Nothing seems to inspire panic in bloggers quite like a low score on a page speed test. We totally get it — we didn't want to see failing grades in high school, and we certainly don't want to see them on the sites we put so much work into. So let us quickly put your mind at ease: this test is graded on a curve. And it's more like a pop quiz, not a final exam. Today, we're sharing everything bloggers should know about page speed: what page speed tests are, if they matter for your blog, and how you can improve your site speed.
What are page speed tests?
In short, page speed tests analyze your site content and provide recommendations for making it load faster.
The three most popular page speed tests are Google PageSpeed Insights, GTMetrix, and Pingdom Tools. Your grade can vary between each, as they weigh factors differently. In fact, your grade can vary on the same tool from one minute to the next, depending on your server response time.
Which tool you use doesn't matter much, as they generally report on the same factors. Where they differ is in how much detail they present, and how user-friendly the information is to navigate. However, the most important thing to keep in mind, as SEO expert Kim Herrington mentioned in our interview, is that these tools are made for coders and developers, not content creators. It's ok if the recommendations feel like you're reading a foreign language! We're going to go over what you actually need to do to improve you site speed later in this post.
Do page speed tests matter for bloggers?
The number one thing bloggers ask us is if Google is penalizing their blog for a low page speed score. A page speed test is simply a tool, and your speed test rating has no bearing on SEO. However, site loading time does still impact SEO, and it does matter to your users. Page speed tests matter in the sense that they can help you identify areas of improvement, but they should not be considered the ultimate authority on what's best for your blog.
Remember, page speed tests view your site as a robot, and the ultimate goal of all their recommendations is to increase speed. They don't take anything else into consideration like a human would. For example, they will always tell you to size your images to the exact dimensions of the container in which it's displayed. However, we recommend doubling that to accommodate retina displays (you can read more in our blog post on how to size images for your blog). With more and more people using retina displays, readers are much more likely to notice a lower-quality photo than the minimal additional time needed to load a retina-quality one.
Ultimately, as Kim mentioned in our interview, what matters most for your blog is how your page speed score ranks against your competitors. As long as they have similar scores and are reporting the same site issues as you, you're on a level playing field in terms of site loading time to rank for SEO.
How to improve your site speed
Now that we've gone over what speed tests are and how they matter for your blog, let's discuss what you can actually do to improve your site speed.
1. Clean up your plugins.
You can also deactivate and delete plugins installed for temporary use, recommended by a theme you're no longer using, or recommended by the theme you are using if you're not using that functionality. For example, all of our themes recommend Regenerate Thumbnails and WP Instagram Widget on install. Once you've regenerated your thumbnails, you can safely deactivate and delete the plugin. If you choose not to display an Instagram feed, you can deactivate and delete WP Instagram Widget as well. A notice will pop up, but there's a link to dismiss it. (Be sure plugins are recommended and not required before deleting.)
Bonus points: Make sure your plugins are up-to-date! This has less to do with site speed and more with site security, but you know we had to remind you.
2. Size images properly.
Never upload images directly from your camera or phone, or at the size downloaded from a stock photography site like Unsplash. These are almost guaranteed to be too large for your site, and will take forever to load (not to mention, they will eat up your server space). The general rule of thumb is to resize your images to two times the width of the container, but we wrote a more in-depth post on image sizing for your blog here.
3. Optimize your images.
Wait… isn't sizing your images properly and optimizing them the same thing? Not quite. While resizing an image will greatly reduce the file size, optimizing an image compresses it further, removing as much background information as possible. It basically squeezes the last bit of data it can out of the image without reducing quality to the human eye. It also strips away all the unnecessary metadata stored in the file — data Photoshop still considers necessary, but websites don't.
The best thing you can do is optimize your images at TinyPNG before you upload to your site, as this will also save you server space. However, that adds a step in the blogging process, and doesn't help with the images already uploaded to your site. You can automate the image optimization process with plugins like Smush or Compress JPEG & PNG Images. Most compression plugins require registering for an account to sync with their servers and only provide a certain number of compressions for free. Some web hosts offer image optimization tools; Siteground customers can check out the Image Optimization tab in the SG Optimizer plugin.
4. Use a caching plugin or your web host's caching.
WordPress dynamically generates pages through a coding language called PHP, which queries a database. Caching improves your site speed by storing the output of these pages and delivering those files to site visitors instead, saving the time it takes to run those queries. Before you install a caching plugin, check with your web host to see if caching is already included. You only need one method of caching for your site. We cover everything you need to know about caching here.
5. Minify and combine files.
When developers code, we like to add comments, tabs, and spaces to keep things readable to the human eye. That way, if we need to go back later and edit code, or someone else is working with our code, it's clear what each piece does and why it's there. But a browser doesn't need all of that extra information — it just needs the code. That's where minification comes in. Minifying your files removes all of those extra comments, tabs, and spaces, making the files as small as possible. We don't do this before handing over your theme files, because we want you to be able to read our code.
Luckily, the Autoptimize plugin can handle this for you. Check with your web host as well; Siteground customers can use the Frontend Optimization Tools in the SG Optimizer plugin. Both Autoptimize and SG Optimizer give you the option to combine/aggregate CSS files as well, which we recommend (available in Autoptimze under Advanced Settings). This combines all CSS into one file, reducing the number of files that need to be downloaded from your server — and speeding up loading time! Autoptimize also offers the option to aggregate JS files, but we don't recommend this as it usually breaks interactive features. Uncheck the option to optimize for logged in users, which can help when you're making changes to your site (you'll also need to delete the Autoptimize cache any time you make changes).
6. Upgrade to managed WordPress hosting.
Ultimately, your site loading time is largely dependent on the quality of your web host and the server they have your site on. Shared hosting is a great option for getting started on a budget, but it can be unpredictable. We've seen bloggers with high amounts of traffic go for years on shared hosting, while others with half the traffic experienced issue after issue with the same host. It depends on who shares your server space, and who picks up the support line when you call.
Managed WordPress hosting is built to load WordPress sites as quickly as possible, and they also have server-level caching so you can skip step 4 entirely. We recommend Flywheel for managed WordPress hosting — our co-founders both use it for their own studio sites. Flywheel also has the option to add CDN, which can speed up your site even more.
Did we answer all of your questions about page speed tests? Let us know if we missed anything in the comments below, and we'll answer you there!