Speed Kills: How to Audit and Improve Your Website’s Speed and PerformanceBy Patrick Liddy
So you’ve done all this SEO & conversion optimization on your WordPress site.
You’re getting backlinks, your content is great, your pages are optimized, you’re pulling in reviews, you have a compelling CTA, and you have lots of accurate business listings. Your website is gorgeous. A work of art, really!
...but the needle isn’t moving. Why? The explanation may be more straightforward than you think. Your site is probably slow.
Poor site speed is actually super common. Even the team here at Vendasta has experienced this problem firsthand. We’ve been battling our site speed issues for some time now, and we’ve made progress...but I’ll get into all that later.
I see this problem all the time among marketers and marketing agencies. We’re the ones who are supposed to "get it", and be early adopters of best practices like website page speed optimization. However, Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool says otherwise about many of our gorgeous, SEO optimized, content-laden websites.
We all need to do better.
That’s why you’re reading this right now, so let’s get to it!
Table of Contents
What is Page Speed?
Page speed is the amount of time it takes for the content on a website’s page to fully load. In a world where people have come to expect instantaneous results, faster is better.
In fact, nearly half of web users expect a site to load in 2 seconds or less, and they tend to abandon a site that isn’t loaded within 3 seconds, according to surveys done by Akamai and Gomez.com.
Related Reading: 58 Spooky Statistics for Websites
So 3 seconds is the minimum speed the average visitor would tolerate. Is the typical website up to the task? Pingdom used their own clients as the data source and found that for them, the answer was a resounding NO.
Among Pingdom’s clients, the average load time for web pages 3Mb was 5 seconds. Way too slow.
The standards many have been using for page load time come from a study conducted by Geoff Kenyon where he compares website speed against the rest of the web:
- if your site loads in 5 seconds, it is faster than approximately 25% of the web
- if your site loads in 2.9 seconds, it is faster than approximately 50% of the web
- if your site loads in 1.7 seconds, it is faster than approximately 75% of the web
- if your site loads in 0.8 seconds, it is faster than approximately 94% of the web
So how can you determine how your website stacks up?
How to Determine Your Page Speed and Score
Here’s how to measure how your website stacks up against the current user expectations we discussed above:
- Hop into your website’s Google Analytics Site Speed reports. This will give you an idea of how your site has performed over various time periods, and the load speed of each of your pages.
- Enter your site’s URL into Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool. This will give you a report card on your website’s speed performance on mobile devices and desktop. The report comes with some recommended actions you can take to improve your site’s speed.
- Check Pingdom’s website speed test to find out the speed, rank and percent faster than the average of Pingdom’s tested websites
- GTMetrix will provide a comprehensive look at your site’s speed optimization status.
Note: Don't puzzle yourself when you see different speed timing in Pingdom and Gtmetrix. As Pingdom will show you load time (The time it takes to show the first result of your website - that's what google counts and you should too) and GTmetrix will show you full load time (The time it takes to show full page with it's full functionality running). For further understanding, it's always good to see the speed waterfall from both tools.
As part of your site speed audit (I’ll go over in more detail below), you’ll use these tools to track your optimization progress.
Related Reading: How To Speed Up Your WordPress Mobile Site
Why Does Page Speed Matter?
Bridging the gap between user expectations (2 seconds) and average website load time (5 seconds) is the goal of page speed optimization and the tactics we’ll outline later. But why exactly does page speed matter? It comes down to 3 main interconnected reasons:
1. Speed Kills UX
User experience is probably the most important reason you should care about website speed, so we’ll start here.
People don’t have the patience for slow loading websites anymore. In the beginning, just connecting to the internet required a tolerance that just doesn’t exist anymore.
Are you old enough to remember this sweet sound?
Today, people are constantly online and you’ve got 3 seconds maximum to display your page or they’re gone. More than 3 seconds creates a poor user experience and the bar is only going to get higher in the future.
In his talk on the “10 Golden Principles of Successful Web Apps”, entrepreneur and blogger Fred Wilson notes that,
“Speed is the most important feature. If your application is slow, people won’t use it. I see this more with mainstream users than I do with power users. I think that power users sometimes have a bit of sympathetic eye to the challenges of building really fast web apps, and maybe they’re willing to live with it, but when I look at my wife and kids, they’re my mainstream view of the world. If something is slow, they’re just gone.”
The easiest way to think about this is how you navigate websites and what your expectations are for most sites. Do you sit there and tolerate slow load times? What is your impression of a website that takes forever to load?
2. Speed Kills SEO
User experience is actually the driving force behind the SEO implications of site speed.
Edwin Toonen of Yoast explains ,
“Google’s latest research shows that the chance of a bounce increases 32% when the page load time goes from 1s to 3s. 1s to 5s increases the chance to 90% and if your site takes up to 10s to load, the chance of a bounce increases to 123%. That’s incredible. For search engines, better results and performance is a sign of a healthy site that pleases customers and therefore should be rewarded with a higher ranking.”
While Google has been slow to officially reveal whether slow websites would receive ranking demotions, it appears that those days are coming. You need to make sure your website and the websites you manage are ready.
3. Speed Kills Conversions
Your site speed’s effect on conversions is what should really catch your attention. How can you move people through your funnel if each step takes forever? Your super-fans will do it, but those new, hesitant people who are prone to buyers-remorse will bounce.
For example, SOASTA recently did a study on one of their mPulse customers, a leading online retailer that enjoys a significant (4.5M sessions) amount of mobile traffic.
Here were their key findings:
- In terms of conversions, the performance sweet spot was 2.4 seconds
- Pages that were just one second faster experienced a 27% conversion rate increase
- At 4.2 seconds, the average conversion rate dropped below 1%
- By the 6-second mark, the mobile conversion rate begins to plateau
Image Source: SOASTA
The implications are pretty clear. Slow page load times hurt conversion rate. So Sherlock-esque deductive reasoning would indicate that focusing on increasing site speed should increase conversion rate!
Let’s see if we can make that happen.
How Can You Make Your Website Load Faster? 8 Tactics
Speeding up your site is not necessarily going to be a snap. If you have a small, light site you may just need to try a couple of tactics on this list.
However, large, older sites with a lot of code and content may require some persistence and the implementation of several tactics on the following list.
Here’s where to start:
1. Leverage browser caching:
When you visit sites, your browser often caches pages on the site to speed up load time.
Browser caching stores webpage resource files on a local computer when a user visits a webpage, so leveraging browser caching is when you instruct browsers how their resources should be dealt with.
Things can slow down when the response from your server does not include caching headers or if resources are specified to be cached for only a short time.
Leveraging caching will load your pages much faster for repeat visitors and so will other pages that share those same resources.
Note: SEO Content Strategist Maddy Osman notes that “W3 Total Cache is great for this but is banned from certain hosts (like GoDaddy). It needs an expert hand to configure so you don't break your website.”
2. Optimize images:
If images load faster, your site loads faster, period. Google notes that “...images often account for most of the downloaded bytes on a page. As a result, optimizing images can often yield some of the largest byte savings and performance improvements.”
This means that you can get some big improvements when the images on your pages can be optimized to reduce their file size without significantly impacting their visual quality.
Minifying removes any unnecessary characters that are not required for the code to execute.
Sources of redundant data that you can remove includes code comments and formatting, removing unused code, using shorter variable and function names, and more.
4. Enable gzip compression:
Gzip compression drastically reduces the size of files sent from your server when someone visits your website. This will speed things up considerably.
According to GTMetrix,
“The reason gzip works so well in a web environment is because CSS files and HTML files use a lot of repeated text and have loads of whitespace. Since gzip compresses common strings, this can reduce the size of pages and style sheets by up to 70%!”
5. Reduce server response time:
Server response time is the amount of time it takes for a web server to respond to a request from a browser. This is a key issue to address, because if your server response time is slow your pages will display slow, no matter how optimized your pages are for speed.
Google says you should reduce your server response time under 200ms. So how do you make this happen?
6. Avoid landing page redirects:
Your site can really slow down when you have more than one redirect from the given URL to the final landing page. This sets off a redirect loop that takes time to process.
Here are a few examples of redirects that can slow things down:
example.com → m.example.com/home - multi-roundtrip penalty for mobile users.
example.com → www.example.com → m.example.com - very slow mobile experience.
7. Prioritize visible content:
This is the exact message you’ll get from Google’s PageSpeed tool when additional network round trips are required to render the above the fold content of the page.
However, this is a common message you’ll get from Google about site speed, and addressing it can really take your page speed up a few notches.
Note: This is the hardest thing to fix for most people. There are wordpress plugins that just do it but they can make your site look like Frankenstein on every load.
Case Study: Speeding Up Vendasta’s Blog
So I’m writing this post about site speed, even as Vendasta sits at 44/100 for mobile speed (update: we're at 77/100 three months later!) and 60/100 for desktop speed.
Trust me, I’m aware that there may be a question about street cred here. However, there’s more to our story than Google’s insights tool will tell you.
At Vendasta, we’ve put in a lot of work on our site speed, but we’re clearly still not where we want to be. We’ve actually made a lot of improvements, but we have a large site with a ton of content, so we’re not yet at our goal of 80/100 for both mobile and desktop.
However, we’re not the only ones struggling with site speed! Lots of high-profile websites share the same challenges as us. In fact, even HubSpot also has work to do to improve their site’s performance according to Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool:
This isn’t a "shots fired" callout of HubSpot (respect!), I’m only using them as an example to illustrate that improving site speed can be a challenge, even for the pros, and that we all need to improve to meet the demands of the next generation of internet users. Run some of your favorite sites through the tool and you’ll see what I mean!
As I mentioned above, every improvement we make to speed things up can have exponential results.
Vendasta Marketing Technologist Adam Bissonnette notes,
"The big change for us was server side stuff - we're in a unique position running our wordpress website in AppEngine (nobody does this) and the big performance boosts were switching from AppEngine Standard to AppEngine Flex which was in Beta. We also changed our php version from 5 to 7 which also helped at lot. Updating php brought its own set of problems where certain plugins no longer worked and we had to deal with that fallout for a month or two but the speed was more valuable than the lost functionality."
What you can take away from this is that finding the best solution for your specific situation is key. You may find that tactics that move the needle for your site that we haven't even mentioned here!
Take a look at the growth of our blog following the initiation of our site speed efforts in May of 2016:
These improvements set the stage for all Vendasta content initiatives that followed. Since that time, we’ve focused on producing a high volume of in-depth, quality content. Without our coinciding site speed improvements it’s unlikely that you’d see the spike in traffic the analytics screenshot displays.
Performance will only improve as we continue to optimize our site speed and improve our user experience!
Key Takeaway: You don’t need to score 100/100 to experience growth on your website.
If you’re at 40/100, make a couple improvements as time allows and shoot for 60/100. Don’t burn yourself out shooting for 100/100 immediately!
Case Study: iHeartRaves
iHeartRaves is a world leader in festival fashion whose mission is to inspire individual creativity and empower self expression. Combined their two other sister brands, their Shopify stores are grossing $20M annually and they’ve been featured in the Inc. 5000 four years in a row.
As an eCommerce site iHeartRaves is distinctly aware of the financial ramifications of poor website speed and performance.
Brandon Chopp, Digital Marketing Strategist for iHeartRaves told me,
“As an ecommerce brand, we realized that site speed is huge! When I think about conversions, I’m thinking about the best ways to make a user click on something through a call to action. The truth of the matter is that faster websites will always win. The faster your site is, the more likely it is that users will convert.”
Brandon knew he had to improve site speed to help the business achieve their revenue growth goals. He tackled iHeartRaves’ speed enhancements using the following tactics:
- Optimize Images: In order to ensure our mobile site loads quickly, we use a Shopify app called Crush.pics. This ensures that all our images are optimized for site speed while still retaining image quality.
- Minify Code: We also took steps to minify all of our liquid code and prioritized script load order while trimming down the total number of scripts being called.
- Clean Up On-Page Assets: Removing unnecessary assets on some pages while reducing images assets on others helped reduce site load time as well. We try to balance between speed and content, because we're an ecommerce site. It's very important to us to make sure our image quality is up to our standards while maintaining a great user experience for our customers.
The page load speed and bounce rate results really improved with these updates: “Since making changes our site speed has decreased from 10.25 to 6.86 seconds year over year (a 65% decrease), and our bounce rate decreased by 6%,” Brandon explains. “It was originally at 40.34% and is now down to 34%.”
These improvements have also translated into tangible financial results for iHeartRaves. “We’ve benefited in Google from having a fast mobile site because our conversion rate has increased year over year thanks in a large part to our site speed decreasing. By putting the customer’s' user experience first we've been able to retain our customers and make it an easier shopping experience all around.”
Key Takeaway: It’s important to remember that speed and user experience go hand in hand.
Combined, the two can lead to improvements in the one metric that rules them all: Conversions!
Case Study: Jubaer’s 6 Seconds and 40 Point Improvement
Vendasta’s own SEO specialist, Jubaer Prodhan, shared an instance in which he followed Google’s Pagespeed Insight Tool for his own site with some nice results.
Jubaer notes, “In my case, I have a wordpress website with loading time more than 8 seconds and GPI (Google PageSpeed Insight) score of 43. I did the following things to improve the site speed.”:
- Image Optimization: If done correctly, then it can reduce the page size and speed drastically. In my case, the page size went down from 3MB to 1.6mb. Plugin used: ShortPixel Image Optimizer (You can also optimize images with this tool)
- Browser Cache: Using browser cache is recommended by most of the major tools. And it reduces bandwidth, load time for return visitor, and many other useful things. Plugin used: WP Fastest Cache
Jubaer’s site now loads in 1.9 seconds and the GPI score is 83! That’s quite an improvement from 8 seconds and a GPI score of 43.
Key Takeaway: Smaller websites can see marked improvements in speed with just a few key changes.
Try working through Jubaer's list to start things off and see what results you get before proceeding to the next tactics.
Related Reading: The 7 WordPress SEO Plugins: Your New Local Stack
Case Study: How One Company Achieved a 100/100 on Google’s PageSpeed Tool
Getting that 100/100 is an indication that your site is as optimized for speed as possible. It’s the ultimate goal, and one company I spoke with explained a couple inside tactics that helped them get there.
Bret Bonnet, co-owner/founder of Quality Logo Products a $40M distributor of promotional products located in Chicago, IL. explains,
“Page speed is a major focus for our organization. Even though it’s very minor, it’s still a ranking signal. Studies have shown that page speed can have a dramatic impact on conversion performance. The most effective way to improve your website’s load time is working with asset loading, allowing the "above the fold" content to completely display before loading the CSS/JS. NOT optimizing the loading of “above the fold” content can result in a 10 point deduction in overall Google Page Speed Insights score.”
[clickToTweet tweet="NOT optimizing the loading of above the fold content can result in a 10 point deduction in overall Google #PageSpeed Insights score." quote="NOT optimizing the loading of above the fold content can result in a 10 point deduction in overall Google #PageSpeed Insights score."]
This 10 point deduction shows how important Google believes optimizing above the fold content is. What’s kind of startling and paradoxical is what Bret explains next:
“In addition to asset management, a perfect score CANNOT be achieved by any website that includes common tracking code from the likes of Google AdWords or Google Analytics in their source code. These JS files are served directly from Google--for whatever reason, Google doesn’t follow their own quality guidelines—and are transmitted to the browser uncompressed. This poor optimization--which again, is out of your control--is entirely on Google’s side and can cost you as much as 5 points.”
Quality Logo Products was able to speed things up and achieve that 100/100 using the following tactic:
“To overcome this, we’ve logged the IPs from which Google crawls and the Source IPs for these tools and have our servers intentionally serve Google versions of our pages without their tracking code installed. It’s kind of weird, but Google is hurting our own Google Page Speed Insight score. So to overcome it, we intentionally don’t serve Google its own unoptimized code, resulting in a 5 point improvement in our page speed score on average.”
Key Takeaway: A 100/100 score is achievable!
It’s confounding that Google’s own products slow things down to such an extent, but the workaround in this case study should help.
How to do Your Audit and Site Speed Optimization
1. Get a Baseline to Chart Results
The first step to your audit and optimization process should be to get a baseline look at where your site currently stands for a few metrics.
If you record your starting point you’ll be able to better track the success of your optimization efforts. Anytime you optimize your website in any way for speed, make sure you record your progress against these same metrics.
Here are a few things you should track:
- Site load time: Go to your Google analytics report to Menu → Behavior → Site Speed → Overview (and Page Timings to see individual pages). Record the average site page load time and any key pages you want to track. You can also use Pingdom and GTMetrix tools mentioned above.
- Your website’s Google PageSpeed scores: Just click here and enter your website’s URL and check your mobile and desktop scores. Record these.
- Bounce rate: See if your bounce rate improves, which would indicate that fewer people are navigating away from the site after viewing only one page. You can view this in a number of places, such as Behavior → Overview.
- Conversion rate: Are visitors converting at a higher rate after your improvements? This is important to track! Head to Conversions → Goals → Overview to view and record your current conversion rate.
Keep records of your progress in a spreadsheet and make sure you note changes to the website in Google Analytics by creating annotations for each update.
2. Work Through the 8 Steps
The best place to start your audit is the suggestions that Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool offers. If you’re not at 100/100 already, you’ll see some tips from Google on where to begin.
Working through the 8 steps to improve site speed we’ve highlighted will take some time and persistence as I’ve mentioned.
"It doesn’t have to be hard to speed up your website. Lots of website have too large images which can easily be optimized. Besides, websites with visitors coming from around the world should definitely use a CDN to make sure images are served as fast as possible for everyone! Adding some lines of code to the .htaccess file, can speed up your website easily. For example, you could enable browser caching and gzip compression for smaller files which can be loaded much quicker on your visitors computers."
You have to set some realistic goals and expectations. When you have large, multifaceted sites with loads of (awesome!) content like us at Vendasta and Hubspot, it will take more time to achieve the same goals of a small nimble site with few pages.
3. Pull in Help When Needed
Hey, we’re not all developers and designers. If your DIY development efforts are breaking your site or coming up in therapy sessions you may want to bring in expert help.
We all know and envy technical wizards. Let them do this for you!
Pius Boachie of Digitimatic told me that a full stack developer is key to help with site speed issues:
"When it comes to beating Google page speed insights tool, the developer does the heavy lifting by keeping the code clean, prioritizing content above the fold. From experience, when designing for clients, we design for speed so we choose a website builder like Duda (fast products) or build on a CMS or scratch (expensive), invest a good CDN and hosting (very important) alongside an experienced full-stack developer."
You’ve already set up your baseline metrics, so it will be easy to keep track of your progress and success going forward. If you’re working on multiple sites for clients, you’ll want to be able to replicate your success and halt anything that isn’t working.
4. Stay Committed to Site Speed Going Forward
You can probably knock out some low-hanging fruit like image optimization, code minification and browser caching and see some nice results right away. However, to reach your goals it may take a more sustained effort to chip away at the 8 tactics I’ve highlighted.
Don’t try to do it all at once! To avoid burnout, make a plan to chip away, while monitoring the results of your efforts.
Here's How to Leverage Site Speed to Increase Sales
Getting real-world site speed improvements is always more messy than it appears in blog posts. You’re going to face some challenges along the way, but stay focused on the results, because they’re going to improve user experience, SEO and conversions in the long run.
That’s what is most important; prepping for the speedy future of online browsing.
If you need assistance, call on your techie friends or let us know how we can help!
If you have any experiences or advice to share, please feel free to chime in on this post’s comment section as well...