data – WPEngine has been known to remove certain data, like an overly big wp_options table. They do this for a good reason, and it shouldn’t cause a problem for well-written plugins. However, if someone got caught off-guard by this, it could be a big issue. I’ve seen people complaining about this in reviews.

The Ugly?

As previously mentioned, there have been a few negative reviews for which the reviewers seem to make some good points (ie: they seem to have been wronged). Most of them have been quite a long time ago, but I can understand being vocal about it. IMO, WPEngine usually tried, but sometimes didn’t go as far as I might have liked to see, to fix the situation.

There is also the possibility of someone developing and basing their business on a plugin which WPEngine deems not to be allowed. I don’t know what exactly happens in that case, but I’ve read reviews that ended up with the site moving. That could be costly, but I think, also easily avoided.

Sometimes, they’ve been known to take actions on security problems prior to getting in contact with the site admin/owner. I can understand that sometimes getting such contact is challenging, and they have to move quickly. My understanding is that there have been times when they haven’t tried (based on reviews). They just made changes or took action. That’s bad, if true.

The big ugly, though, seems to be for high-traffic sites that can’t monetize the costs (or raise enough money). Since WPEngine prices are so directly tied to amount of traffic, you could end up with a budget overrun if you don’t predict and/or prepare. You might end up with hundreds of dollars of bills you can’t pay. In reality, for most businesses, if you have enough traffic to overrun their plan limits, you can probably come up with $1/1000 visits (in my estimation, a couple hundred or more real visitors). It’s a problem I haven’t had to face yet, and hope I never will. (I’ve paid ZERO in overage fees so far. One of my clients would, here or there, if they were on the base plan.)

What if I can’t afford WPEngine?

I’ve been experimenting with GreenGeeks, and am happy with them so far for low-priority sites or experimenting. I’ve heard great things about SiteGround. It’s a bit more expensive, but probably worth it. Just remember, you’re going to be doing more of the work, and have less tools available.

Also, I’d generally avoid web hosts owned by EIG. Many of the popular hosting companies out there are owned by one giant company. Their practices (from what I’ve heard) tend to drive down expenses impacting support quality after they are acquired.

If you’re technical enough to setup and manage your own server, WPEngine used to use Linode and now, I think use Google Cloud Platform. You can certainly buy servers (or VPSs) from these people, or Amazon Web Services (who Pagely uses), for cheaper prices and do all the work yourself. I’ll bet, though, that unless you’re doing this on a pretty big scale, you’ll find you don’t come out financially, or you’re a riding a disaster waiting to happen.

That lower price is always tempting until something goes wrong. I hear story after story from many of the entrepreneurs I follow about their path from cheap hosting, to VPS, to dedicated server… and still lots of problems until they hired the right people, etc. Many also make the move to managed hosting if they figure it out before they hire the team.

Or, if your budget is too low, and you don’t have the expertise available, consider just starting with someone like SquareSpace to get a basic site up and running until you can afford, or need, more functionality. Just remember that you likely will need to move some day.

Get 4 total months free off WP Engine this summer with coupon code: summersavings20. Expires end of July!
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Did I miss something?

If you’d like to know more about my experience or story, or if I’ve missed something in the above, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to respond or fill in the holes in the article.

Also, if you’d like to add additional layers of support on top of WPEngine, we at cgWerks take what WPEngine offers to a whole new level by handling planning and development of your website; updating it; adding content to it, if you like, or training/assisting you in that process; helping you with your marketing, SEO, analytics, etc.; adding email lists, e-commerce, membership areas, etc.; or, just being your Webmaster.

Learn more about the services cgWerks offers here.

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