Improving load times for WordPress websites: Research and recommendations

Loading Screen For Slow Sites

Load Screen for Slow Sites

Google recently announced plans to start “shaming” slow websites by labeling them as slow in their Chrome browser, using either a “badge” or a load screen that specifically warns the visitor that the site loads slowly. Even if, like me, you don’t like Chrome and don’t use it as a default browser, this is something all website owners need to be concerned about: According to W3Counter’s browser stats for July 2019, over 55% of web traffic comes from the Chrome browser.

In effect, this means that it’s even more imperative for you to ensure that your website loads as quickly as possible. Seeing that loading screen, especially for mobile users, is very likely to mean they’ll click away and you have just lost a potential customer.

With this in mind, I undertook my own research into the available WordPress strategies for minimizing load times. I looked primarily at options commonly highlighted by utilities like Google Page Speed Insights, WebPage Test, GTmetrix, and Pingdom:

  • defer loading scripts that aren’t immediately needed as the page loads,
  • minimize image sizes,
  • and various WordPress caching plugins.

As I tried the various (free) plugins available at WordPress.org, I retested each of three different sites of varying complexity, including one ecommerce site, using the speed tests listed above.

Here’s what I learned which allowed me to bring these sites into the 95-100% range for Desktop and the 57-70% range for Mobile (mostly using 3G or 4G connections):

  1. Disabling unused or rarely used plugins does not help in these speed tests. The various scripts and CSS used by the plugin are still loaded by WordPress and included in the speed tests. If you don’t need it, deactivate and then uninstall the plugin completely.
  2. For general caching, what produced the best result for me was WP Supercache by Automattic. There are others, of course, which people swear by but this is what worked best for me.
  3. By far the single best boost in performance was obtained by deferring the loading of javascript and CSS and minimizing both where feasible. Again, there are a few well-known candidates for this task but what worked far-and-away the best for me was the Speed Booster Pack by Optimocha [*]. And to my surprise, some of the others I tested actually slowed down page loads for my sites.
  4. Lazy loading options or stand-alone lazy-load plugins did not help much, if at all, and sometimes created conflicts where the header logo or header image didn’t load at all.
  5. Compressing images in your Media Library definitely helps. Of the available options for this task, what worked best for me was the reSmush.it Image Optimizer by reSmush.it.
  6. And finally, another big surprise for me, I learned that my go to social share plugin for years, AddThis, was very slow, the slowest of several options I tried. I uninstalled this and after testing a few others settled on the Sassy Social Share plugin by Team Team Heateor. This turned out to be much faster and comes with a full array of options.

[*] Warning: In the Advanced tab for Speed Booster, be very careful what you enable. Moving javascripts to the footer is fine. Deferring loading of javascripts globally can break a lot of other addons or features. Leave Defer parsing of JS files turned off unless you are prepared to hunt down and exclude all the scripts your site needs.

And a final caution: These recommendations are based on my experiences with a limited number of server configurations and what worked best for me. What works best for you may well be different but my recommendations can serve as a good starting point.

Disclaimer: I only looked at free plugins for this study. Some of the paid plugins may work better for you, although that can get expensive for my primary clients, small business owners. I received no incentives whatsoever from any of the creators of the plugins I recommend in this post, and I have intentionally and specifically avoided mentioning any of several plugins I tried that did not meet my needs.

 

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