I have been working with WordPress as a blogger since 2012. First with WordPress.com and then WordPress.org. I started my first blog on wordpress.com in 2012 before I moved to wordpress.org in 2015 after finding my blogging niche. Since then, I have rebranded my blog a few times, but I still stuck with the benefits that come with wordpress.org.
I cannot count the number of times that I changed themes and plugins during the same duration that I have been on self-hosted WordPress. But it is well above 20 times. I have experimented with a number of themes and plugins, but I was always worried about speeding up my site, despite being on shared hosting.
But above all, I use Inspect Element in the web browsers I use (Chrome and Firefox) which helps me very much, especially if I want to replicate a certain design on my site from another website.
Despite that, I have learnt a lot when it comes to being involved in managing my site and especially in speeding it up. In this article, I will be sharing some tips that I have used on my site to speed it up and I hope they can help you out too!
1. Find a web host that uses LiteSpeed web server or Nginx webserver over Apache
My current web host has my site hosted on a shared LiteSpeed Webserver. This means that I can utilize the LiteSpeed Cache plugin for WordPress to speed up my site. It works at the server level too. I have used Nginx before, but I found it very hard to use so I switched back to Apache before I discovered my host had switched me to a LiteSpeed server.
Since then, I have seen some considerable gains in speed. Various benchmarks also show that LiteSpeed and Nginx webservers blow Apache out of the water in terms of speed. But even so, you need your WebHost to configure the server for you properly if you need to enjoy the speed gains or learn how to do it yourself from tutorials online.
I prefer using LiteSpeed because I was a bit familiar with Apache and the LiteSpeed Cache Plugin does have most of the configurations I use built right into it which allows me to configure it to my liking.
To add to this point, always choose a better web hosting provider.
2. Find a lightweight and fast WordPress theme
I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. As I mentioned earlier, I had changed my website’s theme so many times because I could never settle for a design I liked. The WordPress themes ecosystem is so diverse that users are spoilt for choice which means there is always that temptation to try out new themes.
That changed when I settled for a fast and lightweight theme called GeneratePress. Built by Tom Usborne, GeneratePress is one of the most lightweight and fast themes in the WordPress ecosystem. While it looks very simplistic (or what some might call ‘bland’) on install, it is very flexible and it can be customised to any design. I would even encourage everyone to get the premium version of GeneratePress which even makes designing your site simpler without touching code. It has a slight learning curve, but the documentation is so detailed that you are soon up and running with setting up your site.
Many themes, especially from marketplaces like ThemeForest are multipurpose themes, which means they are a ‘one theme does all’ kinda themes. Therefore, you end up with a bloated theme and only a few features that you need from those themes. There is also the danger of the theme ‘lock-in’. I used the Newspaper theme for a year from ThemeForest before settling on GeneratePress, and the two major reasons I ditched it is because it had too many features I did not need and I could not achieve the website speeds I needed, especially on mobile.
When I switched to GeneratePress, it was a nightmare cleaning up the junk left by the Newspaper theme, especially inside my posts…
Other themes and frameworks that are considered fast and lightweight are the Genesis Framework, OceanWP, Neve, Hello by Elementor, Blocksy, Suki, Kadence Theme and the Page Builder Framework.
3. Consider the quality of the plugins you use
You find many tutorials saying that having many plugins on your site slows down your site. While there is some truth to it, what matters more is not the number of plugins, but the quality of the code used to build those plugins. Poorly coded plugins can slow down your site and cause other issues like conflicts with other plugins.
There are many poorly coded WordPress themes and plugins out there. So, it is good to always be aware to ensure that you don't doom your site speed and functionality in the long run. Just like themes, it is also important to ensure you do not install bloated plugins on your site. For example, I always ditch the JetPack plugin on all sites that I make, whether for other people or myself. Sorry to say, I also ditched Yoast SEO for The SEO Framework.
Currently, I only have 13 plugins installed on my site. One way to find out what themes or plugins are slowing down your site is to use the Query Monitor plugin.
4. Learn between design, layout and functionality
This is an important yet simple lesson I learnt from a web developer known as Karl Peschel. In short, WordPress themes are for layout and design while plugins are for functionality. You do not want to have functionality tied into themes because you will lose your content when you change themes (and I guarantee you that you will change themes!)
This is where multipurpose themes become a disadvantage, with the ‘lock-in’ problem I referred to previously…
Most people, especially beginners, always ask for themes that can do this and that…and that’s where they end up with multipurpose themes. However, themes should be only used for how you intend your site to look like (hence the design and layout). Anything else that refers to functionality should be left to WordPress plugins. For example, instead of looking for a recipe WordPress theme, look for a lightweight theme like those I mentioned above, design them to your liking, and then look for a recipe plugin instead so that, when you change themes, your content will not be lost since it is tied to your plugin. The same applies to news sites, photography websites, etc.
Therefore, avoid looking for ‘do it all’ themes and instead look for plugins that do what you intend to get from the ‘do it all’ themes.
5. Consider the fonts you use
Many people are familiar with google fonts. They use them a lot on their sites. However, having many external web fonts increases the load time of your site resulting in slow speed for your visitors.
I recommend using not more than two google fonts per website and sticking to the same ones throughout the site. One font is enough though with different font weights and styles for the same. For example, you can use one font for the headings and the other for the content. You can even host the fonts locally if you want to reduce the time they take to load externally to speed up your site a bit.
However, I do not use Google fonts or other types of fonts. I prefer either websafe fonts or a system font stack. Both don’t require to be downloaded since they are either cached by the browser (websafe fonts) or they match the look of your operating system! I use the system font stack on all my sites.
6. Don't load extra requests if you don’t have to
This point ties into the others I mentioned above. For example, if you don't need social share counts on your site, then consider using a lightweight social share plugin. I use the Scriptless Social Sharing Plugin which is fast and lightweight.
Also, consider using lightweight pagebuilders like Oxygen Builder or even the Gutenberg editor (or block editor) and its add-on plugins like Kadence Blocks. If you decide to Use Elementor and Beaver Builder, ensure you don’t use too much of their elements on your page so they don’t slow down your site with bloat. Avoid other page builders like WP Bakery (visual composer) and Divi Builder if you can.
I use the block editor and its addons for designing my sites these days and keep away from heavy pagebuilders.
7. Minimize the size of your images
Unless your site is a photography site, you really don't need all those big images since they slow down your site. You can use online tools or plugins to reduce the size of your images that you upload to your site. I use LiteSpeed Cache’s inbuilt image optimizer for my site, but you can use other plugins like ShortPixel or even sites like tinypng.com.
Also, consider the format of the images you use on your site. Always use JPEG images over PNG images on your posts and pages. I also recommend SVG images for background images and ditch FontAwesome icons for SVG icons for your site(s).
8. Lastly, ads or no ads
Having advertisements (ads) on websites most times leads to slow websites. I made the decision to not load adverts on my websites because of this and also not to clutter my site so it does not affect the experience for my readers. Google Adsense ads are especially notorious for slowing down websites, especially those on shared hosting.
There are other ways to make money without displaying ads such as affiliate marketing. However, this is up to you to decide in relation to the speed of your website.
9. Which tools do I use to measure my site’s speed?
The tools I use to measure my site’s speed and follow their recommendations to ensure my website is fast are as follows:
- GTmetrix — What is important to check here is the waterfall section. I usually do my tests using the 3G connection and a faraway location (such as Mumbai or Hongkong). Most of my readers are from Kenya, and most people are either on 3G connection or 2G the further away you move from urban areas. The most important bit is to try to reduce the number of requests as possible.
- WebPageTest — I use this tool for in-depth reporting on my site speed. Again, since I serve mostly Kenyan readers, I use the Mauritius location or South Africa and slow 3G as my testing parameters. It is also important to try and follow the recommendations provided in the results.
- Google Lighthouse — This is a Google Chrome Extension. Again, what is important to look for here is the recommendations provided, but be careful because some of them can be unrealistic (e.g. for unused CSS). An alternative to this is the web.dev.
- For all these tools, always know that scores don't matter (as much anyway). What matters is the loading time. The lower the loading time, the better. I always strive to ensure my sites load in under 5 seconds on a 3G connection.
- You can also join the WordPress SpeedUp group on Facebook to get tips on how to speed up your site or follow the tips from other sources via Google Search.