How to Optimise WordPress Page Load Speed

Page load speed is of many SEO factors that affect ranking performance on all websites, including WordPress. How to speed up WordPress website page load times became an important issue when Google incorporated this aspect into ranking algorithms. Google made it clear years ago what they thought;

Google said “The web should be fast

When Google states new positions, if behooves us to listen… Like them or hate them, they have been consistent and public comments on future trends and their recommendations should be listened to closely. A couple of years of forewarning has presaged;

  • The perils of Manipulative Link-building practices
  • The value of Mobile-Responsive design
  • The recommendations on using HTTPS/SSL protocols
  • And Page Load Speed

Why You Should Optimise WP Page Load Speed

The consensus of opinion is that the 1 August 2018 algorithm release – titled “Your Money or your Life” by some – incorporated page load speed as a significant factor, along with Expertise, Authority and Trust assessments. (Key takeaways from Google’s latest algorithm update) Quote:

The SEO forums and communities have been exchanging their thoughts and have highlighted the following factors:

  • Mobile first-index
  • Content and on-site linking
  • Site speed.

On that basis alone, trimming bloated and unnecessary plugins from your WordPress installation, optimising all images, compressing files etc is now a critical component of rankings. Of course, better rankings are not the sole reason for carefully reducing your site’s page sizes;

No one in the world likes slow-loading pages;

  • Yet in 2014, the average page size of the top 1000 websites had passed 1600k (1.6 Mb).
  • By 2016, the average size was 2.3 Mb (*1)
  • By 2017 hit 3+ Megabytes – and I regularly encounter websites where the home page exceeds 20 Megabytes…

Morbidly obese websites are particularly problematic when viewing on a mobile device across a 3G / 4G mobile network! On 2018, the highest percentage of visitors to your website are likely to be using a mobile device – smartphone or tablet.

For many small business sites, the goal should be page sizes under 1 Mb, and Google says aim for an “above the fold” load time of under 1 second.

Improving the “above the fold load time” and the overall page load time should positively impact;

  • Visitor retention time
  • Repeat visitor rate and,
  • On ecommerce sites, each 1 second drop increases revenue by 10%

 

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Steps to Improving WP Performance

There are a multiple issues to be considered in the overall scheme of things when you start contemplating how to speed up your WordPress website performance and page load speeds… Here’s the recommended procedure… *2

  1. Benchmarking your site on multiple load speed tests. This provides the basis against which you assess the impact of the changes you are making.
  2. Image File Size reductions provide the quickest return on efforts expended. The goal is to ensure that all images are correctly sized and compressed. Where possible, specify image pixel sizes (height & width) so that the text content flows around the image space before it loads. Use a “lazy load” plugin that does not load the images until they enter the viewport.
  3. WP Caching Plugins are essential to improved page load speeds. I use WP Rocket Cache on all WordPress websites that I manage because it is both easy to use and effective. (*3)
  4. WordPress Plugins all consume resources, so remove any that are NOT absolutely essential.
  5. Home Page content is excessively complex on many sites, featuring too many database-hungry components. Whilst introductory content leading into sections is important for both site visitors and search engine rankings, dynamic items add to total database requests and page files sizes.

1. WordPress Performance Benchmarking

In order to monitor the incremental changes on pages, you need a range of tools. Results can vary between measuring services due to traffic, latency etc but consistency in upward or downward trends across multiple test platforms and locations provides a more accurate assessment. Use these…

  1. Page Speed Insights: how Google rates the performance of any page: (https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/)
  2. Pingdom: load speed performance from 3 test site options; Sydney, Amsterdam, New York or Dallas. (https://tools.pingdom.com/)
  3. GT Metrix: The free website speed analysis service tests access from several countries: (https://gtmetrix.com)
  4. WebPageTest – for NZ site owners, their closest test server is in Sydney; https://www.webpagetest.org

Why Benchmark WP Website Performance?

The process goes a lot more smoothly if you document what you are doing to optimize website performance and record the result each time you check page load time… In this case, I usually select the Home page and the “blog” page to check website performance at each step. The Blog page is chosen because it generates numerous database queries.

 

2. Optimising Images – Dimensions & Compression

Nothing slows a website faster than loading camera or phone images straight into your posts or pages. A default WordPress installation does not automatically resize and compress images like Facebook etc. Media Library settings and some themes can do a lot in that direction, but you’ve got to configure settings correctly.

Every image on the entire site should be optimised to improve website performance. Background images can be awfully big and inserting 1400 x 1000 pixel images that are not compressed and that then end up “scaled to fit” is a good way to kill your website performance.

JPG images provide the best performance and images should:

  • Have dimensions reduced to the maximum size that they will be displayed at
  • Be compressed by at least 10% – and in most cases over 30% which still offers good image quality
  • Have their dimensions specified in the page/s within which they are displayed

This should be considered as a two part process-

  1. Dealing with existing images
  2. Ensuring new images are correctly sizes and compressed on upload

This is something I can do as part of either WordPress technical support services, or SEO packages.

 

How to Optimise Existing Website Images

Where you see a recommendation in GT Metrix results relating to “optimise images” you should examine the list to see if there are any large ones that you can quickly process for rapid improvements.

GT Metrix gives you a link to an “optimised” version of the file. That’s particularly useful for PNG files which are a little tricky to compress…

  • Click the “See optimised version” and it will open the compressed file in a new window
  • Right click on the image and choose “Save as” – amend the name to match the original
  • Use FTP to upload the optimised version to the correct location

Doing this one by one can burn up a lot of time, and there is an easier way to deal with hundreds / thousands of images…

Batch Processing Existing Images in Bulk

There are good plugins for automatically processing images across your website such as WP Smush, Imagify and Shortpixel.

I use Shortpixel on all sites I manage – https://shortpixel.com. They offer a 50,000 Image Plan for US$30. You can install the Shortpixel plugin on multiple sites and share that 50k image allocation across all of them.

Batch image processing across an entire site is simple! Just pre-set the plugin parameters for lossless, glossy or lossy and set the maximum image dimensions etc and set it to work. There is an option to backup copies of original images, and to restore those if required. The thousands of thumbnails can also be processed.

Shortpixel makes short work of getting your image library under control!

Specify Image Dimensions: Also examine each image you have added on the page to see if any are being scaled to fit. In Firefox, right clicking an image shows such details;

scaled-images

 

 

 

Image that are being scaled can often be manually resized to the correct dimensions. That does depend on how your design theme handles “Featured Images” and what its default thumbnail settings are. Some design themes are not efficient at displaying Featured Images images, so if there is are site-wide issues with images being scaled, you may need to consider a better design theme.

In general, mobile-responsive design themes are engineered specifically to process images in a way that reduces page load times across all viewing devices. Featured images are displayed at larger sizes on their respective posts, but suitable small thumbnails are shown on Home page Recent Posts, and or in sidebars etc.

Ongoing Image Management & Optimisation

If you have Shortpixel installed, it will process new images as they are loaded, using the pre-configured settings you have in place.

 

WordPress Caching is Essential

A paper written in 2010 showed clearly the benefits of caching on performance (*1) whereby caching on the measured sited saved 81 percent of the bytes, and 75 percent of the requests. The need to do increases with every increase to average page load size, and because Google is evaluating your site in new ways…

In the WordPress environment, there are several long-serving and respected caching plugins available at no cost. Perhaps the most well-known are the freebies; W3 Total Cache, WP Super Cache and Quick Cache. I’ve used all three across many different websites over several years as part of WP tech support and maintenance on many sites.

 

Which Caching Plugins Work Best?

For all sites I manage, I install the premium WP Rocket Cache plugin. I have a Developers Licence for that purpose. It now runs happily on Litespeed Web Servers too. Features include;

  • The usual Gzip compression on pages
  • Lazy Load images
  • Minimise + combine CSS and Javascript
  • Runs on Apache and Litespeed servers
  • Pre-load from sitemaps – supports All in One SEO ansd Yoast SEO XMS sitemaps
  • Easy configuration

 

Plugins Impact on Page Load Time

All plugins consume some resources – some are horrendous at increasing page sizes and generating database requests. Some are so badly coded that their resource usage impacts negatively on shared hosting environments and some hosting companies have banned them… Don’t be using those now… they include some older;

  • Broken link checking tools
  • Related posts plugins that generate ridiculous quantities of database queries
  • Statistics plugins puling data from other sites

Tasks such as broken link checking and statistics are perhaps best done from external sources using freely available tools, or if the plugin is deactivated when it is not in use.

Two for One Plugins:

In some cases, a plugin serves a dual purpose, allowing you to achieve a couple of desirable outcomes without increasing consumption of resources. Examples include All in One SEO Pack and Yoast SEO which both have an XML site map generator, eliminating the need for a separate plugin for that purpose.

Feature Activations

Some security plugins – such as my favourite, Wordfence – include features that you don’t need to run all the time; notably Live Traffic logging, scans outside WordPress, image file scans and ultra-sensitive modes. Turn off functions that you don’t need…

Heartbeat Control

WordPress itself has features that can slow your site down, notably the Heartbeat API which is capable of generating significant server CPU loads that slow things down significantly. There is a plugin to exercise some control over that…

Home Page Complexity

Striking a balance between showcasing what your site offers and keeping the page size within sensible constraints is the challenge here. In your quest to determine how to speed up website performance, keep in mind that your Home page is the most important page in the entire site in terms of new visitors landing on it. Website speed optimization is crucial to keeping them there long enough to captivate their interest.

Sometimes less is more… Show them fewer choices in terms of recent posts, latest comments, slide shows, tags, categories and featured pages or posts, top post lists etc.

Hosting Location

Hosting location can make a significant difference to page load times. If your website targets New Zealand clients, then it absolutely should be on a server physically located in New Zealand. Otherwise the inherent “latency” in a US or Canadian-based server adds a second or more to load times!

Conversely, if you are a New Zealand business targeting clients in the USA, it would make perfect sense to have your site on a server in the USA! Doing so could reduce page load time by several seconds or more! That’s a dramatic improvement AND the hosting costs are likely to prove less expensive…

Example – This Site

This site is housed on a Litespeed server in the US, and has been optimised with WP Rocket Cache and the Shortpixel image optimisation plugin. It has;

Visitors in the US will see page load time of under 2 seconds:

Pingdom - loads speed benchmark - New York

Approx 2+ seconds in Sydney Australia:

Pingdom - loads speed benchmark - Melbourne

Visitors in New Zealand will see page load time of +3 seconds

 

Page speed insights - Google

 

Speed up Website Performance Summary

Investing some time and effort in some basics, you can dramatically improve your website’s page load speed.

  1. Check the current page load speed performance.
  2. Evaluate plugins, remove those with resource consumption and replace single purpose ones with dual purpose alternatives as/if appropriate.
  3. Optimising image file sizes, compress and specify dimensions to get pages loading faster.
  4. Use the best caching plugin for your site
  5. Keep the Home page content lean and focused.

As part of my small business SEO packages, I take a close look at website performance metrics, and advise accordingly. If all of this is beyond your time resources or technical ability, please contact me for assistance.

References:

  1. * https://www.keycdn.com/support/the-growth-of-web-page-size/
  2. * http://gtmetrix.com/wordpress-optimization-guide.html
  3. * http://premium.wpmudev.org/blog/best-wordpress-caching-plugins/

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