Clients bring this problem to me more than any other, so I know it’s a real problem. And for good reason!
Site speed is super important for a good reader experience and even comes into play in Google’s algorithm that determines site rankings. When a reader clicks on one of your links, you want that page loaded before something else shiny catches their eye – like that next cat video on YouTube.
Having personally logged in to the dashboards of thousands of sites to apply our services, I can tell you speed is a legitimate concern. It’s not only aggravating readers on the front end, but many bloggers are putting up with slogging through an incredibly slow editing experience that is costing them valuable time.
You’re probably already doing the simple recommendations (like “use a caching plugin!”), BUT if you try some of the others, often many hours invested will only improve your site speed about 1% and potentially cause functionality on your site to break. ☹
Let’s uncover 4+ easy solutions that actually work to speed up your WordPress blogs. First however, we need to dispel some of the myths.
Myth 1: Google PageSpeed Insights is Always Correct When It Says Your Site is Slow
Clients often email in a panic bemoaning their “terrible” site speed and waving around their PageSpeed Insights grade to prove it – “If I’m not cool with my kids bringing home a D, there’s no way this F is going to fly on my site…”
Often, we find out their actual speed numbers aren’t that bad.
The grade you get from that or any other tool should be taken with a grain of salt. It is absolutely possible to have a fast site and still get a bad grade.
In fact, if your site uses an ad network, it’s virtually impossible to get a good grade from most of these tools (more below).
There are many starting points or metrics to measure your site’s speed:
- How long does your site take to send the very first piece of information to the browser?
- When does the above the fold content appear?
- How long before the reader first interacts with your page?
- At what point is everything 100% loaded?
Google has before stated they would put the most emphasis on… well, none of them. Now they have announced their push for Core Web Vitals, but we still don’t know how they are going to factor in with everything else.
I would argue the best metric is the feel test. Quite simply, does your page feel slow to you when you visit? Does it feel like you’re waiting longer than you’d like?
Today’s SEO is all about making your readers happy. If it feels slow to you, it will to your readers as well – and Google will notice that.
If so, it’s time to work on making it faster, and your PageSpeed Insights score is just one of the many tools you can use to help in that endeavor.
Just don’t let the total score dictate your efforts.
A Note About Ads
Let’s address the ads elephant in the room.
Ads introduce 3rd party scripts and images to your site that you have no control over. If you run an ad network, here are some of the pieces of your score you will only be able to change by reducing the total number of ads that appear on your site (exact names will vary depending on the tool you’re using):
- Reduce DNS lookups
- Make fewer HTTP requests
- Compress components
- Use cookie-free domains
- Add Expires headers
I don’t recommend ditching a major source of income, but keep this fact tucked away in your mind: Every time you want to freak out because your site got a failing grade on a site speed analysis (and you really don’t settle for anything less than an “A” in real life), you need to breathe and accept the consequences ads have on your site speed.
Myth 2: Reducing Your Number of Plugins Will Speed Up Your Site
This one is always a popular tip from the gurus!
To be fair, in a sense it’s true. Every plugin loaded will take some time. Most often that time is not something you’ll notice when doing your feel test.
One site can be screaming fast with 100 well-written, lightweight plugins, while another site might be crawling along because of just one poorly written plugin.
Many of my clients ask about The Blog Fixer: “Will it slow down my site?”
No, it won’t – because our plugin doesn’t run on every load of the page. Other plugins do and depending on what they are doing can consume some of your server’s precious resources every time a reader goes to a post.
The point is, not all plugins are equal when it comes to affecting the performance of a site. Removing plugins that provide great functionality with the sole goal of increasing site speed most often results in …the loss of great functionality. Not exactly a win-win.
Now, if you have a plugin on your site you’re not using, by all means remove it. If you don’t gain anything on the performance side, it’s still a good idea for site security.
But instead of just blindly throwing away plugins you’re using, I would recommend checking lists like this one that describe popular plugins known to slow things down while also suggesting faster alternatives.
Real Solution #1: Upgrade your Host
Now that those myths are out of the way, let’s talk about what you can do to truly move the (speed) needle.
If you use a shared server on one of the big “budget” hosts and think your site feels slow, I guarantee you’d benefit from upgrading your host.
Over the course of servicing 3,500 sites on about 100 different hosts, I’ve experienced both the good and the bad. Consistently, sites on those well-known budget hosts are the ones that crawl along (and often run into the occasional 500 error due to a lack of resources).
While there are several good hosts to choose from, I’ve found sites on one particular host stand out as running the fastest – and that’s BigScoots.
The first time I ran into a site hosted by BigScoots, it was easily the fastest I’d ever dealt with. I immediately emailed the owner to find out who she hosted with and moved all my own sites over.
What kind of speed difference can a host make?
As I mentioned, I’ve personally logged into thousands of WordPress dashboards and can always tell a good host from bad. To understand the difference, think about browsing over dial-up vs. broadband (if you’re old enough to remember modems).
I wanted to be able to talk hard numbers instead of just antiquated analogies, so I decided to set up an experiment.
At The Blog Fixer, we use our plugin to scan all posts and pages of a site to determine problems that need to be fixed – we call this our Site Scan. We search for about 20 different issues, and on sites with a large number of posts, that search can take some time. (We’ve worked with sites as large as 90,000 posts!)
I tested speed differences between 3 different hosting plans: A “budget” shared host, BigScoots’ entry level shared plan, and BigScoots’ fully managed plan. I set up identical test sites and ran through our Site Scan on each, recording the time it took to finish. Testing like this on the backend is a good measure of how fast the server itself is.
The “budget” host’s shared server was the big loser: BigScoots’ entry level plan was 140% faster, and their fully managed plan a whopping 400% faster.
That kind of change is going to move the needle far faster than poking away at tiny details for a half percent lift (or none at all). And the kicker? That least expensive plan at BigScoots only costs $3 more than the “budget” plan.
Action item: Choose a fast host! Changing hosts isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be. This is your foundation, and it’s worth doing before making any other “site speed” efforts.
Real Solution #2: Upgrade PHP
The next solution to act upon is upgrading your PHP version. I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not techy!!” Stay with me, it’s easy, I promise.
PHP is the programming language that powers the WordPress software behind the scenes. Just like WordPress, it has its own version numbers and is most often installed and maintained by your hosting company.
WordPress has always strived to maintain backwards compatibility, which means the minimum required version of PHP was 5.2 for many years. This version was released waaay back in 2006 and stopped being supported in January 2011.
That’s right, you could still run WordPress on top of software the predates the release of the first iPhone and was abandoned about 2 months after Instagram went public.
It’s rare that I find sites still running on top of PHP 5.2 these days, but listen: any version prior to 7 is really considered ‘ancient’ in terms of software. (Think “flip phone.”)
There are many great security reasons to make sure your site is running on at least version 7, but the most pertinent to this discussion is that version 7 can come with as much as twice the performance as anything in version 5. (Using the same site scan experiment above, I was seeing a performance increase of 140% after upgrading PHP on my “budget” shared server.)
Recent WordPress versions have begun displaying warnings on the dashboard if you have an old PHP version – pay attention to this!
Most hosts will display the PHP version your site is running on somewhere within your hosting dashboard. If you can’t find it, ask their support. (Ahem, it’s their job…)
If your PHP version is anything less than 7, it’s time to upgrade – graduate from a flip phone to a smart phone.
Action item: Open a ticket with your hosting provider, and ask to be upgraded and have them check compatibility with your plugins. At this point, only very outdated ones are likely to cause a problem.
Boom – faster site.
Real Solution #3: Reduce Your Redirects
Redirects are almost always a necessary part of a site that’s been around a bit. If you started on HTTP and then moved to HTTPS, changed your permalink structure, or combined multiple posts into one, you’ve created redirects to make sure your readers end up in the right places.
This is good for SEO at first — however, what you might not realize is that redirects can slow down your site speed. One test found that it can be as much as 50%.
This is especially important to your mobile traffic, where internet speeds (and thus redirects) are even slower.
What’s more, often redirects get chained together, meaning the reader must go through multiple redirects after just one click, each part of the chain adding to the wait time. Instead of going from point A to point D (the destination URL), they might have to go from A to B to C to D.
For some links, this can’t be helped. You still want other sites that link to an old spot on your site to send readers to the right place.
However, all internal links on your site which you do have control over should be updated to go straight to the destination URL.
This process isn’t hard, but it is very tedious. You’ll want to update links in your sidebar, menus, and (most time-consuming) inside the content of your articles themselves.
What this looks like step by step:
- The sidebar and menus are a quick half hour task most likely – just open each link and make sure that what you click on is the exact same URL as you end up on and edit any that are different. Your goal is to make the end URL what’s actually in the html code.
- Now you need to open all your posts (yes, starting at the beginning).
- You can either click on each link and watch for redirects or go to the text editor and do a visual scan.
- You’re looking for URLs still starting with http:// or containing dates that you’ve since removed (for example: https://yoursite.com/2011/06/28/google-plus-will-put-facebook-out-of-business).
- Change these links to the final URL that doesn’t go through any redirects.
But Kris, you’re saying, I don’t like your advice anymore. This will take hours…days…maybe years if I still feed my children and sleep every night!
Any time a blogger feels like she needs to touch every post, it’s incredibly time consuming. That’s exactly why I created The Blog Fixer — to help my wife, who was constantly begging me to help her make mass changes on every post (like when Google first instituted nofollow).
The first “Fix” we ran on her blog changed 21,000 affiliate links to nofollow in just a few minutes.
For a huge time-saving shortcut on eliminating redirects, check out The Blog Fixer’s Redirect service.
Here at The Blog Fixer, we help bloggers automate the little tasks they loathe so they can get back to doing the parts they love (remember writing and interacting with readers, before Google and Amazon started changing everything with so many rules?).
We optimize your archives through white-glove services powered by our custom plugin, and to save bloggers precious time everything is installed and configured by our team.
What this looks like step by step:
- Purchase the service.
- Send my team a user on your WordPress blog.
- We’ll run the service and eliminate redirects on every internal link on your blog.
It takes about 5 minutes, 5-and-a-half if you need to watch my video on how to make a new user in WP, or can’t remember where your business credit card is.
Action item: Edit all redirected internal links on your blog to hit the final target. You can do this DIY or with The Blog Fixer’s help.
Real Solution #4: Optimize Your Image Size
Cameras on phones these days are awesome. I took many breathtaking images during a hiking trip in Yosemite Valley. Like a proper Gen Xer, I uploaded 17 per day to Facebook.
Family and friends were amazed that they could see the individual mist droplets rising from waterfalls. All of that beauty means more and more bytes stuffed into each image file.
And, as you probably understand by now, every one of those extra bytes increases the load time of your post. If you haven’t paid close attention to pixels and bytes in each photo on your blog, you’ve got yourself a great place for optimization.
Multiply slow by the number of images in a post, and your readers have forgotten why they clicked to read your post because they noticed grass starting to grow while they were waiting for it to load.
Like redirects, this is even more important to your mobile traffic.
There are a variety of services out there that “smush” images, but the easiest solution I’ve found is ShortPixel. Their WordPress plugin is pretty much plug-and-play, and they have a bulk fix feature, which can fix all your existing images when coupled with one of their reasonably priced one-time plans.
What this looks like step by step:
- Install the ShortPixel plugin.
- Run their Bulk Optimization Tool – it will tell you the number of images it can optimize.
- Purchase a one-time plan for the number of images you found in the last step.
- Paste your key into the plugin.
- Return to the Bulk Optimization Tool and kick it off.
Note: This may take a long time to run, sometimes even days, and you need to leave the tab open while it’s going. I recommend kicking it off on a Friday and letting it go all weekend while you enjoy family time. Check in every so often to make sure it hasn’t hit a glitch and needs you to press the button to start it off again. Oh and remember that hosting recommendation I made a few thousand words ago? Do that first. Slow hosts make this process as painful as a cross-country road trip with a teething toddler.
Once that’s done, you can grab a subscription for as low as $5/month to automatically optimize all images you upload in the future.
Action item: Install ShortPixel, purchase a one-time plan, and run it on your blog. It’s a game changer.
The Bottom Line on Site Speed for Bloggers
There’s always going to be more you can do to eke out every last bit of performance on your site.
However, it makes the most sense to use your time and money wisely by starting with the biggest “bang-for-your-buck” foundations, since there’s often a steep drop-off in your ROI when you tinker with optimizations beyond these.
Prioritize these first –get a great host, make sure they use the correct PHP version, ditch your redirects (I’m here to help), and optimize those images.
Then, go spend time with the family making memories (which you will solemnly swear to smush before publishing to your blog!) instead of fretting about every last detail in your PageSpeed Insights score.
May the site speed be with you, and may your blog end up faster than a toddler gets distrac…hey look, a new cat video…