There are plenty of reasons WordPress is the most popular CMS out there, one of them being the fact that you can easily tweak your site and make minor fixes even with limited coding skills.
However, just like any other platform, it has its own peculiarities which you need to know how to deal with. Since a virtually seamless page loading speed is universally coveted, regardless of the kind of site you have, we thought you might enjoy a piece on website speed and all its trapping, so here goes:
The importance of page loading times
If you have even dabbled in SEO, you know that there is a lot of disagreement when it comes to ranking factors – how important each of them is, and even what is or isn’t a ranking factor. Page loading speed, on the other hand, was never a focus of such a debate, as even the people who can rarely agree on anything, unanimously declare it one of the essential factors in Google’s deliberation on how to position you in search results.
This is hardly surprising when you take a look at the average attention spans of audiences during the last couple of years. While available estimates can’t be too precise, the rate at which they have been dropping from somewhere around 12 seconds just a couple of years ago, to 6 or 8 seconds today, depending on the source you choose to trust, it becomes obvious that your site’s visitors are not going to hang around waiting for your pages to finish loading.
So, you can lose a lead right at the gates of conversion, and your reputation perhaps suffers a minor blow, but that’s not even the beginning of your troubles. Aside from page speed being directly observed by Google when crawling your website, and lowering your rankings and perhaps even crawl frequency, the consequences of your site’s lagging don’t stop there. Aside from page loading speed, Google also observes engagement metrics like, you’ve guessed it, bounce rates.
This means that you will not only be exposed to fewer potential customers because of your subpar rankings, but the ones that do manage to find you but lose patience as soon as they reach you, will bounce, and instead of converting just drive you further down the sinkhole.
Luckily, improving the page loading speed of your WordPress website doesn’t have to be the least bit of a problem if you have the right tools and the right know-how.
The tool belt
While the Google Page Speed Insights utility does come from one of the most authoritative sources on the subject, it, just like its creator, seems to be interested primarily in domains that are ranked relatively high. Regardless, using it is free, so there is no reason not to give it a try when analyzing your website.
An alternative that we would like to recommend (which is also free) is GTMetrix, as it covers most of the same issues, but seems less concerned with your current position in SERPs or domain authority. This handy utility allows you to choose the location of the server that will be doing the testing, meaning that, as long as you set it to use one close to the one that your audience is likely to be using, you will get more accurate results.
After that initial setup, GTMetrix will provide you with a host of important information, including the score your site would achieve in the previously mentioned Google Page Speed Insights, YSlow Optimization score, time to full page load, page size, and the number of HTTPS requests that need to be carried out before your site is loaded. Aside from giving you a list of problems individual pages are having, it also makes it easy for you to identify those pages, by giving you a breakdown of all of your page’s loading times, making it very easy to find the ones that seem to be performing the worst.
Most of the time, either of these tools (or you can go for Pingdom if you really don’t care for either of the other two) will, along with listing the issue, also give you a suggestion on how to fix it, but that is not to say that you shouldn’t learn a bit about this kind of optimization on your own.
What to do next?
Depending on the results of the analysis you might need to make minor or major changes to your site. Even if you don’t need a complete site overhaul, we suggest creating a backup (which you should do regularly anyway) before proceeding to tamper with anything.
Likewise, just because the mentioned tools are quite adept at the detection of different issues it doesn’t mean they can find absolutely everything that is wrong with your website. Your site could be suffering because of a faulty theme, too many plugins, or a number of other issues that can’t be detected any other way than through direct, manual canvassing and analysis.
The next two chapters will cover some of those issues in detail, just remember to check your site’s speed before and after making larger changes, so that you can be sure that you are on the right track.
Overall technical aspects
While some of the required changes will be page-specific, others have more to do with your site as a whole, and those are the ones we’ll start with.
- WordPress update – starting from the basics: not updating your version of WordPress regularly will eventually land you in much bigger trouble than just having sluggish pages.
- Hosting – shared hosting, low bandwidth or storage, as well as servers located far from your target audience, can all have a devastating influence. Again, while this is a major factor in your page loading speed, inadequate hosting can cause a range of other problems for you, which is why you should never skimp on this part of your website.
- Content Delivery Networks – if you opted for cloud hosting, you might not need this, but CDNs might be a good idea regardless of the hosting type. These networks store your content on servers around the world, so if you, for instance, have a global audience, or want to cater to groups of people in different parts of the world, CDNs ensure that wherever they are when trying to access your website, your visitors are getting the best possible loading times.
- Caching – one of the best ways to improve your site’s speed is enabling browser caching, which means that your visitors will store some of your site’s files on their computer the first time they visit it, making every subsequent loading faster than that initial one.
- Plugins – you can have too many of them, or you can have a couple of dysfunctional ones, whichever the case, they aren’t doing you any favours. Luckily, there are those that could. So, after checking all of your existing plugins, you might want to think about installing some that could actually help you speed your site up. From enabling caching to allowing for GZIP compression, plugins can be a lifesaver, just don’t forget the first part of this paragraph: just because a plugin was built to help with page loading times, if it malfunctions or if you try to add it to an already overcrowded website, it might do more harm than good.
- Clutter – While WordPress is optimized to require little maintenance, there are certain areas where you still have to keep your eye out, and post revisions are one of those areas. Make sure to check how many drafts of your posts are being saved, and make sure to set that number to no more than four.
Once you have taken care of the more general issues your site is having, it’s time to take a look at the individual pages. Some of the most important things to investigate and adapt include:
- Images – probably the most common offender, there are a number of ways for them to make your life difficult. First of all, images add HTTP requests to your site, so their sheer number can be an issue on its own. If this wasn’t reason enough to remove any images that are not essential to the site’s aesthetics or narrative, their size can sometimes be a problem of its own. While some sites need high-quality images, those that could do fine with those of lower quality should definitely think about minifying them. Don’t forget to make them SEO-friendly as well, as this will help crawlers get their bearings while visiting your site.
- Videos – another huge resource drain, while a video is one of the favourite formats of today’s reading-averse audiences, they can significantly lower your page loading times. Luckily, you don’t have to completely forego the use of video materials on your site, just make sure that you are not uploading them directly to your site, but simply embedding them, while they are still hosted with their original source.
- Break up pages – regardless of how optimized their elements are, pages can simply have too many of them to work properly. In those cases, it might be for the best if you split those pages into two or more faster ones. The same goes for comments – there’s no reason to show them all in one section when you can make the comment area expandable, and only show the topmost ones.
Regardless of its type, your site is there for its visitors, and if they can’t use it the way it suits them, you can’t expect them to linger on when there are so many similar sites around. That’s why page loading speed is one of the most important metrics you need to focus on, and why it might make all your other efforts insignificant. Fortunately, making improvements in this regard is not too difficult, and can involve anything from image minification or removal, file compression and caching, to a change of hosting and improving the layout of specific pages. Most of this can be done with the help of free, reliable tools, which means that there is absolutely no excuse not to analyze your WordPress site today, and see if there is anything you can do to improve its speed.
About the Author:
Michael has been working in marketing for almost a decade – and has worked with a huge range of clients, which has made him knowledgeable on many different subjects. He has recently rediscovered a passion for writing and hopes to make it a daily habit. You can read more of Michael’s work at Qeedle, or catch up with him on Twitter.