A piece by our Designer and Creative Director Rachel Cunliffe.
Site speed is an important element of usability for your visitors and search engine optimization.
A slow loading site can easily frustrate prospects and can cause them to leave before making a purchase or getting in touch.
Slow load times also play a role with how a website ranks; site speed is one of over two hundred ranking factors that Google uses.
Google now gives you the ability to view your page speeds from within Google Analytics.
To find the tools and reporting, open the Behavior tab on the left menu, then select Site Speed.
Within this section, you can find the average page load time and suggestions for improving the load speed and score for the individual pages that comprise your website.
Before getting into page scores, let’s look at what causes a webpage to load slowly.
Common causes of slowness
There are two different types of site slowness: one where it takes a while to connect before you see anything at all, and another where it takes a while to finish loading the page after it first begins.
1. Slow connections
Slow connections can be due to the host server having technical issues. Or, your own Internet connection is experiencing problems.
If your website is being hosted on a shared server, then your site can experience intermittent or persistent slow connections because other websites on that same server are using a lot of the server’s resources, leaving little (or none!) for yours.
For businesses which rely on their website to generate income, it’s worthwhile paying more per month to not be on such a shared server plan. One company we worked with couldn’t resolve slow connection issues with their web host to their satisfaction, so they moved their website to a new host, with immediate results.
Slow connections can also be due to poorly optimized themes or plugins which pull information from a database in inefficient ways, or due to not having an appropriate caching system in place to minimize the load on the site.
2. Ad scripts
Ad scripts are always performance-intensive behind the scenes. With one website that experienced slow load times, running a test using Gtmetrix.com, with an ad blocker enabled, showed loads times at 5 seconds start to fully loaded.
Without the ad blocker, load times were 23 seconds.
Images can be large in file size and each image on a page requires a connection to the server to retrieve them for the first time you view them.
Lots of images on a page can quickly increase the overall load time. Image file sizes are determined by:
- File type – If the wrong file type is used for an image the file size can be much bigger than necessary (e.g. photos should be JPG, not PNG).
- Dimensions – The larger the image, the bigger the file size.
- Display size – Ideally the website serves the correct sized-image for what it’s being displayed at.
- Compression – Images should be correctly compressed rather than using a higher quality than necessary (e.g. a JPG at 100% quality is unnecessarily high, a lower percentage such as 86% should be used).
4. Plugins and scripts
Each additional one your site is running contributes to the site loading time. An outdated or rogue plugin can wreak havoc with site speed.
Some plugins connect with and send data to and from a central server, so if this server is experiencing issues then your site may be affected if the plugin code is poorly-written.
4. Pre-built WordPress and Shopify themes
These usually have many bells and whistles in order to get the most number of sales. Each of these features adds code to the theme, even if you’re not using them.
This bloat can make the site slow to load.
PageSpeed scores vs. what’s best for humans
The Huff Industrial Marketing homepage, running on a custom-built WordPress theme, has a score of 100 for desktop and a mobile score of 58.
Google’s warnings and messages, however, may look scary — especially if you have no technical website skills:
Fixing the “problems” that have resulted in low scores usually results in very tiny increases in actual performance. Making these changes can have major downsides too.
For example, analyzing the “Opportunities” listed for the Huff Industrial Marketing on mobile:
- Serve images in next-gen formats – These aren’t yet supported by major browsers. While there are ways to serve fallbacks, it would currently make it hard to add new images to the site.
- Defer offscreen images – This involves the concept of “lazy loading” images so that they appear when they’re about to scroll into view; images can be configured this way if it would help site visitors, but the tradeoff is that not everyone likes this effect visually.
- Eliminate render-blocking resources – This means to combine multiple files into one by using a caching plugin. The downsides, however, are many, including needing specialized scripts and manual tweaks, as well as having to configure other plugins, which may no longer work out of the box.
Google’s scores are helpful in diagnosing problems if you do notice your website or a particular page is loading slowly.
Your goal should always be to improve page speed over improving your PageSpeed Score. They’re not one and the same.
If you have low PageSpeed scores and your site is loading slowly, contact an experienced developer for advice.