Website Audit Basics: Site Speed Optimization

April 9th, 2010, Google announced they were going to start taking site speed into consideration for search rankings. They made it one of the many signals – some known and some ultra-mysterious – in their algorithms. Of course, this meant a rush of searches on how to speed up a site, and an equally big rush toward optimizers to get the job done.

Fast forward to now, when a mobile friendly site is the thing to have. Site speed doesn’t mean just having a site that loads fast. It means having a site that loads fast on mobile, with a small payload (less files to download means less burn on mobile user’s available data) and big enough buttons to press.

But why is site speed so important, and why is it something we check in our website audits?

Why Does Site Speed Matter?

Imagine your website sells products. A visitor clicks on something they want to buy and takes forever for the page to load. It’s taking you back to dial-up days. By the time the page has loaded, in fact, the phone is ringing, the baby’s crying, someone came to the door…

Test after test shows that the longer it takes for a site to load, the more likely it is for visitors to go somewhere else. As early as 2015, Google set 2 seconds as the industry standard, and the needle hasn’t moved.

-But if your site only takes 3 seconds, or 5 seconds, what’s the big deal?

As it turns out it’s a really big deal. A study by Pingdom in 2018 noted that the average bounce rate on a page goes from 9% to 38% by 5 seconds. Other studies have only continued to back up the fact that site speed matters to the visitor.

Site Speed is User Experience

A fast site in a world of instant gratification is like candy to a baby. We don’t want to wait 5 seconds for a page to load; we want to see the page now. This is one of the reasons that a slow site is a bad user experience. -And while not all pages have a chance to beat that 2 second load mark, we want to make sure that our clients give their users the best experience possible (and remember, users come first).

So what can you do about it?

Page Speed vs Site Speed

First, understand that there’s a difference between page speed and site speed. You can have a fast website and a slow page. While there are programs that test your entire site and give you the page load information, online tests generally only look at the URL you put in. If you test example.com, they aren’t going to look at example.com/how-fast-is-my-website.

So how do you find out if that slow page is a website thing or a page thing?

Here are a few places to look:

Google Analytics Site Speed Section

Your analytics has a site speed section. While it only shows a sampling of your pages, it can tell you whether you have an overall speed problem or something specific to a page, browser, country, etc.

Speed Testing Sites

There are several sites online that allow you to test your web pages. Google’s PageSpeed Insights is one of them. However, remember that they only test one page at a time, so make sure to do several tests.

Speed testing sites include:

Finding the Bottlenecks in Your Site Performance

There’s one simple test you can do to see if you need to switch servers or upgrade your hosting plans. Run Google Page Speed Insights on several pages and look for one line: Reduce server response time. If you consistently see this report under “consider fixing, “ you may need to look at a faster server or hosting package.

But what if the bottleneck isn’t something so straightforward? Here are some common issues you might uncover:

Images need optimizing.

The subject of image optimization could be at least a small blog post itself, simply because there’s more to a completely optimized image than speed. However, we’ll stick with a few speed related tips:

  • When saving an image to go on your site, save it at the lowest quality you can without degrading the way it looks. For example, a lot of client graphics come to us in 300 dpi, which is excellent for printing, but can make a huge file to load on a page. While there are exceptions to this rule, they are rare.
  • When uploading an image, don’t upload upload a bigger size than you need. We often go to WordPress sites and see images uploaded at 3000×2000, for example. Again, there are very few reasons for images to be that big on your site unless you’re selling desktop backgrounds, perhaps, or plan on letting people print those images.
  • Save your images as jpg, unless png provides a smaller file size or you need part of the image to be transparent . Experience has taught us that jpg is generally the smallest file size, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

Bulky Code Issues.

Over time, your site builds up excess dirt in the form of broken pages, orphaned pages (nothing links to them, no one visits them, and you’ve forgotten them) and lost or bulky code. For example, your webmaster might have changed something, not knowing whether they were going to keep the change or not. They may comment out the old code, which allows the code to stay without it affecting the site. Later, they forget to remove the commented code, or leave it there for future reference.

The files that go together to build your web page  can also become filled with large white spaces, which can slow down the render (build) of the page. The fix for this is often simple, but can cause momentary problems with your site. You can choose to hire an site optimization expert, or attempt to reduce the file sizes yourself. However, if you choose to clean your own website files up, we strongly encourage you to keep back ups.

Compress Your Files.

A page is “built” using various files and languages. CSS, javascript, HTML, and PHP are just a few. Having those files transfer straight to the browser can bog the network down.

Fortunately, there’s a quick fix for this. It’s called a number of things, HTTP compression, browser compression, or gzip compression, but they all do the same thing. Gzip compression reduces the size of the files needed to render the page, which reduces the overall load time.

There are several ways to enable gzip compression, but most do take a little knowledge. Plenty of articles will tell you how to do it, but you may want to talk to a professional if you aren’t comfortable with code and need to keep your site running.

Browser Caching.

You may often see “leverage browser caching” during your speed tests. While it sounds complicated, this simply means “keep the stuff you’ve already downloaded.”

It actually takes quite a lot to build a page – a lot of traffic black and forth between the server and the browser. Sometimes the browser downloads the same piece of the page severe times before the page finishes building.

If browser caching is set up, the browser goes to the server. It says, “I need that file again.” The server says, “use the one you had before.” The browser does, which means that one less download happens. The more files the browser holds on to, the faster it can build the page.

Final Thoughts

There are several little things you can do to speed your site up. Many are page specific; Google PageSpeed is good for that. However, the tips above deal with some of the top reasons why a site may be crawling at a snail’s pace.

You need a fast site. The competitive nature of the Internet, as well as the impatient nature of humankind, demands it. You can’t ignore something that could possible jump your site forward.

For you DIYers, there is lot of information available on how to do the tips above. For those of you that aren’t code savvy and would rather look to the professionals, give us a call. We’ll get your site racing in no time.

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This account is where everyone involved with Level343’s content marketing efforts shows up. You can say there is no “I” in this team. Sometimes we will chat about a certain topic with a variation of ideas, suggestions, even opinions. Then one of us will start writing the post, hand it over to someone else who will continue the diatribe. Eventually it ends up on our editor’s desk who either chops the hell out of it, or you’re reading it right now.

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