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User’s Guide to WordPress Performance Optimization in 2016

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Before we start with How, let’s see exactly Why it’s important to focus on performance.

After a series of server-delay experiments conducted over a span of 4-6 weeks:

  • Bing’s findings show strong negative impact on number of clicks, user experience, and revenue generated/user proportional to time delays of just milliseconds.
  • Google found out that interaction above and below the fold decreases significantly with time delays, of just milliseconds.

That makes it clear as day: Delays even under half a second can and will impact business metrics.

In an effort to improve user-experience and conversion rates at the same time, we turn to performance optimization. Listed here are 8 ways to go about it in WordPress:

      1. Hosting

If your website is going to be self-hosted, you better make sure it’s on the right server. And we know that when something sounds too good to be true (“unlimited page-views/ bandwidth/ uptime”) chances are high that it actually is.

There are no good or bad hosting providers, but there’s a way to know which hosting provider will be good for you. Here’s some matchmaking advice to find the perfect server for your website:

  • Requirement:

Make a close estimate of: Size of data to be stored, number of estimated users/month (page views), and data transfers (bandwidth) that you want for your site, et al. Be realistic in these regards.

  • Status Quo of the Servers:

How often the hosting provider runs backups, maintenance, and security checks.

  • Budget:

This (along with your traffic estimates) will help you narrow the range of types of hosting you could choose: Shared, VPS, Managed, Dedicated, et al.

  • Know-How:

Is your staff tech-savvy and capable enough to run and upkeep server-side issues on their own? If not, go for managed hosting solutions.

Note: 3rd Party Video Hosting

To save server space and keep performance from dwindling due to the huge, heavy videos, the best option is to embed instead of self-host. This means that you can get a separate “hosting provider” solely for your video content.

3rd Party Video Hosting services like YouTube, Vimeo, etc. will save you server space and bandwidth, prevent annoying pauses in videos as they ‘stream’ for your users, and avoid all the hassles of having to convert videos and make the quality consistent across various browsers and devices.

      2. Perceived Performance (Theme and Homepage)

“When an interface is faster, you feel good. And ultimately what that comes down to is you feel in control. The web app isn’t controlling me, I’m controlling it.” – Matt Mullenweg (WordPress co-founder) at Velocity 2009

Perceived performance is all about letting your users believe that something is happening. It’s about reassuring them that they’re not waiting around like complete tools for nothing.

A lot of this has to do with how quickly your theme loads. A cleanly coded, WordPress standard compliant theme like Twenty Fifteen or child themes from frameworks like Genesis are practically built for speed. Themes like these add little-to-no bloat to overall page weight.

You can also go further and specifically optimize your homepage for perceived performance. Some of those ways include:

  • Showing Excerpts instead of Entire Posts
  • Showing a handful of posts on the home page (between 5-7)
  • No unnecessary widgets on home page
  • Uninstall all inactive/unnecessary plugins and widgets
  • Lazy Load XT plugin

Basically, go minimalistic. Keep it simple and sophisticated instead of crowding the page with as many widgets and interface elements as you can. No-one appreciates the digital equivalent of being heckled.

      3. Caching Plugins with sundry features

You can forego caching solutions if you have managed hosting. Otherwise, rely on trusted, feature-packed plugins like W3 Total Cache.

This brilliant, completely free plugin boasts of some truly remarkable features which can significantly lower page load time in the hands of a professional. Instead of downloading multiple plugins, you want one which can take care of:

  • Minifying and HTTP Compression of HTML, CSS & Javascript

Can save up to 80% of your bandwidth via HTTP compression HTML and minification of inline, embedded, and 3rd party CSS and JavaScript

  • Browser Caching

Future expire headers and “cache busting” entity tags

This means users’ browsers save all pages users visit as cache. Instant subsequent page views for the next time they arrive on those pages.

  • Optimized Progressive Render

Great for perceived (and real) performance boost. Lower portion of pages load only when user has scrolled down to them.

There’s also the factor of complete CDN management and support that goes this plugin. If it’s not your cup of tea, try others like WP Super Cache, WP Rocket, etc.

      4. Content Delivery Network

Think of these as an army of “servers” (known as PoP or Point of Presence) spread across the globe, all employed in delivering static cache files of your website to users closest to their respective locations.

For a truly dramatic performance boost, go for CDN. Other than super-speed, you get consistent performance during “rush-hour traffic” and truly uniform global coverage: all at a very reasonable dime, especially for a high-end service like this. Popular service providers in this park are MaxCDN, CloudFlare, Amazon CloudFront, BootstrapCDN, etc.

Note that if you have a 3rd party service/tool (like Google Analytics, Facebook, etc.) integrated with your WordPress website, you’re already (partially) using a CDN.

      5. Database Optimization

Any website built on WordPress knows and works with 5 languages: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and MySQL. The last bit makes your database, which stores all the information you uploaded on the internet through the website.

Over time, this database will become slow due to redundant post revisions, old logs of spammed or unapproved comments, orphaned or duplicate metadata, and more.

Much like defragging a hard disk, database optimization is about cleaning the drive to make space for useful things.

This is easily accomplished with small, efficient plugins like WP-DB Manager, WP Optimize, WP Sweep, etc.

     6. Image Compression

You can’t not have images on your website, but it’s better to go without images than to use pixelated, grainy ones for the sake of speed that users can barely see.

Plugins like EWWW Image Optimizer, Compress JPEG and PNG Images, and WP Smush.it help keep a striking balance between image size and quality.

      7. Plugin Diagnosis

The primary reason why I stress the importance of going for feature-rich plugins that serve multiple purposes: to eliminate the need for other plugins before it comes up.

Some plugins can take longer to load (Jetpack used to be notorious for this) than others. To find the culprits, use P3 (Plugin Performance Profiler), which is a plugin itself: it will run a diagnostic with some generated traffic to measure loading times of all currently active plugins.

Check the reports to find the biggest misfits and replace them with lighter plugins ASAP.

Note: If the continued use of plugin is absolutely necessary, you can choose to keep them active on specific pages and posts. Use Plugin Organizer to manage that.

      8. Hotlinking Prevention

Hotlinking is, sadly, an underrated evil.

Basically, hotlinking happens when people use your images or other content in their own pages without actually taking the time to download the files, choosing instead to link to yours. You get no credit (or so much as a lousy “Thank you” note) and your server ends up bearing the weight of the traffic to all that ‘stolen’ content.

If you have a CDN, you may have the feature that disables hotlink. Otherwise, you’ll need to gain access to your .htaccess file and change the code. Here’s a tool which will generate the RewriteRule code for your purposes.

Endnote

Keep in mind that much like staying fit, performance optimization is an ongoing effort. The practices may change and improve, but you’ll still need to devote time, energy, and resources into it.

With new strides in WordPress web development, page-speed optimization practices may change and improve. But you’ll still need to devote time, energy, and resources into it.

But you won’t complain. That’s a small price to pay for great user-experience and high rankings.

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