In June 2021, I hosted a live training with my friend & web developer Angelita Mardiros. We talked about the summer 2021 Page Experience Algorithm. The training focused on ways to speed up your website performance and load time.
This blog post summarizes Angelita’s training; you can watch the whole thing here:
- 1 What’s included in the Page Experience algorithm update?
- 2 Core Web Vitals: 3 Google site performance metrics
- 3 Evaluating your website performance
- 4 5 steps to improving your website performance
- 4.1 1. So where should you start? Compress images!
- 4.2 2. Delete any plugins and themes you aren’t using.
- 4.3 3. Delete any assets you’re not using!
- 4.4 3. Invest in quality web hosting
- 4.5 4. Invest in a Content Delivery Network (CDN)
- 4.6 5. Get a premium caching plugin
What’s included in the Page Experience algorithm update?
The heart of the page experience update is site performance. Specifically, how long it takes for your web pages to load on desktop and on mobile.
Heads up: When Google evaluates your website, it prioritizes mobile site performance over desktop. So if your mobile site takes a lot longer to load, or you have to pinch and swipe around to read it, Google won’t like that. (I’m look at you, restaurants that make me read your menus as PDFs!)
Not sure how your website does on mobile? Check out Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to see how it looks and for suggestions of how to improve it.
Google has released a few site performance benchmarks:
- Page load time: Your website should load in 3 seconds or less over 3G and 4G networks. The average website takes 8 seconds to load over a 3G network.
- Page size: Each page on your site should be under 500 kilobytes, which is small compared to most sites.
- Security: your website should be encrypted and served over HTTPS. The easy way to check is if you have a closed padlock next to your domain in the search bar. If your website starts with HTTP and has an open padlock, you can visit whynopadlock.com to find out what do.
- User experience: Go through your website on your phone, and check it as if you’re a visitor to your site. (Or even better, ask a friend to visit it!) Download Angelita’s free website user experience checklist for what to check.
Don’t panic! When Angelita first reviewed my homepage, it was almost 5,000 KB, or 10x as big as it should be and took 5.5 seconds to load! I’ll share how these metrics changed after I implemented her advice.
FYI: These are Google’s recommendations, but they may not apply to you!
The Olympic gold medalist is competing against the other athletes, not world records. You don’t need to have the fastest website in the world, you need to be faster than your competition.
Core Web Vitals: 3 Google site performance metrics
One of the key ways that Google shares this information with you is in your Core Web Vitals. You can find your Core Web Vital data in Google Search Console or PageSpeed Insights. (I’ll share what this looks like below.)
Core Web Vitals are 3 site performance benchmarks that measure user experience. They are:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). LCP is Google’s measurement of the time it takes your page to load information above the fold. (“Above the fold” means what you can see before you need to scroll down.) How long it takes until the visitors can start reading and understanding who you are and who you serve. If you have a high LCP number, be super strategic about what design choices you’re making above the fold. Save all those heavy elements like sliders & videos for lower on the page.
- First Input Delay (FID). This measures the time from when your visitor first interacts with your page to the time that the browser responds to the interaction. So this comes down to having like a great hosting provider and how you’re handling cache. (I’ll talk about this more in the “what to change” section below.)
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). This measures the stability of your page, it’s looking for any unexpected movement on the page. Angelita calls these “dancing elements.” So in this little GIF here, you’ll see that this person is writing an email to their boss about how much they want to quit:
Now, we know what Google is actually looking for, let’s look at our websites!
Evaluating your website performance
So where do we find the metrics for our website?
The easiest way is to visit Google Pagespeed Insights. (There are a few other tools that show similar information, like GT Metrix & Pingdom. Use the one that makes the most sense to you.)
Run that performance scan, because you’re going to need those metrics to be able to do any of this other stuff.
Case study: Analyzing this website!
For any of these website performance tools, you’ll run each individual page of your site. Your homepage will have a different score than your about page or product listing or blog post!
Here’s what my mobile homepage score is:
When you run your analysis, don’t freak out if you have a bad score. This is my expertise and I still don’t pass! Many of us start in the red. If you can pull yourself up to orange, you’re likely scoring higher than your competition.
Look at and update the mobile version of your site first. Improving your mobile numbers will likely boost your desktop numbers by default.
Also don’t be surprised if this number changes slightly every time you run it. When Angelita ran my page on the live training, it was a 19; when I ran it for this blog post, it’s 32. I haven’t changed anything (yet), but the simulation might shift around the results. That’s totally normal.
The most common problem that Angelita sees is a high LCP metric (load time above the fold), due to large images. And this is exactly what she saw on my website:
This simulates that on 3G, my homepage would take 17 seconds to load. The benchmark is 3 seconds! (It might be faster in real life, but they’re assuming that the user is essentially in a desert with no cell tower.) So it’s probably a little better than what this number represents in a real life scenario … but even so, definitely needs an update!
Remember: You don’t have to be the fastest, you have to be faster than them
Note: You can also test your competitor’s domains, to see what’s normal within your industry. This might soften your standards a bit because you might not need to get a “perfect score”!
If you’re #1 and someone else is #2, and your site takes twice as long to load, then you might drop beneath them … even if your content is better! You might not need to be the industry best, just outperform other people who are showing up in those same search results. If everyone else loads in 10 seconds, and your site takes 7, you’re gonna outperform them.
Some industries are more competitive than others! SEO & web development are pretty cut throat (so Angelita & I have to get serious!) but many of our clients are in the health and wellness space, which is more laid back.
Some things are out of your control
Depending on how your site is built and where it’s hosted, many of these factors may be out of your control. Pick the ones that you can and get optimizing on those. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the metrics.
5 steps to improving your website performance
Here’s a quick list of 5 things that you can do on your website to make your files load faster. Two are ways that you can shrink & remove unnecessary files in your database. And three are server-level changes that can have huge impact on your performance.
1. So where should you start? Compress images!
The easiest place to start making improvements to your page load speeds is to shrink your images. You don’t have to be a Photoshop wizard to optimize your images for the web. You shouldn’t be putting print quality images on the web, you should be putting web quality images on the web.
Skip the bloated plugins that you add after the fact, because that’s kind of like a bandaid fix. They don’t optimize perfectly, and they can cost money.
Instead use Squoosh to compress your images before you upload them! The Squoosh tool was a developed by Googlers (so you know they care about technical SEO!). It launched at the Google web developers conference in 2018.
That PageSpeed Insights report displays which large images are slowing down your website.
According to this, I could save 17 seconds by optimizing my images. Whoa!
The report says that I have 7 problematic images; the first one is 967KB, which is twice was the entire PAGE should be. (Remember, Google suggests that page size stays under 500KB.) Then once you add them all up, we’re looking at over 3000KB, only from pictures.
Then once we add in all the extra stuff running, my pre-optimization homepage is over 5000KB. That’s TEN TIMES more than it should be!
2. Delete any plugins and themes you aren’t using.
Even if they’re deactivated, they’re still hanging out on your website taking up space. Delete them and your page will load faster.
Also, unused or non-updated plugins are vulnerable to hacking & incompatibilities. It’s better to get rid of them, for security and speed optimization.
Remember: just because you can use a plugin to do something, doesn’t mean you should. If you’re not sure, check with a developer. They can usually find a workaround that will run faster, keep you safer, and cost you less.
3. Delete any assets you’re not using!
Unpublished or draft pages & posts.
The longer you run your business, the more unnecessary pages will add up on your website. (I still have pages from offers I had in 2016, because I fear that maybe I’ll need them again in the future. )
Delete any old web pages or blog posts you’re no longer using or that are hanging out in your “drafts” folder. Instead of flipping old service pages to “private” … grab a copy of it the store offline and delete it from your database.
And then when you delete it, it goes into your trash, you need to still go back and empty your trash.
Delete old comments & images.
Old comments can slow down a blog post. Delete them, they’re just taking up space. The image replacement process is also a great time to delete unused images in your media library. (Templates tend to add tons of image files as placeholders; delete those once you replace them!)
Remove any video files.
Never ever, ever upload your videos to your website! Host those on a third party like Amazon, YouTube, or Vimeo, then embed them on your website. This is much better than hosting them on your website, which slows everything down.
When you embed a video onto your page, also upload the thumbnail. Otherwise, your website will pull those images pictures from YouTube. And that can take half a second, which in the greater scheme of things, it’s half a second. But those little things as we’re seeing can add up.
Delete old & outdated themes.
Your WordPress website should only have a parent theme, a child theme and a fallback theme.
So right now, the 2021 theme is the fallback theme, delete any other themes that aren’t used on your website.
3. Invest in quality web hosting
You know how “you get what you pay for”? That applies to your website hosting.
Web hosting is the server where your website lives. For most entrepreneurs, two options are great: shared hosting & private hosting.
- Shared hosting: Your website is in an apartment building. You technically have your own space, but it’s crowded. Roommates and neighbors can be loud and problematic.
- Virtual private hosting (VPS): You’re in a townhouse connected to other homes … but you have your own slice of heaven within the complex.
- Cloud hosting: Your website is in a mansion in a gated community on an acreage. This is usually more than most small businesses need!
If you’re on Squarespace, Wix, Shopify, etc. your only option is shared hosting. They have some ways of making it run faster, like CDN (explained next), but you don’t have the option of VPS.
If you’re on WordPress, you have hundreds of options of where & how you can host your site. In general, try to stay away from the cheapest options like Bluehost, GoDaddy, or Hostgator … because they cut costs by cramming way too many websites onto a server. (In our housing metaphor, they’re tenements.)
Here are some of the options that Angelita & I both use and like:
- Flywheel (VPS): Flywheel is amazing gf you want to get your WordPress website live quickly. You won’t need to learn how to use cPanel or any complex databases.
ALL Flywheel websites are on VPS (they don’t even offer shared hosting). They include free SSL security, CDN (explained below) and automatic nightly backups. Plans start at $13/mo. Bonus: They makally easy to transfer websites from a designer to a client.
- Siteground (shared, VPS & cloud options): This includes free SSL, CDN & nightly backups. Unfortunately most of their hosting is shared instead of VPS. This Love At First Search website is hosted on Siteground.
- GreenGeeks (shared & VPS): I adore GreenGeeks for a starter site. It’s only $4/mo for shared WP hosting, and their VPS hosting is more affordable than most (about $40/mo). That includes a caching plug-in, the first year of your domain registration, and SSL.
- WP Engine (all cloud hosting): For websites that get a ton of traffic, WP Engine is the best option on the market. It provides a dedicated cloud host — even more private & secure than a VPS. It’s more expensive (starting at $30/mo) but the amount of upgrades & service you get from them is unparallelled.
Disclaimer: These are all affiliate links, meaning I’ll get a commission if you buy from one of these links. I’ve used and enjoyed all these services, and wouldn’t recommend them if I didn’t believe in them 100%.
I know these cost more than the $5/mo budget options. But with mediocre hosting, you’ll try to speed up your site with plugins, which won’t fix key problems. Budget hosting also increases your risk of getting hacked and needing to pay a developer to clean it up.
It seems like a big investment upfront, but budget hosting can nickel-and-dime you with add-ons. You might end up saving money when you start adding up all these things.
4. Invest in a Content Delivery Network (CDN)
Another server-level change is investing in what’s called a content delivery network. A CDN distributes the content of your website to your visitors faster by using servers closer to their geographical location.
If my website lives on a server in New York, but my user is in Michigan, they don’t want to wait for the website data to travel from NY. Instead, they can connecting to a server in Ohio or Michigan (Amazon has servers in a huge server farm in Ohio).
CDN networks have local servers all over the world. Users can connect to the server closest to them instead of waiting for data to arrive from a distance.
How do I get CDN?
- If you’ve invested in great hosting, usually CDN is included (or you can turn it on quickly with a toggle button).
- If it’s not included (which is usually the case with the budget hosting), it costs $3-5/mo to add it on.
- If you’re doing this yourself, you can easily add CDN to your website using WP Rocket’s RocketCDN or Cloudflare.
5. Get a premium caching plugin
The last suggestion for speeding up your website is to invest in a premium caching plugin.
Caching is a way that websites store temporary data on your first visit so that they load faster on later visits. When you visit a site, the browser will download some of the files & images. On future visits, it won’t need to re-load everything. That’s why after you clear your browser cache, you need to log-in again to the site.
On WordPress websites, you can control which files to store in the cache using a plugin. This plugin will remember and duplicate the content it served in the past.
WP Rocket is our favorite caching plugin. It makes changes like lazy loading images, meaning waiting to load images until after you scroll down. (This helps your LCP number because it won’t load all your images before displaying the first one.)
I know some of these steps can feel tech-heavy & overwhelming. That’s ok! It’s worth understanding what impacts your site speed. Making these simple changes can drastically impact your user’s experience, boost your SEO rankings, and decrease your bounce rate.