Well, if you’ve been watching any of the sporadic blog/tumblr posts over the past few days, you know I’ve been working on migrating my site. A lot of the reason it took so long is because I had to keep shuttling between two different incarnations of tech support.
I’m writing it up for anyone who could use a case study of the customer service at these two companies. Or anyone who just wants to read juicy details of data migration.
The project: Moving a grand total of 3.7 GB of data, including 3 separate WordPress installations, tied to 2 different domain names plus multiple subdomains.
Original host: A Small Orange. I got an account there in the halcyon days of 2007, when it was just a scrappy startup with chart-topping reviews. Bought out in 2012 by the notorious EIG, but the original staff was kept on and the reviews stayed high…until some kind of shakeup in 2015, followed by the reviews going off a cliff.
New host: SiteGround. I followed a rec to research this small still-independent Bulgarian company, founded in 2004 but having a growth spurt recently. Their reputation is solid, they get praise for customer support, and it’s deeply encouraging to hear phrases like “strong feature set – especially if you are more technically biased” and “it’s apparent that they invest a lot in their employees.”
Quick prologue: I’ve had four unscheduled ASO site outages in the past 12 months, all with underwhelming support responses.
After the first, I assumed it was a fluke. After the third, I decided to move, but figured it could wait until Leif & Thorn was in a slower, more filler-y storyline — about six weeks. Or, hey, maybe I could hold out until the next billing period, which was only a couple months more….
Three weeks later the sites went down again — this time redirecting visitors to a message that the account was suspended (it wasn’t) — and I decided, screw it, I’m getting out my credit card and blowing this popsicle stand.
Both ASO and SiteGround use cPanel, which in theory makes it easy to make and transfer backups. And SiteGround will handle the transfer for free!
I opened a support ticket and asked, about how long will this 3.7GB transfer take, and (with an eye to hourly site-traffic graphs) can I schedule it to start at a certain time?
They say “hard to tell, depends on connection speed with the remote host, maybe a few hours is our best estimate” and “yes, just comment when you want us to start” respectively. I was hoping we could arrange for them to start it at 4AM EDT, which is not a time I can be awake to personally post messages. Well, no matter. There’s an early-afternoon lull too.
Around 1PM on Sunday, I post the “okay, please start now” message. It’s almost an hour later when I get the reply that they’ve started. Which…does somewhat defeat the point of my careful timing, but, you know, better late than never.
So I wait, and I do other things, and I work on Monday’s comic page, and I check my email every 15 minutes. A solid 9 hours later, I figure I’ve been patient long enough, and ask for a status update.
Turns out…the backup timed out without completing. Probably in the first hour. Definitely by the second. They were waiting on a confirmation email, and never checked to make sure it was still coming, until I poked them about it. Not an auspicious start, here.
That said, the timeout error is on ASO’s end, so now I have to go wrangle that for a while.
The backup we’re talking about comes in the form of a tarball, basically like a .zip or .rar file but with compression ratios to rival that purse Hermione had in Deathly Hallows. All my data ended up packed into a neat little 0.7GB.
Trouble is, by default it’s created as another file in my ASO account, which did not have that much free space.
I ran a second backup that way (this is how I know the timeout happened in about an hour), then ran a third, this time giving it the FTP info of my SiteGround account. Which is, at this point in our story, a vast empty wasteland. Different host, different packages — the features I needed came bundled with a wildly-superfluous 20 GB of web space. I could’ve dumped ten backups there without breaking a sweat.
This backup finishes! Huzzah! I go back to my SiteGround ticket with the details and the location. The reply is still kinda slow, but at least this time they report the error as soon as they get it: the file is invalid. Something in the data didn’t save/transfer properly. Can’t be uncompressed.
Now I have no more options but to open a ticket with ASO tech support. Lucky me.
A note: both companies’ tech support departments are staffed with people for whom English is noticeably a second language. (It’s all names from India at ASO now, all Bulgarian at SiteGround.)
There was a point when one of the SiteGround agents sent me a stock response about how another option is to transfer one website (seems to mean one WordPress installation). I asked if they could do three by transferring them one at a time…and got the same C&P’d response. Buddy, if the information I wanted (“we mean one and only one“) was in there, I wouldn’t have asked!
However — when it comes to facepalm value, they were wildly outclassed by the ASO agent who pasted a stock response about how to find and download an FTP program. In a thread where I had already talked about using FTP.
(Both threads got handed off to multiple agents along the way. That part’s fine — a single person can’t be on-shift 24/7 — but at least backread the support ticket before answering!)
And no, “individually downloading all my uncompressed files via FTP” is not a reasonable substitute for a single compressed backup that includes MySQL databases and cPanel configuration. You, sir, get the medal for Single Most Unhelpful Person In This Thread.
Reader, they upsold me.
There was a time when, if I said “I need a single backup file for a one-time download,” ASO tech support would’ve said “sure, we can wrangle that without making you buy a whole site upgrade, here’s the link.” This…is no longer that time.
On the plus side: most of the cost of the upgrade was covered by a credit that was already on my account. Originally awarded as an apology for…(wait for it)…a site outage back in November 2016.
I wish they’d kept handing out penance credit throughout the next three outages. Then I could’ve done all this for free.
Monday afternoon, I upgrade to more ASO space. I run a successful backup. Around 5 PM, I hand the information over to SiteGround.
Again with some lackluster communication: I don’t get a “backup received, no errors this time, unpacking in progress” message. But I do know it’s happening, because my cPanel statistics on SiteGround go from 1.33 MB (yes, with an M) to almost a gig, then four, then over six. Over FTP, I watch the files get unpacked into their own directory, then copied into public_html.
It’s about 10 PM when I get the “good news, we’re done, here’s how to re-point your domain name” post.
The time-consuming part is over! Now it’s time to start poking around to find and fix all the bits that are configured wrong.
(One effect of this is that the redirect on erinptah.com gets canceled. Instead of sending you to my offsite blog, that URL now shows you the actual landing page. Until I gave it a hasty facelift on Tuesday, I’m pretty sure it hadn’t been touched since 2012.)
At this point it’s getting late and I have work tomorrow, so I head into SiteGround’s Live Chat, hoping to get real-time answers.
I did, and folks, it was great. Fast. Helpful. No translation issues here — the guy’s language even got more colloquial as the session went on. If you told me they put the most fluent English-speakers on the live chat, I wouldn’t be surprised.
After the first session and another round of site-wrangling, I logged back on in need of more help. Got the same agent. Possibly their software is smart enough to match customers with agents they’ve used before. Possibly he was just the only guy on duty right then.
Point is, he opened the second chat session with “Welcome back Erin.”
It was so refreshing. Such a contrast to “this agent only read the most recent post in the thread, and is giving an answer that makes no sense in the context of what I’m trying to do.” He was familiar with my account! He was able to process my glitch-of-the-moment as part of a larger ongoing project!
And the end of that session…was the honest-to-goodness end of the whole 48-hour saga. Transfer complete, final kinks hammered out, all support tickets closed.
It’s pretty obvious by now that I would no longer recommend A Small Orange for website hosting, unless you have a time machine that can take you back to pre-2016. And if you have one of those, there are more important things you should be using it for anyway.
So this head-to-head comparison isn’t to help you choose between the two. This is just to help break down specific things that SiteGround did right — and to highlight places where they stumbled, so if you go with them, you know what to watch out for.
When filing a support ticket, SiteGround took longer to answer. Sometimes that was because they were waiting for a process to run, but not always. (Once I waited a little over an hour for a response where the actual action — logging into cPanel and initiating a backup — would’ve taken about five minutes.)
On the plus side, their answers were mostly helpful and informative. They would provide the text of specific error messages; they would take screenshots to show me what their computers were loading. When something was vague or confusing, I don’t think it was ever from a lack of depth of knowledge. It always felt like an issue of translation.
Support questions on ASO now typically got responses within 15-20 minutes…but they were much less helpful. They were never slowed down by the need to handle some complicated technical thing, because they never did any complicated technical things.
A lot of the time they didn’t have the power to actually address whatever my issue was. (Notably, in one earlier incident, an agent said they couldn’t update the ASO status blog, but someone else would post a notice if there was “extended downtime.” This was a point when my site had already been inaccessible for four hours.) And there were definitely points when I don’t believe they understood what I was asking for.
On Siteground, when you start a live chat session, they ask for your name, the affected website, and a brief description of your issue. You then get connected to an agent, who opens by saying “hi, [name], give me a just minute to look into this.”
In one case, the guy couldn’t personally figure out why a glitch was happening — so he filed a support ticket, which I could see on the website, and it got answered by someone else relatively quickly.
ASO chat sessions open with the same info request. They then connect you to an agent who opens by…asking for your name, the affected website, and a brief description of your issue.
And if they can’t address a thing, it doesn’t get addressed. At least, not in any way that I can see. In one case, someone on the Twitter account told me they were working on getting “priority attention” for an issue. It’s been three weeks now. Guess whether I’ve heard a peep about it since. Go on, guess.
I’ve talked about SiteGround not always communicating, and in one case not noticing something was wrong until I belatedly poked them. That’s the biggest “ehhh” on their record. If you need their support with something and you haven’t heard back for a couple hours, be prepared to ask for status updates.
But everything ultimately got dealt with! Not so for ASO. As you’ve seen.
Please note: nothing in this post is about ragging on any individual ASO agents for doing a bad job. It’s about management defining their jobs badly. Someone in EIG decided it would save money if they didn’t bother to train people before throwing them on the front lines. (Other money-saving tactics include “overloading servers more, maintaining them less, and treating the resulting outages as something customers just have to put up with.”)
One of the last glitches I ran into was in re-pointing the leifandthorn.com domain to the new SiteGround DNS servers. I originally registered my domains with ASO, and the error was on the ASO side.
Now, switching registrars to SiteGround involves an extra one-time fee, so I tried to diagnose and fix the thing myself. But when that didn’t work, I decided it was worth coughing up the $15 just so I wouldn’t have to deal with ASO tech support again.
Good job, EIG! Your strategies are so effective that customers are literally paying extra to get away from you.
And more seriously…thank you to the original founders and management of A Small Orange, for providing nine years of wonderful high-quality hosting service. If SiteGround matches that standard, I’ll consider this move a success.