WP Engine is a Managed WordPress Hosting service based in Austin, TX. They were one of the (if not the) first companies to provide managed hosting services specifically for WordPress.
While they have plenty of competition in both hosting in general and in the managed WordPress hosting vertical, they are still the market leader in many ways with broad name recognition and cutting edge features.
I wrote a whole post about WordPress Hosting vs. Web Hosting. But here’s the short version. They all vary in services provided. Some simply have WordPress-trained tech support. Some offer services such as server-side features and staging for WordPress.
And then there’s a separate level of managed WordPress Hosting where you are not really buying hosting per se – but rather services to keep your WordPress install live. Basically, a Managed WordPress Hosting services do differently is offer a menu of services tailored to WordPress at a higher price point, so that the website owner can focus less on speed / security and more on the website content / functionality.
Every competitor in the Managed WordPress Hosting has a different offering. And there is no standardized “menu” of options, but as whole, they all compete with traditional shared Linux hosting offerings and customized WordPress hosting options.
Either way – that’s the field where WP Engine plays. It’s confusing, yes, but it’s important to understand before making apples to oranges comparisons.
There are a lot of WP Engine reviews online – usually with user-generated reviews based on anecdotes and personal experience. That’s fine but I take a different approach. This review will look at the pros / cons of WP Engine in the context of all web hosting options to see who it is a “best fit” for.
I’ve used WP Engine for various projects since 2012. I don’t use them for my primary sites right now (see conclusion), but I do have a current client on WP Engine who absolutely loves them. Here’s my WP Engine structured as pros / cons.
Disclosure – I receive referral fees from any companies mentioned. All data & opinion is based on my experience as a paying customer or consultant to a paying customer.
Pros of WP Engine
To start, WP Engine does pretty much live up to it’s pitch on its homepage where they promise “stunning speed, powerful security, and best-in-class customer service.” Here is their promo pitch video –
They primarily target websites that are moving from other hosting companies (ie, customers dissatisfied with current hosting).
Here are some of the big advantages that I’ve seen as a customer & consultant to a customer.
Speed & Performance
There are a lot of variables that go into website speed, but the rule of thumb is that the more complex your site is, the more complex the solutions to speed become.
Out of the box – WordPress is fairly lean and fast. If you are running a mostly text site with a few basic plugins and a few small images, you’ll be fine on an affordable shared hosting plan from someone like InMotion, HostGator or Bluehost.
All these features combined with decent levels of traffic can start to slow down your WordPress install.
But a slow site doesn’t mean that you need a bigger / better server. It does mean that you need to get smarter about speed. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a more powerful server, but sometimes it’s more about caching certain resources in a certain order and optimizing your files. In other words – it gets complex.
Imagine you are trying to haul a trailer with a pickup truck. Imagine your trailer keeps getting heavier. It’s pointless to keep complaining that your truck is not big enough when you may just need to remove the emergency brake, install a turbocharger, refresh the transmission fluid and consolidate your load.
The point is that WordPress needs help to stay fast as you grow. There’s plenty of solutions…but either you or a developer must implement them.
That’s where managed WordPress hosting comes in. WP Engine takes care of (nearly) all speed concerns. They have customized servers with extremely aggressive caching and even more advanced “stack” than a typical web host. They also have trained support who will go into your WordPress install and identify exact chokepoint to get your site moving.
They don’t even allow caching plugins on their installs because they have such a customized caching setup.
The interesting thing is that even unoptimized WordPress installs still do well on their platform because their platform does the extra work.
Here’s the speed test for one of my clients on WP Engine (who has a bloated theme, extra scripts, too many uncompressed images, among other things) –
Note the Time To First Byte and the Start Render numbers. That measures how quickly the server returned enough data to start loading the page.
Now here is the speed test of a standard WordPress install. WP Engine not only gets solid TTFB times, but note how similar the First Byte and First Render are to the Unoptimized site.
It’s nice to have that kind of speed right out of the box – and have it stay that way no matter how big or complex the site gets.
*Note that the other point here is that if you are obsessed about speed, you can get even better numbers with WP Engine than you might could get with other services since you are free to focus on speed factors that you can easily control like image compression, usage of scripts, etc.
Lastly on speed, WP Engine not only provides an integrated CDN, but they also provide global data centers in case your audience is primarily in Asia and/or Europe.
If you are trying to get top speeds without messing with layered caching plugins – the WP Engine does exactly that.
Customer support has been a core part of WP Engine’s pitch since they were founded. After all, they are really selling more of a service (ie, managed hosting) than a product (ie, hosting). It makes sense for them to place a big emphasis on support.
Here’s a screenshot from one of my first contacts with support back in 2012 –
Look at the response time – that wasn’t an autoresponder either.
Now – the company has grown & changed a lot since then. They went through a stretch where they were getting a lot of criticism about over-promising on support.
That said – the tough thing about customer support is that so much of the judgement is anecdotal. Everyone has a story, but you never know if the story is because they talked to the one rockstar / rookie having a awesome / terrible day. Like I mention in every hosting review, the important part is to see if a company treats support as an investment or a cost.
I like to look for access, systems and knowledge – all three require investment of money, time and expertise.
Based on my recent interactions and research, they are doing much better hitting all three boxes. They maintain a variety of support channels (including phone for non-Basic plans). They have a fast, trackable ticketing system and are available everywhere on the site via chat.
Based on their tutorial videos and extensive knowledgebase, they tick the knowledge box. Every support that me or my client has interacted with actually knew the fine workings of WordPress and has been able to problem-solve on the fly.
The most impressive (yes, this is anecdotal, but still) experience was a three-way call between my client, myself and WP Engine during my client’s transition to HTTPS / SSL. The rep was not only able to get on (and stay on) the phone, but he was able to adeptly help us “flip the switch” quickly in addition to taking care of several issues (ie, uploading a non-HTTP sitemap and fixing insecure image links) within WordPress for us.
I’m sure that WP Engine still has support issues – especially because as I’ll show in the disadvantages – their custom platform puts a lot of pressure on fast, accessible support. But they seem to know that support is core to their value and do make the needed investment.
WordPress now powers over a quarter of the entire Internet. That means that it is a prime target for hackers & malware distributors.
But there is nothing inherently insecure about WordPress that is not an issue with all software. WordPress has a the upside of being open-source with a very large community releasing updates & testing vulnerabilities.
If you run your own WordPress install, the security basics are fairly straightforward –
- Keep your install & all your plugins updated
- Only install files from reputable creators
- Run a security plugin to lock down the most common brute force attacks
- Keep a backup for when things go wrong
*Aside – I use JetPack for the last two. It’s made by & powered by Automattic, the commercial arm of WordPress.
You’ll notice that even though security on WordPress is straightforward – the responsibility is still on you to keep things secure. Just like having a deadbolt does nothing if you don’t lock it – keeping your website secure is still ultimately on you.
And like speed & performance, WP Engine basically takes all those best practices and does them for you. They run automated backups to keep everything off-site & ready to roll back if something happens. Since you technically have an “install” on their server (rather than an account) – they tackle a lot of security issues globally on the server level.
WP Engine also works closely with top security firms on code reviews in addition to running their own team. They also make the guarantee that if you’re hacked – they take care of it for free.
I personally have never been hacked on my main /or secondary sites (knock on wood), but have helped clients who have been. It’s frustrating, tedious & a generally expensive situation (even if you are using a service like Sucuri). Having a professional security team take care of your WordPress install is a big pro in my book.
Pricing on Value
WP Engine is not cheap. Their personal plan is $29/mo and includes a single install and only up to 25,000 visits per month.
For benchmarking – you can get a powerful, reliable VPS (ie, your own not-shared server) for the same price from InMotion. And if you are just starting out with a single domain – you can get a shared hosting plan from Bluehost for just a couple dollars per month.
Both of which allow for more storage & more visits (ie, basically as many as you can handle) than WP Engine. I’ve run sites that have had 60k visits per month on a shared server. I’ve also run dozens of small WordPress sites off a low cost shared hosting.
But I’ll cover that pricing disadvantage in the cons of WP Engine, but here’s the thing.
For some site owners – if you break out WP Engine by total value & factor in your own (or your developer’s) time, their pricing is amazing.
Just running WordPress updates every month & QA’ing your installation can take ~30 minutes every month. If your (or your dev’s) services are billed at $50 (or more)/hour, then that’s WP Engine’s entire monthly fee right there.
If you lose a visits due to downtime from a bad plugin update, then that could be WP Engine’s entire monthly fee right there.
If you do a hot-fix (ie, you don’t use a staging area) on your PHP code, and knock your site down…then that could be WP Engine’s entire monthly fee right there.
Losing visitors due to speed issues or downtime costs lost income.
Additionlly, premium security can costs ~$16/mo – minimum. Not to mention any personal or developer time fixing issues.
Basically, if your time is better allocated away from technical issues, then WP Engine makes a lot of sense on value. As a managed WordPress hosting service – that’s really their thing. Hosting services are an investment rather than a cost.
And that sort of value-based pricing segues into another pro for WP Engine – their focus on their core markets.
Like I said at the beginning, WP Engine isn’t for everyone. There are 3 types of customers that WP Engine seems to be a fit for. For those 3 types of customers, WP Engine has a strong focus with plenty of tools & focus for each.
From their backend process, the first customer type seems to be WordPress developers and designers who want to focus on development & design without dealing with hosting maintenance – and have clients who have some budget. The designer / dev builds the site directly in WP Engine’s staging environment, launches the site, then hands the website over to their client.
The designer can assure their client that WP Engine handles the hosting, security & speed. There’s little need for an ongoing basic website maintenance. For this market, WP Engine has interesting tools including staging, git push, site migration and transferable installs.
The second customer type is the growing website owner who is frustrated at having to deal with technical growth headaches. They’ve outgrown their shared hosting and need to move to a better host.
They’re also established enough that they have some budget for managed services. WP Engine has tools like the automated migration tool & customer support to make that process happen. The phone support is a key factor – especially being able to “just call WP Engine an have them fix it.”
The third customer type is a startup website owner that has budget and wants a long-term platform that they can grow with. They are comfortable learning WP Engine’s unique backend, and plan on launching a near-complete website all at once.
They don’t have any prior habits or customs brought over from previous hosts or websites. Again, for this market, WP Engine has the scalable features, customers and support that they can make promises and provide support to win & keep this type of customer.
With these types of customers, WP Engine knows how & where they are coming from, so many of the improvements they make are focused on these markets (ie, the Git push functionality), rather than mass-market improvements like knowledge-bases, intuitive backend, etc.
This advantage is similar to WP Engine’s market focus, but it’s really worth calling out in this review revision.
WP Engine excels not only on current features, but also on creating new, cutting edge hosting features. Every version of WordPress 4 has rolled out new developer features that WP Engine has been able to integrate.
Even general web development best practices have changed radically since I started observing the industry*. WP Engine has created tools to match.
*I’m an SEO / marketer by trade. I know enough web development to integrate best practices into implementation & projects with developers.
Here’s a screenshot of WP Engine’s Git Push setup that has been around for more than 2 years.
Even for non-developers like me, WP Engine has one-click staging areas to allow even DIY siteowners to get away from “cowboy coding” into proper web development best practices.
There’s too many other specifics here to name, but in general, WP Engine has a strength in rolling out new, useful hosting features.
Cons of WP Engine
Just like any service, WP Engine is not a best fit for everyone. There are plenty of WP Engine complaints around the Internet. Some are anecdotal. Some are hyperbole (ie, SEOs complaining about dev sites). And many are valid because they simply aren’t a fit for everyone. For all their awesomeness in some areas, they have some cons which keep them from being a good fit for some customers. I don’t use them for this website because I do not need many of their features and I’m comfortable working “putting pieces together” w/ my InMotion VPS setup.
All that said – here’s some of the bigger picture disadvantages of using WP Engine.
Initial & Ongoing Complexity
To achieve the speed, security, and scale they promise, WP Engine does things differently. And that differently can be quite complicated – especially if you have just enough experience with hosting environments to be dangerous.
In fact, back in 2012 on this original review I wrote –
“Somewhere in WP Engine’s sales copy – I wish I had been told that ‘this product is going to be a royal pain to get everything set up perfectly – but it’s going to be well worth it.'”
*It’s not just me. Smart full-stack developers have similar complaints.
Their backend setup has gotten better. It’s cleaner, but it’s still custom. It’s nothing like a traditional cPanel hosting backend. Unlike many hosting companies, they also don’t provide DNS nameservers.
Even if all the features are there, the unique backend can lead to some developers making mistakes ranging from frustrating redirect loops to duplicate content issues to leaving the dev site open to the public or simply not enabling the features you’re paying for.
If it weren’t for amazing support – I think they’d lose more beginner customers than they already do.
Like many custom platforms, it makes sense once you get over the learning curve. But WP Engine’s onboarding is very developer focused & remains so exception-focused that they never explain best practice for the general user.
Here is their video on pushing your site live –
I’ve set up my share of websites from platforms to custom hosts to cPanel hosting sites, but I had to watch that video multiple times to make sure I was pointing the right A record / CNAME to the right IP address.
Again, if you are in WP Engine’s core markets, the custom backend isn’t going to be a huge deal (once you get past the learning curve). But for most, you’ll likely get to find out first hand about WP Engine’s support team.
But here’s the thing.
WP Engine never really stops being quirky / complex. In their knowledgebase, they have a plethora of website checklists to help troubleshoot all sorts of issues.
And – if you did not setup your DNS exactly how they’ve recommended – your site could go down at any time.
Again – they have reasons why they do all this. And in most cases, support will just take care of it all.
But – you still don’t get to set & forget your website. Sure, you don’t technically don’t have to get in the weeds of a server panel. In many hosting cases (ie, a managed VPS) – you don’t have to do it anyway, and when you do, the knobs and options are familiar.
WP Engine’s proprietary setup cuts both ways in terms of reducing & increasing complexity.
This con is also related to WP Engine’s unique setup. In order to run their architecture as well as possible, all the installs on their platform need to be somewhat uniform.
They need to have predictable plugins; predictable visitor patterns; predictable use cases. Every hosting company has rules (or very real physical limits), but WP Engine goes a bit further to define what you can and can’t have on your WordPress install in addition to tiered overage pricing to discourage seasonal traffic spikes and local storage usage.
They do ban certain plugins & admin behavior for good reasons, but those bans limit versatility and experimentation if your site could handle it.
For example, Yet Another Related Post Plugin is a common plugin. It’s resource intensive, but on smaller sites, it does the job well. It’s not allowed on WP Engine. That’s not good or bad necessarily. But it does make WP Engine less versatile and open to experimentation compared to running a shared or VPS server.
The way their pricing is structured allows for less versatility as well. It’s a positive that they will handle all the traffic you can send, but it’s also pricey to pay based on number of visits.
If you are running a big launch; are a seasonal business; or just want to drive a surge of traffic to your site – you’ll have to factor additional hosting bills into the mix. That puts a cap on how versatile you want to be with your marketing.
If you are running a lean cached site on a VPS server, you can handle a lot more traffic than WP Engine would allow on a Personal or Business. And this point goes further if your site requires many plugins for full functionality.
The same goes with storage. With WP Engine, you are paying for performance – not for storage. So if you are looking to use a server for media storage…that use case is out.
Additionally, you can’t really do automated email marketing campaigns from WP Engine. This was something that my client got called for & ended up having to do a painful migration to another email provider mid-campaign.
And of course – there’s no way to use WP Engine for receiving email or any non-WordPress software project
Either way – that point segues into the last con I found with WP Engine – their pricing based on features.
Pricing on Features & Usage
With WP Engine, you are generally paying for performance & not having to think too much about maintenance, security & speed. If you look at WP Engine’s pricing based on the features you’re getting – you really don’t get a whole lot.
And if you are the type who will think about your site’s health anyway (ie, keeping WordPress updated and generally logging in frequently), you’ll likely be paying for “management” that is superfluous.
Many shared hosting servers can handle the same traffic numbers as WP Engine – and cost a fraction of the price. My personal site (running on shared hosting plan from HostGator with basic caching) handled more than 15,000 visits in a 24 hour period when a post of mine went viral.
And if you are running a reliable VPS, you can certainly handle a lot more for much less.
They are fairly transparent about how they count visits, but it can still be quite a surprise for “small” website owners how quickly they can get into the $249 per month tier.
And as mentioned earlier that doesn’t even include many of the features you don’t get with WP Engine’s plans. You can’t run any email from your servers. You have a low limits on local storage. Anything above the limits requires additional costs & technical implementation of Amazon cloud services.
And most importantly for me – you are limited on your installs. If you have a few side projects or low-traffic test sites, you have to factor those into the price. You can’t use them to spread out the cost of your plan – especially if you are hitting your visitor cap rather than your install cap.
One of the main features that helps speed up your traffic globally – a CDN – is only included with the Professional Plan and above.
If you are looking to pay for hosting – ie, a server that will hold & serve up your website files – WP Engine is a pricey option, especially compared to other non-managed hosting options.
Like any service, it’s not about what is best overall, but what is best for you based on your goals, budget, resources & habits.
If you are in what I think of as WP Engine’s core markets – they offer a great service with a solid product. Their pricing is competitive in the Managed WordPress Hosting space – and they offer more features than “WordPress hosting” plans from other hosting brands. Their feature-set is unmatched for savvy DIYers, WordPress website developers and/or high-traffic sites that don’t want to worry about hosting issues.
If managed hosting is a fit for you – then go check out WP Engine’s plans here. They do a 60 day money-back guarantee. So do a test install and see what you think of their backend. Be sure to chat w/ support & sales.
If you’re outgrowing your current host & want more freedom / better prices than WP Engine – check out InMotion Hosting’s VPS option. I’ve appreciated their balance of intuitive backend & responsive customer service.
And lastly – if you are more confused than ever – go take my WordPress hosting quiz. I put all these factors into a fun, Buzzfeed-esque quiz to simplify things.