Is there anything more frustrating than a slow website? As web developers, we’re inclined to think not. This is a frustration shared on both ends of the browsing experience. Encountering a slow website as an end user is bad enough. But when your whole business depends on how well your website performs, slow load times can become a special kind of hell.
Most of today's fast-paced online consumers want everything now, now, now—or not at all. According to Kissmetrics, nearly half of users expect a page to load within two seconds. Two! They tend to abandon a site that hasn't loaded within three seconds.
Likewise, Kissmetrics also reports that 79% of online shoppers who have technical trouble with a website won't buy from there again—and 44% will go as far as to tell a friend about their bad experience. What these stats boil down to is the fact that a few seconds difference in load time can deeply impact your site's traffic and/or sales.
Fortunately, with just a little savvy (or the helping hand of a professional), it's usually pretty simple to remedy the issues and speed up your website.
Investigate With Speed Tests And Assessments
First thing’s first: you can’t solve a problem until you know what the problem is. So how slow is your website loading exactly? Pingdom and Google Webmaster Tools are two great tools to start testing its actual speed.
Pingdom runs a site speed test, plus it details how long each of your files took to load. With this information, you can see if some aspect of your content is causing slow loads. Pingdom will also save your data so you can compare results at different days and times.
Google Webmaster Tools (or Search Console, if you’re going with the recent name shift) will measure your site's load time every day so you can compare results over time.
Another neat tool from Google is Pagespeed Insights. It runs a diagnostic on your site and lists improvement suggestions in order of importance. It's a very useful tool, especially for those who need a little more support with the technical stuff.
Check For Connectivity Issues
This is a pretty typical place to start, but it’s important to cover this base. Your site might be loading slow for you because of connectivity issues local to your area, in which case, you've got nothing to worry about the site itself.
Run a traceroute to determine if this is, in fact, the issue. If so, the problem lies with your network connection to the server. Perhaps the connection is slow or there is a problem at one of the "nodes" between you and your server.
You can try contacting your service provider, or simply wait until the connection issues resolve.
So What If The Site Itself Is Slow?
If you can rule out the possibility of connectivity issues, it's time to check your website itself for problems. More specifically, you should look for common optimization opportunities and make sure you’re doing everything correctly. It’s not uncommon for side speed issues to stem from mere oversight during the build process, after all.
In many cases, you can’t know for sure if something will speed up your site until you try it, but here are some good places to start:
Compress images and videos.
Just because you’ve sized down media using your site’s WYSIWYG editor or straight HTML, doesn’t mean it’s optimized. That type of resizing merely alters the way it displays, but each user’s browser will still try to load the entirety of the file’s size. That will absolutely kill your site’s load time, especially if your design is image-heavy.
Here's a list of 18 image compressors. Using compression can reduce file size by as much as 70% without harming the quality of images and videos. You should also make sure to resize images to their intended final dimensions before inserting them onto pages or posts.
Evaluate your plugins.
If your site runs on WordPress or any other type of modular content management system, there’s a chance you’ve got plugins installed. Too many of them can really add to your site’s load time. Conversely, a simple poorly developed plugin can create a tremendous amount of drag, even if all of your other plugins are fairly lean.
A good way to assess your plugins’ contribution to your load time is to deactivate them one at a time and test your speed each time. It may be immediately apparently if one particular plugin is the culprit.
Otherwise, try streamlining your plugins in general and get rid of any that aren’t absolutely essential to the functionality or design of your site.
Leverage caching and compression tools.
Use a caching tool to quickly load snapshots of your pages whenever someone returns to your site so their browser doesn't have to generate every page anew each time. ZenCache and WP Super Cache are just two examples of the many WordPress plugins that exist out there for the purpose of caching. If your site isn’t built on WordPress, or if you want something more robust, you should look into (or talk to your developer about) server-level caching.
And if your site is particularly bulky across the board, it might do some good to explore data compression. One of the most popular data compression programs out there is Gzip, which can reduce file sizes and thus decrease page load times.
Watch out for stacked 301 redirects.
While a 301 is considered the best method of redirect when you make changes to your site pages, implementing too many of them can really add to your load time as the browser sorts through each of them to find its intended destination.
This is a tricky one, because most of the preventative measures should take place during the discovery phase of your website (i.e. pinning down your sitemap early on to avoid having to make significant changes and redirects in the future). But realistically, such changes are inevitable as your business grows and shifts, so it helps to revisit your list of 301s to make sure you’re not sending browsers on a wild goose chase.
Consider switching web hosts.
Sometimes your site’s home just isn’t big enough. This isn’t uncommon with sites that grow rapidly after launch. While this should be considered a last resort, it can be the key to upgrading your site's speed.
Read some reviews and testimonials to see if your current host has a reputation for speed problems. If it does, start looking into better options. If you tried to be economical in the past by choosing a leaner hosting plan, you might need to weigh the cost of a more robust solution against how much business you can potentially be losing with a sluggish site.
Speed is invaluable. Having a bug-free, fast loading website that's easy to use is critical for attracting traffic and keeping visitors engaged. If it's not quick and easy, most people just…well, leave. So why not eliminate the first of many potential obstacles and make sure that your site is operating smoothly and—most importantly—as quickly as possible?