Fast WordPress

Hi, Toby Cryns here. This is an article about how to make your WordPress site very very fast. As a side note, I believe you should never invest a lot of time or money to make your website fast unless you have really really good reasons – My reasoning for not chasing fast websites is simple: fast websites do not correlate with your profit…in fact, usually improving your website load times will have a negative effect on your profits.

I’ve been building WordPress websites for over 15 years, and over the last couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with speeding up WordPress sites – This is not a healthy obsession. In any case, I’d like to share some things I’ve learned about making WordPress faster. My goal here is to give you sound advice (no affiliate links!).

Unfortunately, most of the “how-to” advice you find via Google search is spammy affiliate garbage- not this page! I conducted the WordPress speed tests documented below to find out for myself which themes are fastest. My results follow.

What is a FAST WordPress website?

I define a fast WordPress website as one that scores 90+ on Google’s Pagespeed Insights page ranker. It’s an imperfect metric, but it’s Google, so we’ve gotta listen. At the time of the initial writing, themightymo.com scored a “97” on Pagespeed Insights – it’s lower now, intentionally, as I’ve optimized for lead generation (pagespeed isn’t everything, people!). Here’s the score I received from Google Pagespeed Insights:

fast wordpress
fast wordpress running on themightymo.com

While a fast-loading site is only part of the marketing battle to attract website visitors (and don’t forget that you’ve gotta convert website leads as well), Google has indicated that a fast mobile site ranks better. I would also say that speed is no substitute for content and consistency, and my hunch is that a large portion of my website’s SEO rankings are a result of longevity and not due to speed.

We land on the first page in Google for many of our search terms, even on the hugely-valuable Google Map on mobile devices! How much of this is due to pagespeed? It’s hard to say. But we do know that Google, themselves, have stated publicly that speed impacts your websites organic search positioning!

Do I need to hire a WP Pro to Make My WordPress Site Fast?

No. You don’t need to hire a WordPress pro to make your site fast. Using a fast WordPress theme, limiting your plugin use to the fast ones, and choosing a fast WordPress host (all outlined below), will get you there.

Google’s Algorithm Ranks for Speed

A quick background on why your website’s speed is important (Conversely, see the “Optimize or Remove Images” section below for an example of a time I made a business choice to not optimize for speed).

Google has indicated site speed (and as a result, page speed) is one of the signals used by its algorithm to rank pages. And research has shown that Google is measuring stuff outside of WordPress and even hosting like “time to first byte” as part of its pagespeed metric. In addition, a slow page speed means that search engines can crawl fewer pages using their allocated crawl budget, and this could negatively affect your indexation. And maybe most-importantly:

Page speed is also important to user experience. Pages with a longer load time tend to have higher bounce rates and lower average time on page. Longer load times have also been shown to negatively affect conversions.

Source: https://moz.com/learn/seo/page-speed

Translation: Faster sites mean more money in your pocket.

Can I Use My Current WordPress Host and still Have Fast WordPress?

Short answer: Maybe. I’ve learned the hard way that price is not correlated to speed. So when your friends are recommending the expensive $40/mo+ managed WordPress hosts like WP Engine, Pressable, Pagely, etc., know that you might find more raw speed on Siteground’s $9/mo plan. Skip to the Hosting section below if you’d like to see my experiences with different WordPress hosts. Now let’s get started with the nuts and bolts.

How I Scored a 97 with WordPress in Pagespeed Insights Mobile Score

This is a post about how I made my WordPress site faster. I’ve attempted to be fair and honest: there are no affiliate links, no sponsored links, and no secretly-sponsored write-ups (unlike many of the “best ways to speed up your site” pages you’ll find in Google). Let’s get started with the tools I use to measure the speed of my site. Let me know if you have ideas for improvement!

Google Pagespeed Insights is the tool to use to see what Google thinks of your website user experience. “A faster site means higher search positioning – all other things being equal”, says Google. This very site’s Mobile score was clocking in at a not-so-respectable 36-out-of-100 just a few weeks ago, and now it’s clocking at a whopping 97-out-of-100 – a difference of 61 points! Read on to learn how I achieved this WordPress miracle!

Here’s our “97” score in all its glory!

How We Improved Our Google Pagespeed Insights Score by 61 Points on TheMightyMo.com!

Long story short: Simply switching from Divi to Beaver Builder and removing a bunch of images increased our score by 36 points (up to 81). I thought we had maxed out at that point. But then a couple of weeks later I decided to try some server-optimizations – catching, concatenating some files, delaying the load order of certain files, etc. After that work, we landed on a CRAZY score of 98. From there, I re-added some images to improve the trustworthiness of our site, which decreased our score down to 97 and then to 92 as I added fullwidth images back to the site.

Here’s our Before & After Google Pagespeed Insights Mobile Scores:

And in case you are wondering about other speed optimization tools, here are the results from Pingdom and GTMetrix:

Pros & Cons: Why We Made This Decision

This speed optimization was done for 1 reason only: Increase my organic Google search positioning.

Pros:

  • Google prefers faster sites.
  • Faster site means quicker pageloads for prospective customers.
  • Change is good. This is a controlled shake-up, and I can always go back to how it was.

Cons:

  • To speed up page loads, I’ve removed lots of the vanity stuff that can build trust with customers such as: animations, images, fancy styles, Google fonts, even my logo! I added back images, switched to WebP image formats, and now we’re up to a 97-out-of-100 in Google Pagespeed Insights!

Optimize WordPress

  • Deactivated wp-syntax plugin, since Gutenberg has a code module.
  • Deactivate Gravity Divi plugin, since we’re no longer using Divi theme.
  • Deactivate Hummingbird Pro plugin, because the simplicity of my new strategy doesn’t require it.
  • Deactivate Custom Sidebars Pro plugin, because I’m simplifying and prioritizing speed.
  • Deactivate Defender Pro, because A) My hosting is secure. and B) It adds a speed-slow-down footprint.
  • Deactivate Google Reviews Widget plugin, because I’m simplifying and optimizing for speed.
  • Deactivated Gravity Forms Image Choices, because I’m only using it on a single page that doesn’t get much traffic. Same with Gravity Forms Survey Add-on.
  • Deactivated OMGF plugin, as I’m going with system fonts for speed. I’m now using Georgia and Verdana fonts.
  • Deactivated Site Kit By Google Plugin, as I don’t think I looked at it a single time in the last year.
  • Deactivated URL Params plugin – can’t remember why that one was even installed! It’ll probably come back to bit me in the rear, and we’ll deal with it at that time.
  • Removed Jetpack’s css since I wasn’t using the Jetpack front end features. While I was at it, I deactivated Jetpack’s carousel, which is nice but unnecessary.

Add Plugins + Beaver Builder Theme

  • Added Beaver Builder Theme and child theme. I chose not to utilize Beaver Builder plugin nor Beaver Themer, instead relying on Gutenberg for page content and simplifying theme edits for speed.
  • Added Shortcode Cleaner Lite plugin to clean up Divi shortcodes on the fly.

Optimize or Remove Images

I noticed a blurry, grainy call-to-action image on Amazon.com today that was surely not a mistake, as Amazon is known for being ruthless about page speed load times. Here’s the grainy image that I found on their Chromebooks landing page:

Grainy call-to-action image found on amazon.com. The “artifacts” you are seeing around the text were there on the live site and were surely not a mistake on Amazon’s part.

This particular grainy image is 8kb total, which isn’t bad. It makes me wonder why Amazon doesn’t use CSS buttons, which would surely require even less load time. One theory, based on my experience listing products on Amazon, is that their website architecture is built for images and not for custom css (e.g. buttons). But back to the lesson to be learned from this Amazon episode: Better to have a fast-loading site with ugly images than a slow-loading site with perfect images! (e.g. You won’t be complaining about grainy images when the money is flowing!)

This isn’t to say that rules cannot be broken. For example, I recently helped launch ThePointOfUs.com, which garners what I would call a “pretty bad” score of “37” on Google Pagespeed Insights.

Rules are meant to be broken! In the case of https://thepointofus.com/, we decided that the cost of a slower site is worth the benefits of crystal-clear imagery.

However, based on our needs and goals for The Point of Us, we decided to use the highest-resolution possible on our images. Our site is slow as heck, but our customers are willing to wait – it’s an experiential site, and the high-res images are part of that experience.

Case Study #2:
How I Increased the Google Pagespeed Insights Mobile Score by 60% With 1 Hour of Work on TobyCryns.com

Long story short: Switching from Divi to TwentyNineteen WordPress theme on tobycryns.com sped up the site’s Google Pagespeed Insights score by 60%.

Why We Decided to Use TwentyNineteen Theme

  1. First we tried a couple of different server configurations:
    – More RAM provided a marginal speed boost.
    – Lightspeed server was worse than our Pressable server.
  2. Then we tried theme & file optimizations:
    – Hummingbird Pro
    – Smush Pro
    Both provided marginal speed boost and more headaches than the speed improvements were worth.
  3. Finally, we switched to TwentyNineteen theme. Why didn’t we start here? Because:
    – Divi has some beautifu & unique features we don’t want to part with.
    – We use Divi on lots of websites. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could figure out a way to speed things up for the millions of Divi customers out there? Alas, no dice for now.

Is TwentyNineteen Theme really faster than Divi theme?

Yes, TwentyNineteen is faster than Divi theme. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to start recommending it to our customers, nor will we necessarily stop recommending Divi where it’s appropriate. We’re always looking for the best combination of functionality and speed, and Divi is a great mix of both right now.

If I switch from Divi to TwentyNineteen will my site speed up?

Probably. Out-of-the-box Divi is heavy compared to out-of-the-box TwentyNineteen. Therefore, Divi will load slower than TwentyNineteen for 99% of people.

What About Elementor?

I haven’t run these speed tests on Elementor, however, Kyle Van Deusen did! He did a apples-to-apples test comparing Elementor to WordPress’ default editor (e.g. something akin to testing TwentyNineteen theme vs Elementor). He found that the default editor BLEW AWAY Elementor on speed tests! Verdict: Based on Kyle’s results, my hunch is that Elementor is similar to Divi on the speed side and should be avoided if speed is your goal (though admittedly, I haven’t run the Divi vs Elementor speed test yet).

Is TwentyNineteen the fastest WordPress theme?

Geeks around the globe regularly benchmark WordPress themes. Today, they all point to GeneratePress as the fastest theme. I tested GeneratePress on TobyCryns.com and saw virtually no difference in the site’s Google Pagespeed Insights score. Given that TwentyNineteen looks better out-of-the-box compared to GeneratePress, I’ll stick with the former for now.

Does Google Pagespeed Score matter?

Yes. If you think Google isn’t communicating its organic search algorithm through Google Pagespeed Insights, you haven’t been paying attention. There is, however, a sound argument to be made that Google is measuring the wrong stuff and the score isn’t actually helpful in determining the user experience. So, yes, it’s an arbitrary tool that doesn’t take user experience into account fully. And, yes, it matters to Google and you should pay attention to it. Some other tools you might use to determine site speed are WebPageTest, GTMetrix, and Pingdom.

Case Study #3: Switch from an old theme to Beaver Builder on MattWilhelm.com

Matt’s website was having some issues – It was using an old ThemeForest.com theme. Matt wanted a redesign that scored well on speed and also gave him the functionality he needed – the answer was Beaver Builder. I should note again that I’m not selling Beaver Builder, and there are no affiliate links here – In my tests Beaver Builder is the most-performant WordPress builder theme on the market right now. Here’s the updated mattwilhelm.com score:

Matt made a choice to use a fancy Google Reviews plugin that slowed down the site a few points – the speed-to-functionality tradeoff was worth it to him. And this is an important note: Even though everyone’s making a big deal about speed today, it’s only a small part of how Google ranks sites. For example, a friend who runs a big e-commerce store told me today that de-listing his product sample pagess increased the SERP rankings for his product pages. A “75” is a very respectable Google Pagespeed Insights score and will likely be more than enough to compete in Matt’s vertical. Speaking of “Matt” and “vertical”: check out Matt’s amazing bike stunts.

What About Other WordPress Speed Optimizations and Plugins?

Autoptimize WordPress Plugin Isn’t Worth the Effort

I’ve been doing a lot of speed experimenting with Divi over the past few months.  What I’ve found from using Autoptimize and similar plugins is that they provide very minimal speed enhancement, because they take what you already have and repackage it (plus, the plugins, themselves, add load time).  The savings from combining javascript is usually minimal, plus, the logic behind combining files is a bit outdated – your browser used to be able to load 2 files at a time, but now it can load as many as 13!  They also cause other problems, so my personal opinion of Autoptimize and similar plugins is that they aren’t worth the effort.  When we get to the point where a hundredth of a second counts, then let’s revisit. If you absolutely must use an optimization plugin like this (again, probably not worth it), I recommend SG Optimizer from the WP.org repository.

Optimize Images

The best way to speed up a site (if switching themes isn’t an option) is to optimize the content for speed.  For example, simply swapping a single 1800px wide image with a 1000px wide image improved our score by 4 points! That’s a big improvement for zero change in what people actually experience on the site! “Free money!” as they say.

Also, a plugin like Smush Pro, provides a great first step to force smaller image loads. See potential savings from Smush Pro below:

smush pro wordpress speed optimization

A better solution is to get rid of the images altogether.  If swapping a smaller image improved our Pagespeed Insights score by 4 points, think about what getting rid of that image altogether might do!

Also, switch to compression-friendly formats like jpg instead of png – or better yet, use WebP formatted images!

If you are using video backgrounds, consider getting rid of those, too!

Questions to Ask about WordPress Speed Optimization:

  • Which images can we get rid of?
  • Turn on lazy-load images.
  • Get rid of background images.
  • Get rid of sliders altogether.
  • Turn off Jetpack Carousel.
  • Do you need Google Analytics? If not, turn it off.
  • Which 3rd-party add-ons are you loading? Are these necessary?
  • Are we doing all the caching possible?
  • Are we using compressed/web friendly image formats such as WebP or compressed jpegs?
  • Also read How you can speed up your WordPress site with a few clicks of the mouse.
  • Are you using background videos? Can you replace them with background colors or images?

What ideas do you have to speed up your WordPress site?

p.s. If this sort of speed enhancement geekery turns you on, Check out Steve Teare’s analysis of how Google Analytics slows down sites!

Case Study #4: Going from a “32” to a “59” Google Pagespeed Insights in 1 hour by updating the mobile hero using Divi

I’ve advised against using Divi theme, because it’s slower than the alternatives, however, today by making a few small updates to the mobile hero on a WooCommerce site, I was able to increase the score from “32” to “59” with about an hour of work! This is awesome.

The key was to create 2 hero areas – one displayed on mobile, and the other displayed on tablets and desktop. I switched the hero background and image to one that is 300px wide, removed the “scroll to section” feature, and reduced the max-height so that the entire hero loads in a phone window. The result – a 27 point increase in Google Pagespeed Insights!

What is the Fastest WordPress Theme?

I’ve noticed that this site has been falling in the Google rankings recently, and I’ve been wondering if it’s because it’s slower than some other sites. Specifically, I’ve been wondering if switching to the fastest WordPress theme would increase my rankings in Google search results. Below we run some publicly-available tests to determine which WordPress theme is fastest – Buckle up, friends! NEW: Updated to include Genesis theme!

Does How Fast Your Website Loads Matter to Google?

Yes, Google is pushing your website down the rankings if it’s slow. That’s why I switched to TwentyNineteen for my personal blog. If you feel your WordPress site is loading slow or that your slow WordPress site is costing you sales, read on!

Which WordPress Theme is Fastest?

So that brings us to WordPress speed. Which WordPress theme will decrease load times most and make your site fastest? This site currently uses Divi theme, and I wanted to do as close to an apples-to-apples test as possible.* So for the results below, I simple activated Divi Builder plugin and switched to TwentyNineteen, TwentyTwenty, GeneratePress, Beaver Builder, Genesis, and Divi respectively. For tools I used the publicly available Google Pagespeed Insights & Pingdom.

Conclusion

I won’t make you wait any longer – Based on my WordPress theme speed test results documented below:

  • If speed is your #1 goal, then I wholeheartedly recommend either TwentyNineteen, Beaver Builder, or Genesis themes for super fast load times.
  • If beautiful design or ease-of-use is your #1 goal, go with Divi and don’t look back.

WordPress Themes Ranked by Google Pagespeed Insights’ Mobile Performance Grade:

  1. Beaver Builder (60) (t)
  2. Genesis (60) (t)
  3. GeneratePress (52)
  4. TwentyNineteen (44)
  5. TwentyTwenty (40)
  6. Divi (36)

WordPress Themes Ranked by Load Time:

  1. TwentyNineteen (890ms)
  2. Genesis (900ms)
  3. Beaver Builder (1.54s)
  4. TwentyTwenty (1.88s)
  5. GeneratePress (2.67s)
  6. Divi (3.46s)

WordPress Themes Ranked by Page Size:

  1. TwentyNineteen (579k)
  2. TwentyTwenty (596k)
  3. GeneratePress (657k)
  4. Genesis (701kb)
  5. Beaver Builder (730k)
  6. Divi (1.1mb)

WordPress Themes Ranked by Requests:

  1. TwentyTwenty (44)
  2. TwentyNineteen (45)
  3. Genesis (47)
  4. GeneratePress (48)
  5. Beaver Builder (49)
  6. Divi (76)

TwentyNineteen WordPress Theme is Fast!

Genesis Theme is Fast!

TwentyTwenty Theme is Medium Speed

GeneratePress Is Fast!

Divi Theme is Slow!

No surprise here – Divi is a fully-functioning builder, and it’s fantastic at creating beautiful designs. Alas, it’s kind of a beast on the slowing-down-your-site end of things.

Beaver Builder is Fast!

NOTES:

  • Speed tests like this are open to interpretation and are influenced by many variables. For example, this test did not take dynamic image widths into consideration, which likely significantly lowered my Divi theme scores (e.g. I have beautiful full-width images with Divi theme, whereas TwentyNineteen loads much smaller versions on Desktop).
  • Pressable made a server update between the early tests and the later ones, so there’s likely some distortion caused by that.
  • Sometimes switching themes is a complex beast of a project (e.g. themightymo.com) and sometimes not (e.g. tobycryns.com).
  • I’d love to hear your personal results with each theme as well as let me know which WordPress theme you think is fastest!
  • I tried to get a Strattic clone up-and-running but failed on multiple attempts.
  • Learn How I Scored a 97 with WordPress in Pagespeed Insights Mobile Score
  • Also read How you can speed up your WordPress site with a few clicks of the mouse.

Case Study #4: Beaver Builder vs. Divi on LavalleFlooring.com

When it comes to converting visitors (e.g. Did they fill out the form or not?) on most non-big-brand sites, it’s likely that speed matters.  To that end, I ran some a/b tests using Google Pagespeed Insights Mobile Speed on a single landing page, and the results are below (screengrabs attached):

  1. Divi with all plugins active: 7

    COMPARE TO:
  2. Beaver Builder with all plugins active: 20

Will WordPress Plugins Slow Down My Site?

Short answer: Depends on the plugins. Lavalle uses lots of plugins for e-commerce, marketing, reviews, etc, so it’s a rather plugin-heavy site. Check out the numbers below:

  1. Divi with all plugins active: 7
  2. Divi with no plugins active: 56
  3. Divi with only WooCommerce-related plugins active: 18

    COMPARE TO:
  4. Beaver Builder with all plugins active: 20
  5. Beaver Builder with no plugins active: 93
  6. Beaver Builder with only WooCommerce plugins active: 36

That’s a 73-point swing for no plugins vs plugins!

Which Managed WordPress Host is Fastest?

Cloudways vs. Pressable vs. Siteground vs. GoDaddy vs ???

This hosting speed section is a work in progress. Here are my findings thus far. Part of what makes the hosting thing difficult is that some hosts make even setting up a site difficult or error-prone. And that’s where we’ll start today. 🙂

Cloudways Managed WordPress Hosting

On paper, everything about Cloudways seems awesome – features, functionality, caching, app installation, pricing, etc. Unfortunately I ran into a couple of specific Cloudways issues that made it impossible to even get my site up-and-running without utilizing a priority support ticket. First I had a folder/file permissions issue, then I had what appeared to be a CDN issue. In both cases, I was required to contact customer support, and in both cases their customer support was slow to get back to me. While they ultimately did get the site up-and-running, by then I had moved on. I’m dealing with about 100 sites every day, and if the first one is problematic, that makes it a tough sell. Plus, I’m an expert in WordPress – a non-expert would have a heck of a time even getting a site up-and-running at Cloudways! My server guru told me to run away fast simply due to the way that Cloudways locks down server permissions – you cannot update them via SSH! All that’s to say I will not be reviewing Cloudways’ WordPress installations for speed unless I hear they improved their stuff.

Pressable Managed WordPress Hosting

Pressable offers a solid tech stack that is built on the wp.com infrastructure, which has benefits for security and stability. To date, I have only received support via a paid Slack channel, and the support there has been top notch, senior-level — I have not experienced their consumer level support yet. Their tech stack is SLOW, and I don’t recommend it for speed-freaks. Also, they have been unsteady business partners, regularly-springing unexpected bills on me (3x’d my monthly expenses recently and refused to give me an early-out of my annual contract). But back to speed – I’ve found that playing around the edges with speed optimization plugins like Optimizepress and WP Rocket is insufficient. You want a fast infrastructure before the plugin loads, and, unfortunately, Pressable is not able to deliver on that at present.

GoDaddy Managed WordPress Hosting

Run for the hills!!!

Siteground Managed WordPress Hosting

Perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise in my quest for a faster manged WordPress host has been Siteground. While they look similar to GoDaddy and other cheap providers, they are nothing alike. Siteground offers an integrated WordPress plugin to manage the caching layers on the server as well as 1-click memcache integration to speed up your back-end WP dashboard. I’ve also been surprised by their support! While not as technically-proficient as Pressable’s support, they are responsive and helpful. If you are on a tight budget and looking for speed, I highly-recommend Siteground.

Actual server usage stats of Beaver Builder vs Elegant Themes’ Extra theme

My team and I invested many many hours troubleshooting a server resource issue on a customer’s website recently. Weeks of time passed with many paths followed, many threads tracked.

The Issue: Their website went down regularly.

The initial solution: Doubling server resources on their Digital Ocean VPS. This helped, but it didn’t resolve the issues completely. The site would be up most of the time, but its availability was still very spotty.

The current solution: Switch from Elegant Themes’ Extra to Beaver Builder theme. Holy smokes! I’ll let the server usage chart say it all:

With server usage charts, you generally want to avoid peaks and valleys. As you can see in the above chart, even after doubling the resources, there were still lots of peaks and valleys. When we switched to Beaver Builder, those peaks and valleys disappeared completely! Additionally, if this trend holds, it’s likely that we can switch to a cheaper (ahem, I mean “less resource-intensive”) server soon – perhaps even a server that is lower cost than the one we started with a couple of weeks ago! Win! ?

How we increased our Google Pagespeed Insights score by fixing Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

I was comparing this website’s Google Pagespeed Insights score to a customer’s site that I had helped build – both sites’ hero areas looked nearly-identical (menu on top, logo in top-left, big hero background image, H1, CTA button). But when comparing the Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) scores between the two sites, I noticed a big difference – we were in the “red” (bad!), and my customer’s site was in the “green” (good!). I noticed that when I hovered over my CTA button in the hero area, there was a hardly-noticeable shifting of the content. I don’t know why it was shifting stuff around, but it clearly was. My solution was simple: Just re-create the button in Beaver Builder. Now I should note that the button was already a Beaver Builder module, and I couldn’t figure out why it was causing things to shift, but, alas, sometimes it’s easier to destroy-and-rebuild a button than to deeply troubleshoot the tech.

The result of simply re-creating a single button at the top of my homepage: A 7-point increase in my Google Pagespeed Insights score! That’s amazing for such a small thing, but there it is!

Further Reading:

Changelog:

Updated Aug. 18, 2021 to include new findings about Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) and Matt Wilhelm Case Study.

Updated Aug. 4, 2021 to include new findings about Beaver Builder’s server usage vs Elegant Themes’ Extra theme.

Updated Sept. 3, 2021 to include new Divi Case Study increasing Google Pagespeed Insights by 27 points.

Sept. 29, 2021: Updated some copy and added “Further Reading” section.

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