Site Speed: Where to Start When Your WordPress Site is Slow

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Is your WordPress blog painfully slow? It's a common problem among bloggers. Here are 5 things you can do to speed up your site. We cover everything that will help you reduce your load time, even if you're not "techie."

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This post was originally written by Teresa Ott from AFearlessVenture.com.

How amazing is it that you can start a blog with almost nothing and really quickly find yourself in the company of giants?

I’m not there yet. But I know people who are.

Who you are, how you get started — none of that matters to your blog’s visitors.

All they want is content that delivers on the promise you made when they clicked on your link.

That, and they’d like you to do it in two seconds or less, thanks.

Readers love small blogs… until they don’t.

Readers 100% do not care if, instead of a writing team and 20-person tech department, it’s just you on the other side of the computer screen.

In your PJs at your kitchen table even.

Readers value authenticity. Real people behind a blog. Connection. Relatability.

I could be biased, but I think small, independent bloggers pull off what readers really value way more often than giant blogging teams can.

Where small bloggers struggle, though, is with tech.

And the first place tech struggles manifest themselves? Site speed.

Do all bloggers have to care about this?

No. Not if you blog only as a hobby and don’t care about growing an audience or earning real money.

Otherwise, you must.

Because while visitors couldn’t care less about how you create content, they are both merciless and oblivious when it comes to how quickly you deliver it.

Why is site speed even a thing for small bloggers?

The site your visitor just came from loaded up in only a second. When yours doesn’t, they don’t think “Aw, bless her heart.”

It’s more like, “WTH is wrong with this site?”

Almost no one understands or cares about the technical differences between your blog and a mega-blog. That cluelessness means you have a lot of the same opportunities, which is great.

But it also creates the expectation that you’ll deliver just like the big guys.

Every extra second that it takes for your page to load costs you a chunk of your potential audience. Especially if they’re using a mobile device.

Just look at what load times do to bounce rates in the diagram below.

mobile page speed benchmarks

Even if they don’t hit the back button on that first slow-loading page, they tend to visit fewer pages overall.

So whether they’re bailing outright, or after only a couple of clicks, slower site performance means fewer page views.

The bottom line when it comes to speed is this:

If you want to grow your blog into something that provides quit-your-day-job money, you cannot let site speed stand in the way.

Are you a typical blogger?

Most bloggers don’t start with an ideal setup.

I don’t know how anyone could. Writing blog posts isn’t that big of a stretch for most people, but the technical decisions behind setting up a blog are 100% not everyday things.

When you go looking for info, it’s hard to sort the good from the bad.

  • You might install a resource-intensive plugin that slows down your site (on a blogger friend’s recommendation).
  • Pick lousy hosting because it all seems the same. (I mean, why not pick the cheapest?)
  • Use a page builder to make your site prettier.

The net result is that a lot of bloggers wind up with site speed that sucks. And, often, no clue how to fix it.

Well, I’m not going to lie. One blog post isn’t going to fix everything that slows a site.

But what we can do in this blog post is:

  • Give you a crash course so you’ll understand what hurts speed.
  • Offer suggestions for avoiding those things.
  • Tell you what to do if you need big/quick wins now.
  • Show you where to get help if the basics aren’t enough.

Let’s get to it.

Speed 101: How to Speed Up WordPress Performance

If you didn’t load any extra things into your blog’s pages, they’d be super plain.

Brilliant content alone might be enough for some people. But the reality is, without visual interest, it’s hard to keep most readers engaged.

On top of holding visual interest, there are things you might want to load into your pages to help grow your blog. Opt-in forms, for example.

Speed isn’t always about doing (or not doing) a thing. The best way to look at it is as a series of tradeoffs. If you add an image to a post, it adds a little loading time. But it also adds visual interest and maybe explains the content a bit.

The basics are pretty simple. Whenever you can do something on the list below, you’ll make your site a little faster:

  • Use fewer things
  • Use smaller things
  • Load things from a fast server
  • Load things from nearby

Yes, everything you load into your blog’s pages decreases speed at least a little. But when you’re smart about your choices, you’ll only add things that are worth it for both you and your visitors.

Tips for Using Fewer Things

  • Use fewer plugins. Every plugin loads at least one additional file, usually more. Make sure every plugin on your site is a net positive for you and your visitors.
  • Avoid using page builders. They load many extra files and nixing them is one of the easiest ways to speed up WordPress.
  • Don’t load more fonts than absolutely necessary. Understand that every style (e.g. bold, italic, light, bold italic) requires an additional file.

Tips for Using Smaller Things

  • Optimize images. I use and recommend ShortPixel. Not free, but close.
  • Use the smallest image size that works.
  • Replace resource-intensive plugins and themes with lighter options.

Fast Server Tips

  • Pick the best host your budget allows. I use Lightning Base. 
  • Don’t max out your hosting space. Upgrade before you start having problems.

Tips for Loading Things from Nearby

  • Avoid plugins and embed code that interacts with other servers wherever possible (e.g. Instagram embeds, ConvertKit plugin, Facebook boxes).
  • Pick a server nearest the majority of your audience. That is, if your host gives you a choice and if you know where your audience lives.
  • Put your site on a CDN like Cloudflare, where copies of your site can be stored in locations much closer to visitors wherever in the world they are.

Speed 201: Where to Start If Your WordPress Site is Already Slow

Are you a small blogger doing it all with limited time and money? Start by taking big swings at typical slow-site culprits like the ones that follow.

1. Eliminate domain redirects.

Do you sometimes use the ‘www’ version of your domain, and sometimes not? Do Google search results show your URLs as http when they should be https?

While it’s great you’ve got redirects in place so visitors wind up where they belong, those redirects all add to loading time.

Go to Google Search Console and make sure your URL was added correctly. Check your WordPress site and make sure both the WordPress Address and Site Address use the right version, too.

Use redirects to cover you when people use something other than the preferred version. But do everything you can to make sure people come to your site via your preferred URL.

2. Serve up optimal images.

Because so much about site speed is nerdy and technical, people grossly underestimate the extent to which images can be responsible for a slow site. Here’s an example.

Site Speed 2 The optimized pin image on the far right is just 5% of the size of the image on the left.

Now can you see how image optimization done right is the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to speed up your site?

Be sure to use actually smaller images.

Sometimes you think you’re using a small image, but it turns out you’re loading many more pixels than you’d like. This can happen in a couple of different ways.

Dragging the edges of the image in the WordPress editor, for example. That makes the image look smaller. But it’s still loading all the pixels of the larger image.

Don’t drag to resize; use a smaller image size.

Another problem area I see too often is with a theme or widget that pulls in featured images. They’ll use what looks like a tiny thumbnail but is oftentimes a full-size image.

Check the theme or widget settings to see if there are options for changing them so a smaller image size is used.

Automate image optimization.

Set up your image optimization plugin to automatically resize and compress your images when you upload. This way nothing escapes.

Figure out the largest image size you need, and change the plugin settings so nothing bigger is ever served up.

Use JPEG, not PNG.

As you saw in the example above, the PNG format produces huge files when it’s used incorrectly.

PNG is best used for logos and artwork with only a few colors. Not images with zillions of colors like photographs.

Want a cheatsheet to help you with all of the image optimization tips above?

No signup required, although I’d love to have you join my tribe at A Fearless Venture.

3. Evaluate and eliminate or replace plugins.

Go through your site’s plugins and deactivate any you think you can live without.

If you have speed-sucking plugins that handle important functions, see if there is a more lightweight alternative. If not, try to cut elsewhere to make up for it.

4. Install a caching/optimization plugin.

I recommend this as one of the final steps for two reasons.

First, because turning to a plugin first won’t usually produce the best improvement. Lastly, because a plugin can mask problems you really need to address.

I normally recommend WP Rocket for small blogging operations. What is ultimately the best thing for your site, however, depends on a number of factors, including what other measures you’re taking toward optimization.

Also know that every optimization plugin is a little different. I’ve found some overlap among them, as well as features exclusive to a plugin.

It’s important to weigh out all these factors because optimization plugins often clash.

Pro Tip: Don’t stay logged in to the post editing screen unless actively working.

WordPress’s autosaves clog up your database. WP Rocket or Autoptimize can help clean your database if they’re set up right. Getting in the habit of logging out can help a lot, no plugin required.

5. Get your site on a CDN.

Putting your site on a CDN like Cloudflare can provide a performance boost and help you speed up WordPress tremendously. But save it for last. As with a caching/optimization plugin, a CDN might give you enough of a boost to mask issues that need addressing.

Cloudflare’s free plan is more than enough for small blogs.

Author
Ben Huber

Hi! I'm Ben. A personal finance nerd on a mission to help DollarSprout readers make and manage financial decisions. A quoted contributor for Business News Daily, Business.com, Discover Bank, Moneyish, Student Loan Hero, Policygenius, TechRepublic, and more, I work to help others live their financial best life.

9 comments
Jonathan @ Mr. Centsible
Jonathan @ Mr. Centsible

Great tips. One thing I always wondered and can’t seem to easily figure out is how to tell if a plugin is bloated/speed-sucking, and how to identify a lightweight plugin? Thanks

Teresa
Teresa

Hey, Jonathan!

Running a speed test and looking at the waterfall chart (that’s the one with all the bars) can help you track down speed suckers. GTMetrix isn’t always accurate for load times, but I do like them for this purpose.

The longer the bar, the greater the load time. For the average WordPress blog (i.e., one that needs optimization work) images tend to be the resources with the longest load times and therefore longer bars on the waterfall chart. Not plugins.

Look for the longest bars and click on them to expand the info for that particular resource. It’s totally TMI, but don’t worry because you’re only going to look at the URL at the very top.

Look at the URL to see if it is a plugin. While it might not have the exact same name as the installed plugin, it should give you enough of a clue to figure out what plugin it is.

As far as how to identify a lightweight replacement, it is a pain in the rear TBH. Research, installing and testing are the only ways I’ve found, and it changes all the time. For the sake of time and sanity, I maintain only one list of suggested alternatives, only for the most common plugins, and it’s inside the 7-Day program.

If the URL in the resource info corresponds to an image, you know what to do 🙂

One last thing to mention – the size of the bars is relative. So if your site loads in just a couple of seconds, your “long” bars only mean that those resources take longer to load than other resources in your site. Make sense?

Jonathan @ Mr. Centsible
Jonathan @ Mr. Centsible

Makes sense. Thanks!

Amanda L Grossman
Amanda L Grossman

Great article! I’m particularly interested in this one “Don’t stay logged in to the post editing screen unless actively working.” I literally have my editor window open all day, probably 6 days a week…

I have autoptimize. Can you point me in the right direction for how to clean that up?

Teresa
Teresa

Amanda, Autoptimize is a helpful plugin for many things, but it won’t help with the reason behind my suggestion to log out when you’re not actively working.

As you work, WordPress sort of phones home. This happens even more often when editing than when working in the dashboard.

Either way, the longer you’re logged in, the more the requests add up.

There are some helpful reasons for this “phoning home” (a.k.a. Heartbeat) behavior. But when you stay logged in it’s ultimately a drag on server resources and therefore performance.

If I haven’t convinced you to log out (I get it…I used to be the Queen of Open Tabs), you can use the Heartbeat Control plugin to at least slow down the WordPress Heartbeat behavior.

Since controlling the Heartbeat affects autosaves, the plugin does have the potential to backfire when you wish it would’ve autosaved (ask me how I know 🙂 ).

Amanda L Grossman
Amanda L Grossman

I really appreciate your help! What I was concerned about was…is there a backlog that is slowing down my site that needs to be cleaned out?

Candi Elm
Candi Elm

My site speed according to the different programs is like 22 seconds. when I call my host they say it can’t go faster it is really like at 6. I can’t use WP rocket because it conflicts with Site Grounds plug in. I don’t have a lot of plug ins and I use Short pixel paid version. Could it be the theme itself? or bad redirects? How can I really find out without paying $1000.00 like I was quoted from someone trusted in the industry, but I can’t afford that right now. Or is it just a hosting problem?

Andy Feliciotti
Andy Feliciotti

Great tips! I haven’t heard of ShortPixel but I like their pricing plans.

Jeremiah Say
Jeremiah Say

Hi Teresa,

Thanks for the tip. I was thinking about getting a reliable CDN provider and I don’t mind spending more to get the best one.

I am looking at KeyCDN in particular. Do you think it is good?

I would like to hear your thoughts on it.

Thanks,
Jeremiah

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