Straight away it’s important to stress that this is a big subject – no quick fixes, no silver bullets – but more on this in a moment. First of all, let’s look at how you can check that your website is indeed loading slowly.
Check the speed of your website.
Real world checking is of course where this doubt begins, where speed-envy is born. You’ve checked your site at home, out and about on your mobile, maybe even on a café WiFi, because it would be nice to think that it’s your computer or your broadband/4G/5G that are the problem. It isn’t, it won’t be.
To be sure that your site and pages are slow to load, that you do have room for improvement (this affects Search Engine ranking as well as your users), then you need good tools, good bench-marking. Testing, at least at this level, will cost you nothing.
We usually start at GTmetrix. Testing your site is free of charge, at least for a check that simulates using Chrome desktop browser. If you simply use the basic test then that test will be run as though the site user were in Canada. If you create a free account then you can login and select from half a dozen or so other locations – none in Scotland, but you can choose London. Again, the free options will tell you nothing about how your site performs on mobile but, if you’re given a low score for Desktop, you can be sure that things are likely to be as bad – if not considerably worse – on mobile.
You’ve run your test, you’ve been graded – you have a ‘GTmetrix Grade’. The results page goes into a great deal of detail and attempts to cover the main problems under ‘Top Issues’. Which is nice, but what on earth does ‘Serve static assets with an efficient cache policy’ mean? How about ‘Avoid an excessive DOM size’? No, all you need to look at is your Grade – anything other than A is not ideal, C is, erm, average, and D or E mean you really need to fix things.
If you have a low score then you’re in good company. There are some very big, very slow sites out there. In a way, they get a free pass as they’re likely to get the traffic, the eyeballs, regardless of speed. But not you, not us – we’re all competing and a slow site will see people jumping elsewhere in a heartbeat. If they find your site in the first place, that is – content is still king (it always will be) – but Google will also consider ‘page experience’ as a ranking factor – see here.
Google PageSpeed Insights is our second opinion. Although GTmetrix is built on top of this, the Google tool always delivers slightly different results. More importantly, it also offers a Mobile score – in fact it shows this first, by default, which it probably should do given that mobile traffic is now accounting for more than half of all internet usage.
An important thing to mention – with both tools – is that you should run multiple tests, a minimum of three, as scores can differ considerably between test. Look for a consistent score and start from there.
Yup, my site is slow. Why is that?
Trite answer? For lots and lots of reasons, none of which will likely be obvious from the results and recommendations of the tests above. Below we’ll skim over some of the bigger ones:
- Hosting – who you host with (and where the host serves your site from) is important. We host with what we reckon are the best WordPress hosts in the UK, Guru. A WordPress server needs configuring in a certain way and ‘generic’ hosting will always be slower.
- WordPress – WordPress itself is fast, if sitting on a good server with a good host. But that doesn’t mean all WordPress sites are fast. Add on a heavy, poorly designed theme, throw in a batch of badly configured plugins and you’ll still have underlying problems, no matter how good your hosting is. When we redesign a site we inevitably rebuild it in terms of framework and architecture, typically opting to use Generatepress when working with WordPress. It’s the fastest, period.
- Plugins – we love plugins. Just not all of them, much in the same way that they don’t love each other and often don’t play nicely together. We have years of experience in this and know when some of our own custom code – modifying the base rather than stacking on countless Plugins – is the way to go.
- Graphics – too big, too many, wrong format, not optimised, not served appropriately for mobile, the list goes on. The balance between graphic design and speed is not learnt overnight.
- External content – often the hardest thing to get right. Of course you want to embed Social content, you want sections served up from ‘outside’ your site, but this is where things can stumble. Don’t let your developer palm you off with pat lines like ‘nothing we can do, it’s external’. There is.
- Mobile last – you’ll have seen reference to Responsive Design, the way a website refactors itself when viewed on smaller screens. Many web agencies are now mobile-first and will design a new site assuming a mobile user as target audience, then moving on to check that the website also looks good on the desktop, on larger screens. Your site may well have a decent desktop score, but if your developer is not diligent, your mobile score may well be poor.
How do I fix my site, make my site faster?
And another trite answer – contact us. We’ll happily take an initial look at your site and make some recommendations. All sites can be improved.
We always take time to understand the business behind a site; the public-facing side of a business cannot be an orphan of the activity or service, the requirements and the objectives of the site need to be understood before lifting the hood. As can be seen from the list above, fixes can be applied all over the place, and usually have to be.
Finally, if you take just one thing away from this, please don’t let your developer get away with claiming that all you need to do is spend more money on hosting. You probably do, but just doing that is cosmetic surgery, a short-term fix that won’t last too very long.