WordPress Optimization Tips: 15 Tips for Building a Lightning-Fast Website

Want to learn how to create an effective, efficient, and lightning-fast website? Check out this guide to take full advantage of your WordPress website.

Portrait for Borislav TonevBy Borislav Tonev  |  Updated September 21, 2023

How do you create a successful WordPress website? In addition to web design and functionality, you need to pick a suitable theme, install the correct plugins, and ensure your site offers a top-notch user experience. Next, use the WordPress dashboard to upload tons of relevant, high-quality content, implement a few SEO techniques, and you’re on your way – in theory, anyway.

In reality, there are many more decisions to make and problems to solve. Some are easy to tackle, and others require more attention – and website performance is definitely among the latter. Want to know how to create an effective, efficient, and lightning-fast website? Read on to find out. 

Why Is Website Speed Important?

A 2017 Google study revealed that if a page’s load time increases from one to three seconds, the probability of the user closing the window rises by about 32%.

There’s no doubt that website speed can have a significant impact on user experience, but the truth is, you don’t need a survey to tell you that people don’t like slow websites. You have likely found yourself waiting for a page to load and deciding a few seconds in that it’s not worth your time.

In the modern world, slow loading speed equals poor user experience, and websites with poor user experience register high bounce rates. Furthermore, Google isn’t too keen on filling the top of its results pages with websites users don’t find useful. So, if your site is slow, its search engine rankings will likely be pretty poor.

In other words, poor performance can potentially affect your business, brand, or project’s success and sustainability. To stay ahead of the competition, you must continuously update, iterate, and improve your website to ensure it’s running at peak performance. 

Ready to get the best results for your website? Let’s dive in. 

How to Improve Website Performance & Decrease Page Loading Times

Before improving your website’s speed, you need to know where it currently stands. Online website speed tests examine loading speeds in detail to give you a more comprehensive idea of how well your site performs. Some of the most popular platforms include:

They’re all free to use, and all you need to do is enter your domain name. These tools will connect to your website and analyze its performance. Some of them may load from different locations or even use multiple user agents, analyzing the performance on mobile devices and desktop computers.

The information you see when the test is complete can differ from test to test. Usually, there’s a report detailing various aspects of the performance and an overall score, but your focus should be on the score.

This test visually represents how your website ranks compared to its competition. You can use it to track your progress as you tick through the optimization tasks. 

We’re not saying you should ignore the reports website speed testing tools generate – they usually contain tons of valuable data and actionable tips to help you speed up your site. However, not all suggestions will be right for you. Some of them may require custom development that is beyond your technical expertise. In other cases, implementing the suggested solutions isn’t viable. For example, some website speed tests may tell you to use a cookie-free domain – which is not really feasible if your business relies on cookies.

The good news is you don’t need to act on everything suggested by the speed tests. Even if the report shows significant areas for improvement, you can still achieve excellent loading speeds – and here’s how. 

How to Speed Up Your WordPress Website in 15 Steps

Quite a few factors affect your website’s performance, so speeding it up isn’t something you can do with a couple of clicks. Let’s dive straight in.

 1. Use a Reliable Hosting Service

Affordable WordPress-optimized hosting services are easy to come by, with the cheapest shared plans costing only a few dollars per month. They may work for you while the traffic levels are still relatively low, but you may need to reassess and upgrade as your website’s popularity grows.

You can still find dedicated server plans, but it’s fair to say that this form of hosting is slowly starting to die out. Modern WordPress VPS packages can be just as powerful but are much more flexible.

If you notice that your shared plan is no longer suitable for your project, you can move to an affordable VPS plan with a couple of CPU cores and a few gigabytes of RAM. You’ll get the additional power you need without paying hundreds of dollars monthly for a pricey dedicated machine. When your website gains more momentum, you can easily add more resources to your VPS and guarantee quick loading speeds even under heavy loads.

Virtual cloud servers are infinitely scalable by nature, and they give you a pay-as-you-go model that is simply unmatched by any other form of web hosting.

2. Install a Caching Plugin

Caching is the easiest way to improve a website’s performance – here’s how it works. A visitor accesses your site, and the web application generates and serves the required page. At this point, copies of newly generated elements are stored in a temporary storage facility (a cache). When the next visitor comes along, these elements are served straight from the cache. You don’t wait for the application to generate them again, so they appear more quickly on the screen.

Some CMS platforms come with advanced caching mechanisms built into the core. WordPress isn’t one of them, but it doesn’t need to be.

There’s no shortage of people trying to speed up their WordPress websites, and there’s no shortage of vendors coming up with caching plugins that can be installed in a matter of clicks. You can find dozens of solutions on WP’s official plugin repository, and third-party websites offer yet more options.

You’ll see that the add-ons come with different features and settings, so it’s up to you to sift through and shortlist the best solutions that suit your project.

3. Use a CDN

A CDN (or Content Delivery Network) is similar to a cache in that some of your website’s data is copied and stored for faster delivery. However, you don’t have a cache facility on your own server. Instead, copies of your site’s static files are distributed among a worldwide network of physical machines.

This solution is particularly useful for websites that receive traffic from across the globe. Let’s say that your primary hosting server is in the US, and a visitor from Australia tries to access it. Normally, all the data would have to travel between the server and the visitor’s home, hopping through hundreds of routers before it pops up on the screen.

With a CDN, the page’s dynamic data would still need to make this journey. However, heavy stuff like CSS stylesheets, fonts, images, and client-side scripts can be delivered by a server much closer to the user. The less distance the data has to travel, the faster it arrives, so with a content delivery network, you can reduce the site’s latency worldwide and guarantee better performance for everyone, regardless of their physical location.

4. Use a Faster Web Server

Not to be confused with the physical machine hosting your site, a web server is the computer software that receives and processes HTTP requests.

On a regular static website, it reads the request, sees which files the user’s browser needs to display, and sends them back. If you use WordPress, however, the web server must also work with the CMS to deliver dynamically-generated content quickly and efficiently.

The default setup with most hosting accounts includes the Apache web server. Apache has been around since the mid-1990s, and it’s been so widely used we won’t be exaggerating if we say that it has played a role in shaping the world wide web as we know it.

Despite its age, it’s still one of the most popular solutions of this kind, and it works well with all popular website-building applications, including WordPress. However, although many providers prefer to stick to it, there are now several Apache alternatives that can significantly boost your site’s performance.

The LiteSpeed web servers are among the top competitors. Unlike Apache, they’re based on an event-driven architecture, allowing them to handle multiple requests under a single process. This means faster speeds without increased server load.

In addition, LiteSpeed has one of the most powerful caching engines in the industry, and you can take full advantage of it if you install the LSCache WordPress plugin. With it, the CMS will be configured to work with the web server and cache the right data at the right time.

Further useful features include advanced DDoS protection and faster PHP processing. The LiteSpeed web servers already support HTTP/3, so once the protocol becomes commonplace, they will start processing static files much more quickly than the competition. HTTP/3 is not universally adopted yet, but having a web server that works with it is a good future-proofing measure.

There are two LiteSpeed web servers:

  • LiteSpeed Enterprise is the commercial version. 

In addition to all the bells and whistles above, it promises a seamless transition from the default setup because it’s an Apache drop-in replacement. You can install and run it on your account without needing to re-configure or change anything. There is a free plan, though its use is somewhat limited. Subscriptions suitable for working websites start at around $10 per month, and the investment is well worth it if you really value loading speeds.

  • OpenLiteSpeed is free to use. 

It’s based on the same event-driven architecture and has the same caching engine. However, some of the additional features are missing, and unlike LiteSpeed Enterprise, it’s not a direct Apache replacement. It can understand .htaccess directives, but you need to restart the web server whenever you make any significant changes to the setup. Be sure to bear this in mind while researching your options.

5. Optimize Your Images

Images are by far the heaviest part of any web page and take the longest to load – a fact vividly remembered by those who were around during the dial-up connection era. Yet, a website can’t exist without visuals.

Thankfully, image editing programs and techniques have evolved to help us streamline our photos and minimize their effects on loading speeds.

Quite a few online tutorials and other resources are dedicated to optimizing your images’ resolution and quality for the web. You can review them and see if your editing skills allow you to implement some of the suggestions. If not, image editing programs like Photoshop offer an easy way out with options like Save for Web, which compresses the image to provide the highest quality at the smallest possible file size.

Experts recommend converting all images to WebP – a format developed by Google to optimize photos for the web. It supports animation and transparency and can reduce an image’s file size by as much as 45%. Adopting the format hasn’t been blistering, but pretty much all modern browsers now support it.

However, because you’re using WordPress, you’ll probably prefer to leave all the hard work to a plugin. There are dozens of free and premium image optimization add-ons, all promising comprehensive features and marked performance improvement. They are known to work, but you have to go through them yourself and decide which one fits your needs the best.

6. Make Sure Lazy Loading is Enabled

You can reduce the number of simultaneous requests by instructing the server to load only the visible elements on the screen.

For example, immediately after a user visits your page, they will view the content at the top. If you ask the server to load the images near the footer, you’ll only increase the number of requests and slow down the site without making any difference to what the user sees. You can configure WordPress only to load images visible on the screen. The rest will be requested after the user scrolls down to them.

The technique is called lazy loading, and most websites have it enabled by default. The functionality was added to the WordPress core with version 5.5, so as long as your WordPress installation isn’t too old, lazy loading should be implemented.

However, speed and image optimization plugins give you additional options for customizing how your media files are loaded. sometimes, they can help you eek more performance out of your site.

7. Implement Code Minification Wherever Possible

Shrinking the volume of data the server sends can also speed up your website. And one of the ways to do it is to minify your HTML, CSS, and JavaScript files. Let’s explain what this involves.

When developers write code, they leave comments inside their files. There are also a lot of blank spaces between the different sections. All this is considered best practice and could be critical during debugging.

Thanks to comments and structuring, developers can identify and fix problems in the code much more easily. The user’s browser, on the other hand, doesn’t need comments or blank spaces. If you remove them, it will render the same page, but it will do it more quickly because the files will be a lot smaller.

This is the minification process we’re talking about. It’s also quite effective, with a file size reduction of up to 60%. You’re probably wondering how to implement it on your WordPress site.

You can do it manually by downloading individual files from your server, editing them locally, and re-uploading them. However, because you use WordPress, your best bet is to leave the hard work to a plugin.

In the official WordPress repository, you can find many extensions dedicated to minifying your site’s code and quite a few caching and speed optimization add-ons offer the functionality.

The performance benefits should be visible immediately, but before you make any changes to the code, remember to back up the original files. This way, if a developer needs to look at them at any point in the future, they can find their way around them more easily.

8. Implement GZIP Compression

Another method for reducing the volume of data passing between the web server and the user’s computer is to compress your site’s files while they’re on the server and let the visitor’s browser decompress them before displaying them on the screen.

There are many different compression techniques, with GZIP being the most popular in the context of website hosting. All modern browsers support it, and it’s a lossless compression technique, meaning no data is lost when the browser unzips the file.

The easiest way to implement GZIP compression on your WordPress website is with a plugin. Once again, the popular caching and speed optimization add-ons have the functionality built-in, and enabling it could reduce the size of your site’s files by up to 70%. Doing it is well worth considering.

9. Pick a Lightweight Theme

Having a concept of what you want your website to look like when choosing a WordPress theme is the way to go. However, don’t forget to consider other key factors when choosing your design.

The performance, for example, can be influenced by your theme. Templates with too many high-res photos and videos take longer to load than the cleaner designs that rely on a simple background and some text. Your website can’t do without any imagery, but some visual effects can also be recreated with code – a much more lightweight approach.

Ideally, the theme will offer a clean look with all the implemented code and image optimization techniques.

Before you choose a design, it’s a good idea to test the shortlisted candidates in a staging environment and monitor how they affect your site’s loading speeds.

10. Remove Any Unused Plugins and Themes

Themes and plugins can be great for transforming your site’s experience and extending its functionality. However, they take up storage space and hardware resources if they’re not in use.

Regular plugin audits are an excellent way of keeping your site more secure. The fewer unused add-ons, the smaller the chance of someone finding an unpatched vulnerability.

Audits can help with performance, as well. If you see a plugin you don’t use, deactivate it to avoid it consuming hardware resources. If you’re sure you won’t use it in the future, it’s best to uninstall it altogether.

 11. Keep Your Website Up to Date

Website and software updates are important because they apply security patches and introduce new features that make your site more functional. However, many forget that updates also bring stability and performance enhancements that can shave significant chunks off your loading times.

Anything from a new PHP version, through a WordPress core update, to a bug fix in one of your plugins can improve the site’s performance and reduce the loading times.

However, be sure you approach all updates with caution. New versions of applications and plugins can sometimes cause conflicts with other components powering your website and could slow down or even break your site.

That’s why it’s a good idea to have a working backup before you apply every update. Even better, consider setting up a staging environment where you can test all new versions and ensure there are no issues before pushing the changes to production.

 12. Optimize Your Database

Your WordPress website’s database contains all the posts, pages, and other content you upload. It holds your and your users’ comments, profile information, and data generated by plugins.

The more content and features you add and the more popular the website, the bigger its database. The bigger the database, the longer WordPress will need to find and retrieve the correct information. In other words, it’s important to do some tidying up every now and again.

The first option is the OPTIMIZE TABLE MySQL statement. You can log in to your server via SSH and run it as a command, though most prefer to use phpMyAdmin, where the option is available in the graphic user interface. The statement reduces the database’s size and increases its efficiency by reorganizing the way data is stored. What it doesn’t do is remove old and unnecessary information.

This includes unapproved and junk comments, old post revisions, etc. You can do that yourself from the WP dashboard. As we mentioned already, uninstalling any unused plugins will also help. In fact, it’s best to regularly run through your WordPress site and see what you can do to streamline it.

Another method for optimizing the database is with a plugin. Add-ons can automate many of the tasks outlined above, and all you usually need to do is click a couple of buttons. The downside is that they do it automatically and may not delete all unused data. There’s also a risk that they may remove things that should stay, so make sure you have a backup before you continue.

 13. Use a Waterfall Analysis

A waterfall analysis compares all the requests the server needs to respond to when the page loads. You see the order in which the requests are made and how long the server takes to respond to each one.

You can use your browser’s developer tools to access your site’s waterfall graph or view it on some of the speed testing platforms we mentioned earlier.

GTMetrix waterfall chart

Here, for example, is what GTmetrix’s waterfall chart for google.com:

You can see each individual request when it is sent, when it is responded to, and how much time Google needs to process it.

The URLs are listed in the leftmost column, so you can identify which resources take the longest to load. You can see which component each resource belongs to and determine whether you can do anything to improve the loading speed for each request.

If it’s part of a plugin you don’t use, you can eliminate it and significantly improve your site’s performance.

You won’t necessarily be able to address every slow-loading request on the first try, especially if your web administration experience is limited. You may need to spend some time on Google to determine where the URLs lead and what they do.

However, although analyzing a waterfall chart may require some effort, deciphering its information can help you learn more about how your website works and how you can improve its performance.

 14. Organize Page Content

The cleaner the layout, the faster the page will be. For example, if you have a WordPress blog, your homepage will likely display a few of your newest posts. Whenever a visitor accesses your site, WordPress will have to retrieve the latest post titles, an initial excerpt for each article, and, depending on the theme, a few feature images. The more recent posts you display on the page, the more requests the server will need to process. And the more requests, the slower the loading speed.

The solution is simpler than it may appear at first. By reducing the number of blog posts users see on the homepage, you’ll have fewer requests and a faster website. Sometimes, this may be possible by clicking a couple of buttons in the WordPress dashboard. In other cases, it requires custom development work. It all depends on the theme, but checking out the options is worth it.

While at it, you may also explore other opportunities for organizing your visible content. For example, some experts advise separating longer blog posts into two or more pages.

 15. Limit the Number of External Requests

Most of the data loaded when a visitor accesses your site is hosted in your environment. The concern is that there is often crucial website data that’s outside your control.

For example, some third-party services rely on information hosted on the provider’s infrastructure. So, when visitors access your site, they’ll need to wait not only for your hosting server but also for the third-party provider. This could significantly slow down the entire website.

The solution is to limit the number of requests going to places outside your WordPress hosting infrastructure. You can start with the waterfall analysis we mentioned earlier and identify the third-party URLs.

Once you’ve done that, you can research how to limit the traffic going to external servers. The most obvious approach is to stop using the third-party service, but this isn’t always practical or even possible. For example, marketing tags can be essential for understanding how people interact with your site, and often, you need tracking codes from multiple providers to get the full picture.

This normally means firing off requests to several outside servers, which is far from ideal, but if you take the time to do some research, you can find a solution. Google’s Tag Manager allows you to consolidate all your tracking tags under a single container, thus minimizing your dependency on third-party infrastructure.

To Wrap Up

Far too many promising websites go belly up because of poor performance. Even the best design and the most relevant content won’t sustain your site if the bounce rates are high, so optimizing your site’s speed should be high on your priority list.

WordPress makes life a lot easier, offering a CMS with an incredibly flexible architecture and unlimited plugins that automate some tasks and help you breeze through the process without requiring any technical background. Hopefully, this guide will help you through the optimization process, and you learn how to take full advantage of your WordPress website. Good luck! 

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