Speed Up Your Site

FasterThe majority of what I do to speed up my website is on the server level. In 2009 I moved to a VPS, and just last year I switched to a Smart Server. I have access to install APC, to tune MaxClients, and to upgrade my PHP whenever I darn well want to. And I regularly use these tools to fine tune my server so it’s lean, fast, and efficient. 75% of why my domains run this fast under this much stress (I have two fan sites, they get hammered), is that I’ve done all this work, including some of the stuff I did on DDOS prevention. 1

However, not all of you have access to the server to make all those cool tweaks and changes to speed up your website. If you’re on shared hosting (and there’s nothing wrong with that), you can’t edit httpd.conf, you can’t always edit php.ini, and you sure can’t upgrade PHP on your own. Don’t worry, there are still things that you can do!

The first thing you should do is understand that the more complicated your site is, the slower it’s going to be. So if you want a site with all those bells and whistles, you have a lot more work to do than a simple, plain, site. These are the tradeoffs we must accept in all things. 2 Reduce the complications and things run faster. You have to have a balance between ‘everything’ and usability. If your site is sexy as all get out, but slower than a truculent five year-old on a family walk, then you’re doing it wrong. That doesn’t mean you need to have the world’s most boring site, it just means you have to start learning what it is that makes your site slow. When you look at themes and plugins for a site, remember the more you have, the slower things may become, so use them wisely.

My favorite tools to show why a site is slow are YSlow and PageSpeed. YSlow is a browser add-on you can use with Chrome, Firefox, and every other commonly used browser. Except for IE. Once installed, you simply go to the webpage and run the tool to get a scan of your site. You get ‘graded’ on an A through F scale, with F being the worst, and the grades are computed based on a fairly understandable methodology. 3 Page Speed is Google’s version, and I prefer it, but only because I don’t have to install anything to do it, and it gives really good explanations of what’s wrong. There’s also Web Page Test, which is great to find out if your site flails on different browsers, as well as giving you accurate speed breakdowns.

Here are three of my sites, all installed on this server, scanned by YSlow:

And here are the same three as SiteSpeed:

I’m not going to go through every option, most of them are self explanatory (put the CSS at the top and JS at the bottom). Instead, I’ll explain the weirder ones that you can tweak yourself, and some that you can ignore. If you’re using a tool like W3 Total Cache, you actually can configure most of this directly in the tool instead. For what it’s worth, I did ‘fix’ my scores with both sites and I’m now in the 90s from Page Speed and .. Well not so much with YSlow. The two disagree on how much ‘weight’ to give various errors. Page Speed thinks minification is low priority, and doesn’t judge you about a CDN. It also understands that you can’t gzip what you don’t own. If you use YSlow, make note of what you score poorly in, and fix those as best you can.

Things I Ignore

When I get complaints of too many HTTP requests, that just means I’m calling ‘too many’ JS scripts and stylesheets. YSlow doesn’t say which ones those are, which isn’t actually helpful to the novice. If you click on ‘Read More’ it just explains why this is bad. The idea here is that you should have one CSS file, but realistically, any dynamically generated site is going to have more that one. Especially when you consider I’m calling some from Google, Facebook and Twitter for my sharing buttons. While this does slow your site down, unless you have 20 stylesheets on your own site (again, I’m not counting the ones on other domains), it’s not that big of an issue. If you minimize what you have, and combine as much as you can, you’re going to be okay.

I also totally ignore any scores related to my CDN, or rather the fact that I’m not using one. Yes, a CDN will make your site much faster, but I don’t think this is applicable for everyone, and I generally ignore that value.

Finally I ignore suggestions to use cookie-free domains, but that’s because I’m running WordPress, and it needs cookies.

Things I Fix in .htaccess

You can fix most expires headers errors, but only the ones that relate to your site. When I look at a scan for one of my domains, I see that the items my site loads that don’t have Expires headers are a flash module from PayPal, Google’s +1 javascript, a banner, and two gravatars. Those are all items that, yes, can slow my site down, but they’re outside my ability to fix! And in the case of gravatars, I don’t want them to Expire too soon, since they may change. I’m going to, again, ignore this.
YSlow - Add Expires headers (F)

Why wasn’t my server listed? It’s because I added Expires headers to my site. Obviously. The easiest way to do this for your site is to put the following in your .htaccess file 4:

<ifmodule mod_expires.c>
  <filesmatch "\.(jpe?g|gif|png|css|js)$">
       ExpiresActive on
       ExpiresDefault "access plus 1 year"
   </filesmatch>
</ifmodule>

What this will do is turn on Expires and set to to today plus one year. Now this isn’t actually the best way to do it, as it leaves out a lot of variables, but for most people, it’s good. Keep in mind, the further you set out this expires, the harder it is to change any files! For example, if I upload a PNG with a 1 year expiration, and then upload a new version, no one will see it (unless they flush their browser cache). Don’t set this further than a year, and only set it for things you know aren’t changing often. 5

Cache-Control is the half-sibling of Expires, and lets you specify what files should be cached and for how long. The Ask Apache site has some great examples, as this is what I generally use:

# 480 weeks
<filesMatch "\.(ico|pdf|flv|jpg|jpeg|png|gif|js|css|swf)$">
Header set Cache-Control "max-age=290304000, public"
</filesMatch>
 
# 2 DAYS
<filesMatch "\.(xml|txt)$">
Header set Cache-Control "max-age=172800, public, must-revalidate"
</filesMatch>
 
# 2 HOURS
<filesMatch "\.(html|htm)$">
Header set Cache-Control "max-age=7200, must-revalidate"
</filesMatch>

The ‘must-revalidate’ tag is what makes sure your webpages changes actually get picked up quickly. Nothing’s worse than editing a typo, and not having it fixed for your readers!

Related to that is ETags, which is a bit weird, but this too is something you can tweak. If you disable ETags, everyone has to trust your cache and that gives you a lot of control. It sounds easy, but there’s a reason we should be using ETags for some situations. My sites are using a pretty complex rule that was set by W3TC for me. It sets my Cache Control and ETag, generating the rules I need. If you just want the basics, though, AskApache’s Speed Tips: Turn Off ETags will get you there. For what it’s worth, a small site doesn’t need to worry about this too much.

If you want to grab my default .htaccess starter, here you go!

download TXT file

Things I Fix via CPanel

You can also speed up your site by enabling gzip. I’d say I left it off on purpose to show you the error, but the fact is I forgot to turn it on when I moved to a new server. If you have cPanel, this is stupid easy. Log in, go to ‘Optomize Website’ and turn it on.

gzip

Doing improved a lot of results on my site, though it didn’t want to consider three of my .js files gzipped for some reason, though it did on other domains on the same server when I changed it. I’m not terribly concerned at this point, since I used the HTTP Compression Test (from What’s My IP?) and it says I’m compressed.

Things I Fix with Elbow Grease (or Plugins)

Minification. If you view the source of this site, it’s ugly. Everything’s all crammed up without line breaks, and finding anything is a hassle. That’s because I minified my content. If you don’t have a plugin or add-on for your site that can do that for you, you’ll need to do this manually, via Minify CSS and Minify JS. It’s more of a hassle to do that manually, since it’s hard for you to edit later. After-the-fact compression can slow your site a little, but it’s easier to maintain and still faster than non-minified code. Now I use W3TC, which has a minification tool built in, but there are other WordPress plugins that do the same thing.

The Rest

There are a lot more tips and tricks to getting your site running faster. I mention W3 Total Cache (W3TC) multiple times because it works great. There’s also WP Super Cache, which I prefer for smaller hosts and shared servers. W3TC is very, very, very complicated, so be warned. WP Super Cache isn’t a ‘lesser’ tool, it’s just different, and I advocate using either one if your site is moderate to large.

If your site is small, you really can get by with just minifying. There are a lot of minification plugins out there. Images can be reduced in size by compressing them more via Smush.it (there’s a plugin called WP Smushit for WordPress). Many people have also suggested using a Lazy Load plugin, like jQuery Image Lazy Loading, which loads images on demand. I like it, but it slows my site down, and doesn’t work well at all on ones with a lot of dynamic images. I may be using it wrong.

Anyone can take advantage of a free CDN, Cloudflare has a free plan. 6 They claim to protect you as well as speed things up, and I’ve heard interesting (good) reports on it.

Many people advocate using plugins to tune your database, but I really don’t like using a plugin for that. You can optimize your database with a cron job instead, or even just do it manually now and again, if you think your site is sluggish. For WordPress I limit my revisions and empty my trash more often with two lines in my wp-config.php:

define('WP_POST_REVISIONS', 5);
define('EMPTY_TRASH_DAYS', 5 );

When all else fails and nothing you can do speeds up your site, take a look at your server. If the server itself is really slow, all the time, and I mean you can hardly get your email, ask your host if you can be put on another cluster. A lot of shared hosts are oversold, since not everyone needs all the space and power. It makes sense, but some hosts monitor the status of these servers and move people around if they become bad neighbors, while others wait for you to notice. Opening up a line of communication with your host is always a good thing. Remember, you’re paying these guys! They should be willing to help you out, or you should leave and get a new host.

At a certain point, you’ll notice that the only ‘fixes’ are to throw more money at it, buying a better host, better themes, better tools, and so on. And that’s simply a fact of life. You can’t live forever on ramen and hot dogs.

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Notes:

  1. My CT_LIMIT is set to 75 right now, and that seems to be the perfect balance. The only people hurt are some silly people in Brazil who like to open 100 pictures all at once. I’ve explained why this is bad.
  2. The exception being, perhaps, cookware. I have some awesome Lodge cast-iron pots and pans, and they’re pretty expensive for their simplicity. Then again, they’re made with such amazing skill and precision, they’re not ‘simple’ to make. So YMMV.
  3. See FAQ: Grading
  4. If you’re using WordPress, Drupal, or any web app that has it’s own .htaccess rules, remember to put these above the section for them! It’s important.
  5. You’ll notice WordPress sourcecode has your JS and CSS files saved with ?ver=x.x at the end. This lets you work around the expires, as when you change your CSS, it changes the version, and thus, pushes the changes down to your users.
  6. Caveat: I don’t use CDN, nor have I looked at Cloudflare in depth.
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Comments

  1. It seems that using NGINX is one the best things to do to boost site performance. I’m hoping to look into it some time over the next month or so. My site badly needs to an overhaul performance wise as I never really set it up very well in the beginning and it shows badly in the page load times.

    If you aren’t doing it already, you should install Mark Jaquith’s opcode plugin as that gives a reasonably huge performance increase too. I don’t have it on my live site but I’ve been testing it on my local server lately and it results in an immediate and noticeable plummet in database queries / load times.

    • W3TC has an opcode aspect to it, which I use.

      NGINX … it’s not easy for the new guy, yet, to sort that out :razz:

    • Switching to nginx will help, a lot, but it takes fine tuning and learning things. W3TC has good nginx support built in, and will do a lot of the above for you, with some minor effort.

    • Yeah, it’s my ‘next thing.’ ANd outside the scope for this post ;) I’m sure when I upgrade to it (which I will eventually) I’ll document the fuck out of it here.

  2. For those on a VPS (or a dedicated server), I highly recommend CW Image Optimizer instead of WP Smush.it. CW Image Optimizer does require some time (and tools) to install, but once installed it works fast and doesn’t have the limitation on the size of the images to compress.

    • Given that Smush.IT started barfing all over the day after I wrote this, yeah, I may have to look into that. I was aiming this post at people who aren’t quite there yet to install server apps (past installing WP… oh those were the days).

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