The Fundamentals of WordPress Site Speed

written by Matt Stern

Website performance is a potentially large and complicated topic. However, the fundamentals–and best practices–are simple enough that a do-it-yourself site owner can succeed in building a fast WordPress site.

If you’re not a DIYer but are instead looking to hire a web designer or developer, the information in this article will help you ask questions to determine if a potential developer builds for speed.

Hosting

Your web host is where the contents of your website live. Hosting affects everything downstream, so it’s worth doing some research to find a good one.

What is good hosting?

Foremost, your web host needs to be fast. Most web hosts claim speed, but they don’t always deliver. One way to assess a host’s performance is to 1) purchase a plan, 2) install WordPress, 3) install a theme and 4) check your new (blank) site’s time to first byte (TTFB).

Click here for a detailed guide on assessing ttfb.

Most hosts have a money-back guarantee so you can get a refund. Ideally, your time to first byte is under 300 milliseconds. A good web designer will probably have a few trusted hosts that they recommend. Don’t be shy to ask who they recommend and why?

Other Aspects of Good Hosting

Customer Support: Chat and/or ticket system
This is hard to know beforehand, as every host claims to have great customer support. I’m impatient, so I love a host with chat support (like GreenGeeks), but most hosts respond to support tickets within an hour.

Free SSL Certificates
Arguably a “must-have” for a modern website. Many hosts offer a free SSL Certificate via Let’s Encrypt, but not all of them do. GoDaddy still charges around $70 for an SSL Cert.

Backups
You should back up your site regularly whether or not your host does. That said, I appreciate when a host offers backups, especially given that restoring a site is usually just a few clicks from a host’s backup.

User Friendliness
Again, this is hard to know beforehand (maybe a prospective host would give you a tour of their backend), but some host dashboards are a tangled mess. Siteground, I’m looking at you. Others are clean and easy to find what you’re looking for.

My Current Recommended Web Hosts

  • Greengeeks
  • Flywheel

Theme

The next big decision that affects your WordPress web speed is your theme. A theme helps you customize many aspects of your site–colors, fonts, headers, footers etc–without writing code. Certain themes may also determine the basic layout and aesthetic tone of a site. My recommended themes for speed and features are:

  • Kadence
  • Generate Press
  • Astra

WordPress default themes such as 2021 are also fast, but usually have more limited options for customization.

Avoid “kitchen sink” themes such as Avada, Theme X and others that offer everything you could ever possibly want. These themes are bloated and slow, and you probably don’t need half of the features, anyway.

Again, a solid designer should have a list of go-to themes. Ask them what they use and why.

Plugins

Plugins extend the functionality of a WordPress website. For example, you might use a plugin to add a contact form, add e-commerce, or collect email addresses for lead generation.

Not all plugins are created equal. Some are well-coded, lean and fast. Others are fat and slow.

It’s hard to know ahead of time how a plugin will affect site performance. Many popular plugins are slow!

Plugin weight (in kilobytes or megabytes) can indicate speed, but not always. You can download a plugin from the WordPress repository to see how large it is.

Or, just install the plugin on your site and run a speed test to see how much it affects your load times.

An experienced WordPress designer will have a list of go-to plugins. Or they can run some tests to see what plugin meets your needs and is fast.

Images

Images can make up a significant portion of your website’s page weight. The first step is to consider if images are important for your site.

Many sites appear to include images simply because they can, or because that’s what everybody else does.

But if an image doesn’t help communicate your message or add actual value, consider other ways, such as colors or fonts, to enhance your site.

Images also add to your ongoing workload. If you decide to add a featured image to your blog posts, then you have to find and optimize an image every time you write a new article. That adds up!

If you use images, optimize them in the following ways for fast loads:

  • Re-size before uploading them to your site.
  • Compress them with a tool like Short Pixel
  • Lazy Load

Fonts

Fonts–from Google Fonts, Adobe Typekit or uploaded locally–will impact your site speed. Like images, consider if you really need a special font.

It all depends on your business, your audience and your speed budget. If the rest of your site is fast and lean, by all means add a custom font.

If you use fonts (and I do love fonts), consider these optimization tips:

  • Choose only 1-2 font families.
  • Select only the weights and styles that you need.
  • Consider hosting google fonts locally.
  • Add a DNS pre-fetch to any third party font calls.

3rd Party Scripts

3rd party scripts include anything that your website has to bring in–or call–from another server. This could be fonts (as mentioned above), an Instagram feed, a form that’s called in from MailChimp, etc.

Because 3rd party scripts come from an outside source, they can be harder to optimize, so it’s best to minimize their use. If a script is essential to your project, DNS pre-fetch is one way to speed up its delivery.

Caching

What is caching? Essentially, caching saves snapshots of your webpages so they don’t have to be dynamically built with each page view.

Caching is usually an excellent way to reduce load times, but certain settings can mess up the layout of your site.So make sure you test thoroughly to ensure that caching doesn’t break anything.

Many managed web hosts, like Flywheel, have their own built-in cache feature, so you would work with them to configure the specific cache settings for your site.

If you’re on shared hosting–like GreenGeeks–you’ll have a choice of many cache plugins, and will need to configure the settings yourself.

Here are my recommended cache plugins:

  • Litespeed Cache Plugin
    • Really good but only works if you’re on a Litespeed Server (ask your host).
  • Cache Enabler
    • Good, basic cache plugin. Not overly complicated.
  • WP Rocket
    • Paid plugin is well-known and widely recommended.
  • Swift
    • Haven’t actually used it but have heard good things. Free and paid versions.

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