Website speed is in demand for a couple of reasons. In 2012, Google started using speed as a measure of web site value, in addition to social signals, content freshness, etc. The other reason is that people are getting used to accessing *everything* faster. Once you can get a hamburger in 5-minutes, the idea of waiting 25-minutes becomes almost intolerable. But while the user might experience speed in the aggregate – as just raw speed – if we’re looking to serve up that speed, we need to break it down into why, what, when, and how.
Why Website Speed Matters
Speed matters for two reasons – the human part, and the technology part. Copyblogger has an excellent article on site speed for WordPress-based sites. It makes the point that you spend a lot of time on the small adjustments, or do the big things that have the biggest impact, for the most return. Those big things boil down to 3 things:
- It can affect SEO. If your site is too slow, it can affect search position in Google. Fortunately, Google itself provides a tool to recommend speed improvements. Often these amount to one-line code entries that can be put into a site to turn on certain things like image caching and purges. On a brand new site, these can be added after you test out speed on the new domain. But Google will *only* make recommendations within the current context of your existing hosting, design framework or theme, and installed plugins. It won’t make recommendations on changes to those things which have the biggest speed impacts. For that, see the next section.
- It can affect User Experience. If the site is slow, users tend to click less and bounce more. Bouncing is leaving your site without clicking on anything past the home page or taking an action that counts as a conversion (like filling out a form). If the home page loads too slowly, bounce tends to go up. Besides Google measuring bounce rate, it corresponds to whether people are interacting with your site, so obviously, in most cases, we want to keep bounce rate as low as possible. If you have a brand new site, bounce rate is likely to be artificially higher in the first month, because all those edits, refreshes (to check the edits), showing off the look, and other actions needed to transition a site to live have a big impact. So ignore that dramatic spike until the dust settles.
What You Can Do About It
Focus on the big stuff, then tweak little stuff later.
- Get fast hosting. If you’re running a small plumbing business, maybe shared hosting is fine. If you’re expecting a lot of repeat visits and are a rapidly growing site with fresh content, you’re better off with something much faster and more stable – like VPS hosting. That means you get a virtual private server, with access to 100% of the resources your server instance provides, instead of splitting it with everyone else in the room. If they’re running resource intensive processes, it directly impacts your site without your control. It doesn’t matter if you’re with a rock solid company like MediaTemple, if you’ve only got the bottom end type of hosting. Chances are, if you’re paying less than $50/mo, you’re on shared hosting. But don’t forget, there are two ends of the hosting – your domain registrar also matters. Make sure they resolve domain names fast.
- Build on a framework. Most WordPress sites have a “theme”, which is a collection of templates for the whole site. Install a theme in WordPress, and you’ve got your look and feel mostly done. But even premium themes, costing $100 or more, may not be coded efficiently. Usually, they’re created by one person over late nights and coffee, and not by a team of developers. There’s no need to do a 100% custom development at $10,000 and up, though. A framework, like Thesis, can provide an efficiently coded basis for a design that you have much more control over, to change as you need. Because frameworks are worked on, updated, and supported by a team of engineers, they tend to be fast and stable. They merely require someone who knows how to work on the particular framework you’re getting.
- Keep it lean on special features. The more special features you add, the more of an impact on performance. You don’t want every single bell and whistle. In WordPress, these generally come in the form of plugins. Too many of them, and your site performance is affected. Focus on content, and a handful of special features. Some features use far more resources than others. For instance, a related posts feature that is constantly scanning the site can chew up resources (especially on shared hosting) a lot faster than a video shadowbox that only needs to act when someone clicks.
Those are the big things, in order of probable impact. The rest are tweaks.
When to Consider Caching
- Not as a substitute for fast servers. In the short term, you can implement caching to speed up a site that otherwise has slower than desired performance, but you’re better off in the long run upgrading your hosting to VPS and then taking the other steps. Besides, some of the settings you’d make for shared hosting would have to be changed for VPS, so don’t get the cart before the horse. Decide on the speed of your host first, then configure. Some hosting has caching built-in and requires site caching turned off. In all cases, start at the top, not the bottom. Start with the server you’re on.
- Not if you’re making big changes. Also, don’t cache if you’re still planning to make a lot of edits to the overall site layout. Cache when you’re done, so you’re not fighting the cache’s memory of your site to see live changes you’re making to the site.
How to Test and Optimize
If you’re already on VPS or faster hosting, you’ve built on a well-coded framework, and you’ve surveyed the plugins you’re using for any slow performers, then you can tweak speed with testing.
- Make it a Process, Not a Fix: Testing is a process that happens in stages, just like A/B testing in marketing. You run a speed test, get specifics from the report, then optimize accordingly. But then you test again. You rinse and repeat, until you get the right mix of settings and components. That’s because a web site is made up of lots of parts, not just what the user or owner sees. One line of code can have a dramatic impact — for instance inserting a line that tells WordPress to automatically empty it’s built-up clog and garbage. It doesn’t do that out of the box, but it can be added.
- Don’t Fix Everything: Some things have such a negligible impact on speed and a heavy impact on usability that you don’t really need to optimize them. The .001% performance increase isn’t worth your time. Do the big stuff. Even within Google’s limited analysis of a page that doesn’t include the big 3 factors, the results are ordered by priority: Should Fix, Consider Fixing, and so on.
- What You Can’t Fix: If you’re getting server response time issues, you’re probably going to need to upgrade to faster hosting. You can’t fix that by tweaking your web site – you can only migrate it to upgraded servers. If it’s saying to turn on browser caching and compression, those amount to adding a few lines of code to a server’s configuration (e.g. htaccess file). Anyone with FTP access could do; it’s not even a change to the web site, just a change to the settings on your server. If it’s a matter of compressing (“minifying”) some scripts and files, some can be shrunk down, and some probably shouldn’t be unless you want just a text-driven website. Consult your web developer. If it’s saying to optimize your images, you can do that yourself. What you fix should depend on the significance of impact.
- Mobile Matters: Google pays attention to mobile user experience. For instance, if your social buttons are too small to easily click without missing on a phone, you might want to raise the image size enough that agile fingers can easily hit them. Making your site responsive and having legible fonts sizes goes the farthest toward keeping the mobile experience optimal. While technically those aren’t speed issues at all, Google includes them in the speed test, so why not?
The speed you get comes from making optimal decisions about website implementation. Host it right, build it right, outfit it right, then test and tweak. You’ll get a much faster web site, regardless of anything else, and then you can focus on content and strategy without looking back.
For help understanding how to make your website faster, or a better marketing platform, contact MadPipe.