Improve WordPress Speed in Seven Simple Steps

Few things impact a website’s potential success more than website speed. This is because a lightning-quick website can benefit your website in three key areas:

  1. Number of visitors – Google loves fast websites, and fast-loading websites tend to rank more highly in the SERPs.
  2. User experience – Visitors love website speed, too, perhaps even more than Google. A quick-loading website creates a strong first impression and makes your website a pleasure to browse. Remember: Every second counts.
  3. Profitability – Fast websites convert better than slow websites. That’s a fact. If you want a healthier bottom line, speed optimization is a good place to start. After all, studies show that for every additional second in load time, the website suffers from a 7% loss in conversions.

In other words, speed optimization is serious business, and something that all WordPress users should be actively pursuing. If not, you’re seriously restricting your website’s growth. Is that something you can afford to be doing?

If your website is currently loading at a snail’s pace, don't worry — we're here to help. Today we’re going to be trying to fix that problem, with seven simple steps for making a WordPress website faster. If you’ve never heard of WordPress speed optimization before, this is an ideal introductory guide.

1. High Quality Hosting

You can spend forever optimizing your WordPress website, but if your hosting service isn’t up to scratch, your website will still be sluggish. Do yourself a favor and sign up for a well-respected hosting service – it will give you the solid foundations you need for a lightning-quick website.

But what makes a good web hosting service? Or, more specifically, what’s the problem with the low-cost, shared hosting services that cost five bucks a month? After all, WordPress is often touted as being inexpensive, so it seems to go hand-in-hand with these affordable solutions.

Well, as the name “shared hosting” implies, your website will be hosted on a server shared by others. On one hand, sharing the server splits the cost, driving prices down significantly. On the other hand, and most concerningly, it means that your website has to compete with the other websites on the server for a finite set of resources.

These resources are not allocated equally, either; if one website is using up the server’s bandwidth, everyone on the server suffers. And, because the low cost hosting services cram huge volumes of websites onto each server, it inevitably results in a collection of slow, sluggish websites.

This is why low cost hosting is associated with low quality – it isn’t necessarily that their servers are bad, but rather the fact that your website will only be able to utilize a tiny fraction of what’s available.

You might think that you're saving money by going with one of these services, but trust me: it will end up costing you a lot more in lost sales. You get what you pay for with hosting services, and my advice is to go with the best hosting provider you can afford. If you want names, aThemes recommends WP Engine, SiteGround, and Flywheel.

Fast WordPress Hosts

These hosts provide a lightning quick service courtesy of high-performance servers. They also provide expert WordPress support, and their services cater to the specialist requirements of WordPress websites.

2. Image Optimization

Images are one of the most important considerations if you want a quick-loading website. This is because images carry considerable weight, so an image-heavy website is intrinsically slower than a website with no images.

Despite this fundamental problem, I would never recommend that you stop using images on your website altogether. After all, well-chosen images make your website look suitably stylish and form an important part of your website’s aesthetics.

In other words, using images is a balancing act between speed and style. If you want the best of both worlds, though, image optimization can reduce an image’s weight, making your images less of a hindrance on load times.

Broadly speaking, there are two strategies that I strongly recommend to all WordPress users.

  • Crop and re-size images to make them the correct dimensions. This is for three main reasons: 1) reducing an image’s dimensions reduces the file size; 2) if the image is larger than the display size, it’s carrying unnecessary weight; and 3) it takes more time for the server to rescale an image down to your specified dimensions than it does to display the image at full-size. WordPress comes with its own image editing functionality, but personally, I’m more comfortable using the free Pixlr image editor.
  • Use lossless compression to reduce file size. I recommend using a lossless compression plugin like WP Smush to strip away unnecessary metadata from the images. The plugin also marginally reduces image quality, shaving valuable KB from an image without a noticeable drop in quality for visitors.

WP Smush

3. Install a Caching Plugin

Browser caching is one of the “quick wins” of the speed optimization world. This means that installing a caching plugin should feature highly on the to-do list of anyone looking to speed up their WordPress website.

But what is caching?

Well, when you originally access a website, your browser must download all the relevant files to display the site correctly. Unknown to you, these files are stored away in a temporary storage location on your computer.

When you try to access another page of the website, it makes little sense to reload the website completely from scratch. For example, graphical elements like the site logo aren’t changing.

By retrieving some of the static files from the cache, there’s far less information to download, which means the website can be loaded significantly more quickly. This is how browser caching can reduce page load times substantially.

If you want the best caching plugin on the market, aThemes recommends the excellent WP Rocket plugin. Beyond browser caching, the plugin also supports a number of other neat functionalities for speeding up your website, some of which we’ll cover in later points.

WP Rocket plugin

If you’re on a budget, there are still some highly regarded free plugins available, including W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache.

4. Content Delivery Network (CDN)

Typically, a hosting service will serve your website from just one server. From a website speed perspective, there is one major flaw with this: the larger the geographical distance between internet user and server, the larger the connection distance, latency, and load times.

If a visitor is fortunate enough to be sitting geographically close to your server, there isn’t a problem. If, however, your website caters to an international audience, visitors on the other side of the planet are going to be waiting a long time for your website to load.

The solution to this problem is simple: install a Content Delivery Network (CDN) on your website. A CDN serves your website from servers dotted all around the world, automatically connecting them to the server that’s geographically closest. This eliminates latency problems associated with distance, ensuring your website is served at breakneck speed to all visitors.

Here at aThemes, we recommend the MaxCDN service. If you’re on a budget, though, the go-to free CDN service is undoubtedly CloudFlare.


5. High Quality WordPress Theme

Choosing a WordPress theme is one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make. For a start, your WordPress theme will define your website’s aesthetic design. There's one other big consideration, though, which we'll be concerning ourselves with for today's post: your WordPress theme has a big impact on your website’s load times.

When it comes to picking your WordPress theme, you need to look for style and quality. Just because a theme's demo looks stunning, it isn’t a clear indicator that the theme is well-coded and problem free.

Ideally, you’re looking for a theme that’s lightweight and coded following WordPress best practices – as all themes here at aThemes are. You can check a theme’s sales description for this information, and you can also use the W3C website for analyzing themes to see if they meet the industry’s best coding standards. Just paste the URL of the theme demo into the CSS and HTML markup validators – the validator will flag any coding concerns.

If you want a more specific speed-focused test, I recommend running the theme demo through the Pingdom Page Speed tool. This can be useful for evaluating the relative speed of any themes you’re considering.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that even well-coded themes can be slow. If the theme uses lots of complex functionality, or is image-heavy with full-screen image sliders, the theme will inevitably carry a lot of extra weight. If your primary consideration is speed, look for minimal themes that are light on images and only support essential functionality.

6. Database Optimization

Behind the scenes of every WordPress install sits a MySQL database. This database is the place that all your website’s content is stored – from usernames, to blog posts, to comments.

On a fresh WordPress install, the database is relatively streamlined, but as your website grows, so does the database. This can be problematic, as to display, say, a blog post, your server has to access the database to retrieve the content.

Imagine a filing cabinet for a moment; the more clutter there is, the more difficult it is to find what you’re really looking for. The same applies to the WordPress database. As your database increases in size, it takes longer to retrieve the relevant information.

Some database growth is just par for the course of a growing website. Unfortunately, most of the information cluttering up your database is completely irrelevant. The two biggest offenders are post revisions – do you really need 27 post revisions of a post you published six months ago? – and spam comments. Unfortunately, by default, WordPress stores these automatically.

One of the top plugins for optimizing a WordPress database is WP-Optimize. You can configure the plugin to automatically clean your database, remove old post revisions, and one-click delete all spam comments.


7. Lazy Load

The biggest concern for your visitors is not how long it takes for your entire website to load, but rather how long before it’s usable.

For example, because I’m not going to see an image at the bottom of a blog post for quite a while, why should I care if the image isn't loaded straight away? From my point of view, as soon as the content and images above the fold are loaded, the website is usable.

This is the basic principle behind lazy loading. Images further down the page are delayed, with the content at the top of the page given priority. The images lower down are only loaded when a visitor scrolls down to them.

The excellent WP Rocket plugin supports lazy load, or, if you’d prefer a free alternative, BJ Lazy Load is one of the most popular plugins.

BJ Lazy Load

Final Thoughts

Website speed isn’t just a luxury for the lucky few – it’s something that all WordPress webmasters should be taking seriously. After all, a lightning quick website will help your rank better, keep your visitors happy, and will result in more conversions – as such, a fast website is great news for your bottom line.

Although a lot of the talk surrounding speed optimization involves technical talk, don’t let that intimidate you. Getting the basics of speed optimization is relatively straightforward, courtesy of a number of excellent plugins, themes, and hosting services.

The seven tips in today’s post are all beginner-friendly and, in my opinion, should be implemented by all WordPress users.

How quick will they make your website? That depends on a number of factors, but I recommend testing your website before and after making any changes using either the Pingdom, Google PageSpeed Insights, or GTMetrix speed testing tools. This will allow you to tangibly measure any speed improvements.

Now, it's over to you. If you have any other tips for speeding up a WordPress website, let us know in the comments section below!

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One comment

  1. So, yes, caching plugins can give you massive speed improvements.  Just be aware that the wrong settings can massively slow down or break your site , and that caching itself is an advanced feature that can cause problems for the novice.  It’s not just as simple as checking a few boxes and forgetting about it.  Use with caution.  Test aggressively after you activate it.

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