A Guide to Prioritize WordPress Website Speed
8 months ago by André Giæver
If you Google the phrase “WordPress website speed”, you’ll get a lot of hits. 176,000,000 to be exact.
It’s obviously a hot and seemingly evergreen topic.
The various blog posts, articles, guides pertaining to this topic explain the do’s and don’t’s of speed optimization in their own way.
However, the challenge is that there are more opinions (and half-assed assumptions) on what’s best practice than there is solid and empirical evidence out there.
So, how do we decide who to believe and what measures to prioritize? What do the majority of the experts agree upon?
In short, we will be assessing this aspects to WordPress Website Speed:
- Databases and queries
- Image optimization
- Page builders
- Content Delivery Network
These questions form the basis for this article. I have read through and gathered insights from hundreds of articles. I’ve analyzed this data an extrapolated all the techniques that most authors agree will enhance your WordPress website speed.
I’ve continued to prioritize these techniques and methods into areas of concern and given them a general ICE score. As the last step, I’ve done a Pareto analysis to identify 20% of the techniques that arguably deliver the highest speed gains.
Ok, enough intro already. Let’s dig into the fun of optimizing WordPress website speed!
Hosting for WordPress Website Speed
ICE Score: Impact: 9, Confidence: 10, Ease: 8 = 9.0
Choosing the right hosting provider is a critical first step. WordPress is built on PHP. This, in turn, affects how the database should be configured for optimal performance.
Most professional providers will let you try their server solution before you commit to it – and you should!
A rule of thumb is that you get what you pay for. Shared hosting solutions may serve your wallet at €5 monthly, but website performance will suffer greatly.
Look for hosting providers that offer:
- Providers that let you try before buying
- VPS or dedicated servers
- Up to date PHP version
- Nginx or Apache servers optimized for WordPress
- MariaDB database optimized for WordPress
Following these advises will give you a foundation that most likely won’t even need caching. More on caching for WordPress website speed later.
Databases and queries
ICE Score: Impact: 8, Confidence: 9, Ease: 6 = 7.7
Having the right foundation is just the first step. Treating your database with care is the next. The more queries it has to handle simultaneously, the slower the page load time will be for anyone who interacts with your website.
There are mainly two reasons you get a high number of queries. Too many plugins and/or poorly coded plugins. That’s why it’s considered best practice to choose as few plugins as possible. Equally important is to choose ones that are well-written and up to date.
Another important thing to note is that your WordPress options table in your database is not indexed by default. What this means is that when a query is sent to the server, WordPress has to search through the entire table any time a request pertaining to it is made. This table in particular stores a lot of information from various plugins so it tends to grow and the bigger it gets, the slower it gets to sift through.
To solve this, you got 2 options. Enter the following line of code to your options table:
alter table wp_options add index autoload_idx(`autoload`);
…or let the free plugin Servebolt Optimizer do it for you. You can delete the plugin afterward if you don’t need the additional functionality it provides.
ICE Score: Impact: 8, Confidence: 9, Ease: 6 = 7.7
Using images on your site without optimizing for web will hurt your WordPress Website Speed significantly. There are several reasons for this and consequently different ways to optimize your images.
Here are the reasons images load slow:
- Large physical size
- High dpi
- Contains metadata
- Wrong format
- Not compressed
- Not scaled to device
Large physical size
It’s a bad thing to include images that exceed the pixel size of most common screen resolutions or the container they will be placed in. Apart from being completely unnecessary, it can add several Mbs to your page load.
Scale them down before you upload them to the Media Library. There are plugins out there that allow you to automatically set and scale down to a maximum image size upon upload, but as plugins go, these are often themselves negative to page load.
Dots per inch tells us how dense each square inch of an image is. The ting is that dpi only applies to print. The web is all about pixels so using an image with 300 dpi for web compared to the recommended 72 dpi will only make it visibly smaller.
You would need to counteract lack in size by choosing to upload a picture with a greater height and width, but you’d gain nothing in terms of image quality.
Contains meta data
When you shoot pictures with your camera, it embeds metadata like date, image configurations, etc. into the image. This adds bytes to your image that is completely unnecessary for web. Always us an image editor to remove this metadata before uploading to web.
There is supposedly a general rule that states that you should use .jpg as format for pictures and .png for logos, illustrations, etc. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, such as when you want to add a picture person with a transparent background, in which you would have to use .png.
That said, Google created a new format for web a couple of years ago called WebP. This format gives you images less of a footprint as default and are now supported by all the major browsers.
Compressing the images you use is a must. There are several different ways to do this without loosing any perceived quality. The most common compression types are called Lossy, Lossless.
Which of the compression types to you may vary depending on the situation, image format, etc. There are fortunately plugins that will do the job for you. You should ideally compress you images with an image editor before upload, but really, who does that?
Not scaled to device
As a general rule, images for your website need to be physically bigger on desktop than on mobile due to higher screen resolution on desktops. Additionally, Mobile devices often use a slower internet connection, which means that your website’s page size needs to be smaller to load as fast as when your website is loaded on a device connected to WiFi or by cable.
Dynamically scaling images depending on screen resolution and/or device type has its definite challenges. Apart from requiring you to optimize and manage one additional set of images, you have to configure the right version to be displayed depending on the circumstance.
This topic is in itself so complex that it unfortunately falls outside the scope for this article. I suggest you google it if you’d like to dig into the available solutions to tackle this.
ICE Score: Impact: 8, Confidence: 9, Ease: 3 = 6.6
Let’s start by debunking a myth. There’s a common belief that using a lot of plugins in itself destroys your website speed. The truth is that poorly coded and or bloated plugins do, and there’s a lot of them!
As mentioned, start by reviewing your plugin count and deactivate and delete any unnecessary one. Only choose plugins that are critical or at least very important to your website’s functionality.
Review the ones you are dependent on and research if there are better ones available. The number of installs is not a reliable indicator to determine if a plugin is good or not. Look for high ratings and a low number of support queries.
Note! It’s always best to test out how a plugin performs in a staging environment before adding it to your live site.
ICE Score: Impact: 2, Confidence: 8, Ease: 10 = 6.6
I’ve included a section about page builders because it’s a touchy subject for a lot of you out there. Developers tend to think they are bad, designers think they’re usually great and the rest don’t seem to care that much.
The thing is that in their infancy they were bad. Really bad! Things aren’t that black and white any more though.
The top-end page builders we have today, like Beaver Builder, Elementor or Oxygen Builder are a whole different bread than the ones available in the early years. Even though the still add a significant load to the code base, the output lightweight and clean code in the frontend.
Considering the obvious benefits of using a page builder in terms of usability, functionality and flexibility, the minor effect on page load time, their so worth it! At least that’s my opinion.
ICE Score: Impact: 8, Confidence: 9, Ease: 2 = 6.3
Caching is a great. In a nutshell, instead of having to calculate the equation it is to serve your website on the fly every time a visitor asks for it, it has stored the answer beforehand and serves it instantly.
However, there’s a problem. The web isn’t static any more so chances are that the cached version of your website may well be outdated when a new visitor asks to see it. That’s why proper configuration of your cache settings is critical.
Same as with the need for a CDN, if you have a fast hosting provider you probably won’t need caching. The point of caching should i any case be to leverage high traffic volumes, not be a bandaid for poor hosting or sloppy website development and maintenance. To put it this way, if you rely on caching to serve a fast website, what do you thing will happen when high traffic hits you server?
Content Delivery Network (CDN)
ICE Score: Impact: 5, Confidence: 9, Ease: 4 = 6.0
A CDN lets you serve your whole website or parts of it from a different (often faster server). However, before you consider adding the complexity of a CDN, consider the following.
If you only cater to a single country, choose the fastest hosting provider in that country. That way you won’t need to use a CDN. Infact, your website will probably load faster.
If you cater to multiple countries, then you definitely should consider using a CDN. You could also benefit from a CDN if your stuck with shared hosting as the cached version of your website that is served through a CDN probably will load faster than directly from server.
I thought I would add some additional tweaks as icing on the cake.
Limit the number of post revisions that WordPress stores
ICE Score: Impact: 2, Confidence: 6, Ease: 9 = 5.7
Adding this line of code to your wp-config file will limit post revisions to the number you choose:
define( 'WP_POST_REVISIONS', 2 );
This code will disable post revisions all together:
define( 'WP_POST_REVISIONS', false );
Summary of WordPress website speed
Is you can see, optimizing your WordPress website speed is has a lot of components to it. Educated guesses and a lot of trial and error goes into configure these components just right. No website is equal in this matter.
Now, all websites will benefit from working on the areas this article highlights. If your heading down the path of optimization, I would suggest you start at the top of this article and dillegently work your way to the bottom.
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