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5 Secrets To Speed Up Your Website

 tech bench guest postEditor’s Note: From time to time, we receive questions that are beyond the scope of even our managed support. One of those questions involves how to speed up your website. To address this popular topic, we’ve asked Claire Broadley of WhoIsHostingThis.com to share some thoughts on optimizing websites.
 

Is your site slow? A website that takes an age to load isn’t just a drag for your users – it could be harming your search rankings, and it’s almost certainly costing your business money. When it comes to the web, users like content to load fast – or they’ll quickly lose interest and look elsewhere.

It’s possible to improve the speed of your site by upgrading your hosting package, but for many individuals and small businesses, cost is a major concern. Dedicated hosting offers tremendous power, but may be cost prohibitive for smaller operations. If you’re not ready to invest in a server, try some of these solutions first.

Using a combination of the following tips, we reduced our test blog’s load time from 4.5 seconds to 2 seconds. That’s a significant benefit, and one your readers and visitors will notice right away.

Tip #1. Install a WordPress caching plugin

If you’re running WordPress, and many of your probably are, you may have experienced slow loading times as your blog traffic grows. By default, WordPress pulls content from script files and a database. In the course of combining all of this information, WordPress sites can become quite slow. The more complex the content, the longer it takes the server and browser to patch everything together and render it as a page.

Fortunately, WordPress users who want to use caching have some good options; there are a number of plugins that will help to accelerate load times by taking the load off your database:

  1. WP Super Cache is one of the most popular caching plugins for WordPress; it generates static HTML versions of your pages and serves those in place of dynamic content. For most small WordPress sites, this is a perfectly effective solution.
  2. Another alternative is W3 Total Cache, which integrates nicely with a CDN and Minify (more on those later) and promises a 10x speed boost. Unlike some other caching plugins, you’ll need to invest time into setting it up and testing it.
  3. For a quick and easy solution, try Quick Cache, a simple and very usable caching plugin for WordPress.

We tried using W3 Total Cache on a WordPress site, measuring the results for two sample pages, both in a raw HTML state and with media content. Across the board, there was a load time gain of around 1 second. When retrieving the bare HTML with no media files for a long list page, the page load time dropped from 2.5 seconds to 1 second, which was the biggest gain we noted.

Tip #2. Use a CDN

A CDN, or content delivery network, is a very effective way to speed up your site, and it’s a solution anyone can use – regardless of your platform or the applications you use. A CDN replicates your content on servers around the world; each visitor receives that content from their closest server, making page loading times much faster.

One popular CDN is CloudFlare. Many ServInt customers currently use this popular CDN, and we hear that ServInt is actually in talks to deepen their relationship with them.

Using the same sample pages as the cache experiment, we tried using CloudFlare on our trial site. There were clear speed gains when loading our long list page; the results for a blog post were not quite as dramatic. The biggest gain CloudFlare produced was on a full HTML page with all media intact. The loading time improved by 2.5 seconds, dropping from 4.5 seconds to just 2 seconds.

Tip #3. Choose a different data center

Some hosting customers make the mistake of choosing a host with servers close to them (or make a hosting decision without considering server location at all!). Instead of choosing a data center location close to you, you should choose a data center close to your clients whether or not it is close to you. After all, your main concern is the speed with which your content reached site visitors.

ServInt offers data center locations in Northern Virginia for eastern North American traffic, Los Angeles, California for western North America, Central and South American and Asia Pacific, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands for European, African, and Mideast traffic.

We tested the load time for a sample site in the US from two locations, one in the UK and one also in the US. We saw a difference of 0.4 seconds in page load time, so there is certainly some value in being choosy about the location of your server.

Tip #4. Trim your database

Over time, your website will grow and mature, and you’ll probably find new ways to achieve the functionality you need, making old scripts obsolete. With ongoing development comes clutter and dead weight – particularly if you’re working within WordPress, Drupal, Magento or any CMS that uses a plugin, extension or module system.

If your site is slowing, it’s time to back it up and start cutting back on themes and plugins that you no longer need. In WordPress, on a basic level, you can simply delete the associated plugin or theme folder to get rid of the files – but that doesn’t completely remove the plugin or theme (particularly if your theme has its own customized Options page). In some cases, you’ll need to delve into the database to remove metadata that’s left behind.

While you’re examining the database, take a look at the size of your comments table. If the amount of spam comments on your blog has made the site sluggish, use the admin panel to remove spam permanently. You may also want to switch off comments on old posts, and disable revision tracking on new posts to keep your database size under control.

Based on our tests, the heavier your database is, the more likely it is you’ll notice an improvement.

Don’t forget: as with any maintenance or housekeeping, you must back up your files and database before you start removing things from a live site – particularly when you’re tinkering with a database.

Tip #5. Streamline scripts with Minify

On a website running a fairly typical installation of WordPress or Magento, the end user will download multiple CSS and JavaScript files when they access the site. The browser interprets these files one by one, building up a picture of how the site will look and behave. This takes time, and a large number of scripts can have a noticeable impact on page loading times.

Minify is a nifty application that compresses and consolidates scripts on your website. For example, Minify strips unnecessary space from CSS and JavaScript files, and it rewrites URLs within the files so that they always point to a valid file or resource.

Minify can be downloaded free from script sites like Google Code, and it’s also packaged into third-party scripts. There’s WP-Minify or W3 Total Cache for WordPress, for example. If you use Zend, Minify developers have created a number of helper scripts for easy integration.

In conclusion

It takes time to tweak a website for best performance, but your visitors will thank you – and there are also SEO benefits from ensuring your site loads efficiently and speedily.

The tests we performed are admittedly basic, and further testing would help to iron out any flaws. But the tests still prove that quick wins can actually make quite a big difference. The biggest gain in the load time of a large web page with media was achieved, perhaps unsurprisingly, by using a CDN or culling dead weight in the database: both reduced load time by more than half.

Once you’ve exhausted the tips in this guide, try Google’s PageSpeed Tools for more ideas. Most of the optimization technology presented there is more advanced, but if you really do have a need for speed, PageSpeed could improve your site’s loading times even further – all without spending more on upgrading your server.



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