Getting started with WordPress is easy. Most website hosting services offer simple one-click installations, and some also provide more capable managed WordPress plans. But although every provider claims great WordPress expertise, these plans are usually just a tiny part of the overall product range, and there's no way to tell how much experience of the platform a host might really have.
WP Engine is a provider of managed WordPress hosting – and nothing else. There are no e-commerce plans, VPS, dedicated servers or anything else to get in the way, just a single-minded focus on delivering and managing the best possible WordPress service.
Signing up does get you some valuable benefits. The service tests WordPress updates and patches, for instance, before applying them to your site. A custom caching system optimizes performance. Real-time threat detection is included, and if you get hacked anyway, the website promises it'll be fixed for free.
The generosity continues with WP Engine's Service Level Agreement (SLA). This promises 99.95% service availability, and will credit you with 5% of your monthly fee for every hour the target is missed.
Heading off to the Pricing page revealed more details. The baseline Personal plan provides 10GB of storage and supports up to 25K visits a month. Professional extras include Let's Encrypt SSL, staging (instantly create a copy of your site for testing), LargeFS support for easy integration of Amazon S3 storage, handy performance diagnostics, and optional PHP 7 for improved performance and resource usage. These are welcome touches, but the plan still seems expensive at $29 (£21) a month ($24.16 or £17 if you pay annually), especially as you don't even get email hosting.
The Premium plan supports up to 100K visits a month, offers 20GB storage and can host up to 10 websites. There's a bundled CDN (MaxCDN-powered) to enhance performance, you're able to import SSL certificates from your choice of provider, and you get 24/7 phone support. These are also capabilities worth having, but the Premium plan looks even more expensive at $99 (£71) a month, dropping to $83.25 (£59) on the annual plan.
This pattern continues elsewhere. WP Engine Business adds more resources, can dynamically serve content to visitors based on geography and gives easy access to WordPress-optimized Google Analytics data, but we're unsure whether it's really worth $249 (£178) a month ($207.50 or £148 paid annually).
To put these prices into perspective, 1&1's (admittedly far more basic) managed WordPress provides 50GB storage, supports unlimited visitors, and gives you a free domain for 12 months (with email) for just £0.99 ($1.40) a month for the first year, £4.99 ($7) afterwards.
Still, WP Engine does offer far better performance, reliability, and many other premium benefits, and if you're tempted, a generous 60-day money-back guarantee gives you plenty of time to sample its features for yourself.
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The WP Engine website has a detailed comparison table which lists the various plans and makes it easy to locate the right one for you.
Make a selection and you're asked to choose where your site should be hosted. WP Engine has data centers in the US, UK, Belgium, Germany, Australia and Taiwan, a far wider choice than you'll get with most providers.
You're able to select monthly billing, a welcome plus if you're short on cash or would like to keep your options open. Alternatively, choosing the annual plan gives you two months for free, effectively cutting the price by around 16%.
Payments are accepted by credit card only, with no support for PayPal or anything else.
We parted with our cash in the usual way, and the website redirected us to a Welcome page with links for our WP Engine account, the admin page for our WordPress site, and an initial site URL (yourdomain.wpengine.com by default, although you can redirect this to a domain of your own).
The page explained that our website was being created, but this didn't take long. Seconds later we received an email inviting us to set a password for our WP Engine account. We followed the link, entered a password and were able to immediately view our control panel and default site.
The signup process ended with the arrival of a final email summarizing details of our site and providing helpful links to tutorials and support pages, a handy reference should we need it later.
Creating a site
WP Engine's web dashboard opens with a cluttered mass of alerts, status messages, news items and more. It's not a great use of space, but there are settings elsewhere that simplify the situation, and we soon realized that most of it could be ignored.
Tapping a link to our new WP Engine plan displayed a panel with more information on our setup: domain, IP address, WordPress version, PHP version. There are also convenient mini-graphs showing you recent histories for your visitors, bandwidth and storage usage.
The interface doesn't make any attempt to point users in the right direction, and beginners might initially be confused by some of the language used (domain-level redirects, CNAME records, Git push).
DNS setup is more complicated than you might expect, because your website may be relocated as necessary. WP Engine says that it is "constantly ensuring your site is running to its fullest potential", and "may migrate your site at any time" to ensure it's on the right server. If you follow the standard route of updating a static A record with your domain registrar to point it at a WP Engine account, this link will break whenever your website is moved, making it inaccessible.
The support website's recommended solution is to use CloudFlare's CNAME service, and that's a sensible choice, but it will involve a little more preparation (read more about the procedure on the WP Engine site).
Life gets easier once your DNS is properly configured. A BlogVault-based Automated Migration plugin is a highlight, migrating an existing WordPress site to your WP Engine account with nothing more than your source server SFTP credentials and destination URL. This won't work with providers who don't support SFTP access – WordPress.com, Wix, SquareSpace and other proprietary services – but should handle regular WordPress hosting without difficulty.
Technical users get access to phpMyAdmin, allowing them to manually import and play around with existing databases.
Alternatively, if you're starting from scratch, you can launch the standard WordPress Admin page with a click and go to work. The installation doesn't come equipped with any extra plugins or themes, but you can browse and install whatever you need using the standard tools, and anyone familiar with WordPress will be able to get started right away.
Evaluating WP Engine is difficult, as the best parts of the service – management, performance optimizations, reliability – aren't easy to see or measure. Spend some time exploring the interface, though, and clues begin to appear.
The service has built-in automatic backups, for instance, typically a chargeable extra with other hosts. These run daily, or you can create a backup on demand, and any of these can be restored as necessary. The site only displays backups from the last 30 days, but you can download them in archived form to maintain your own local copies.
A useful Staging feature allows creating a copy of your site for private testing. You could use this to try out a new theme, a plugin or anything else, without affecting the production site. It's a valuable feature and very easy to use.
Built-in performance tests assess your website performance, giving it a score and making intelligent recommendations. The report page also maintains a table of your results for the past six months, meaning that it’s easy to assess how individual tweaks are affecting speed.
WP Engine adds a custom page to your WordPress Admin console, giving quick access to some important low-level settings and options. Performance features allow configuring your CDN (if included with your account) or purging WP Engine's many caches; useful for troubleshooting. Advanced options include a powerful HTML Post Processing option to modify website HTML after it has been rendered. That's an interesting tool which offers all kinds of possibilities (the support site has more on this), although you'll need considerable knowledge and expertise to use it properly.
In another interesting touch, WP Engine doesn't allow some plugins where experience indicates they might hurt site performance or cause other issues (read more here). That's going to be a problem if you need something on the banned list, but overall, we approve. Having an expert advise you which plugins might help, and which really won't, is a benefit you rarely get with other providers.
To complete our review we checked out WP Engine's support, something the company highlights as one of its major advantages.
The official support site has some useful links to key documents covering the WP Engine portal, migrating your website, troubleshooting problems, optimizing your site for speed, and more.
These don't always deliver the simple step-by-step ‘click this, click that’ solutions you'll typically see with other providers, but WP Engine's expertise is obvious. For example, the full set of ‘speed up your site’ videos and pages feel more like content taken from a professional training course, rather than the usual basic support content seen at other providers.
An integrated search engine should help you find the documents you need, but it displayed little intelligence in our tests. Searching for 'antivirus' returned no hits, for instance, while 'anti-virus' returned 145, and with apparently no effort made to list the most likely articles first (the top articles on our list were 'How to Implement a Google Crawl Delay', 'Will moving my site to WP Engine affect SEO?' and 'What if I can't access chat?').
Fortunately, WP Engine also offers 24/7 live chat support. We tried this out and were connected to an agent in under a minute. They responded to our query quickly and in detail, were able to escalate our query when we asked something they didn't know, and even then, we were only kept waiting for an additional couple of minutes. There's no way for a single review to assess how support will perform in the long run, but WP Engine did all we could have asked in our tests, and the experience was a notable improvement on most of the competition.
WP Engine's prices may seem high, but there's a good reason – features like the backups, update service, staging, custom caching, integrated CDN and malware scanning are premium extras with many providers, if they have them at all. If you need real WordPress power, give this outfit a try.
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