Supercharging My Blog – A New Theme & A New Host

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that it is now looking very different. Over the last few days I have completely redesigned the site.

before and after page

I think the new site looks cleaner, more modern and is much easier for new readers to get straight to the content. But none of those were the reason for the move. I had to redesign the site because the old site was just too slow.

I started this blog back in 2014. It was hosted on Bluehost. Cheap hosting optimised for WordPress, the free blogging software I use, and cost just $4 a month with a free domain name. Perfect for a brand new blog.

But since then my site has grown and people are actually starting to read it. But that has come at a cost. The site has got slower and slower. At one point it was taking about 9 seconds to load a page, which is crazy. I’m amazed and flattered that anyone was willing to wait around for that long just to read my stuff.

Here is the traffic since I started. It hasn’t been solid growth, but it is definitely going in the right direction.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the changes I have made in order to try and improve the speed. It’s all pretty high level so if you’re interested in starting your own site you might find my step-by-step guide on how to start a blog in under an hour more interesting.

Moving host

I tried a few free and easy things to help improve the speed of the site. I installed the WordPress plugins WP-Smush, which shrunk the size of all the images on the site, and WP Super Cache, which converts the site into much quicker to load HTML files. They helped, but loading time was still far too slow.

Eventually, I came to the realisation that Bluehost just wasn’t able to keep up with the amount of traffic the blog was starting to receive. So I went on the hunt for a new host.

My requirements were:

  • The hosting must be designed for WordPress. Hosting is complicated and I want to be sure that the servers are set up with fast WordPress hosting in mind.
  • It must take a minimum of hassle to move my site over to the new host. Simply because I’m pretty lazy.
  • The company must provide automatic daily backups of the site. The last thing I want to have my site hacked or make a mistake and lose everything.
  • They must have WordPress support. If something goes wrong with my site I want to immediately be able to jump on live chat and have an experienced WordPress developer fix it.
  • They can’t be too expensive. The site is earning some income, but not enough to justify spending £100s a month on super-deluxe hosting.

I did some research and finding a service that ticked all those boxes turned out to be much harder than I expected. Eventually, I was recommended WP-Engine by fellow blogger Ben Larcombe.

Signing Up To WP Engine

Their website was very encouraging. It looked professional and was clearly targeted at people just like me. Just the front page addressed most of my requirements: “WordPress hosting perfected”, “stunning speed”, “free automated site migration”, “best-in-class customer service”, “WordPress isn’t just our platform, it’s our passion”.

It costs $29 a month (or $290 for the year) for the basic plan which includes the first 25,000 visits per month, then charges you $1 per 1,000 that you go over. There are more expensive plans, but I worked out they’re only worth doing if I get at least 90,000 visitors a month. The next one up costs $99 a month.

NOTE: up until 30th August there is 20% off using my link reducing it to $232 for the first year.

I signed up and paid for the year upfront.

Since then I have been getting quite a lot over the 25,000 visitor threshold but it still works out cheaper than using the more expensive plan.

wp engine overcharge

One of the options on sign up was to pay an extra $20 a month for something called a CDN.

A bit of Googling told me that CDN stands for content delivery network. From Wikipedia:

A content delivery network or content distribution network (CDN) is a globally distributed network of proxy servers deployed in multiple data centers. The goal of a CDN is to serve content to end-users with high availability and high performance.

Now I am not 100% sure what that all means. But the gist is that it is designed to make your site load faster when a user accesses it. Well, as that is a large part of why I was moving host I signed up for it as well.

Migrating From Bluehost To WP Engine

Moving my site from Bluehost to WP Engine was almost as easy as they made out.

I installed the WP Engine Automated Migration WordPress plugin on my site, filled in a few details and clicked migrate.

It took about 45 minutes to move over, after which I ended up with two identical sites but on different hosts. One at arbingblog.wpengine.com, the other at www.arbing.co.uk.

wpengine site migration

Surprisingly the migration had gone perfectly. All my existing plugins, posts and comments were transferred fine. And nothing on the site looked weird. If you have any experience with trying to create websites you’ll appreciate how unusual that is.

The final and only manual step was to transfer the domain name. I logged into my old host and changed the DNS records for my domain name to the ones WP Engine told me to. It said the transfer could take a few hours, but it actually moved over instantly.

Backups And Staging

One of my requirements was an easy backup system. Well, WP Engine makes it pretty simple. Every morning there is an automated backup and at any time you can manually create another one. You can revert the site back to exactly how it was at any backup point in time. Each one is saved for a little over a month so if it turns out there was a mistake a couple of weeks ago, you can revert all the way back.

You can also do a manual backup with one click by hitting the ‘back up now’ button.

wp engine backup

On top of the backups, there is another pretty cool feature that comes as standard with WP Engine: staging. Staging lets you test and make changes to a sandboxed copy of your site. If the changes work you can deploy them, if not you can just delete the sandbox and start again.

I’ve only used it a couple of times, but when it comes to changing or upgrading my theme I think it will be very useful.

wp engine staging

I am very pleased with Wp Engine. It is quite a lot more expensive than Bluehost, but my site hasn’t gone down or frozen since I moved it over. Most importantly, it has also sped everything up, dropping from an average load time of 9 seconds to 3.1. A huge improvement.

Moving To A Leaner Theme

But 3.1 seconds is still quite a long time. The only thing left to optimise was the theme itself.

Ever since I first launched the site, I had been using the same premium theme called Cirrus. I really like the way it looks but I don’t think it was very well designed. Apart from the speed issues there also quite a lot of other things that went wrong with it.

I would have moved earlier, but it is a lot of work and I didn’t want my site to go down while I was upgrading. Luckily the staging service offered by Wp Engine came in pretty useful and I was able to do a load of work, make a bunch of mistakes and then just start again without affecting my main site at all.

I tried a few different themes, but all of them had issues. I just wanted a basic clean theme where the focus is on the text not on images. Eventually, I settled on OnePress. A free theme that has a few issues but ticks most of the boxes.

I think for my next upgrade I’ll probably hire a developer to create my own theme. But till then this will have to do.

page speed

Down to 1.26 seconds. Another massive improvement.

So, what do you think of the new redesign? I will be very interested to see how the faster loading times and cleaner site impact my traffic

  • James

    Good job on the new theme, it’s a definite improvement! I wondered when you were going to get around to it, although you are busy with all your projects! You made an interesting choice with the wordpress hosting, I’ve never gone for those hosting packages myself, nice find! By the way, for anyone else interested in the CDN stuff, it basically saves your content on multiple servers around the world and the user downloads it from their closest server, thus making the website load quicker for them 🙂 Good job on the website and I look forward to reading your next business venture!

  • Great new look. If the visitor bounce rate decreases and engagement increases then the public vote will be in favour.