Online speed test scores are especially useless for mobile speed improvement.

Updated: January 2018
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Online speed test scores are especially useless. These include lame tests like Google PageSpeed Insights. Many test-result recommendations don’t make any measurable difference in speed. They’re not real-world practicalities. They sound rational and appeal to logic. But they’re a waste of time and energy. You’ll drive yourself mad attempting to achieve perfect test scores. Google doesn’t even use test scores in page ranking.

So if speed test scores don’t matter, what does? Forget scores. It’s load time in milliseconds and page weight. Cumulative file size (page weight) is expressed in kilobytes or megabytes. Load time and weight make the biggest difference – especially for mobile audiences. Speed is critical for good user experience (UX). Readable, relevant content is most important for SEO. But impatient visitors won’t wait for slow pages. Then you waste your hard-earned relevant content and it’s never seen. Most sites are “not good enough” for mobile users.

Google gives you technical speed suggestions. These are published in their web master recommendations. Few make any difference in mobile speed. Why? Is it sadistic torment of website owners? We wonder. The most infamous waste is testing with Google PageSpeed Insights.

Here are some weird things Google often recommends *fixing*:

1. Eliminate render-blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content.

This imperious rule is a great waste of time. WordPress almost always breaks this rule. The return on investment in improved speed is impossible to measure. It’s so small and insignificant. And there is high risk of breaking your site. If this *fix* tempts you, you’re a programmer and should leave PagePipe. You’ll hear disturbing things you don’t like here.  Plugins don’t help much – like the oft recommended Async JS plugin. Work on others things that are more important like image optimization.

Deferring Javascript while loading means taking Javascript to the bottom of the HTML document. This will cause the Javascript content to load last. If you load jQuery last, you’ll blow WordPress’ brains.

2. Minify and concatenate CSS, JS, and HTML files.

These improve your score – but rarely improve your speed. Scores are meaningless. It’s milliseconds of load time that count. Minification plugins frequently break sites. We don’t use a minification plugin on PagePipe. We’ve experimented with many. They make no difference in speed and only cause problems with Easy Digital Downloads plugin – among others. Does that mean we never use minification? No. If nothing breaks, fine.

Trimming HTTP requests cut down on number of calls to your server. The big theoretical gain is from concatenation (combining or lumping) JS script, HTML and CSS files together. These can break your site – white screen of death. It’s not worth it merely for an irrelevant score improvement.

3. Reduce server response time (TTFB 200ms).

This goal is laughable. TTFB is time-to-first-byte. It’s a measurement of server response time in milliseconds. Even Google’s home page can’t produce 200 millisecond time-to-first-byte specifications. That is because of HTTPS / SSL certification which introduces an additional 400 to 500 milliseconds of handshaking delays on the server.

How much load time does www.google.com take? Using WebPagetest.org online test (owned by Google), the result is: 2.196 seconds. The full-load time can vary from 1.270 to 2.204 seconds depending on test server location. That’s right: seconds. Not milliseconds.

Try Google.com on the *peerless* PageSpeed Insights test. They can’t even pass their own test on the simplest of pages. Enough said. Zero credibility.

4. Optimize images.

When is optimizing images worth it? Well, we tested a page and Google PageSpeed Insights said we failed. Why? Because we could still optimize two images by 2 percent. What!? That’s ridiculous. And it didn’t detect resizing one image dimensions to save extra weight. That was more noteworthy.

Is it worth optimizing to remove 2 percent? No. Why? Because images are loaded in parallel. Improving image weight doesn’t make as big of difference in speed any more. Browser image loading is faster now.

Should we still optimize images? Yes. It’s important. But we can’t only optimize images and say we’re done.

Imsanity is one of the best plugin solutions for automatic optimization. Why? Because it’s easy to set image size reduction to column-width size and also set the JPEG image quality to 70. WordPress default is 82 but only on cropped images – not on uploaded originals to the media library. Imsanity crops originals. Most other image optimizer plugins charge money once you pass a certain threshold number of images. So beware.

What’s better is plain-old, manual sizing and visual, save-for-web optimization in an image editor like Photoshop, GIMP, or pixlr.

It’s not enough to just compress the images. Specify the dimensions of the image, or else the browser loads the entire image and then resizes it to required dimensions. Stretching with browser math delays image rendering.

5. Avoid landing page redirects.

Simply configure your WordPress site. Go to the “Settings > General” page. See if “WordPress Address (URL)” and “Site Address (URL)” options include “www” prefixes. If they do, remove them, save the settings and that redirect will be gone. Tip: Use Redirection plugin when removing old post to protect SEO.

6. Leverage browser caching.

Browser caching is beneficial for return visitors. That’s about 20 percent of your traffic. On a well-optimized site, caching doesn’t help much. When an unprimed cache loads in 750 milliseconds, how much better do you need to get? Adding a caching plugin may get speed down to 400 to 500 milliseconds best case. That 350 millisecond gain is good – but not if the caching plugin is complex or breaks your site with concatenation. We only recommend one caching plugin and it’s Cache Enabler. Make one simple setting: change the far-futures cache expiry to 8760 hours (1 year). You’re done.

Now, will a caching plugin get your sluggard 20-second page load down to a wonderful 2 seconds? No way. You won’t even measure a noticeable difference.

Tempted to use paid WP Rocket plugin? Consider this first.

7. Prioritize visible content.

Ridiculous. How do tests propose we do that on a WordPress site? This is sometimes referred to as above-the-fold content. Over-optimizing for speed is not worth the frustrations fixing the problems. Run a PageSpeed Insights test on Wikipedia or YouTube. Bet the scores are crummy, poor, or *needs work*. Suggestion: Ignore this silly test result.

8. Enable compression.

This just means switching on Gzip compression. If it’s not already enabled on your server, it’s a piece of cake with a plugin like Far Futures Expiry Header.

Other odd recommendations that usually don’t help speed much include:

  • Content Delivery Networks – CDNs are servers located in various geographical locations. They are closer to the users’ location and can reach content to them faster than the original server. A well-optimized site doesn’t need CDN. It’s a band-aid. Cloudflare has a free plan that we recommend you avoid. That’s right. Don’t use it. It slows down or delays your pages.
  • Accelerated Mobile Pages – Ignore making your webpages Google AMP compliant. This wasteful gimmick was announced by Google in October 2015.
  • Database Optimization – A periodic check and spring cleaning of databases to keep them lean and easily searchable. Cleaner plugins remove duplicate data, unwanted post revisions and more. Do they help with speed? Not anything we’ve ever detected. But it sounds like a good idea. We do it regularly. But it’s a matter of being vigilant and sleeping well at night. We’ve never seen speed improvement.
  • Removing query strings from static resources in CSS and JS files – Developers use “?” and “&” to bypass cached files before they are purged. However, URLs with “?” and “&” are not cached by some servers. You can use a plugin to remove them. This removal improves your score but not your speed. Remember, caching doesn’t really help so much.
  • Combining Images Into One – CSS Sprites – CSS Image Sprites were born out of the need to reduce the number of HTTP requests made on a website. The typical use of image sprites are for icons. This is where you bunch multiple images together into one big file. This is not very helpful and frequently won’t work on mobile-size screens. We say, “Forget sprites.”

So if those test parameters and tricks only help with scores – but not speed differences. What does matter most for speed improvement?

1. Themes without bloat. Popular themes like Divi and The7 alone take seconds to load – without any content or plugins. A typical responsive, free, stripped, WordPress theme with no bells-and-whistles loads in 40 to 50 milliseconds. Simplify.

2. Good Hosting – And we don’t mean expensive. If time-to-first-byte is too long (over 1 second), the only choice is changing your hosting service provider. You can have fast TTFB on shared hosting. We get around 250 milliseconds on cheap GoDaddy hosting. Test at ByteCheck.com.

3. Lazy Loading – enable lazy loading for videos and images.

4. Gzip A compression technique reduces code files for faster transfer. It also saves mobile bandwidth.

5. Reducing Redirects – Get rid of as many redirects as possible. Redirects are good for SEO traffic. But you slow down the browser a little.

6. Disabling Trackbacks and Pingbacks – Trackbacks (manual) and pingbacks (automatic) appear in content moderation to let you know that someone else has put a link of your post on another blog or site. Most of these links are spam. It there’s too much of it, it can affect site speed. Disable them under Default Article Settings > Settings > Discussions. Or we can use a plugin that can deal with spam, like No Self-ping. Or use XML-RPC deactivation.

7. Disabling Hotlinking – Sometimes other *web criminals* use the content hosted on your site’s servers for their own websites. This is simply an extra load on your server. To stop others from using your server resources, the recommendation is changing your server .htaccess file code. A plugin will do the trick.

8. Identify plugins slowing down the website. Use the P3 Plugin Performance Profiler for this purpose. How much will this help? Our experience is you may save up to a second. That’s great on a site that’s loading in 4 seconds. But if it’s a 20-second page, you’re still in trouble.

Remember, it’s not the quantity of plugins that slow down a site. It’s the quality. We have 56 plugins. Our home page and most others load in under 1 second on shared hosting.

Use the performance report generated by the P3 plugin to remove or selectively disable the worst plugins dragging down site speed.

9. Selective activation of plugins Our best secret weapon for speed.

Godspeed—

Steve Teare
performance engineer

Mobile WordPress Speed – without coding!

What others think of us:


"Thank you so much for the thorough speed review and fast response. We truly appreciate your honesty and taking the time to direct us in the right direction." targetup.com Anaheim, CA, USA

by - Charles Equiarta