As the traffic to Side Hustle Nation has grown (over 16,000 visits per month this summer, compared with about 4000 visits per month last summer), I began to get frustrated with the slow load times both for the user-facing site and my admin dashboard.
To be sure, this is a great problem to have.
Since Day 1, the site had been running on a cheap shared hosting account at Web Hosting Buzz. They’re essentially a commoditized hosting provider, and it cost around $70 a year for unlimited sites.
(Previously I was on the far-more-popular Bluehost, but kept running into CPU throttling issues they couldn’t tell me how to resolve.)
As the traffic grew, I knew an upgrade would be in order.
But where to turn? Switching hosts is a pain, and everyone promises the world.
Enter WP Engine
WP Engine is a premium hosting provider that specializes in WordPress sites. For the past few years, I’ve been hearing about how awesome they are and why managed WordPress hosting is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
I even met some members of their team at Affiliate Summit and decided when the time came to upgrade, they would be on my short list.
What I Liked About WP Engine
Their Support Staff
I engaged their support staff by phone, email, and live chat at various stages of my transition. The agents were professional and helpful every step of the way.
The load times for the site were decidedly faster after making the switch:
Every metric saw significant improvements with WP Engine vs. the cheap shared hosting plan.
The performance claims are real.
Note: If you want to see this report in Google Analytics, visit Behavior > Site Speed.
An SEO Boost?
Aside from plain ol’ user experience, another reason you might want a faster site is for SEO. Google has said site speed is a ranking factor since at least 2010.
Was my slow site costing me rankings and visitors?
The evidence suggests no. There was a recent spike in search engine impressions and traffic, but it happened BEFORE I made the hosting switch.
The good news? The transition didn’t cause any disruption in search rankings.
Note: If you want to see this report in Google Webmaster Tools, visit Search Traffic > Search Queries.
Other Performance Metrics
If WP Engine didn’t impact my search engine performance, did the faster load times have any other measurable impact?
It’s hard to say. Visitors spent slightly less time on the site with WP Engine, but viewed slightly more pages per visit.
So with noticeably faster load times, but questionable benefits on other metrics, is WP Engine worth it?
Downsides to WP Engine
For me, the biggest downside to WP Engine is their price tag.
Their hosting packages start at $29 per month for one domain. Remember, I was used to paying around $70 per year for unlimited domains.
Note: You can get 2 months free if you pre-pay for a year in advance. Also, they have a 2 month risk-free trial period.
“We Don’t Do Email”
One thing that surprised me about WP Engine was that they don’t provide email hosting — meaning if you want to have an email address on your domain, like nick[at]sidehustlenation.com, you’re on your own.
You’ll have to contract with Google Apps ($5 per month) or use another mail host. I was able to continue running email through Web Hosting Buzz because I have other domains still hosted there, but this was pretty annoying.
I was like, come on guys, you charge 4-5x more than everyone else and you can’t even deliver my email?
Their Ridiculously Inflated “Traffic” Numbers
The plan I signed up for, their “Personal” plan, included up to 25,000 visits per month.
At the time of the transition, according to Google Analytics, I had around 12,500 visits over the last 30 days. So like any reasonable person, I understood that I could effectively double my traffic before this became an issue.
Imagine my surprise when I logged into my WP Engine dashboard 4 days into my switch, and was greeted with a warning message that I was already on pace to exceed the 25,000 visit limit.
I immediately checked my Analytics to see if there was some sort of spike I was somehow unaware of. Nope — everything normal there.
Turns out, WP Engine counts EVERY server visit, including spiders and bots and spammers in their count, and frequently report numbers 4x higher than Google Analytics, which strives to only report human visitors.
(As a blogger, I’m only particularly interested in human visitors.)
I imagine other new WP Engine customers experience a similar shock and awe when they learn that the “visitors” metric they’re familiar with is not the “visitors” metric WP Engine is referring to on their public-facing pricing page.
For every 1000 visitors over the 25,000 limit, they charge $1. I was hit with an extra $33 charge my first month for excess traffic — even though my “real” traffic was well within the advertised limit.
That extra charge brings the monthly expense to over $50 for hosting, not including email.
Is it worth it?
Outages and Downtime
During the first month, my site experienced several embarrassing outages. Most lasted just a few minutes, but one went on for at least a few hours.
It turns out, one of the plugins their tech support suggested I install (to reduce the spambot traffic they were charging me for) was BLOCKING all not-logged-in traffic, meaning I was the only person in the world who could access the site.
Not exactly what I had in mind.
I understand there are going to be outages and that no host is perfect, but I expected better from WP Engine given their premium price. And I definitely didn’t expect their own tech support to recommend a plugin that would render my site inaccessible.
(Thank you to the several people who emailed and Tweeted me about it, letting me know!)
Just a Reseller?
Another interesting thing about WP Engine is they apparently don’t even own their own servers.
Kudos to WP Engine for positioning themselves as a high value service in a commoditized market, and not even having to make the upfront infrastructure investments in servers and racks. Smart cookies.
Really smart, actually.
But as much as I wanted to love them, especially given their awesome affiliate program ($150 per sign-up!), I’m not convinced.
How could I recommend a hosting provider to side hustlers that’s seems to have a disproportionate price to value ratio?
WP Engine Alternatives
The logical next question is where should I host the site if WP Engine isn’t the answer?
Should I just go back to my cheap shared hosting option? Should I look into some VPS provider?
Why WPX Hosting?
Like WP Engine, they promise super-fast performance optimized for WordPress sites. But unlike WP Engine, they:
- Allow for up to 5 domains on their base level plan, instead of just one.
- Allow for up to 50 GB of bandwidth per month, instead of counting individual spambots against your traffic numbers.
- Will host your email, instead of requiring a separate mail solution.
- Will migrate your site for free, instead of showing you a lengthy video instruction series.
- Cost just $24.99 per month, instead of $29 plus overages.
It sounds like a better value across the board, but how did it play out?
Unlike Matthew, I didn’t find WPX to be faster than WP Engine, but the performance is comparable and still much faster than my old shared hosting plan. My guess is because they’re based in Europe instead of the US, but most of my traffic is from the US.
Still, I didn’t have any of the random downtime issues I had before, and the support was equally friendly and helpful.
WPX handled 2 record traffic days beautifully, on July 28th when I had a guest post go live on SteveScottSite, and on August 8th when I was quoted in LearnVest article (which was subsequently syndicated to Forbes, Fox Business and elsewhere).
Downsides to WPX Hosting
The biggest downside for me is there’s no phone support, only email and live chat.
If your site is growing and you’re frustrated with the performance of Bluehost or some other cheap shared host, or worried about the impression slow load times are leaving on your visitors, I’ve been happy with WPX so far.
Who do you host with? Would you recommend them?