The Science of People Stack
We get emailed all the time from various corners of the internet with people asking us for advice about this or that email service, where we host our site, and all kinds of minutia in between.
Being the efficiency lovers we are – we decided to write this blogging resource guide that sheds some light on all the various tools we use to run Science of People. From the theme we use on the site to how we make it run nice and fast to the email service we use, we’re sharing the whole list with you!
Jump to a section you’re interested in below, or scroll to read the whole list!
You’re not going to get very far with your blog or website if it’s not available on the web. So finding a good host is a critical part, probably even the first part, of getting up and running. Be prepared to change hosts several times over the course of your business’ life – there isn’t a one size fits all solution in this space.
Cloudways – Where we’re hosted today, and frankly I think the next generation of WordPress hosting. You’ve probably heard of Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud. You get insanely cheap computing power that is always available and extremely fast. But you also have to seriously know what you’re doing when it comes to computer networking and servers. I do not. I kind of know what I’m doing. Which is why Cloudways is perfect.
At Cloudways you’re responsible for a lot more of the operation of your site, and you get the latest cloud technology and speed, but you also get a great support team that can help out when you accidentally peg your server to 100% utilization for an not so clear reason.
Since migrating to Cloudways, as well as making several other optimization moves, our site routinely loads in under one second, rankings and sales have climbed due to that responsiveness, oh, and we cut our hosting bill by 90%. Yup. 90%. It really shows how much you’re paying other WordPress specific hosts for the “support” they provide.
WP Engine – Science of People was hosted for years at WP Engine, and so are many other top flight sites running WordPress. They are specifically built to host and manage WordPress installs for you. If you’re looking for a gold standard manage hosting service, look no further. Again you get what you pay for…and you’re getting quite a bit here. By the time we left WP Engine for Cloudways we were on their highest non-custom plan.
Why did we leave? There’s a bizarre pricing structure at WP Engine that is directly tied to the number of visitors they say you got in a month. This does not exclude bot traffic. Then when it’s time to graduate to a customer hosting plan they scale the monthly cost in linear relationship to the number of visitors you get per month. This is, put simply, just silly. It’s the main reason we left them. So take a look at their pricing. If you fit comfortably into one of their existing tiers you should be all set and I wouldn’t hesitate to move forward.
Bluehost – Probably the most popular WordPress host out there for those just starting out (source?). You get what you pay for folks. This is a cheap way to get started and host a WordPress site that serves very little traffic. There isn’t a hard and fast way to know what a little traffic is, but I’d say if you get less than 50,000 visitors a month to your site, you can go pretty far with Bluehost and some standard WordPress caching techniques.
Google Cloud Storage – Do you store PDFs for lead magnets? Large photos? Audio or video files readers can download? Don’t host it on your standard site – that server is designed to serve webpages. Google Cloud Storage is purpose built to deliver files lightning fast at very low cost – and it delivers as you would expect from Google. If you’re going to host standalone files and need it always available and globally distributed just use this service. Almost any site will probably qualify for the free tier and not have to pay anything for your file hosting. It might be a fairly small use case but is definitely the best at filling it.
Thinkific – We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how we host and deliver Science of People courses. We’ve used Thinkific for years and they’ve continuously improved the product and listened to our feedback. Their tagline should be it just works. I don’t know of any downtime we’ve experienced there, the interface is dead simple to use, and most important students understand it…for the most part.
Most plans don’t take a cut of revenue, which is also just silly for a course hosting tool IMO, and they have significant integrations that make it work seemlessly with your site, your email provider, advertising platforms, or just about anything else. To be fair we haven’t tested many other course platforms, but we haven’t had a need to, either.
I’ve tried a lot of WordPress themes. From trolling through Themeforest for hours to find *just* the right theme to hiring a developer to custom build a theme. I’ve gone from one side of the spectrum to the other. The end result was unexpected.
Divi – We currently use Divi to power the look and feel of Science of People. Now before you say “ewww OMG” that’s a page builder theme know that I’ve actually had it independently tested by a WordPress optimization expert. He was surprisingly pleased with how well it performed once properly optimized. The flexibility we gain by being able to with a point and click interface change portions of our site or even elements across the entire site are far and away worth any performance penalty we pay for being able to do so.
There definitely is a learning curve with Divi, as there is when anyone learns to become a designer or developer. But my learning curve has been so dramatically sped up by the quality resources the Elegant Themes team delivers. They publish videos, support documentation, and an adequate support forum to answer truly custom queries I might have.
Add to that the future compatible infrastructure on which it’s built (React, which is where WordPress is going too), as well as the rapid development the team keeps putting into the theme, and you have a winning combination. There is a theme update ready to deploy nearly *every week*. That’s pretty unheard of for a WordPress theme with this many users and this old. Additionally the design updates and resources coming out on a regular basis are making it so easy to produce a professional looking site, that alone would be a reason to switch.
Now there is work to do to make it truly performant and ready to work on a site with a measurable amount of traffic. With our particular caching setup none of the animations work, so you have to disable those. There are some performance options Divi has itself which duplicate, but aren’t as good, as the purpose built options, so you need to turn those off. But it’s no more than 30 minutes work at setup time to get a configuration that’s ready for primetime.
WordPress is great out of the box, but you’ll use it for approxamitely 24 seconds before you discover your need for plugins. There literally thousands of plugins out there for every conceivable purpose, and about 95% are complete garbage you should never let touch your site. The biggest problem? Most plugins are written without any consideration given to how they’ll impact the speed of your site. Speed is everything, and the quickest way to bring your server melting down is by using poorly written, bloated plugins. This list has been vetted to keep those guys out!
WP Rocket – Simply put, we ran a comparative split test between the three most popular WordPress caching plugins and WP Rocket, and WP Rocket won in every category. I keep going back to “you get what you pay for” – and the other options are free. WP Rocket has the most flexibility when it comes to various hosting setups, CDN providers, minification tweaks, cache preloading schedules – the whole thing.
It’s also hard to make a caching plugin sexy – but the interface of WP Rocket is leaps and bounds better than any other option. Compared to the gain you’ll see by using the plugin the cost is minimal. Just do it. Don’t look back.
Yoast – Is it safe to call this the standard in WordPress SEO plugins at this point? It does a great job, and an even better job of offering recommendations for those that don’t know the ever-changing rules of SEO like the back of their hands. Efficient, frequently updated, free (even for us). What more do you want?
Schema – If you aren’t using rich markup on your site, you need to be. With more and more non-standard Google search use cases, this is the way to ensure you get your material discovered in the years to come. This plugin works well with Yoast. Is free. Has a large install base, and just does it’s job.
WP Smush – One of the first problems I tackled on our site was the huge images we hosted at full resolution and the impact that had on our page load time and bandwidth usage. I tried a number of different solutions but found WP Smush (they also have a pro version for batch smushing) to be the best solution with minimum hassle. On each image upload this plugin compresses it and dramatically reduces the size of a full resolution image. There’s all kinds of options you can configure but I find the out of the box options to be sufficient as well. No joke this took some of our 6MB images and reduced them to <200kb file sizes without any noticeable image quality loss.
Redirection – How does anyone run a site without this plugin? I constantly am tweaking our posts and pages with better slugs, or retiring old posts and redirecting them. This is a very simple, long standing plugin in the WordPress community that gets the job done. Advanced Tip: Learn some basic regex to unlock some really powerful options.
Query Monitor – What is the first thing any support person asks about your site? What plugins are you running? I always answer that if I knew which plugin was slowing my site down I wouldn’t be contacting them! Well this is how you can start to unravel this question. Query Monitor tells you, for each and every page load, what queries are run, how long they take, errors or warnings that occur and which plugins or process might be the offending actor. You don’t need to run it all the time, but when something is slowing your site down it’s a very helpful root cause finder.
Related Posts for WordPress Premium – You want people to read more than one article on your site. But most of these plugins are horribly written and slow down the performance of your site this time. This is the only one I found that builds a cache of related articles once, then relies on that to display related articles publicly. This means you have to rerun that process when you want to update articles, but it’s completely worth it instead of having a plugin generate it on the fly with every page load.
WP Retina 2x – This plugin supposedly means we serve Retina quality images to those devices that display it. Honestly I have no idea if it works or not. But I’ve been running it for a while 🙂
GTM Plugin – This is a deceptively simple but powerful plugin that exposes lots of internal WordPress meta information, like Category, Title, Author, and Tags to the Data Layer. This let’s record analytics events on it or trigger various actions via Google Tag Manager.
So far we’ve discussed only things that keep our site up and running. But it takes so much more to run Science of People. These are tools we use to operate out business, market our products and everything in between.
Cloudflare – Our CDN, and so much more. Cloudflare is as close to a “it just works” CDN as I’ve come across. Absolutely minimal configuration required if you want to, with powerful advanced configuration (which you should do) for those that need it. We see upwards of 90% of our requests and bandwidth reduced by using Cloudflare, all for the $20/mo Pro plan. It also has the added benefit of protecting us from bot attacks or DDOS attacks. Have we ever had one? I have no idea! Hopefully that’s because of Cloudflare 🙂
They do claim to have an “always on” feature that shows a cached version of your site in case it goes down (from that time you live edited a plugin file and it tanked the whole site) but I’ve never seen it work. So discount that heavily. Still the value for money here is incredible.
WP Rocket – see above
Redis Object Cache – A feature of Cloudways and many other hosts. Redis is another caching layer that blah blah memory blah faster. To be honest I’m not entirely sure how it works, but with it turned on our site performed faster, better stronger.
Manage WP – Tool built for agencies to admin and backup many different sites they manage. But I’ve found it perfect for our one site and immensely affordable. It backs up your full site every day (or more frequently if you want) automatically, will do a backup before every plugin or theme upgrade, with perform site uptime and reliability reports. I’m a plugin update junky which cause way to many crashes on our live production site. Since switching to their safe update feature this hasn’t happened once.
Wordfence – If you think “my site is too small for someone to try to hack” think again. After installing this plugin their threat report lit up like a Christmas tree. Now we get reports on old or vulnerable plugins, suspicious logins or failed logins, weird files that shouldn’t be there. And while you can’t truly be 100% protected, we’re now much safer than we were before.
Canva – Canva is the “just enough” editing tool. I’ve used Photoshop and that class of tool before and found it to be wildly overpowered…and overpriced for our needs. Canva is web based, accessible by our whole team, and lets you enforce things like style guides on every piece of creative you make. That combined with the rich library of existing templates makes it exceedingly simple to produce professional looking graphical assets all day every day. And for the most part you can use it for free!
Divi – see above
Team Productivity and Collaboration
G Suite – Boring, but the best IMO. It’s everything you need and many things you don’t to run a distributed, collaborative team. And the updates made even in the last year only increase the value. For $5/user/mo I think you get a great deal.
Slack – We use this as our chat. Google recently rolled out a competitor which we’re evaluating but I think it’ll be hard to beat the ease of use and widespread adoption of Slack.
Zoom – We use Zoom for our team conference calls, company office hours with students and webinars. It’s not the most beautiful tool in the world, but in my opinion it does provide the best, most consistent video quality of the tools out there. Please, change my mind, as I think it’s relatively expensive compared to other solutions.
Zapier – In my opinion perhaps the most undervalued and underutilized tool available to the blogerati today. This is the easiest way for a very small team like ours to act, and have the capabilities of, a large organization with a bunch of developers behind them. Manual processes that used to take 30 minutes to an hour to complete are now fulfilled instantly and without error thanks to automation. It’s a better customer experience, a better experience for our team, and as they say in the app “gives you magical powers.”
There are a bunch of plans that help you ease into using the tool, though we quickly wound our way up to the top level plan. Simply put scaling our business wouldn’t be possible without Zapier.
Social Media Tools
CoSchedule – It seems like there’s a new social media management tool on the market each week. CoSchedule is the one we’ve switched to most recently. The biggest reason is it actually takes into account the performance of your social posts when considering what to post again in the future. Previously we used Edgar which randomly blurted out any given post without regard to how the audience was reacting to it.
CoSchedule has a fantastic WordPress integration so you can plot not just your social posts but also your blog posts together in one cohesive campaign. It’s not that cheap compared to other tools, and I won’t say that I’m in love, but it’s the best solution we’ve found so far.
Tube Buddy – A powerful Chrome plugin to better manage your YouTube channel. The single best feature of Tube Buddy has been the tag suggestion and quick links it ads all over the Creator Studio. If you have a video library of any meaningful size you’ll recognize it’s impossibly slow. Making edits takes forever. TubeBuddy simplifies that process and also provides helpful best practice checklists to make sure you’re fully taking advantage of the web’s second largest search engine.
Mashshare – Social sharing takes up far more mental space than it should, but it always seems to crop back up as an issue that needs to be addressed. I’ve tried several sharing plugins and settled on Mashare for a couple key reasons.
1) It combines the share count from HTTP and HTTPS URLs. We converted to HTTPS a while ago and would have lost all our share counts with another plugin. Mashshare stores them in custom fields so it retains them.
2) This also means it keeps your share counts after totally changing a post’s URL, which I do frequently.
3) Mashshare has an intelligent caching system so it doesn’t check for share counts on every page load. A surefire way to bring your site performance down. Just watch out for the pageview counting plugin. This DOES talk to WordPress’ backend every page load and turned our server to glue for a few days until I found it was the culprit.
Monarch – I’ve wanted to switch to Monarch for sharing for a while now. It has a much more pleasant interface compared to Mashshare, has better display options and plays really nicely with our theme Divi (it’s made by the same company). But the performance of the plugin seems much worse in production. That combined with its lack of pulling share counts forward through URL changes means it’s a non-starter for the time being. Still, a plugin to watch.
Convertkit – This is a complicated relationship. I’ve tried MailChimp, AWeber and Infusionsoft (not Drip or ActiveCampaign) and ConvertKit is our favorite one so far.
I love the mission behind ConvertKit – helping creators to spread their message and change the world. They’re specifically design for businesses like ours. They are, relatively, a young company in the email space. This comes with some upsides – like responsive support, frequent new features and an eagerness to prove themselves in a crowded industry. And it comes with downsides – like missing features commonly found in other email tools, too frequent downtime, and a semi-reliable front-end system.
I know no one likes their email provider’s email editor, but…woof. The good news is the roadmap is closely aligned with the capabilities we need to keep growing and the team is fully committed to turning ConvertKit into one of the top flight email tools.
OptinMonster – If I had a nickel for every time I’ve tried a different email optin system…I’d have several nickels. After lots of testing OptinMonster seems to be emerging as the industry choice for highly trafficked, high performance sites. Their targeting criteria rules are second to none, performance under load is strong, and the emails always get to where they’re supposed to go.
Where they were sorely lacking, the campaign creation wizard, is about to be updated to be fully drag and drop, making the service nearly a complete panacea in this area. I still wish they would better integrate with other tools we used, sharing conversion data and pageview data, but I’m still happy nonetheless.
Bloom – Another email optin tool from Elegant Themes. While the admin interface in WordPress is beautiful and responsive, the front-end experience I found to be sorely lacking. Compared to what I’m used to with Divi, the customizations possible here are basic, and frankly, ugly. I’m still bullish based on my experience with Elegant Themes overall, but there’s a long way to go.
Lob – I put this in the email category even though it doesn’t send email. Lob sends, gasp, actual, physical pieces of mail. We use it to welcome students to our courses. We use it to verify crazy complicated international addresses. It’s super cheap. It’s super easy to use. Like Zapier it’s a secret weapon that allows mere mortals the ability to reach into the physical world and send delightful mail to customers.
Ahrefs – If you thought there were a lot of email providers, wait until you enter the SEO tool space. Fortunately this is my background and I have a long history of using this or that SEO tool. Ahrefs appears to the be the “expert’s” choice when it comes to SEO research tools. My experience backs this up in spades. If anything there’s way too much information for the average user.
With all the tools available to you in Ahrefs you wont be wanting for information on your own site or competitive intelligence on others. In particular I find it gives me great insight into the title tags already ranking for a given keyword so I might improve upon that formula.
Google Search Console – This used to be webmaster tools, but I found it’s become so incredible valuable given the new CTR forward SEO environment we’re in. I use it to find the keywords we already rank for, but poorly, and then optimize our posts to better attract clicks from prospective readers. Of course it also shares with you and trouble Google is having crawling your site – which it will. Make sure to share this data with Google Analytics for even more impact.
Yoast – see above
Schema – see above
Adsense – Do you even run ads bro? The de facto leader in the space. We actually don’t run Adsense on Science of People, but we do use it for monetizing our YouTube channel.
Amazon Associates – We recommend products on Amazon all day long, particularly social science related books. While we don’t recommend books because of this program, it helps us reclaim any sales we might generate from those recommendations. In particular they now offer a feature that rewrites an Amazon link you have to the users’ local Amazon store to boost conversion. The downside is we now get checks from Budapest in Euros we have to figure out how to deposit. The upside is we get checks in Euros.
Memberful – Another area with more than enough options are member management plugins. We don’t rely on that very heavily at Science of People yet, but we do use Memberful to manage areas that are for members only. Most membership plugins are very heavy, slow and old plugins that cause more problems than they solve. Memberful is the most modern, affordable option we found that has an API. Is it a dream membership plugin? No. Does it do exactly what we need? Mostly. I haven’t found the perfect answer here yet, but have generally been happy so far.
Google Analytics – I mean, what is there to say? Use GA. There are also tons of great plugins to make WordPress very GA friendly.
Segment – I’ve been a Segment fan since their earliest launch. With my background in marketing one of my biggest pain points was having consistent data across any number of tools. Just look at all the ones we mention on this page! Segment lets you track once, and share events everywhere. They’re expanding in to data warehousing and Persona management, and their pricing isn’t very friendly to publishing lead business models. But if they do ever offer one I’ll be on that so fast.
Google Optimize – There are a couple extremely expensive testing tools out there like Optimizely and Visual Website Optimize. Do not pay for them. Don’t pay for Optimize either. Use if for free. 90% of your A/B tests will return no results. But 10% of them will have a positive impact. You SHOULD be testing your site constantly, but fortunately you don’t have to pay for it. Super easy to install via GTM.
Upwork – I tried Upwork years ago and had a poor experience. I tried it again 6 months ago and had a fantastic experience. I’ve come to see that it’s incumbent upon you to screen for truly qualified and capable talent. There are some fantastic finds on Upwork (we hired an MFA to edit some videos for $20/hr). There are also tons of duds! I usually apply *at least* 6 filters for any given contractor I’m trying to find.
Codeable – One area I haven’t had success on Upwork is with technical talent. Not to say they aren’t there, but I haven’t been able to find it. That’s where I turn to Codeable, for WordPress specific tasks at least. They have a curated, vetted stock of developers that can help you do things from site optimizations (that’s how we first used them) to building custom plugins and themes. You’re going to pay a lot more. I’ve found rates start at about $50/hr but most are higher. But as with everything else on this list you get quality that reflects that fee.
Hi, I'm Scott
CEO, Science of People
I manage business and technical operations for Science of People. Learn More >
Note: Many of the links on this page are affiliate links. Science of People might receive a commission if you decide to use these products. All of these tools are either ones we use or have used, and we’ve spent far more time finding tools that *didn’t* work for us that we didn’t include.