In episode 42, I have the pleasure of chatting with David Vogelpohl, VP of Web Strategy at WPEngine. The topic is what a store owner should look for when choosing a hosting service for their eCommerce site. With all of the options out there, finding a host that meets your specific needs can be a challenge and finding one to take care of your online store is even more critical. Listen as David shares his tips on what you should consider and expect when choosing that right host.
We chatted about:
- The most important question to ask your host when you consider using them for your eCommerce site
- How to make sure that you are prepared with the right host as your online store grows
- David’s short list of other essentials an online store owner should look for in a host
- How David would respond to someone who wants to move 10K products over to WPEngine
- A new eCommerce related feature that WPEngine just launched
Thanks To Our Podcast Sponsor: WPEngine
Bob Dunn: Welcome to the WP eCommerce Show, a podcast about everything eCommerce and WordPress. Hey everyone, welcome to episode 42. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Today I have the pleasure of chatting with David Vogelpohl, VP of Web Strategy at WP Engine. Now what makes this a very special episode is that WP Engine is sponsoring our show today and they are also sending me to WordCamp US in Philadelphia, which starts this coming Friday. Not only do I want to welcome you to the show, David, but also thank you and the whole team so much for making it possible for me to attend the best WordCamp of the year.
David Vogelpohl: Yeah, thank you, Bob, for having me on the show and for everything you do in the community. We really appreciate the opportunity to support you and send you to WordCamp and all that kind of stuff. We’re really glad to be here.
Bob Dunn: Very cool. Now, I’m going to have David tell us a bit more about WPEngine, which I have to confess, is my host that I use here at BobWP and have for years. If you’re going to be at WordCamp US, I have a tendency to hang around the WP Engine booth, whether they really want me there or not. If you’re there, I think that maybe you should pop by and find David and I, especially if I’m there and we can all do a selfie. How’s that sound David?
David Vogelpohl: That would be really cool. We actually have some plans for our booth for some fun stuff with the selfies. That would definitely be appropriate. We’ll have a lot of folks around, including some technical folks. If you ever wanted to beat someone at the WP Engine, ask that question you wanted to, or give us that wishlist feature, that would be a great time to do it. We’d love to have you stop by, grab some of our swag or whatnot. That’d be a lot of fun.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. Actually, a little side note here that I didn’t even plan for, made me think of. At WooConf I was having an issue with my site and it went down. It actually went down. I got online, it was really weird, because I got online, got on chat with WP Engine. “Oh, I’m having this problem.” They’re like, “Oh, aren’t you at WooConf, Bob?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Oh, go down to the booth.” Somebody actually sat down with my computer and we resolved it. It was like, “Whoa, this is a perfect world.”
David Vogelpohl: It’s like an extra happiness bar.
Bob Dunn: Wow. Like he said, if you are there, you can also stop by the booth to actually ask them anything about WP Engine, anything about your eCommerce site. As you can guess, we are talking about WordPress hosting and eCommerce sites today, because we all know the challenges of finding that right host and we also know the importance of our final decision. When it comes to our online store or in fact, any eCommerce site, our host plays a critical role in the success of our business. This is where we want to get some insights and tips from our guest today. With that said, tell us a bit about yourself and WP Engine, David.
A little bit about David
David Vogelpohl: Yeah, sure. I’ve been on the web in one flavor or another since about 1996, so about 20 years now. I’ve been at it awhile. I ran a digital agency for about five years. Most of what we did was build WordPress sites. We were not WordPress exclusive. We were officially platform-agnostic, but obviously and a lot of folks that listen probably know this, most, a lot of the times, the answer to the customer’s question is WordPress. I built WordPress sites. I’ve been involved with building them. By the way, I’m not a developer, to be clear. I’ve been involved with building WordPress eCommerce sites and sites on things like BigCommerce and Volusion and so on and so forth. I had a lot of experience getting in the weeds of what should we pick and why and what advantages does this have or that have.
Even though I might be a bit of a shill for WP Engine, I do take a pragmatic view on the decisions the developers and freelancers make and then how it impacts the business goals of either their business or their customer’s business. As you’re going to give the WP Engine side of that for those that don’t happen to know who we are, the WP Engine is a managed WordPress host. We were one of the first companies in that space. We’ve been around since 2010, so also about six years here. Our specialty is speed, reliability and security. A lot of the folks here will talk about our customers with the graduating class. You might be trying out your website on kind of an intro host and we’re grabbing folks who are really focused on speed and reliability and security.
Bob Dunn: Like I said, I can attest to WP Engine. I love interviewing a lot of different people, but it’s always cool when I get to actually interview somebody I’ve used for so long. I’ve more than spouted my praise for you. I guess I shouldn’t keep on about that, huh?
David Vogelpohl: Thank you for that. There’s a lot of solutions out there for people’s sites. We fill our niche. We have a good time servicing our customers and really appreciate your and others’ business [inaudible 00:05:36], but recognize it’s a great wide world. There’s a lot of options for folks. Sometimes we’re the best, sometimes we’re not. We really appreciate your business.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. Hosting is such a challenge, as far as making that decision, which leads us into our questions. When somebody is considering looking for a host for a eCommerce site, there are probably several factors which maybe we’ll be going into later in the show. What do you feel is the most important question to ask your prospective host when you are wanting to start your eCommerce site there and why is it so important to ask that question?
What’s the first hosting question eCommerce store owners should ask themselves?
David Vogelpohl: I guess through the lens of someone who wants to start a site, not someone starting with an existing site on an existing platform for CSS like WordPress. I think the first question I have is how flexible do you want your site to be? If you are a barbecue shop and you’re spinning up a place to sell some tee shirts, and you’re really not super concerned about flexibility or allowing your site to evolve with the web, then a lot of the self hosted eCommerce platforms are great choices for that. BigCommerce is real easy, you just set it up and it’s done. I think where WordPress starts to have an advantage for folks is in its flexibility. Service providers that provide a platform for eCommerce, their ability to evolve with the web is limited by the fact that they have a single development team, right? It might be a lot of people, but it’s still one group.
For example, the one example I can throw out a lot is AMP, active mobile pages. I know that not necessarily an eCommerce issue today, although starting to become more of one. My point to that is, when you have, when the web is evolved, when something is now important for SEO that wasn’t important back the—or social or anything like that— if you’re on a platform, then you’re kind of waiting on the backlog of that platform’s development crew to go back and add that feature into the software. With WordPress, of course, we have tens of thousands of developers around the world creating plugins, distributing décor. There’s a much broader audience of folks who can develop software to help your eCommerce site evolve with the web.
One of my biggest questions in the beginning is, is this the kind of thing that you’re looking to lean into, that you want to evolve and make better over time? Or are you just trying to collect credit cards, because if you’re just trying to collect credit cards, a platform might be better, but if you want the site to evolve and go on, then something like WordPress might be better. The first question is, do you want something static or something that evolves. That helps me kind of decide which way I might recommend.
How can startup eCommerce stores prepare for growth?
Bob Dunn: That takes us into the second question which really is part of that as well. How can they prepare for the growth when they’re first starting an online store? For example, how can they prepare themselves to make sure that their hosts can grow with their site.
David Vogelpohl: Yeah. There’s a term and it’s used a bunch of different times and different ways over the period of the history of the internet. If you have your Oprah moment, I think that’s the thing that probably catches most people off guard, in other words your product is mentioned on Oprah. There used to be something called the Slashdot effect and all these other kind of effects which basically meant you were going to get a huge rush of traffic.
What happens when your product becomes wildly popular and your store is overrun with people? Slow, normal growth is much easier to plan for. You can see your growth rates. You can do load testing on your server to make sure it’s not going to exceed your growth rate. That’s no big deal. It’s that Oprah moment that catches people off guard and can be extremely detrimental, right? You don’t want to be mentioned on Oprah and then not have all these hundreds or thousands or millions of people be able to even buy your product. That’s going to not only cost you money, but also cost you future brand value because you’re not getting those customers.
One of the big things I do is recommend is to do load testing to see how your environment will perform under heavy load. If you go to litturl.co, litturl.co/loadtesting there’ll be some examples of some load balance, I’m sorry, load testing you can use to determine if the environment you’re putting your site on can handle certain levels of load. Preparing for that Oprah moment, preparing for that virality of your product or products and being able to handle a flood of traffic, I think that’s one thing that a lot of people don’t look at. They’re like, how much traffic do I have today? How much do I think I’ll have at the end of the year? Does my hosting environment work with that? Most people do a pretty good job of planning for that. It’s those Oprah moments that they’re not quite so in tune with.
A short list of essentials for finding the right host
Bob Dunn: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I know that so far everything you’ve said since I’ve been using WooCommerce for quite awhile, it falls into place always being prepared and for that flexibility. What are some of the other, let’s call it a short list, of what you think are the essentials an eCommerce site owner should look for in a host besides that first question?
Security: it’s more than just privacy
David Vogelpohl: Security, obviously, is way high on the top of that list. You’re using your site to transact. Security has more implications than just privacy. There also can be issues with SEO and so on and so forth. The security’s a big deal. For example, WP Engine does known PHP vulnerability scanning on our sites. We’re scanning the sites and looking for known vulnerabilities in the PHP. That’s one way we help keep your site safe.
Then the dance of the aggressive authentication methods and so on and so forth. Having a very solid security plan and security features are very, very important when picking a host: a big, big deal.
How is the ability to scale?
The second would be their ability to scale, right? If you’re putting yourself in an environment where your Oprah moment could be problematic, that’s certainly something to think about. Again, as something that’s sort of hard to recapture. When you’re looking at your host, make sure you have the scalability, flexibility options.
Does the host have reliable, readily accessible support?
This isn’t necessarily specific to just eCommerce sites, but support is a huge deal, right? If you have an eCommerce site, chances are you’re accepting transactions around the clock. It might not be like a lead generation site that only does transactions or leads during the day. Having 24/7 access to support, having knowledgeable support reps, can help you resolve issues faster, which can get those online sales cranking again, if you were to have some problems.
How is site speed?
Then site speed. Again, it’s a bit of a generic thing to say. It’s true for every site. Site speed has a direct impact on SEO, especially mobile SEO. It also can have a huge impact on your bounce rate. An eCommerce site is so sensitive to bounce rate, so sensitive to those conversion rates. A publishing site, a site that monetizes through ads, bounce rates are important, all this stuff’s important, but they still might trigger the ad to show. You still might make some money if they see the page. If they don’t keep surfing because of a bad experience, that will also cost you money because you’re not triggering page views. If they’ve searched for some product and they land on your product page and they’re bouncing, they’re not buying. It’s especially, especially important to make sure you’re choosing a host or a plan that helps you deliver fast speeds to your customer.
Does your host offer special features?
Finally, if your host has it and this is fairly rare, but does your host offer special features that might help you with your eCommerce store? For example, WP Engine has a package, a specific hosting package for eCommerce sites. We bundle in a lot of things that are specifically designed around making WooCommerce sites faster and more efficient and able to deliver traffic and transactions at high traffic loads. Look for that in your host as well. What are they doing special for eCommerce?
Do they support SSL?
I guess, finally, how do they support SSL, right? A lot of hosts will use something called Let’s Encrypt. WP Engine uses that as well. For example, our SSL certificates are free for everybody. Usually SSL certificates are not a great barrier, but it is nice to get a free SSL certificate. Yeah, security, scalability, support, speed, and then any eCommerce specific features that the host might have that might help you out.
What to think about when migrating a site
Bob Dunn: Now I’m going to take you to a scenario. Let’s just, since we were talking about WordCamp a little bit earlier, let’s say I’m at WordCamp and I walk up to the WP Engine booth and I see David there. I say, “David, I have my site, my eCommerce store over on a host. I’m not going to name the host, but I’m just not very happy with it. I have over 10 thousand products. I have a very active customer base. It’s built on WordPress. I want to move it to WP Engine.” What do you say to me right there and then?
David Vogelpohl: The move usually isn’t that difficult with us. We have a migration plugin that folks can use. It works around 98% of the time. Now, the 2% edge case, so basically, you install the plugin. You put in your FTP info and it automatically migrates everything into your WP Engine account. 98% of the time, no problem, approximately. The 2% fringe cases, a lot of times, what will be in there, obviously goofy sites with a bunch of spaghetti stuff all strung in there. The size of the site could also be in those edge cases. If you had 10 thousand products with a bunch of giant images and a bunch of text and ancillary content that takes up a lot of space, you might be in the fringe.
Luckily, our support group, 24/7 chat, they’ll help you through those issues when it does fail. Moving over to us is generally not a problem. 98% of the time, roughly, the plugin will move it in. The other 2% get on the chat with the support person. They’ll walk you through whatever the issue is. Then they’ll usually resolve it like lickity split.
I think what becomes more of a concern for webmaster/freelancers, not the moving part. It’s the strategy behind the move, meaning, “Okay, fine, if I move everything over there, there’s going to be a little lag time between my DNS getting recognized, me making the switch, and, when I do the move, validate everything, when do I get the other transactions? Because it will be these periods of time when once you’ve moved it people are still transacting and engaging on the old site. Just moving is not enough. You also have to account for, well what changed after I moved it when I’m ready to finally switch my DNS, making sure that any CDN Origin IPs have changed, all the normal migration checklist kind of stuff, but moving over is not hard. Having a good migration plan, and then how you get the subsequent data that occurred after you, quote, “physically moved it”, that’s super important.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. That’s an excellent point. I think, if I would have come up and I didn’t know you, I’d think, okay. I’d probably say, “Okay, where do I sign up now.” That was a good answer.
David Vogelpohl: Oh, good, good.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
David Vogelpohl: Sweet. We’ll sign you up, Bob.
Breaking news from David
Bob Dunn: Yeah. I don’t quite have 10,000 products. I fudged a little bit. Last question, and this is one I’m pretty excited about because, of course, I’m following you on Twitter, or WP Engine, I should say. I get, I’m on your list. I’m always getting announcements. Something came through the other day. It was something around WooCommerce that you just launched or are launching. I think it’s very cool. Tell us more about that. I’m going to let you break the news here, even though some people may already know about it.
David Vogelpohl: I know, great. Sweet for those that don’t. I get to be the news breaker. That’s awesome. Yeah, we have, I mentioned previously, we have a special hosting offering which is specifically optimized for eCommerce and WooCommerce. There’s a bunch of stuff in there I’ve mentioned before about the scalability and some special configurations to deal with transactions so that way you can handle your Oprah moment. What we added to that product recently, which I thought was really exciting was One Tap Payments. Mobile is becoming more and more important for web developers. Google even recently has started to experiment and implement changing their index to be based off of the mobile view of your site, not the desktop view. More and more and more and more it’s important.
Of course, we all know that making a transaction on your phone is still kind of a pain in the rear. It’s not super easy. You’re fumbling with your little keyboard. It’s not the most convenient thing. What we did was the way that our eCommerce offering works, is there’s some special server configurations, but there’s also a special WooCommerce extension. Part of the scalability comes from that and the way that we process transactions and things. In addition to that, we added this ability for one-tap payments. The way that it works, is you have to be using Stripe as the payment method processor right now. If you’re using Stripe and WooCommerce, you can integrate in One Tap Payments. They literally just tap on one button and the order is processed and shipped out to the customer. Super, super exciting to give that functionality to WooCommerce stores, especially those, of course, that are focused on converting visitors on mobile. For those that aren’t, it might actually be a self fulfilling prophecy, meaning that they haven’t converted a lot on mobile to date, so this type of feature could help them capture part of their audience they’re not even getting today.
That’s why it was so exciting to me. Certainly the convenience and the coolness factor, but just being able to give people the tool to go in and make money off the traffic they already have. They’re going to have to go out and buy more ads or do more SEO or do more social. This is money that’s basically getting flushed down the drain every day. To be able to provide a more fluid experience for those visitors will help you capture money you already have, you’re just losing because of the bad experience.
Bob Dunn: Question here. If you have Stripe as one of your payment gateways, and let’s say you have PayPal, then will this kind of hide PayPal when it goes mobile and just use Stripe? I mean, or do you have to just solely be using Stripe?
David Vogelpohl: I believe it does allow the support of multiple payment options. I am not a UX expert on this, Bob. I think you’ve stumped me here. That is a really excellent question. My understanding is that it is not, you don’t have to exclusively use Stripe, but for the One Tap Payments to work, it must go through Stripe.
Bob Dunn: Okay, cool. Okay, that sounds good. Myself, I don’t have tons of products or services. I sell a few things through Woo on my site. I’ll be excited just to try it for that reason.
David Vogelpohl: Yeah. I mean, certainly a step in the right direction. The earlier part of this interview, I was talking about the flexibility of WordPress. This is what I mean, right? There’s people like us building tools. There’s plugin providers building tools. There’s people, Woo themselves build things. There’s just so much more flexibility. Then of course, you can also build it yourself, right? You can add whatever you want on top of it. If you had your own payment processor with your own One Touch Payment option, short of having a developer to do it, there’s nothing to stop you from integrating it in with your store. Then, we do stuff. Plugin providers do stuff. Maybe other hosts are also doing stuff. There’s lots and lots of options there. We wanted to make it super easy for folks in WooCommerce stores to take advantage of One Tap Payment.
David’s biggest frustration shopping online
Bob Dunn: That really segues into my next block of questions because I know how much people get frustrated by buying stuff on mobile and often the experience. What I always do with all my guests is I ask you three questions. I tell you to take off the VP hat and put on the David-shopping-on-the-web-late-at-night hat. Tell me what frustrates you the most when you are online shopping personally?
David Vogelpohl: Like a lot of folks, a lot of my online shopping is focused on Amazon. I guess my first observation, this doesn’t have to be Amazon-specific, is really around personalization. Shopping experiences, even like Amazon, with all their money and resources and whatever, and traffic. The shopping experience is somewhat personalized. You see related products. It’s really good about understanding related product elements and extensions to Woo and plugins and all that stuff. They’re pretty good about understanding my past. I bought this, therefore I might like this. Okay. Pretty solid logic there. I think where personalization when it comes to eCommerce falls down, is this notion of context. The best example I can give is your Amazon homepage. My Amazon homepage is, I’m looking at it even right now, “Recommendations, clothing for young boys.” Yeah, I bought some shirts and pants and whatnot for my kids not long ago. That’s why this is showing up there. My frustration is, it feels like Amazon should understand that I’m visiting this in a browser. I am the account owner. I might be buying things for other people. That might not be the best recommendation for me. I don’t need more recommendations for Puma shirts for eight-year-old boys. I want recommendations for Xbox headsets or drones or things that I might find interesting.
I think that’s an opportunity and a frustration. The opportunity, meaning how can we get smarter about how we show related products and be a little less dumb around just regurgitating things that might be similar to what they bought before.
What would David never buy online?
Bob Dunn: That’s interesting. I’m not sure how much you shop online. It sounds like you do some online shopping. You might actually do quite a bit. Is there anything that’s available online that you would never buy online?
David Vogelpohl: It’s funny you mention that, Bob. I had a 2016 resolution to never go into a grocery store or department store for all of 2016.
Bob Dunn: Wow.
David Vogelpohl: I’ve been pretty good with the grocery store one. I’ve gone a couple of times with other people who were buying things for a random dinner or something. For the most part, I’ve used Instacart all year long. I’ve never actually gone in a grocery shopping trip in 2016 beyond just like two trips to go get something for dinner. Wine or something like that.
I also, of course, use Amazon primarily to replace trips to department stores and whatnot. The department store part was a bit of a failure. Buying clothing online, buying rugs, really buying anything where the dimensions of what you’re buying matter. I found that, from my experience in 2016, to be a failure. Most of the things I bought online which required me to understand the size of things and its importance relative to how I wear it or how it would sit in my home, I’d say I was successful maybe 25-30% of the time and the rest of the time I had to do a return.
For me, if the physical dimensions are important, then I often find that challenging to be successful at buying online. Sometimes you can make compromises, like socks are a good example. You don’t really need to worry too much about how socks fit. You might worry a little bit about how they feel, but a shirt, I remember I bought, around the time I made the resolution, I bought four or five shirts off of Amazon. I returned four of the five.
Bob Dunn: Oh man.
David Vogelpohl: Yeah. A little bit of a hybrid there on my New Year’s resolution. The grocery thing’s been working out really well. I have increased the volume of the things that I buy online this year. The shirts would not fall in that bucket. I bought a … I keep talking about Xbox headsets. I’m looking at here on Amazon. I actually did buy an Xbox headset recently. That’s the kind of thing you might want to try on and check out. That was okay. Then other things I got burned on was like, oh, I remember one thing. This is a grocery example. This has happened to me with physical, you know, with like sundries for the house or whatever. I bought this really delicious looking caramel ice cream on Instacart. It showed up and it must have been like a shot of ice cream. I don’t even know why they sell these things. I guess it’s for people who really like ice cream.
It was like, not as advertised. That stuff gets a little goofy. I guess, if that’s something I complain about or something that bugs me, I guess to flip that into an opportunity for eCommerce stores, give people some insights into the dimensions. Listing the dimensions is fine, but maybe give them something to relate it to. This is how it would look on a table. This is how it would look there. People can be deceitful about that, too, but if you want those repeat customers, give them what they need to know. Let them know it’s … Show a picture of it next to a TV if it’s something that goes with a TV or something like that.
If resources weren’t an issue, what would David like to sell online?
Bob Dunn: Right, yeah, a perspective. I’ve gotten some things. I can’t think of it. It seems like there was something recently. It was like, when I got it, I thought, “Man, this seems so small.” I thought it was going to be quite a bit bigger than this. I can’t even remember what it was, but yeah, something to compare it to. That makes a lot of sense.
Now, on the last question. Is there anything that you would personally like to sell online if resources weren’t an issue? Time, anything? Something that you just think would be fun and cool to sell online.
David Vogelpohl: Like snap my fingers and have some wildly successful business selling something online? That’s really interesting. Yeah, I guess I’d probably have to go with a hobby. I’d want to maybe want to sell some video games or something. I think that would be fun. Something that aligns with something I would find personally interesting. That’s the dream. To make money from what you love. Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of a boring answer. Maybe a personal helicopter or something would be better. Yeah, for me, it’d be kind of fun to sell some Xbox games or something like that. I really love that kind of boring business in a sense where it’s a very clear product. I’m not like doing some Kickstarter thing to invent some device. That would be interesting to me just because I find it personally interesting.
In my agency, we had lots of customers that did all kinds of stuff from selling boring things like pens and pencils or whatever to selling mind reading meditation devices. There are pros and cons on both sides. The boring stuff is easy to sell. People want to buy it because they already know what it is. The more mind reading type stuff, that’s a little catchy. It’s maybe a little more fun in some sense but it’s also more challenging. Get people to pull out their wallet for something they don’t necessarily need, they’re unsure about, might have a high price tag. I think it just depends on what you’re going after. I’d have to say, I guess, after saying all that, Bob, I would probably not want to settle on one thing. I like, personally, the variety. Having those variable challenges is definitely interesting to me, which is why WPEngine is a great place for me, because we do sell one thing that support customers in selling lots of different things. There’s always a little challenge waiting around the corner.
Bob Dunn: You would have kind of the David Mini-Amazon, with several different things you would just have fun selling. It wouldn’t have to be one specific thing, just whatever you felt like selling that day.
David Vogelpohl: Yeah, maybe so. Or, like I said, my hobby’s gaming. Gaming headsets and being able to try it out and write reviews. That would be really awesome. Maybe something with my kids, too. I’ve got an eight and four-year-old, two boys. My son, the eight-year-old, wants to be a YouTuber when he grows up. We talk about, he asked me like, “How do I get a subscriber page? And da-da-da-da-da.” It’s kind of cute to see him discovering all that. Yeah, if I could do something with him as a side project, make a little money on it, whatever. I would find that really enjoyable to work with him on something like that. I’m not dying to make a video game website for myself. If I could do something with my son and have some fun at it, that would be a good time.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. That would be cool. Well, David, I think that is all the questions I have for you today. I really want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to appear on today’s show.
David Vogelpohl: Yeah, well thanks for having me, Bob. Just a reminder for anyone listening. If you guys are at WordCamp US in Philly in a couple weeks, stop by and say hi. I’ll be around. The team will be around. Really appreciate what you do for the community through this show, and your publishing. You’re really doing a good service to folks trying to expand their WordPress knowledge.
Bob Dunn: Thanks, David. Really appreciate those kind words. As a long time customer of WPEngine, I would highly recommend you checking them out at WPEngine.com and make sure you find them at WordCamp US this coming Friday or Saturday. Until the next time.