When it comes to loading speed, WordPress site owners have an array of tools in their toolbelt, unfortunately, the adoption of such tools is relatively rare, causing slow loading websites which isn’t good for the user, search engines or your revenue. I’d like to step away from the typical guides you see on how to speed up a WordPress site and walk you through what my typical approach is. I say typical approach because many sites have their own nuances and challenges but I tend to at least consider most of the below before whittling down into unique solutions.
I work with a downstream and upstream mentality, assessing the upstream factors that are resolved at this level will benefit the full site – I then work backwards from that point, arriving at a page-by-page assessment and fix. So without further ado, let’s start with serves.
Improving server performance for WordPress
WordPress database handling
I typically sway towards a MariaDB setup rather than MySQL for marginal gains (in my experience). This switch can be really useful in a large database situation albeit if you are really operating a site that is pushing WordPress to its limit (from database size), I’d recommend looking at setting up read and write servers. Coinciding with database handling, the PHP version plays a huge part in the overall experience – getting the latest stable version (and validating code compatibility) will have a major impact on pages.
Where you get your hosting speed is also a factor not to be overlooked, dedicated WordPress hosting will likely provide you with a top-of-the-range SSD (shared), a good amount of RAM and bolstered functionality exclusive to WordPress (like dedicated admin direct link).
Server Cron Jobs & Backups
Also, be cautious of Cron jobs and backups – occasionally I’ll see a website go slow for the better part of 30 minutes during the day and there has been a resource-heavy Cron job causing this. In addition to this too, backups should ideally be taken without using up site resources or at a late hour when the site is less busy. In a large eCom environment, there may be a requirement for every 15-30 minutes, be sure to do a full assessment on how this impacts resources and bandwidth.
Lastly, when it comes to server efficiencies, I always check for things like compression being active and also the DNS lookup time, this may be the server, domain registrar or wherever your DNS is handled.
Validating your site is the best it can be
The first place I typically look is the theme, as this is used throughout the site I’d be looking for expired support, theme files not updated or perhaps Woocommerce is using a hard-coded asset file which is now expired. Ensuring the theme is up to date can enhance the loading performance of the site, so it’s really important to stay on top of them or find a developer who can. Adopting the latest core files will often allow you to upgrade to the latest PHP version too – which again, has an important effect on loading speed site-wide.
Plugin integrity is a good place to assess if you are struggling with the loading speed, if you run an old WordPress site there could be a plugin which is a legacy one causing issues. Perhaps the plugin is no longer updated, outdated or just not fit for purpose, carrying a cleanse of the plugins on your WordPress site can have a big impact on the database and front-end loading speed. The quantity of the plugins can play a major part too – if you have more plugins than required, deactivate them and see if you miss them or need them, if you don’t, start and migrate them into deletion; running a lean plugin bank is very beneficial for loading speed.
A general lightweight setup – this is massively underrated and often overlooked. What I mean by this is to use only the minimum amount of third-party code as required to run the functionality needed. For example, if you need a simple lead generation site, you probably don’t need a full suite of plugins – instead try and build out a theme and a contact plugin. If you have regular backups and a CDN, I typically don’t use WordFence, which can cause unnecessary strain.
Always ensure you try to update everything where possible and have a staging site to ensure it all works as intended too, failing to keep plugins updated will likely creep you into the vulnerability and slow stage of a website’s life. I typically see this stage if a developer has parted ways with the client and the client has just continued to use the site as normal. This can be a fine approach in the short term but over the course of a few years, it is a big risk at this stage.
Serving your WordPress site as quickly as possible
When it comes to streamlining the front-end code, you can sometimes do this on a page-by-page basis or by groupings. A grouped enhancement would be page caching, allowing the code to render and then serve the cached version – giving a much quicker experience to visitors. Caching is part of a technique I would typically call good SEO housekeeping/loading speed hygiene, it also includes other elements like using webp formats, correct image sizing, as fewer assets as possible – to get a further handle on the SEO benefits of loading speed (regardless of platform), I do provide specific fixes for the most common loading speed issues.
In conclusion, I’d recommend using Google Page Speed tests and Lighthouse to get the scores for your site – this will likely give you tips at the front end (page by page) level. If you use crawling tools like SEMRush, aHrefs or Site Bulb, they will often hone you further into specific issues which may need looking at, these include missing images, unminified resources or perhaps redirection chains – which can all impact loading speed. Be frugal on what you install onto your site and ensure all assets you are using are streamlined. Checking your loading speed at regular intervals often gives you the best insight into anything going wrong recently.
A final way I’d check loading speed indirectly is through Google Search Console, simply head over there, settings and then Crawl information – here you can see the average time spent downloading resources. If you notice any uplifts or decreases, try to pinpoint this back to website changes or hosting changes – never become complacent with the loading speed, luckily for you – you are using a CMS which is conducive to fixing the core issues and not requiring loads of development work to complete. Another guide which compliments the loading speed of WordPress is my overall SEO tips for WordPress – which covers everything from hosting to URL creation – a must-read if you’re a WordPress site manager.