WP Engine ruins mobile-first speed strategy.

Updated: May 2018
High-speed

WP Engine is frequently recommended on blogs as the “Best Premium Shared Hosting for Advanced Bloggers.” Of course, blog authors sharing *trade secrets* get an affiliate-link kickback or commission. They make money touting others hosting services. No source credibility.

Many error thinking WP Engine must be better or even the best. It costs a lot. It’s recommended so often. They must be good because they have a good reputation, right?

That “feel-good” hosting is $420 per year. Yet, it’s the exact same terrible-speed quality you’d get elsewhere on cheap, shared hosting. For $5 (or less) month-to-month rent – only $60 annually – you’ll get the same perfectly-lousy server delay. That’s $360 dollars decreased difference every single year. Over 5 years, it’s $1,800 profit in your pocket. With the exact same speed results.

An unexceptionable, shared host may get the same poor TTFB (time-to-first-byte) of 1.5 to 1.7 seconds. That’s 1500 to 1700 milliseconds off our target 2000-millisecond performance budget. That leaves only 300 to 500 milliseconds. Short time to load WordPress core, the theme, all plugins, and third-party scripts and APIs – and images. Is it possible? Only if you use speed strategy.

You can’t be sloppy or apathetic.

So what hosting provider do we recommend? None! Why? Because hosting services cycle from better to worse with the host’s business whims. Without a crystal ball, we can’t predict odd behavior. One day a host provides mediocre to excellent speed. Six months later – with a simple ownership change – crammed overburdened servers slowdown. Your server turns into a dragging slug. Their hosting business suffers losses caused by poor services. They finally invest in better capacity. Speed then improves. Until the word is out, they’re doing better. Then the cycle repeats.

In one test, for a New York client, BlueHost crammed more than 2,000 domains on a single server.

That BlueHost squeeze strategy isn’t typical. Still, test for the number of shared domains using your URL at YouGetSignal. Test server TTFB at ByteCheck or BitCatcha. Warning: All bitcatcha.com’s recommendations are affiliate links. They promote hosts giving back the most. It’s all about money.

Blogs recommending WP Engine don’t examine the speed performance ramification. Let us tell you why WP Engine is bad news:

WP Engine’s hosting services have bad TTFB (time to first byte or server overhead). It costs $35 per month (or more). Do they specify TTFB in their sales pitches or online materials? No. Of course not. No one would use them if they knew the truth. So most hosts avoid publishing this important speed information. Is WP Engine the only one burying TTFB specifications? No. Is it a criminal cover-up plot? We hope not. It’s most likely a convenient sin of omission.

Every host avoids the server overhead delay topic. Why? Because TTFB  wanders and is often unpredictable. Or they may make excuses and declare with authority, “3-second TTFBs are normal.” iMotion Hosting makes that absurd statement. They’ve got to be kidding! But we’ve measured iMotion unstable server delays producing double that slow time.

Hosts don’t want you holding their feet to the fire. They don’t want that responsibility. Making server-overhead promises causes disappointing buyer’s remorse.

TTFB ignorance is bliss. Until you discover during real load-time testing how much it affects speed. Go ahead. Complain to the errant host. They’ll usually recommend (upsell) more expensive servers. They may suggest trying speed first-aid like CDNs and caching services.

The real cost-effective solution is building a fast site instead. Hosts won’t recommend this speed solution. They make less money if you build a fast strategic site.

One of WP Engines claims to fame is they’re *managed* WordPress hosting. What’s managed hosting and why is it bad for mobile speed?

Managed WordPress hosting is an “attendant” service. The host takes care of (manages) all technical aspects of running WordPress. This includes security, speed, WordPress updates, daily backups, website uptime, and scalability. All that costs money. Normally, people use automated plugins for these features. The less WordPress knowledge you have, the easier the motivation to buy these fantastic services.

So what? What’s the big deal? Sounds like they’re being nice and helpful. If they live up to their fantastic speed claims, there’s no quibble. But they don’t.

What they do is lock you out, the “advanced-blog” owner, of Cpanel access and lock each file so it can’t be rewritten. Who cares about that? They do. They don’t want anyone mucking about on their server.

You don’t buy more features. You buy less flexibility – and then pay more. It’s brilliant.

But flexibility is how you increase speed! The irony. WP Engine won’t let us help you speed up your WP Engine site.

One big strategy for speed is selective plugin activation. That only happens when speed plugins (or even hand coding) alter the server .htaccess file. That can’t happen with “managed” locked files. Unlocking and altering .htaccess may mean going through an FTP client. Just very messy, inconvenient and a royal pain in the butt. The chances of breaking something are not reduced but increased with “managed” hosting.

.htaccess is a configuration file for use on web servers running Apache. The .htaccess file is detected and executed first. It give the server rules of special exceptions. Even WordPress manipulates how Apache serves files via .htaccess – especially handling pretty permalinks.

.htaccess is used for speed functions. Such as:

  • Far-futures expiration.
  • Enabling Gzip.
  • Hot-link image protection.
  • Enabling keepalive.
  • Removing query strings.
  • Leveraging browser caching.
  • … and other speed tasks.

Our other complaint seem trivial, but for speed fanatics like us, it’s not: We can’t rollback the PHP version from 7.1 to 5.6. Why would anyone want to do that? 7.1 is faster loading. Well, it’s temporary for plugin testing.

Some old plugins, need old PHP. They won’t work on more modern PHP. Some even break your site.

A favorite old plugins is P3 Plugin Performance Profiler. We’ve written about it’s benefits before. There is no adequate alternative – yet. How much do we love this plugin? Well, we wanted a plugin author to change it to our specification – and make it compatible with PHP 7.x. How much would that cost? $10,000 dollars!

No surprise. We decided to stick with a simple workaround by dialing back the version to PHP 5.6. It’s simple to do – if you have Cpanel access. But with WP Engine shared hosting? No way. They don’t allow that. This barrier means we can’t quantify the worst offending plugins for site drag. There is an exception, if WP Engine screwed up and never advanced your version to PHP 7.1 –  inconsistency. We’ve seen it.

So we ask, if you’re an *advanced blogger*, why the heck are you using WP Engine who assumes users are idiots? We’re insulted.

Godspeed—

Steve Teare
performance engineer

Mobile WordPress Speed – without coding!

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