In this podcast:
01:56 – 2 main choices for hosting
02:30 – Cheap hosting vs. managed hosting
04:22 – WordPress website stats
05:43 – What is a staging environment?
07:21 – 2 reasons why plugins are banned
08:28 – How plugins affect site
09:30 – Is your site safe?
10:53 – Can you add SSL on WPEngine?
11:21 – How to migrate your site to WPEngine
11:52 – How important is speed for websites?
13:14 – How WPEngine helps with speed
15:47 – What to consider when moving your site
19:31 – Why pay more
21:18 – Points to know about WPEngine’s affiliate program
James: James Schramko here, welcome back to SuperFastBusiness. And today, we’re talking hosting, and in particular, hosting for WordPress. And when it comes to people like who talk about that, I found someone appropriate. I’d like to welcome David Vogelpohl to the call.
David: Hi, glad to be here.
James: Now, you’re qualified for this because you happen to be heavily involved in hosting WordPress. WPEngine is a company that you’ve been doing a lot of stuff for and you also go to affiliate summits and you’re in charge of the affiliate program. And you’ve been involved in hosting for 17 years, is that right?
David: That’s right. I started with my first hosting in 1996 and then it evolved with hosting ever since and then it evolved with communities so it’s definitely something I’ve done for a long time.
James: Cool. Well today, there’d be two things I think would be really interesting for our listener. First and foremost would be the hosting questions that are coming up. We’re seeing all sorts of things in the marketplace. We hear from Google that they would like us to have secure websites. We hear stories in the news of how hosting companies who get hacked and have downtime. And then we are getting a lot of clarification from usability experts and conversion experts saying that we really need a fast website.
2 main choices for hosting
So when it comes to hosting, for the most part, I know that there’s two main choices that people have. There’s the convenient, cheap entry point hosting that is often offered at a domain registrar, or some of the mass advertised companies. And then there’s slightly more specialized high level hosting, which will probably cost a little more.
But I’d love it if you could tell us some of the differences of what you might expect to get from a most specialized and qualified hosting company and what it might impact in terms of the website performance and for the long haul.
Cheap hosting vs. managed hosting
David: Sure. So each host is going to have their own unique service offerings. They’re going to have shared hosting accounts, which are not very expensive. They’re going to have virtual private servers and dedicated servers. And each host might have different service levels on each level. When you think of cheap hosting, generally that’s a shared host where there’s possibly thousands of websites under one main server. And the reason it’s cheap is because they get so many customers and a one machine. And of course that affects the performance and can affect security and things like that.
The main difference that I like to think about with host is what level they stop on. And so when you think about a shared and normal host, their job is to host thousands of website of all different types; WordPress and Joomla and Drupal. And really anything that the customers want to put in there as long as it fits their security guidelines.
The other side would be managed hosting, which is where WPEngine comes in and other providers with other types of platforms. But WPEngine specializes in WordPress. And so they have hosts like everybody else. They have servers; WPEngine servers are not oversubscribed. Meaning they don’t have thousands of websites and that’s one of the things that makes them a premium service that makes their service fast.
But the main value that WPEngine provides as a managed host is that they help manage the application level of WordPress. Meaning they keep it up-to-date, they help keep it secure. And then combined with that, they optimize their software and their hardware and their caching environment for WordPress specifically. So another host that hosts all kinds of different sites can’t do that level of optimization because that would affect other types of platforms. WPEngine, because they only focus on WordPress, can optimize every part of the process just for WordPress. So that’s how I like to think of the differences between the hosts.
WordPress website stats
James: Right. So you’re talking pure specialist. And when you specialize in just WordPress, I think I read a stat that it’s something like a quarter of all websites are WordPress. Is that somewhere around the number?
David: The numbers I’ve seen, the last numbers I saw that I believe that came actually from Automatic, I’m not sure if they’ve recently updated the numbers but it was 1 in 5 new websites were WordPress. I believe that stat. I think even in certain contexts it’s actually much, much higher. In the affiliate marketing space in particular, I would think that 3 out of 4 new websites are done in WordPress.
So I think it depends a little bit on your niche. There’s a lot of people out there doing .net sites, which are different kind of programming language, and e-commerce sites that don’t use WordPress but in certain context, especially content-oriented sites, WordPress definitely dominates.
James: Yeah. And we’d started out our WordPress development just to focus on WordPress. And the only exception we’ve added recently was just for e-commerce where someone wants a bigger, more customized or specialized store. But WordPress has been the dominant force in our space for sure.
And one of the things we’ve noticed when we’re developing on WordPress for customers who are using WPEngine hosting is that we’re able to develop in a staging environment. I’d love it if you could talk us through what staging is, because I think it’s a wonderful feature.
What is a staging environment?
David: Yeah. And this is one of the things I like most about WPEngine, dealing with affiliates who are single people or don’t have a dev staff available. A lot of people do what I like to call cowboy code, where they make changes to their live site. They do things in a live environment. Well that’s very, very risky. So it’s one thing maybe to do a post or a page, a very simple text page creating that on your live environment but it’s another thing to be doing things like updating your plugins, making big changes to your site, big changes to your structure, and doing that in a live environment.
So one of the features that WPEngine has and it’s super easy: there’s a one-click staging environment. With one click, you can make a copy of your website and then make the changes you’re going to make; make sure it doesn’t break anything, and then again, with one click basically being able to publish that live. And so you have a copy of your website you can do whatever you want, mess it up, try new things, and then when you get it all settled, push it live.
If you missed something and you still pushed something out that was going to break your site or cause problems, you can hit a restore point. There’s automatic backups, there’s the ability to do a one-click backup to instantly try to take a snapshot of your site, and you can revert back to that even if you published something live that you shouldn’t have, even if you missed it in staging.
James: Yeah, that’s a great feature and the restore points for peace of mind. So do you have to have other types of backup or is it enough to have it just backed up there? I think for example, one of the plugins that’s on your forbidden plugin list, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, is one that a lot of people use for backups. Is it redundant?
2 reasons why plugins are on the banned list
David: I’m not sure specifically what plugin you’re talking about or the decision that was made to have it on the banned list but there’s two reasons they’ll be on the list. One is that they are redundant, which is probably the case here. If it’s a very popular plugin, obviously, a lot of people find value in it. But again with the backup solution the WPEngine provides, it could be that that plugin was redundant possibly with an existing feature and were possibly conflicted with the feature of the platform. The other reason would be if it was a security issue. But it sounds like from the popularity that you’re referencing that it’s probably the former.
James: Yup. And so, let’s talk about plugins. One of the most exciting and wonderful things for a WordPress website owner is to start uploading all these crazy plugins to do everything. It’s like discovering that you can fit extra cup holders to your car with no cost in many cases. But there are plugins that are not good for your website and that shouldn’t be installed in your environment. Have you found that you’ve got a reasonable balance between functionality and security?
David: I believe so. I mean, as you point out, getting crazy with the plugins you install can have a performance hit on your site in general. But having the wrong plugin on your site not only can cause performance issues like excessive database queries, security issues, which can have a disastrous effect on your site; your site could be hijacked and be used to distribute malware. I had a buddy once that had his site hacked from a bad plugin and they had injected hidden links in his site to adult sites and Google started to associate his site with that part of the Web, which wasn’t good for his SEO. There’s a lot of trouble you can get into there.
And so, by having this directory of plugins where we found those problems or found them to have performance issues, it’s just one more fail-safe for you when you’re installing plugins to know that there’s an extra level of security there. So that way, if we know something we know about, we’re helping to make sure that you’re not putting it on your site and it’s causing a security problem or performance issue. That being said, you should always vet your plugins even with this list that we maintain.
James: Right. As a hosting expert for 17 years, I imagine you would have an opinion on the state of the security of most people out there. Especially people who aren’t on that platform, I’d say they’d be running a somewhat risky setup, right?
Is your site safe?
David: Yeah. I mean WordPress does for the most part for most people are auto-updates so WordPress itself these days tend to be updated most of the time with most people’s sites. I think the one area people will have the most exposure are going to be again out-dated plugins. When you have a plugin running on your site and you’re not running the updates for it, their security patches, your site is vulnerable.
Many hosts do seek for well-known, common vulnerabilities but that’s not a guarantee that it’s going to get picked up. What WPEngine does is make sure that WordPress is updated. They do it in a very scaled and planned manner. So it’s not just auto-updated, it’s planned, it’s staged, it’s done across multiple servers. And then if they do discover a plugin that causes a security concern, they will detect it, and then alert you to the fact that it’s there.
James: Yeah that’s a handy feature. So while we’re on the security thing, Google tell us they want to have secure sites, SSL. Is that something we could have on WPEngine?
Can you add SSL on WPEngine?
David: You absolutely can. There is the ability to add SSL to your account. It’s very easy to do. Should you run out and do SSL on all your sites, I’m not sure. I think that the jury is still out on the weight of that and the algorithm from Google. It is weighted in some way but I wouldn’t expect that you go through SSL on your site and all of a sudden you’re going to jump two points, but absolutely you can add SSL to your account on WPEngine.
James: Yeah. My opinion is that it’s not really worth it for most people unless they’re a very big company or processing payments, etc. It’s not something that they need to worry about just yet.
OK. So let’s talk about migration. How do we get our site to WPEngine if we have it somewhere else?
Migrating your site to WPEngine
David: So that’s actually super easy. What you do is once you get signed up, you contact support and they’ll put you in touch with partners who have been working with our support team to integrate their processes to make sure your migration is as smooth and simple as possible.
James: Nice. And anyone using our website development service, we migrate for free as well, especially to WPEngine, we’ve done so many now. It’s something we’re good at.
How important is speed for websites?
David: Speed is incredibly important. I spoke about this actually at Pubcon last year in the hosting session and what we covered was the different impacts that speed had on your site.
First of all, it can have an influence on the ranking algorithm in Google. It’s a little bit contested, if you hear Matt Cutts talk about it, on the one hand he’ll say oh, it’s really important, and then on the other hand he’ll say, 1 in 1,000 sites might be affected by site speed. But what site speed has, the speed of your site, what it influences are things that can have a big impact on things like your SEO. For starters, it can affect the number of visitors that stick around on your site and read lots of content, which can affect the number of people linking to the site, engaging with your site in social media…
Certainly, if there’s people who might be lagged down by site, they might again not stick around and of course this has huge impacts on your conversion rates. You know, every second of load time that it takes for your site to load drastically decreases your conversion rates. So it has an impact on the community of links that come into your site, which has an impact on your SEO, which has, it also has an impact on your ability to convert visitors into paying customers, or to get them to click through to an affiliate offer or something. It’s extremely important. There’s lots and lots of studies that illustrate the reduction in conversion rates and the reduction in user engagement that a slow-loading site can cause.
How WPEngine helps with speed
James: Yeah, I’m on the same page with you on that. I prioritize speed for our own sites. Now what I’m interested in, for anyone slightly technically inclined, what are some of the things that WPEngine does that help that speed?
David: So the first would be that way that the hosting environment is optimized. Everything is optimized around caching. If you are technically inclined, and by the way, I’m not a systems engineer so I’ll qualify that right now..
James: Neither am I, so I wouldn’t even know if you’re telling me anything that’s not right.
David: Yeah, but I can, I’ve been in the business a long time and been involved in a lot of types of hosting environments, data center business, all that. But the main focus of the WPEngine platform is around caching. So the hosting accounts come with a CDN, and for those of you that don’t know what that is, it’s a content distribution network, and basically what it means is there’s computers all around the world that help distribute your content, your static content, to visitors.
So it’s not just hitting the WPEngine servers, it’s hitting all these little servers all around the world. That’s a content distribution network that supports WPEngine the host. At the host level, the infrastructure or the hosting environment is set up so that everything remains in what’s called the cache state, meaning that it’s not, as much as possible, not hitting the hard drive. It’s staying essentially in the caching infrastructure in the memory, and so the entire system is optimized around that and optimized specifically for WordPress. If you go to WPEngine.com and look on the, I think it’s actually the About Us section or the Support section, there’s details about how the infrastructure works.
David: But just from a real general sense, it’s about caching, it’s about keeping everything in memory, keeping everything right there, quickly accessible and ready for the user.
James: And close to the user, because of this worldwide distribution, right? They serve it from close to where the consumer is.
David: Oh, yes. CDNs are gold. They will really speed up your website. Even on a slow host, you can put a CDN on and it helps speed it up.
The great thing, though, about the WPEngine CDN is it’s all integrated in. If you’re on another host and you want to put a CDN on your site, depending on the host, all you’ll have to do is install another plugin, something like W3 Total Cache, and then you have to configure it, essentially, to work with your CDN. It’s a little technical, so if you’re not a developer you might need a little help. They do have a really great support group, run by a guy named Willie Jackson, but… and they’re a great plugin. But with the WPEngine platform it’s already integrated in.
James: Much easier.
David: Yup. Absolutely.
Things to consider when moving your site
James: OK, so if you were to bump into someone at one of these conferences, and they came up to you and said, “David, I’m thinking of moving my site,” what would be the sort of things that you would ask them or prompt them to take into consideration the right solution for them? Just the top few things that you might discuss with them.
David: About why they should move their site?
James: Yeah. If they’re experiencing some… Like I know most people on a big shared server they’re going to have a little bit of site outage. Occasionally they’ll exceed their bandwidth or it’ll be slow to load. Maybe they’re getting malware things pop up on their monitoring tool. What would be the main conversation you’d have with someone around this idea of moving to potentially a more expensive hosting solution?
David: Yeah, that’s a good point. So for me, you know, if you’re not at a point of pain, right now, you’re not experiencing that slowness or security problems, the question of course you have to ask yourself is “Will I..” or maybe even “When I..” I mean, really, every host has some issues at some point. I mean, after being in it for 17 years, I’ll tell you, I’ve never see a server that didn’t have any problems ever.
The question is, what type of service are you going to get and what type of infrastructure they have primed, how is it optimized, and how’s their team optimized, and that’s why I like WPEngine, because everything’s kind of centered around WordPress.
Why David switched to WPEngine
But the scenarios, I think, like if you’re in a pain point… I’ll tell you my pain point. I guess how I came to WPEngine, I was at Affiliate Summit in New York, and the Friday before I left, my site went down. And all weekend long, it was unavailable. And I was at one of those cheaper hosts that was a big, shared farm. It was right around the time I had launched this site, and so I had kind of cheap hosting because it didn’t really matter at the time.
Well, I’m at a conference, of course. I’m trying to tell people about my business, and my site’s down. And the host isn’t picking up the phone, and they’re escalating it to… you know, they’re telling you they’re escalating it, and it finally gets to code level 3 or whatever, and they’re on a teambuilding exercise all weekend, and I can’t get in touch with anybody.
So Monday rolls around, and I finally get the level 3 guy on the phone, I’ve been at the conference all weekend, and he goes, “Well, Sir, your website got really popular, and it took down our whole server.” The one server I was on, it took down the server. You know what that did? It took down every other website on that server. It took every single one down. So not only did my site go down while this was happening, you know, how many other sites, thousands, whatever, hundreds. Whatever it was went down at the same time. So that was annoying for them, it certainly was annoying for me.
And then I said, “Well, no, my website didn’t get that popular. It wasn’t that kind of website. It didn’t get put on TechCrunch.” I knew it wasn’t that popular. And so I said, “No, that’s not it.” I said it’s probably a denial-of-service attack. You know, I’d been in hosting a long time, so I kind of knew the story. And I said, “Check the IP addresses.” He looks at them, and says, “Oh yeah, look at this, they’re all from overseas or whatever.” And sure enough, it’s a denial-of-service attack. I offered any amount of money for them to fix it. They had no solution for me at all.
I moved over to WPEngine that day. They had become a client of mine, and I hadn’t necessarily started hosting with them yet, but I called them up and said, “Hey, can you guys help?” and they could, and that case, of course, not every case is the same, but in that case they got me up within, I would say like 4 hours. And we were still faster than where we were before, even though the attack was still occurring and they were able to negate the attack or whatever. But that was by experience, and that what brought me to WPEngine.
Cost of hosting versus value
So I went from a host where I was paying like $8 a month or something to a host where I was paying whatever it is, at the time it was like $30. I think it was even higher at the time, because I had a lower minimum account. And yeah, it was a difference, it was like $240 a year, but I would gladly pay the $240 to have my website up that weekend.
So that’s my story, and I think that’s a lot of people’s story. It’s like, you look at a host that’s low cost, and you’re like, yeah, it’s only $6 a month or whatever, but that time you need it, it’s worth the $200, $300, whatever it is, up to a point of course, but it’s worth that extra money to have that peace of mind, to know that you have some provider there, that’s going to have your back when something like that goes down.
James: It’s true. It’s similar to mine, except that I upgraded to dedicated serving with my original supplier, actually my second one. The first one was horrible. It was in Australia, and they were never available, because they were just reselling someone in another country stuff, and they were hopeless. And then I went to a much bigger one, and I paid the money for the dedicated servers, but then that went offline for quite some time, and they wouldn’t even reply to a ticket, like for a day or something. And then I went to a different provider.
So that’s why I think that the small outlay extra to have all of these things, to have staging, to have security, to have a curated list of plugins, to have the cloud serving of your website and proper caching, is really saving you money because you’re going to make more when people can find your website, when it up, it’s not hacked, and it’s serving things quickly, and it’s available to them conveniently. And you can also make changes without destroying the experience for everyone at once. So it makes sense for a lot of reasons.
Interesting points of the affiliate program
So you’ve been super generous with your hosting information. I can’t help but ask you a question because we have so many people interested in affiliate marketing. You’ve been with the WPEngine side of things since they were only three employees. What have been some of the interesting observations you’ve had from having affiliates driving this business, and I’ll also put a link right near this podcast where you can join or apply to be an affiliate of the WPEngine. If you happen to be an affiliate and you like the sound of it and you want to promote this, then I’ll put a link there. But tell me some of the interesting things from the point of view of an affiliate having an affiliate program.
David: I think the most interesting thing for me is really kind of working with people to understand how to promote an affiliate offer. A lot of that time is actually in a WordPress context, which is actually really closely aligned with the work that I do. And so, yeah, we basically run WPEngine’s affiliate program, and so part of our activities is to kind of help affiliates learn how to promote the program and how to integrate the offers into their site.
And I think the thing that’s most interesting to me in like how it’s evolved, not necessarily just in the context of WPEngine but all the time I’ve been doing it, has been the more contextual nature of affiliate marketing. How it’s not just throwing a banner ad up somewhere, but it’s being smart about how you promote things and how you integrate your offers into your existing content, you know, your emails and things like that. And doing it in a respectful way. You don’t want to come in and just like hit your users over the head with a bunch of ads or offers, like you want to do it in a way that provides value to them.
And I think if we look at things like SEO and how it’s evolving around content and providing valuable content for the user, I think the same kind of thing is going on with affiliate marketing, where it’s not just throwing up some links but actually giving some value along with the offers you promote.
James: Absolutely. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why I like to have podcasts like this. I want to add more value for consumers. Not everyone is a buyer, but it’s still educating people about what’s good in the marketplace, and why they might want to make some certain decisions to assist that.
So David, you’ve been so generous with your time. I want to thank you on behalf of the listener for filling us in on this information. I know that this is what we recommend for our WordPress website development customers. WPEngine is the program that we refer people to. We’ll actually send them to this recording to find out more about why we recommend that. So thanks for giving us information and spending the time with us today.
David: Thanks for having me, James. It was a lot of fun.
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