How to Improve Site Speed in Nine Steps

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Google’s recent focus on rewarding sites with fast load times means that taking steps to improve your own website speed isn’t just a good idea – it’s a “must do” item in today’s competitive digital world!

As you’ll find, site speed improvement techniques run the gamut from “easily incorporated” to “get your company’s web developer to handle the process.”  The following tips err on the beginner-friendly end of this spectrum, and should represent a good starting place for webmasters who are looking to make small, but measurable improvements to their overall site speeds.

1 – Install a caching system on your CMS

If you run your website on a CMS platform like WordPress, Drupal or Joomla, one of the easiest ways to boost your site’s load times is by installing a caching plugin.  These add-on software programs will manage the types of information that are stored on website visitors’ browsers, and also manage the temporary web files that often clutter up readers’ computers.

While installing a caching system alone won’t likely make a significant different in your overall site speed, it’s a great place to start, as many of these programs are free to use and easy to install.

2 – Use “lazy loading”

“Lazy loading” refers to the process of deferring content loading whenever possible, using Ajax libraries like jQuery, Prototype and MooTools.

Essentially, these toolsets enable web pages to update asynchronously – meaning that only parts of the page need to be uploaded (versus reloading the entire thing) whenever a user performs an on-site action.  Lazy loading tools are a good idea for use in conjunction with website features like image libraries.  When installed, these Ajax libraries enable the site to upload image thumbnails only at first.  Then when users click on individual files, the entire image can be uploaded – saving a significant amount of resources in the process.

3 – Store Javascript and CSS files externally

Every time a Javascript or CSS file is included in a site’s HTML, browser resources must be dedicated to parsing and running the associated code.  Depending on the number of files contained on your website, the resultant downtime can lead to serious slowdowns of your site’s speed.

A much better approach is to compress these files (whenever possible), merge them into a single script file and then store them externally, rather than maintaining code snippets within your site’s HTML.  This will allow these files to be referenced only as needed – rather than being loaded every time a user opens your web page.

4 – Defer loading of any internal Javascript files

If you do have Javascript files that must be stored within your site’s main HTML, add the files as close to your closing <body> tag as possible to delay their loading as long as possible.

In most cases, your users won’t notice any change in website functionality – that is, besides the improved load times that come from being able to upload the bulk of the website before parsing out any internal Javascript files.

5 – Enable Gzip compression on your site

Gzip compression refers to a specific protocol for compressing files on your server’s end before sending them to visitors’ browsers.

To take advantage of this technique, you’ll need to run your site on an Apache webserver using the mod_deflate module (check with your host if you aren’t sure whether or not your current account meets these specifications).  Assuming you have both of these features available on your hosting account, installing Gzip compression is as simple as adding a few lines of code to your site.  Once installed, your site’s HTML, GSS, Javascript, plain text and favicon files will all be loaded to your site in the much more streamlined, compressed format.

6 – Resize images before loading them to your site

When uploading images to your website, you have two options for resizing them to fit neatly within your website’s layout.  You can either crop them before uploading them to your site, using popular image editing tools like Photoshop or GIMP – or you can modify them on the fly by changing the “height” and width” values of your image tags.

When it comes to maximizing site speed, the first option is the better choice by far.  If you upload images to your website without cropping them, browsers must upload the full version of your image and then expend extra resources in order to display your graphics at the appropriate size.  All of this extra processing can result in website slowdowns, so take the time to do things right from the start.

7 – Serve graphics from a CDN

Of course, even if you do crop your images to the correct sizes before uploading them, you may find that image-heavy websites still bog down load times by placing high demands on a viewer’s computer.

In these situations, it may be necessary to serve your graphics from a content delivery network (CDN), instead of uploading them directly to your website.  A CDN stores your images remotely, allowing you to display pictures using an embedded link only – instead of storing the full file on your website’s server.  So if you’ve done your best to maximize your site’s speed but can’t quite achieve the load times you’re hoping for, look into using a CDN program like Amazon’s S3 storage to minimize on-site resource usage.

8 – Clean up your code

Unnecessary HTML tags can slow down your site’s load times, so go over your code with a fine-toothed comb in order to clean up any unnecessary attributes.

As an example, if you’ve altered several text headings on your site using both the <b> and <em> tags, consider creating a CSS rule that will automatically change the appearance of any designated headers.  Doing so will enable you to remove these excess tags (and eliminate the burden of hand-coding future headings in the future!), and speed up your site’s operation.

9 – Buy better web hosting

One final site speed factor that may not yet be on your radar is the quality of both your web host and the web hosting package you’ve purchased.  If your hosting provider doesn’t provide you with the resources necessary to operate your site efficiently, it might be time to move to a new host – even if you haven’t had any unexpected downtime issues.

Keep in mind that it isn’t necessary to make all of these site speed improvements at once.  You can always tweak a few elements that determine your site’s load times and wait to see if your changes produce meaningful improvements in your website’s SEO performance.  If you still aren’t seeing the results you’d like, go back and incorporate a few of the other tips listed here in order to increase your chances of landing at the top of the natural search results.

Image: Andreas Ebling

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