Internet users today are an impatient bunch. Seemingly small time delays are hugely significant, and have a big impact on user-experience. This is particularly true for eCommerce sites, with an estimated 40% abandonment rate accompanying just a three-second delay.
Put another way: a sluggish website will kill your bottom line. People just don’t want to wait, and will click away after just a few seconds. With hundreds of other websites just a mouse click away, you really need to grab a user’s attention — having to wait for your website to load, achieves exactly the opposite. With this in mind, having a fast, efficient website really is a pre-requisite for being successful in today’s competitive online environment.
If website speed is something you’ve struggled with, there are a number of free WordPress plugins you can use to speed things up – Pingdom is a great tool for testing your current load time to get a baseline. Now, plugins are just a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to your website’s load speed. There are plenty of other factors that can improve your performance: a better host, a content delivery network, and a less bloated theme for starters. However, WordPress plugins are a good place to start. Here, I’ve picked out six free plugins, with each performing a different function.
Caching Plugin: W3 Total Cache
Falling firmly under the category of quick wins, a caching plugin is a must. The W3 Total Cache plugin is one of the most popular caching plugins, and also one of the highest rated. A caching plugin is a must for all webmasters, and a plugin like the W3 Total Cache will be highly effective at improving your load time. Its developers promise at least a 10x improvement in overall site performance, which is a seriously bold claim! Even better, we have our very own W3 Total Cache Plugin Guide that you can follow along with to get yoru caching setup.
The W3’s main competitor is the WP Super Cache plugin, which some users prefer due to it being slightly more user-friendly (we have a guide to WP Super Cache as well if this plugin is more your style).
Image Size Plugin: WP Smush.it
Ensuring your images are properly optimized is another way to shave off some of that vital load time. If your images are too large, not only are they carrying some needless file size (which still needs to be downloaded), but your server also has to use extra resources just to adjust how the image is displayed — it’s an unnecessary waste.
WordPress comes with a built in image editor, allowing you to crop each image down to your desired size, but physical file size can still cause problems. Compressing your images is a solution, and a number of free online services exist, including kraken.io. However, if you want a quicker way to do this, the WP Smush.it plugin automatically compresses every image you upload.
The Smush.it plugin works by stripping away all metadata from JPEGs, as well as removing unused colors from indexed images. The result: smaller file size, quicker load time, and no noticeable loss of image quality. If you want to see some more plugin options, checkout our image optimization tips.
Database Plugin: WP-Optimize
Every post, page, and comment is stored in your WordPress database — including every revision you make. Now, every time a user wants to access one of your posts it has to be retrieved from this database. Needless to say, the more junk you have sitting around in there, the more your website gets bogged down. With every revision and auto-save taking up space in there, there are some substantial speed improvements to be made by optimizing your database.
My preferred plugin for the task is the WP-Optimize plugin. This plugin helps de-clutter your database in a number of ways. To start, the plugin makes it easy to remove those excess post revisions you simply don’t need any more — if, like me, you make plenty of revisions per post, this can save a lot of space. It also allows you to quickly remove any spam comments queued up, which can be cumbersome to remove manually. Another great feature is that it simplifies the process of actually deleting unwanted content, rather than just storing it as trash. If you want to know how effective this plugin could be, it can tell you your current database size and indicate how much space optimization can save.
Lazy Load Plugin: BJ Lazy Load
Now, the default procedure for loading a WordPress webpage is to load everything at once. If you have a lot of images, asking your server to do all the heavy lifting upfront can significantly slow your load speed down.
The BJ Lazy Load plugin improves your website’s load speed by using what is known as lazy loading. When your website uses lazy loading, it prioritizes all the content above the fold first — in other words, the content your users will see first. Instead of loading each image to begin, the plugin makes use of placeholders. The images are only loaded as they are about to become visible in a user’s browser.
Lazy Load Social Media Plugin: Digg Digg
Obviously we can’t ignore the importance of developing our readership through social media, but social media plugins can be amongst the slowest to load — after all, for every button you include you’re asking your server to run one extra HTTP query. If you have four social buttons at the top, bottom, and in a floating sidebar on each post, that’s twelve extra queries you’re requesting — this contributes significantly to slow loading times.
The Digg Digg social plugin uses lazy loading to avoid this problem. It simply displays a social buttons placeholder. This requires no extra queries from your server, and users cannot tell the difference. Only when a visitor hovers over the social buttons do they load, and this helps with the initial load time for each page.
To Organize Plugins: Plugin Organizer
A slow load time is often attributed to having too many plugins. However, in most cases we need those plugins, so removing them just isn’t an option. Perhaps a better question is not whether you need a particular plugin, but whether you need it on every page. For example, other than on your contact page, do you really need Contact Form 7 loading every time a user wants to read a blog post? Probably not.
Now, by default WordPress loads every enabled plugin for every page, whether you’re using it on that page or not. By using the Plugin Organizer plugin, you can override WordPress’s default urge to load each plugin, and tell it which plugins you want loading on each page. This is done via a simple checkbox system. By loading only the plugins you absolutely need, you can reduce your load time substantially.
Another neat feature of this plugin is the ability to prioritize the order in which plugins load, by adding a drag-and-drop function to the Installed Plugins section of your dashboard. For example, the comments section is typically the last thing a user will see, so it makes sense to load this last, right? This can improve user-experience by making the page usable more quickly. The plugin allows you to group together related plugins to simplify the task of organizing them, too.
By installing these plugins you can make significant improvements to your website’s speed. The faster your website loads, the better it is for your users, it’s that simple. A happy user is more likely to stick around to enjoy your content, and ultimately this can boost your subscriptions, social shares, and conversions. A fraction of a second really is that important! If you want to recommend another plugin that has helped improve the load speed on your website, get in touch in the comments section below!