The 4 pillars of WordPress Speed Optimization

WordPress Speed Optimization

Not Just About WordPress!

WordPress Speed Optimization is more than just optimizing WordPress. We cover, what we call, the 4 pillars of WordPress Speed Optimization and how they play a role in optimizing WordPress for faster page load times.

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WordPress Speed Optimization Requires A Foundation

The 4 Pillars Create Stability!

WordPress, by default, loads pretty quickly.

If you run a performance test on a default WordPress website, the results are good.

The performance of the WordPress website worsens based on what third-party themes and plugins are installed onto it.

Certain themes and plugins are resource-intensive and need access to faster CPUs or more memory during run-time.

WordPress Speed Optimization is required when the requirements of the site exceed the resources that are available within the hosting environment.

If you have enough money, you can continue throwing hardware at the problem and keep performance within range.

However, the best optimization effort is to optimize the code base so that it uses far less resources.

Unfortunately, that may require an on-going effort to keep up to date with the latest updates to third-party code.

Instead, WordPress Speed Optimization usually occurs by throwing more code at the problem (installing an optimization plugin).

If your environment is already being taxed, no amount of additional code is going to help improve performance where it matters.

Code-based cache systems can also break dynamic content when it serves out-of-date content.

You can be lead into a false sense of security when page load times are higher when serving cached version of the content. Only to find out the server crashes when needing to serve an updated version of the same content.

There is not a single silver bullet to WordPress Speed Optimization, because there are many factors at play.

Is your WordPress website hosted on an environment that is tuned for performance? Or, is it crammed into a server with countless other websites all competing for resources?

Are you using a poorly developed theme that takes an excessive amount of processing power to generate HTML for the browser?

Maybe there is a resource-intensive plugin that over-engineers relatively simple functionality.

What about the web server? Are you running a standard configuration or has the web server been tuned?

Out of date versions of PHP run far more sluggishly than the latest versions. PHP 7.0 offered a huge boost to performance in comparison to PHP 5.x.

The list goes on an on, there is no simple answer to “Why is my website loading slow?”.

We focus on 4 different pillars when we approach WordPress Speed Optimization.

The 4 pillars of WordPress Speed Optimization are:

  1. Developer Competence
  2. Server Environment
  3. Performance Optimization
  4. Page Cache
Image of 4 concrete pillars holding up a bridge to symbolize the 4 pillars of WordPress Speed Optimization.

Pillar #1 – Developer Competence

Does your developer understand the tech?

The reason why Developer Competence is the number 1 pillar of WordPress Speed Optimization is because it is the largest factor in poor performing WordPress websites.

When we say competence, we mean technologically competent – i.e. having knowledge and insight with regards to the technologies involved in website development.

Since the year 2000, the recommendations for website optimization have not really changed that much.

It has always been load CSS early, defer JavaScript, optimize images, and enable browser caching.

Every developer should know how to build an optimized website, it should be one of the first things they learn.

So, why do we see 4K resolution images being loaded when it is being rendered at 250 pixels on a website?

Why is it that we see raw photos, taken directly from a camera, not being optimized or resized?

How is it that relatively simple websites are taking 5+ seconds to load on fast connection speeds?

It is because WordPress websites have become super simple to develop and can be built without writing a single line of code.

Website page builders have become so popular, because they give you the power of design and development with no experience needed.

There are thousands of plugins available and can provide access to functionality for just about anything you want to accomplish.

You have access to WordPress Speed Optimization plugins, many are free, which make claims to drastically speed up your website.

The caveat to being able to build websites easier than ever is that it is just as easy to make poor decisions that can negatively impact page load times.

These third-party themes and plugins can drastically reduce the cost of developing a new website.

However, the more money you save upfront… the more money it can cost you down the road.

Let’s say you choose a developer who claims they can build your website for less than $1,000.

They build the website and it takes around 5 seconds to load on a relatively fast device with fast internet speeds.

That website will end up taking around 10 seconds to load on a mobile device with slower connection speeds.

According to a Research Study, conducted by Google in 2018, they claim that 53% of mobile users will leave a website that takes 3 or longer seconds to load.

For each 1 second, above 2 seconds, the likeliness that the visitor will leave your website increases drastically.

Any money you spend on paid advertisement or search engine optimization is going to largely be wasted.

Depending on the choices made by the developer, it will most likely cost far more than $1,000 for proper WordPress Speed Optimization.

If you have a simple static website, you might get away with only a cache solution. However, page cache is often incompatible with dynamic websites (such as eCommerce).

To be fair, clients do often request bad decisions be made – such as picking a theme themselves or demanding use of specific plugins.

Developers without technical insight can often be far easier to deal with as they will not have reservations about using poorly written third-party code.

In fact, it can often be far more lucrative to remain ignorant to the technologies involved.

But, the reality is, WordPress websites start out loading pretty quick and progressively get slower based on the decisions made during development.

So, if you are wondering why your website is slow loading, we’d be willing to bet that some poor development decisions were made.

You can try to throw a WordPress Speed Optimization plugin at the site and sometimes it may be enough.

When it isn’t, our WordPress Performance Optimization service takes a multi-pronged approach to optimization and will fix all of your site’s performance issues.

Pillar #2 – Server Environment

Hardware and Software are key!

This is where developer competence comes into play. The server environment is the second pillar of WordPress Speed Optimization.

Have you heard of HTTP/2? How about HTTP/3? Do you know how they work and what features they offer?

The largest difference between HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/2 was that the limit to the number of resources that could be downloaded were increased from 2.

Yes, that is right! For the longest time, browsers could only download 2 items in parallel. This is why JavaScript was recommended to be moved to the bottom of the page.

Why? Well that is because HTTP/1.1 came out in the era of dial-up – which was insanely slow compared to today’s connection speeds.

Attempting to load more than 2 resources could lock up a connection for an incredibly long time and could delay rendering of a website.

Today, our connection speeds are so much faster. So, HTTP/2 is able to remove that limit and download more resources at the same time.

Not all web servers support HTTP/2 and your website needs to be accessed through HTTPS in order for an HTTP/2 connection to be established.

Which brings us to the server environment. Many hosting providers are still selling hosting plans for outdated hardware and software.

If you are buying a hosting plan today and it comes with PHP 5.6 as default… run as fast as you can. No host should be selling new plans with anything less than PHP 7.x as the default.

Okay, so let’s say they offer a newer version of PHP and they support HTTP/2. What is their hardware like?

NVMe drives offer 4 times (or more) the performance in comparison to SSD drives for read and write times.

Not many hosting providers are offering NVMe hosting and it took years for hosting providers to begin offering SSD hosting when they were the fastest option available.

You may still find hosting providers using slower HDD drives for their hosting. At a minimum, SSD drives should be the standard.

Hosting providers use old hardware because it is cheaper to do so than to invest in new hardware every time it is available.

To be fair, we could not justify buying the latest and greatest PC hardware each year. That would become way too expensive!

Fortunately, there are some hosting providers who want to offer the most performance and make updated hardware available.

We recommend A2 Hosting’s Optimized WordPress Hosting plans.

With their Turbo Boost or Turbo Max plans, you can get access to insanely fast NVMe web hosting using AMD EPYC hardware.

Simply put, you can see a huge boost to website performance with their shared hosting if you are moving from another shared hosting environment.

For some WordPress websites, shared hosting will not be enough.

The server environment is like an engine, which all are specifically designed for specific applications.

You can try to put an small 4 cylinder engine into a semi-truck, but semi-trucks need a massive amount of torque for the weight they are hauling.

When you have a resource-intensive website or are getting a lot of traffic, you may need to upgrade to a virtual private server or even a dedicated environment.

There is also cloud hosting, such as Amazon Web Services, but we recommend having a dedicated server engineer available before considering a self-managed environment.

As for the software, PHP 7.0 offered a huge boost to performance in comparison for PHP 5.6.

PHP 7.2 is currently the lowest version of PHP being supported, which will reach end of life on November 30, 2020.

PHP 7.4 is the latest version (at the time of writing) and PHP 8.0 is in beta – meaning the next major version is around the corner.

If your website is on a hosting environment using anything less than 7.2 (at the time of writing), your server environment is out of date.

With our virtual private server, we routinely update our software to the latest versions. We are enjoying PHP 7.4 and the latest Litespeed Web Server.

On that note, most WordPress websites are hosted on servers using Apache or nginx for the web server.

We have known about and recommended LiteSpeed Web Server for many years. In fact, it is what lead our Technical Director to choosing A2 Hosting back in May 2013.

Litespeed Web Server is a drop-in replacement for Apache and comes with many performance improvements.

In fact, their entire focus is making their custom derivative of Apache as fast as possible.

They also offer several CMS-based modules that are tuned to help improve the performance of content management systems like WordPress.

When you combine the power of AMC EPYC hardware with NVMe drives and LiteSpeed Web Server – you get a server environment that will drastically improve page load times.

With our WordPress Performance Optimization service, we aim to relocate your website to a suitable hosting environment that will give your website a great server environment to thrive within!

WordPress Speed Optimization cannot be maximized without using the latest hardware and software that is available.

Pillar #3 – Performance Optimization

Making the browser happy!

Before HTML5, browsers were very slow to be updated as new HTML versions went through long, drawn out, processes to define standards and specifications.

HTML 4.0 was published on December 18, 1997 and then HTML 4.01 was published on December 24, 1999 – 2 years later.

Then HTML 4.01 remained the standard until HTML5 was published on October 28. 2014 – roughly 15 years later.

Around that time, the major browsers (through WHATWG) formed a Living Spec so that they could continue to advance forward.

Browsers began being updated far more frequently, implementing the latest features of HTML5 as they were defined.

With the implementation of HTTP/2, some optimization efforts changed for the better.

It was once a recommendation to combine all JavaScript into as few files as possible. But due to being able to download in parallel, it takes longer to download 1 large file than 10 smaller files.

Google, with Brotli, has also brought new file formats such as WOFF2, WebP, and WebM.

Brotli is the latest compression algorithm that is able to produce the smallest file sizes possible. Every major browser supports Brotli.

WOFF2 fonts are TTF fonts that have been compressed with Brotli.

WebP and WebM are the image and video file types that have been compressed with Brotli.

Some server environments (such as LiteSpeed Web Server) provide support for real-time compression using Brotli.

When it comes to performance optimization for browsers, it is no longer just move CSS to the top and JavaScript to the bottom.

We, as developers, have so many new performance features at our disposal and major browsers support the vast majority of them.

We can now defer JavaScript, which allows us to move it back up to the <head></head>. Defer begins downloading JavaScript, but waits to process it until the DOMContentLoaded event has fired.

To maximize performance, it is now recommended to move your JavaScript to the top so that you can begin downloading it as soon as possible.

A recent feature is the ability to inform browsers to lazyload images, which it will not download the image until the image container is close to scrolling into the viewport.

Image intensive websites can now very easily reduce their page load times by simply setting the “lazyload” attribute on img elements.

For servers supporting HTTP/2, they can push assets to the browser on the initial request. This improves page load times by reducing the need for the browser to parse the HTML to know what resources to request.

However, only a few browsers currently support Preload and Server Push – Firefox does not support it by default at the time of writing.

Using all of the modern optimization features offered by browsers and server software, page load times can be less than 1 second on desktop devices.

According to a Research Study conducted by BackLinko.com, they found the average fully loaded time for desktop was 10.4 seconds and mobile was 27.4 seconds.

They also found that Weebly and Squarespace offered some of the best overall speed performance and found that WordPress is one of the worst for website performance.

This is primarily because Weebly and Squarespace are developed by a dedicated team of engineers. Whereas WordPress is developed by professionals with a varying degrees of skill.

What we find a little bit funny is that WIX has fewer “fast” sites than WordPress, with a whopping 60.5% of their sites landing within the “average” range.

They mentioned that WordPress powers approximately 30% of all websites and remark that it is clearly not optimized for page loading speed.

They are not wrong, WordPress is geared more towards being easy to extend than focusing on what is best for performance.

However, we feel that third-party plugins and themes should start thinking outside the box when it comes to performance.

Sometimes it is far better to create a custom database to store your plugin’s data within that to use WordPress Core Functionality to store the data.

WordPres is often used because it can be a cost-effective solution and advanced optimization efforts can cost far more than the initial cost of development.

Either way, BackLinko.com’s report that WordPress websites perform badly when it comes to page loading speed means most websites simply do not have any optimization efforts implemented.

We consistently achieve page load times of less than 2 seconds with WordPress websites. This website (and many of our other websites) score a 100 for Desktop in Google Page Speed Insights.

If the average page load times are 10.4 seconds for Desktop and 27.4 seconds for Mobile and 53% of Mobile users will leave a website that takes longer than 3 seconds to load… who are they buying from?

To be honest, we just found the BackLinko.com article when we were writing this post and it is astonishing as to how slow websites are.

They sampled 5.2 million websites and the average page load times means many sites took substantially longer to fully load.

We know that WordPress Speed Optimization is important, but it is also hard to outline why it is so important.

Plus, it often involves a ton of technical jargon and there is no super simple, low-cost, solution. (Not yet, but we are working on one!)

Performance Optimization plays a critical role in WordPress Speed Optimization, but you can only optimize so much before you need to overhaul.

Many poor development choices can be overcome with thorough performance optimization and we focus on implementing every optimization possible with our WordPress Performance Optimization service.

Pillar #4 – Page Cache

A Really Big Band-Aid!

Page Cache is considered a pillar of WordPress Speed Optimization because it can remove back-end processing of a website.

Back-end processing plays a large role in Time To First Byte (TTFB) which is the time it takes for the browser to start receiving data.

Most server environments will send data to the browser as it becomes available, but the browser will not render the website until it is able to fully parse the Document Object Model (DOM).

As you begin adding resource-intensive themes and plugins to WordPress, it takes longer to fully send out all of the HTML.

This results in a longer page load time, which can be offset by using Page Cache.

Page Cache effectively stores a copy of the HTML code and serves it to the browser instead.

This can create a substancial boost to page load times, but only for visits where the cached page is served.

Every so often, the cached page needs to be updated and that visit will take much longer to load.

Page Cache has also been incompatible with dynamic websites, such as eCommerce websites.

If one customer purchased the last product, the next customer may see the product is still available. They may lose interest in buying from your website when they find out it was out of stock.

The recommendation for dynamic websites is to disable page cache for dynamic pages – such as products, shopping carts, and other critical pages.

While you may be able to load your static pages (homepage, contact page, or some landing pages), you can still suffer from long page load times on the pages which are not cached.

Code based caching solutions are also fairly resource intensive themselves and they can make page load times longer when the cache is not primed.

This is why we recommend server based cache systems, which run on top of PHP and use compiled code to speed up processing times.

LiteSpeed Web Server comes with a server based cache solution, which can be leveraged with LiteSpeed Cache.

One benefit to LiteSpeed Web Server is that they support Edge-Side Includes – which allows them to punch holes in cached pages to allow dynamic content to be cached separately.

By default, they support ESI for the Admin Bar and WooCommerce.

Almost any shortcode can be converted into an Edge-Side Include very easily, giving LiteSpeed Web Server a distinct advantage over code-based cache solutions.

While Page Cache can produce significant performance gains, we do not recommend using it as a fix-all band-aid. Critical issues with performance should still be dealt with.

If you have a third-party theme that takes a long time to generate the HTML to send to the browser, you might want to consider moving to a different theme.

Of course that can cost more money, so Page Cache ends up being a huge band-aid to cover up poor performance.

With our WordPress Performance Optimization service, we ensure your website takes advantage of server based page cache for optimal page load times.

Page Cache plays a huge role in WordPress Speed Optimization, which is why we include as one of the 4 pillars.

Conclusion – WordPress Speed Optimization

The 4 Pillars Create a Foundation!

If you found us through a search engine, you know how many articles exist for WordPress Speed Optimization.

Many of those articles will address one aspect of optimization or provide a guide using one of the favored optimization plugins.

The reality is there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to WordPress Speed Optimization. It will vary from one site to another.

If you have a high-traffic website, a shared hosting environment is the last thing you need. You will need to consider a VPS, dedicated server, or a tech stack like Amazon Web Services.

Low traffic websites do not generate enough revenue to warrant higher cost solutions. However, not investing in effective solutions can prevent the website from generating revenue.

The most important pillar is Developer Competence. Regardless of who initially built your website, a developer with a specialization in WordPress Speed Optimization must be technologically competent.

Without an in-depth understanding of the underlying technologies, the developer would be unable to effectively optimize your website.

Most optimization services include nothing more than installing and configuring third-party optimization plugins.

While they can produce a boost to page load times, are they able to guarantee you will see 90s in Google Page Speed Insights?

Please ask them, we will bet that they will say something along the lines of “It is impossible to guarantee or promise those results!” and they would be correct.

When you throw the same solution at different problems, you are going to get different results.

Some problems may be resolved by the solution, but other problems may not be.

We can achieve 90s in Google Page Speed Insights because we do not throw the same solution at every problem.

Our solution covers most problems, but then we go further by fixing issues that our solution does not cover.

We can do this because we understand the technologies involved and work outside the box to find solutions that others may not be able to find when looking inside the box.

This allows us to address the other 3 pillars far more effectively.

We look at your traffic and your website to determine what Server Environment would be best for your needs.

We implement the most up-to-date Performance Optimizations to take advantage of every performance boost available.

Lastly, we implement a server based Page Cache solution and tune it to support every bit of dynamic content on your website.

So, if your WordPress website is slow to load, contact us and let us address the 4 Pillars of WordPress Speed Optimization.

Achieve superior page load times with our WordPress Performance Optimization service!

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