The importance of maintaining a WordPress site for optimal speed

No visitor to your website wants to spend more than a few seconds waiting for your site to load. Even with the most engaging content, if your Wordpress website isn’t performing optimally, converting visitors to customers will be difficult.

Andre Liem
Andre Liem

No visitor to your website wants to spend more than a few seconds waiting for your site to load. Even with the most engaging content, if your WordPress website isn’t performing optimally, converting visitors to customers will be difficult. In this article, I will explain why all businesses should invest resources into maintenance and how to get started.

An analogy I like to make is that similar to maintaining a car, WordPress websites actually require maintenance. A standard maintenance program for a car is proportional to the mileage. If you drive more, you should bring your car in for an oil change and general tune up more often.

Unlike a car, maintaining a typical website is not proportional to how often it’s used or visited. As long as your site is hosted with an appropriate server for the volume of traffic it receives, it will run the same if nothing else changes. Keep in mind this is for typical business websites, not ones which receive huge spikes of traffic or contain a lot of interactivity such as forums.

So why do websites require maintenance? The one word is change. Change is what mileage is to cars. The more change that occurs to a site, the more your site needs to be maintained to ensure it’s running optimally. While you as a website owner can control when new content is added or removed, you do not have as much control when it comes to the software WordPress relies on to work.

A WordPress site for example typically utilizes a dozen or more of 3rd party software called plugins. These plugins are one of the main reasons WordPress is the most popular CMS platform. Instead of paying a company to build a feature custom, you can find a plugin and install it with the click of a button. On top of this, WordPress itself is an open source platform that is managed by a team of professional software developers who are constantly updating it, fixing bugs and closing security loop holes. So your standard WordPress site is a dynamic piece of software, every time an update is made to a plugin or WordPress, your site is affected. The great part is that this software is usually free or very affordable. The downside is that not all of the plugins are made equal, some can slow down your site, or worse expose it to backdoor hacks + malicious code.

On top of this, visitors access your site with web browser software which are updated periodically. For example, a few years ago a website running without a SSL certificate, that is http instead of https, would not be a problem. Fast forward to the present day, security requirements have increased and most major browsers will put up big warning signs if you visit a site through http. When this update rolled out, many sites were not ready for this change in browser software, and users would think the sites were broken or worse, potentially malicious.

The truth is that, in most cases all these software changes usually improve things, but with any change there is always a probability that they create opportunities for your site to fail or slow down.

Unfortunately, we don’t always know what the outcome will be, and better than leave it to chance, or worse visitors to your website, there are steps you can take to ensure your site is performing optimally.

Security & Speed & SEO

The three focuses of our maintenance program are the three S’s of Security, Speed, and SEO. This assumes your site is functional and working properly of course.

For this post we will focus exclusively on Speed, stay tuned for follow up posts addressing Security & SEO.

You may wonder how important speed is for your website? Here are some real numbers to think about directly from a Google Research paper.

If you’re not familiar with bounce rates, here is the official definition from Google

“The percentage of visitors to a particular website who navigate away from the site after viewing only one page.”

Source: Google

A high bounce rate means more users “bounce” away from your site instead of visiting other pages on your site. Generally it’s considered better to have a low bounce rate, you want visitors looking at various pages on your site before leaving. If your site is only 1 page then this metric does not matter as much. But for most sites, a high bounce rate typically means a user came and left without engaging with your site.

The main take away here is that shaving a few seconds off your page loading time can have a dramatic effect on whether a user decides to stick around or leave. This means properly maintaining your site so it’s well optimized can translate to more users staying on your site and converting to customers.

Measuring site performance

Before we perform site maintenance, you need to get a baseline for how well your site is currently performing.

Our preferred tool for measuring site performance is gtmetrix.com. With this tool, you can enter any page from your site and receive a score. Below is an example of a report created for one of our clients.

The above highlights 2 scores “PageSpeed” and “YSlow”. Both are different scoring systems which look at your site in similar ways. In this example, the site has a green score in the mid 80% which is considered good.

In this image, you get a more detailed view of what is going on with your site. There is a similar page available in the second tab for YSlow.

The results are sorted to show the items with the highest severity based on a poor grade and high priority. In this example, we can see that the top recommendation is to “Serve Scaled Images”. Typically, handling these issues are not very difficult, but are often not that easy to handle if you are not technical.

Lastly, another very important metric to look at is the total page loading time. In this example the page loads in 2.8 seconds which is also considered good. The average numbers at the time of this report indicate most sites load closer to 6.9 seconds.

I recommend that you enter your site into gtmetrix and see what you get. If you are seeing poor scores you should look at getting these fixed.

What is a reasonable score?

Generally speaking it’s difficult to get a perfect score unless your website is only showing text and does not do anything fancy. That being said, scoring is really a game, you want to be above the average because you are ultimately competing for visitors.

With that in mind, I would recommend getting in the “green” with gtmetrix. In this example, all the scores are in the green and well above the average, so I wouldn’t really recommend a lot of time is put into any more optimization as the return on investment will be low. Keep in mind that you have to look at desktop vs mobile results, they can vary greatly!

If your site is getting a score lower than the mid 70’s I would look at improving this as soon as possible. At Midstride, we use a combination of commercial plugins/tools and custom development to help our customers achieve better scores.

Keep in mind that if your site is one long landing page with lots of imagery, you’re never going to achieve a loading time as fast as a small page with mostly text.

Common Optimization Problems

Most web sites which have not had much optimization performed on them typically lag in these areas:

  • Images are not compressed.
    • You can speed up a site by margins of 30-50% if you compress all your images.
  • Too many requests.
    • Instead of having a browser fetch 10 files, you can have it combined into one which reduces load time.
  • CSS & JavaScript issues
    • Harder to fix, but quite often WordPress plugins or themes will load CSS and JavaScript in a way that is not optimal.
  • Caching
    • Caching is a way to avoid visitors from fetching the same assets again. If you already fetched an image of a cat, you can keep this on your computer (browser) and not have to fetch it again. This means return visitors to your site could load your site way faster the next time they visit

These are the common issues we see reported through performance tools and is where most “bang for your buck” can come from.

How to fix these

Our approach with WordPress optimization is to start evaluating your site in this order:

  • Hosting
    • Is the site on a reputable host with enough power? If not, you need to get on the right server which may address a lot of performance issues.
  • Distributed Network
    • Is your site served through networks that can distribute your site content faster? For example, cloudflare and akamai offer services to beef up the security & delivery of your site.
  • WordPress + Plugins
    • Are you using any plugins that are hindering performance? Not all performance plugins actually work that well. We have a set of tools we prefer and offer to all our clients that choose to host with us. Specifically, all sites should have tools in place to optimize images and JavaScript + CSS.
  • Code
    • Lastly, if the above are all in order we will examine the code and see if there are problems. This is can be a time consuming task at times and is an area to budget for before massive work is undertaken.

Low Hanging Fruit

The nice part about the first two steps is that they are not typically very intensive. Clients which host with us have the first 2 already taken care of, we use world class server infrastructure to ensure our clients have secure and fast hosting. If you prefer keeping hosting under your own control, we can provide you with a recommended solution based on our own research.

The second step of improving your networking usually involves updating your domain DNS records to go through a site like cloudflare. They will handle all the hard work for you.

Plugins to the rescue?

The 3rd step looks at the plugins installed. Often times a specific plugin can slow down a site and is not necessary. As well, installing proper performance optimization plugins can take a site from a low 50% to 80% in a few minutes. Be aware though that not all plugins are made equal, in our experience plugins that are free typically have mixed results.

We install and configure specific plugins for our clients and are constantly re-evaluating them to ensure the results are there. Currently we include WP Rocket for our clients and have found great results.

Often times a WordPress site will utilize a few plugins which degrade performance. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done, unless the plugin can be removed. In this case we review the benefits and make a call on whether we can live with it or not, this is done on a case by case basis. A typical type of plugin that is common and affects performance are slideshow plugins.

Coding Maintenance

The last step is actually examining the code. Sometimes there will be basic issues that we can resolve in code and chip away at. We only recommend addressing smaller issues that take a few hours, and avoiding big jobs unless the website is still performing quite poorly. In many cases, if the site is performing poorly by this point we have to look at porting the site over to a better performing theme. This is one reason we stress the importance to our clients of spending enough time on finding the right theme, or investing the budget to build one from scratch.

Wrapping it all up

This wraps up the first post in a series on WordPress maintenance. The nice part about optimization work is that if you do it once, you don’t have to do it too often. We use gtmetrix to automatically keep tabs on our client sites. If we notice something is off then we’ll let you know and we can assess the situation. Keep in mind performance is only one part of the entire maintenance strategy. In the next posts we will address the other S’s in maintenance, SEO and Security.

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