How to speed up your WordPress site when your page load time sucks

It’s hard to deal with all the things we’re supposed to do for our websites.

When Google let us know that we could expect to be graded on page load time, it seemed to add yet another thing to worry about.

Bad speed test grades; need to speed up WordPress
Test results from WebPageTest.org…ugh.

Thanks, Google.

Actually, if you stop and think about it, we probably should thank them. When they decided to give bonus points to faster websites, they only reflected what was already happening with our visitors.

When websites are slow to load, visitors are quick with the back button.

Ouch.

Complaints about short attention spans aren’t unfounded. But instead of wasting time complaining, I say we kick ass with actionable tips and tactics to help speed up your WordPress site.

Let’s do it.

WHY is your website so slow to load?

There are many potential causes of slow load times.

That’s not as big a pain to deal with as you might think, because focusing on a few of the biggies might help you speed up your WordPress site enough to get by.

Don’t worry about setting aside a day or a weekend or whatever to knock out every single one of these optimization tactics. Just start. You’ll see some improvement with every thing you do. It will all add up.

Also worth mentioning: It’s not that WordPress itself is all that slow.

WordPress is the answer for most any website question

Mostly it’s that people who build or manage their WordPress sites without help don’t usually have the technical knowledge to avoid performance problems.

Their sites become overloaded with plugins and oversized images. Their hosting servers are underpowered. And, their WordPress themes are janky (legit technical lingo there) and poorly coded.

Even if you’re tech challenged, no worries. No judgment. I’ll help you find at least a few low-tech tactics to help you trim down and speed up your WordPress website so you can get back to your actual reason for having it.

How slow is your website, exactly?

Before I show you a tool that’ll help you measure your site load time, swear you won’t get lost in the details. I’ll wait…

OK now: Go to GTmetrix, enter your URL and run the test.

GTmetrix is free and you don’t need to sign up for anything to see the analysis results. Once you see the report, look only at the boxes near the top that look like the image below.

GTmetrix Performance Report
Here’s what you need to look at. Forget the rest of the stuff on the page. And don’t sweat it if you see Ds or Fs. The page I used for this example had Ds and Fs before I worked on it.

Save the page as a PDF or print it out so you can refer back to it and measure your improvement after you’ve made changes.

Image optimization is the #1 best way to speed up a WordPress site

Among owner-maintained websites, images are by far the biggest problem we see with slow websites.

Fortunately, we have multiple tactics to combat out-of-control images. None of them are hard. All are free, cheap or simply a matter of not doing a thing.

Tactic #1: Limit image dimensions

It’s really easy to use up the allotted space in your web hosting account by uploading images you haven’t resized. I mean, you can always scale them in WordPress, right?

Except, you forget. Or your Media Settings [see the screen grab below] use pixel dimensions that are larger than you need. I won’t give you a specific set of dimensions to use, because what’s right depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

If your visitors need to see greater detail (for example, screen shots like the ones I provide) or you’re showing off work (a photographer’s or artist’s portfolio), you’ll need to set your image size limits higher.

Even when you set them higher, though, remember to insert smaller sizes wherever possible.

For my purposes, these settings are good. If I were a professional photographer I might increase the large size setting.

The amazing Joe Hendricks suggests 1400px wide. If it’s good enough for a pro landscape photographer like Joe, it’s good enough for you and me.

Tactic #2: Use actually smaller images – not scaled images

When you insert an image into a post or page, you have the option to choose from whatever sizes your theme offers. Some themes use special sizes for blog post thumbnails, featured home page areas and other purposes, so you may see more listed than the options below.

Choose the smallest image size that works for your purpose.

You’ll notice when you close the Image Details window that the image is selected in the editor and has resize “handles” you can drag to adjust its size.

Understand that scaling an image this way does not actually resize it. It just sets the size it appears at. The browser will still load whatever size image you specified when you set the image details.

If you need to tweak the size by scaling an image a small amount, that’s not a big deal. But if you could use a smaller image instead of scaling, do it.

Tactic #3: Automatically optimize every image in your WordPress Media Library

Image optimization is the next weapon in our bag of tricks. The easiest way to take advantage of it is with a plugin.

Every image compression plugin I’ve used saves somewhat on file size, without noticeably reducing quality.

Even if you have Photoshop or another pro photo editing tool, an image compression plugin is usually a better option to reduce file size. That’s because you can set it and forget it.

Like setting up proper image dimensions, once you set up an image optimization plugin, every image you upload is automatically compressed.

There are plenty of free or “freemium” image compression plugins that work well enough, but after going through a handful I’ve settled on ShortPixel. It’s far and away the best option out there right now.

Shortpixel is the best image optimization plugin for WordPress
ShortPixel beats other image optimization plugins – free or paid.

With ShortPixel, you can compress around 100 free images every month. If you are just now starting to optimize and wondering if it’s worth it to let it optimize your entire library, the answer is a resounding YES.

I’ve used the plugin to optimize the media libraries of client sites that had been on the web for years and had thousands of images. The plugin works great and costs very little even when you optimize your entire image library.

It will help you speed up your WordPress site. If you decided to implement only one tactic from this post, make it ShortPixel.

An additional helpful tool the plugin offers is the ability to automatically resize large original images on upload. If you changed the Media Settings we covered earlier, good for you. But they won’t affect full-sized images or images you’ve already uploaded.

You’d think resizing originals would be less of a factor in page speed, but I’ve fixed more than one site that included ridiculously huge images. One was 17MB. Yikes.

Uploading large images adds up, and unnecessarily depletes your hosting space. Setting up ShortPixel to automatically resize on upload will help you painlessly save space in your web hosting account. Do it!

What else makes your website drag?

This is the part that gets a little nerdy, and where most non-technical people should consider hiring help if/when they can. Even without pro help, though, there are usually things you can do to avoid or improve some of these problem areas.

Before we jump in to the nerdier stuff on the list, I do want to acknowledge that there is a plugin for seemingly every issue. Plugins, however, often create more serious problems than they solve.

If a plugin is a viable option, I’ll mention it – as I will if it’s something with more downside than I think is worth the risk.

Load more things, wait more time

Any given web page is comprised of source code that contains the text, headlines and subheads that actually appear on the page. These days, most web pages contain vast amounts of code that you won’t see unless you peek behind the scenes.

A lot of this code pulls in other files like images, fonts, scripts that make the web page do what it does (think fancy drop-down menus or e-mail opt-in pop-ups) or provide style and layout information for the site’s elements.

The more complex the site, the more resources it pulls in from outside the web page and the longer the load time. If your site loads slowly, think about what you can do to simplify it. Below are some good places to start.

There are ‘minify’ plugins out there that will join many of your text-based files together so there’s only one call to the server instead of multiple requests. These are not for the novice, because there can be issues when scripts are combined.

Still, it won’t hurt much if you install a minifying plugin to check it out. Just be sure to go through your site checking every different page type for glitches. If anything is amiss, deactivate and delete the plugin and all should be well.

Tactic #4: Get rid of plugins you don’t absolutely need

Plugins can be lifesavers. Since so many are free, though, it’s tempting to load up. But every plugin brings with it at least a few files – some include many.

Even when a plugin isn’t used on a specific page, its scripts and styles are almost always loaded. That can really add up.

Take a look at your plugin directory. Is there anything you’re not using and can delete?

If you’re not sure you can always do a trial run and deactivate a plugin without deleting it completely (files for deactivated plugins aren’t loaded into web pages).

Are there bloated plugins you need, but could replace with a more lightweight alternative?

Plugins like Sumo, Contact Form 7, ConvertKit and Jetpack are handy but notorious for slowing sites. Google for alternatives to try out and trim down the bloat.

Tactic #5: Swap out your poorly-coded theme

It’s hard for the average person to appreciate well-coded website themes – until they’ve been burned. I’ve seen some pretty bad ones in the years I’ve worked with WordPress.

I don’t want to get into a bunch of technical mumbo jumbo, so I’m just going to give you three pieces of advice I  know will serve you well:

  1. Stay away from ThemeForest. Yes, there may be a few good themes there. But there are a whole lotta bad ones. You won’t know the difference until it’s too late. Don’t waste your time or money.
  2. The StudioPress Genesis framework and child themes are solidly coded and will give you great design and peace of mind. They are worth the initially higher price. For best results speed-wise and with tech support, stick to those actually designed by StudioPress.
  3. Like free? You can’t go wrong with a recent Automattic theme. They’re the people that make WordPress, and they know their stuff.

Tactic #6: Lighten the font load

Sometimes poorly (or overly) designed themes include too many fonts. Other times website owners load up on fonts without realizing their drag on web page load time. Usually these are Google fonts, since they’re freely available.

You should know this about Google fonts:

  1. Each one has to be fetched from Google’s server and loaded up, adding to page load time.
  2. Each font variation (bold, italic and other variations) adds to the load as much as adding a completely different font. 😯 I know, right? Should we not at least be able to have bold and italic included???

Load big things, wait more time

When it comes to the size of the files pulled into your web pages, images are the first thing to think about. Video also provides a hit to page speed, as does any other content you embed in a page.

Obviously we need images, video, documents and other types of content to help us communicate our point. But do we need seventeen different animated GIFs to get our point across?

No, we don’t. Just pick one.

via GIPHY

Easy ways to speed up WordPress

Go ahead and work (or get help) to address the measures in this section regardless of where you are in your slow-page-load-fixing quest.

Even if they’re not the huge wins you might see with other fixes, they offer a payoff – mostly with little effort.

Tactic #7: Get a better host

It’s so tempting when you first start a website to just go with cheap shared hosting. I mean, it’s just a small chunk of storage space, just like space on your computer, right? Why not pay $3.99/month and be done with it?

Actually, that “just like your computer” thing is a pretty good analogy.

Let’s think about all the things that affect how fast your computer performs the tasks you request:

  • how old it is
  • what operating system it runs
  • how fast the processor speed is
  • how many things it’s doing at once
  • how good your WiFi signal and internet connection are

All the same basic principles are at work on the server that hosts your website.

You get what you pay for. Crap hosting crams more sites onto each server. When one site gets a traffic spike or is hacked, everybody pays.

The good news is you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to step up. Here are two good options to get you off of a poorly-performing web hosting service (or avoid it altogether):

1) Affordable managed WordPress hosting at Lightning Base

We use and recommend Lightning Base. I know – you’ve never heard of them. Despite being around since 2011 as well as all the hoo-ha over managed WordPress hosting (which is their specialty), I only found them because I stumbled across a recommendation from someone else.

Lightning Base is the most affordable managed WordPress hosting solution I know of. Their customer service is excellent – quick and responsive. In addition to hosting our own business sites, Lightning Base hosts several of our client’s websites. Current pricing is only $99/year. Switching is painless because they will move your site for you.

If you choose Lightning Base, you still need to be mindful about keeping WordPress and its plugins updated. If you’re uncomfortable or forgetful about handling updates, get a maintenance package that includes this service (we offer them & will make an announcement about that soon).

Lightning Base servers are locked down against intruders, which should help keep the cretins of the internet out if you occasionally fall behind on your updates.

2) All-in-one managed WordPress hosting + well-designed themes at StudioPress Sites

StudioPress Sites ticks more boxes than just speed on the “how to have a good website” checklist.

In addition to the speed and security of managed WordPress hosting, StudioPress Sites include the impeccably-coded Genesis Framework (mentioned above) and all its child themes. This saves you from having to purchase and upload a theme separately. If one theme isn’t working for you, no money lost – just click to pick another.

In independent tests conducted by Webmatros, StudioPress Sites had faster page load speeds than any other major WordPress hosting option (Flywheel, WP Engine, Media Temple, Pressable, Bluehost Pro).

Who is this option good for? Someone who believes $25/month is a small price to pay for not having to worry about performance and several other hosting hassles. No WordPress install, many one-click plugin installs, automatic theme and WordPress updates, no cPanel, no database crap. Like Lightning Base, StudioPress will migrate your site for free.

I’ve been a StudioPress customer since around 2010, but only recently used StudioPress Sites for the first time. My client whose site is hosted there did not need the worries or hassles of other options, so it was a good fit for him. Check out StudioPress Sites here.

Tactic #8: CDN (Content Delivery Network) FTW

In simplified terms, a CDN stores a copy of your website on super-fast servers in multiple locations. When visitors access your site, the CDN sends whichever copy is closest to the visitor.

A CDN does speed up your site, but it can be a minor annoyance when you’re tweaking your site and are served the cached (stored) copy. With any CDN, there is probably an option to turn off caching if you’re logged in. I sometimes have to be reminded of this after the fact 🙂

You can use Cloudflare with pretty much any website. They have a free plan that will work fine for most people. You can set it up yourself if you’re a little nerdy – or just patient enough to follow the (somewhat lengthy) directions.

Did you improve?

Measure your performance at GTMetrix after you’ve implemented any of these optimization tactics.

How did your score change?

What steps did you implement? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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