blue opt

Save the Internet from WordPress speed abuse.

Updated: October 2017

14 minute read

We mean no offense to Hristo Pandjarov.

He’s the author of SiteGround’s free Ebook. “SPEED MATTERS: 21 Expert Tips to an Ultra-Fast WordPress Site.” Hristo’s an expert on WordPress speed optimization. He has a video online from a 2016 WordCamp. But we have found a few ideas in his Ebook that don’t measure up to our experience and testing. Naturally. But most of his speed suggestions are safe and sane.

SiteGround’s download page requires email signup >

The Ebook introduction, says: “Generally, if your website takes more than a second to load – it’s slow and needs optimizing.”

The average page load time (3rd quarter 2016) is 9.82 seconds. And the average page weight is above 2.3M. Plainly, the bulk of websites flunk SiteGround and Hristo Pandjarov’s criteria of goodness.

“Reducing page weight is practically guaranteed to improve the user experience across the board but will disproportionately enhance the experience for less capable devices.” – MobiForge.com

Google is the dictator of all things web. They have an edict that 500 milliseconds to 2 seconds is good enough. But Google doesn’t always follow their own recommended best practices. Weaklings!

Three other self-proclaimed-expert opinions about this speed-threshold topic, we agree with most of it:

SiteGround implies that somewhere there exists a mandated 1-second barrier. Is their hosting service the only method to break 1 second? Speed authorities think otherwise.

Why are they advocating an idealistic or sometimes impossible 1-second goal?

A well-optimized site and SiteGround’s servers on good days can achieve this. We’ve used SiteGround with clients. But it’s possible to do 1-second loads on cruddy hosting too, if you abide by certain principles.

PagePipe: SiteGround’s feeble explanation of bad TTFB for hosted WordPress sites. >

Good mobile user experience needs the fastest page loads.

One second is instantaneous gratification for users – and has been for decades. But 2-second loads are a more realistic optimization and performance target. And those are desktop hardwired speeds.

What is realistic on wireless mobile? We suggest doubling the performance budget to 4 seconds. That is also the user expectation – for today anyway.

From this web study, 4 seconds is average mobile speed: Read about average load time on mobile >

You can waste a lot of resources attempting unreachable maximization (100 percent). Optimization, or 80 percent return, is more affordable and realistic. Avoid waste from gold-plating or over-engineering your website.

Note: PagePipe’s Home load time is under a second (most of the time) – sometimes 1.2 seconds. We use cheap GoDaddy “evil” because our goal is good speed results even under bad conditions. We practice what we preach. Just like Google. Ha!

1 Identify and Prioritize Issues. SiteGround lists GT Metrix and Pingdom online tests for speed benchmarking. Easy. Knowing what the test means takes some educating and reading. Learning curve stuff. Our preferred test is WebPagetest.org that’s geared for professional optimizers.

SiteGround give a good piece of advice about speed testing:

“Even though most of the benchmarking tools will give you a ‘grade,’ don’t go too far chasing it.”

And this supportive quote below is from WP Rockets FAQ page about ratings:

“Performance ratings are mainly indicators of good practice. Ratings tools check that the optimizations have been made. These ratings do not indicate, however, the actual speed of a site, they are only indicators. Good ratings do not guarantee a fast site and vice versa. The actual page load time is the most important metric to look at.”

We’d add to that our opinion: “WordPress – by it’s very nature – cannot pass many speed tests. At least, not without major expenditure and effort. In the end, those improvements will not necessarily make the site faster. And speed (human perceived load time) is the only thing that counts – not scores.”

2 Reduce the number of Posts Shown on the Index Page. This is only a problem when the blog-listing page is the Home page. Then it may show too many featured images. Installing a lazy-load plugin fixes this. We recommend Rocket Lazy Load plugin.

SiteGround recommends an infinite scrolling plugin or changing WordPress for “show at most” values. Those are good ideas. But, infinite scrolling can activate jQuery and add page weight, too. So test before and after installing any infinite-scroll plugin.

SiteGround also recommends pagination of long pages into sections using the <!–nextpage–> tag. An easier method of insertion is using Page-Break plugin. It adds a control panel button.

3 They recommend getting rid of sliders and using just one image. We agree. We’ve written about slider extravagance before:

PagePipe: Why do clients want a slider on their home page? >
PagePipe: What slider is the fastest loading? >

SiteGround recommends two other slider plugins we’ve tested before. We weren’t that impressed with the load times. Our extreme speed philosophy is no sliders. Period!

4 SiteGround recommends using appropriate image sizes. Again, we agree. They don’t have a plugin solution recommendation but our safeguard utility is using Imsanity plugin. We also use this plugin to solve the next problem they talk about:

 

5 Optimize image size without damaging quality. This is referring to visually-lossless image optimization. We set Imsanity plugin at a quality of 70. We have a free PDF download about image optimization best practices >

And we have several articles about using image optimizer plugins and alternative web tools:

PagePipe: Quality-82 image-compression change for WordPress >
PagePipe: How the ShortPixel plugin eliminates needless junk >
PagePipe: Top-dog, image-optimizer web utilities >
PagePipe: WP Smush plugin doesn’t really help with speed >

SiteGround recommends using EWWW image Optimizer plugin. We don’t recommend it because it can cost money. We’re pro-free stuff. And there are plenty of other free alternatives and strategies. EWWW isn’t the best image optimizer as supposed and reported by many. It’s just one of a multitude of options.

Nothing will ever beat just optimizing images by-hand. Use an image processing program (like GIMP or Photoshop). Do that before uploading images to the WordPress media library.

Our most unpopular but best speed recommendation: Don’t use images whenever possible. That’s right. None. Just design with text and unicode symbols.

If you must use large images, don’t make them Jpegs photos. Use PNG illustrations instead with limited color palettes. This produces the smallest, fastest file sizes and reinforces your branding.

PagePipe: The problem with large Hero images for mobile >
PagePipe: Color as a mobile speed strategy >

6 Reduce the usage of external fonts. We agree with this suggestion but we go even further. There are various plugins that can “exorcise” this font fluff. Our recommendation is Disable Emojis and Remove Google Fonts or Disable Google Fonts plugins. We’ve used all these plugins.

Or choose a theme that doesn’t use any webfonts –just websafe ones. Yes! Those themes do exist. We’ve written about those, too;

PagePipe: Speed report: 35 theme candidates >
PagePipe: 15 free themes are prime candidates for testing aesthetics and customization >

To get rid of Font Awesome, you’ll need to use Asset Queue Manager plugin. This plugin can “break” your site with some themes so proceed with caution. But we love this plugin and use it a lot to strip down bloated themes.

PagePipe: Websafe fonts are still the hottest >

7 Manage the volume of comments on your site. This isn’t the first we’ve read about comments slowing down sites. But we haven’t seen any real data to prove it (yet). We know a few reasons why comments in theory cause slowness from database issues. SiteGround makes two plugin recommendations for comment management. But we’re more hardcore about achieving goals and streamlining sites. We say, “Get rid of comments completely.” Read about our radical ideas on comment management:

PagePipe: Should you use Akismet anti-spam plugin?

8 Enable Gzip compression for your pages. SiteGround recommends editing your .htaccess file but don’t say how to do that. So SiteGround must not have Gzip enabled like on some hosts. This .htaccess file edit is not an easy thing for newbies. We think it’s a pain. It’s easier to change the .htaccess file on your server with Far Future Expiry Header plugin. Read more about Gzip:

PagePipe: Update on Gzip Compression >

9 Enable caching. OK. Unlike the rest of the world, we don’t think caching helps much on a well-optimized website. We just never see speed benefits. SiteGround makes two plugin suggestions. WP Rocket, a paid plugin, and WP Super Cache, a freebie. We’ve experimented with both of them and like we said: “We aren’t sure they help much.” Yeah. They’re band-aids for sloppy-built websites. But don’t help quality sites.

THEME AND PLUGIN OPTIMIZATION

The recommendations in this section are kind of silly or else just common sense. Someone must have been trying to fluff up the report with filler. SiteGround then goes on to tell us many things we’ve already covered:

10 Select a reputable theme from a solid provider. We only use free WordPress themes from their repository. That is our choice and self-imposed limitation. It speeds up our decision making and creative process. We don’t have time for shopping. We don’t spend money on complicated “premium” themes. Not us.

11 Avoid bloated themes. Their explanation of what is a bloated theme is good. Avoid sliders.

12 Always use a child theme when creating your website. This is common sense for safety sake. It prevents future updates from overwriting your customization. But what does a child theme have to do with speed? Nothing. Child themes load another CSS file. So this recommendation doesn’t make sense.

13 Optimize for mobile devices. Really? You need to tell people this? And they recommend the plugin WP Touch. This isn’t good. Even when they afterwards say, “Having a native mobile version is always preferable.” Even that isn’t a good idea. What’s preferable is using a responsive WordPress theme.

14 When using icons, use an icon font. We despise icon fonts. They are heavy and slow-loading – the bane of speed. We disable icons whenever possible.

15 Don’t overlap functionality with plugins. A good suggestion but isn’t this just common sense again. Don’t duplicate stuff. Simplify.

16 Always keep your plugins up-to-date. This is just good housekeeping. Staying updated and current helps speed? We haven’t seen any evidence yet. SiteGround claims it’ll give your site a huge performance boost. Serious? Got some experiential proof of that? Or is it just theory? Or exaggeration?

17 Cleanup your plugin options from your database. We do this as best practice. Again, it’s seems like just common-sense good housekeeping to us. We’ve never seen any speed boost yet from cleanup – even with big fat databases. There are several plugins to do this. We don’t make a recommendation. We’ve tried them all and it gives a nice feeling that you checked the databases and verified. But no speed improvements whatsoever.

SERVER & HOSTING OPTIMIZATIONS

Now we’re into the promotional selling materials of the brochure. In other words, SiteGround specific features they hope to motivate us to buy.

18 Take advantage of sever level caching.

This is pure specsmanship and boasting about SiteGround’s capabilities.

19 Use a CDN. We’re not sold on CDN’s. They don’t help much for a  well-optimized site. Just like caching. If you need a CDN, it is indicative you didn’t build your site as well as you thought. Another speed band-aid. The author said in his video to test CDNs since they can slow down your site. That’s our experience with free CloudFlare. Slowed by server 500 errors. Longer TTFB (time to first byte). Badness.

20 Use SSL and utilize HTTP/2. This is a nice way to upsell and make money for SiteGround. We aren’t convinced these are necessary  for speed – even though Google thinks so. SiteGround was kind enough to mention a free alternative. Secure third-party transactions like with PayPal means this stuff isn’t needed.

So what’s missing?

We think social links are a big culprit for site drag. That isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Ebook. Most site owners don’t realize social media gives little benefit. But they feel like an outcast if they don’t have it. Yes. There’s stigma to conform to the herd. Don’t give into this peer pressure. Social buttons and likes slow down pages.

If you have to use social media, use static image buttons or CSS buttons links instead. The fastest loading social-sharing button is none. Do value analysis. What kind of return are you getting on your social media? Is it a time waste generating that social content?

Hristo advises on another blog against going overboard with Social Media widgets or plugins. He just forgot to include it here. Social widgets/plugins ping their respective servers, delaying page loads. Particularly, Hristo says not to use IFRAME. He recommends using one plugin that covers all the social networks. (Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest etc). Don’t use a separate plugin for each network. Again, we think social media is as useful as a cast-iron paddle in a chicken-wire canoe.

We disagree with this Ebook, web hosting isn’t key to great performance.

We’ve seen sites on great hosts (including SiteGround) with lousy speed tests. It’s more essential to use speed strategy for balancing aesthetics and speed.

They said nothing about failing some basic Pingdom tests and the simple plugin solutions:

Query Strings Remover 1.5k
Removes query strings from static resources like CSS and JavaScript files. This plugin claims it will improve scores in Google PageSpeed, YSlow, Pingdom and GTmetrix. Just install and forget everything, as no configuration needed. Note: WP Rocket claims removing query strings doesn’t improve speed, just scores. We suspect they’re right.

Speed Booster Pack 82k
Speed Booster Pack allows you to improve your page loading speed. You’ll get a higher score on testing services. (GTmetrix, Google PageSpeed, YSlow, Pingdom, or Webpagetest). We’ve tested this plugin. We found it’s minification features succeed where other minification plugins caused conflicts or white screens. It’s not for everyone but worth noting here.

Conclusion

The SPEED MATTERS Ebook is better than most with good speed suggestions. But plainly selling services. At least it doesn’t perpetuate the myth that speed improves search engine optimization (SEO). That’s always a disturbing lie told by many site optimizers.

PagePipe: Page speed doesn’t affect SEO rankings much >

Ideas we agree on:

  • We agree performance test “scores” are meaningless ratings. Only speed measurements in milliseconds count. Or even better user perception of fast speed.
  • We agree sliders suck. But we say get rid of them.
  • We agree on image optimization. We even define how good is good enough in a downloadable PDF.
  • We agree on Gzip. We tell how to activate Gzip using a plugin without editing the .htaccess file by-hand.
  • Social links are baggage. Even though the author left that off. We know he agrees from other blogs.

Ideas we disagree on:

  • We don’t think a good host is the key to site performance. We think speed strategy is the answer.
  • They recommend a 1-second performance budget. We recommend 2-second loads for desktop and 4 seconds for mobile as best practice. Even though PagePipe is a 1-second site! We show that other experts agree. Even Google says 2 seconds is good enough.
  • They recommend EWWW image optimizer plugin. We say that’s poo. We recommend free Imsanity plugin instead. It’s configurable with a maximum width, height and quality settings.
  • We recommend using no images or substituting PNG illustrations for heavier JPEG photographs.
  • They recommend using Google Fonts sparingly. We say get rid of them completely by substituting websafe fonts for speed. We also say eliminate FontAwesome icon font when possible and always get rid of emojis. We recommend various plugins to do these eliminations. These are drastic but necessary measures.
  • They say manage (reduce) comments on your site. We say get rid of them completely with a plugin.
  • They say use a caching plugin and CDN. We say these are unnecessary band-aids if you build a quality speed site.
  • We think recommendations 10 through 17 are common-sense housekeeping or plain silly.
  • We think items 19 and 20 are less-credible selling promotions.

So half the report – the first 9 items – are worth reading. We think they aren’t aggressive enough to achieve their one-second page goal.

Godspeed—

Steve Teare
performance engineer

Mobile WordPress Speed – without coding!

What others think of us:


"I'm a non-programmer and have been breaking my head trying to figure out slow performance of my site. I found my answer stumbling upon your blog and also saved me $$$ from buying pro versions of plugins. Thanks a ton for your efforts." Fabstori.com  India

by - Jabal Shah