How to set up your site for web performance

Let’s take a deep breath and make another jump up the ladder towards your performant online presence. This time we will focus on setting up the general aspects of your site, everything right up to crafting and publishing your own content. Think about it in terms of building the walls and roof of the house your content will live in.

One of the goals I have with this series of stories is to help you find and maintain a balance between your dreams and pragmatism. It is far from easy, so don’t beat yourself up too much when things slip on either side – thankfully it’s just the web, the most flexible playground there is.


[PART #1] Managing your desires for performance’s sake

A curious thing about performance is that you don’t gain it, most often you lose it. Your future site, in its most basic form (text wrapped in HTML) is a dream-come-true for performance zealots. The only things keeping it back are background infrastructure and a 2G connection.

Starting from this utterly utopic state of things, as you begin adding stuff like styles, images, animations, backend behavior – you know… 2019 sort of stuff,  as you start building an actual house not just a place to sit under a tree, you also chip away at that performance. The main thing is knowing how to lose it for the right reasons.

The architect within

From my own experience as an architect (the kind that designs houses, not software), I know that everyone has an almost instant, confident answer to the question: How should your house be like?

Each of us has a dream scenario in our heads about fulfilling that most basic of needs – the need for shelter. This virtual home evolves throughout our lives, like an imaginary friend, unconsciously “stealing” bits and pieces from past homes, from movies and magazines, from our travels.

It becomes a scrapbook of desires ready to be dumped all at once the minute we decide (and afford) to build our own house. The same thing can happen in the digital realm.

Considering you are well on your way towards building a digital home for yourself or your business, I think it’s fair to assume you possess considerable past experiences with the web.

From browsing for your news, online shopping, interacting on various social media outlets, researching and learning new stuff, to online banking and interacting with local or state authorities, all this is your very own digital experience.

You think about your present site through the lenses of your past experiences. This can mean more inspiration to draw from, a stronger sense of what is possible and what others are doing, more room for you to imagine what you think you need to get the job done. These are all positive traits that can boost you and your project to success, however you may define it.

At the same time, you need to be aware that the same past experiences have “retrofitted” you with biases of all kinds. You may have confirmation bias (a quite common one) and ignore different, but equally suitable ways of doing things. You may have revolved, unknowingly, in certain bubbles and your expectations reflect that, but your readers or customers may not. You may be overstretching your knowledge of the online world and thus oversimplify the importance of some things, while conflating the importance of others.

It is helpful to actively maintain a balance between trusting your gut and questioning the knowledge and understanding you bring to the table.


Less is more when it comes to performance

Continuing with the house metaphor, while in real life your pocket’s size will tend to be inversely proportional with the scope of your desires, so too your site’s performance will dwindle the more stuff (aka features) you cram into it. Professionals actually speak in terms of your site’s performance budget. Keep that in mind while making decisions.

By pretty much any historical standard, we live in an age of plenty, and more so on the Internet. With the relentless blossoming of free and open-source solutions (abbreviated as FOSS if you want to speak geek), it seems pretty much anything is possible, without much effort.

Solutions are everywhere, tutorials to guide you along are a google search away, community advice is ever present. You are in the promised land of possibility.

The everyday reality is quite different. All these competing solutions add up to a lot of strain and uncertainty. The deluge of promotions disguised as advice is more than one person can handle (professional or not).

The bombastic language where everyone, and anything, is #1 that and #1 this, leads to more confusion rather than clarity. Trust is hard to come by, and you end up endlessly feeling unsure of the choices you’ve made.

Today, I see only one mindset that can counter this reality: be as frugal or thrifty as you can. Real life economics or principles don’t apply in the same way when it comes to free and open-source software.

There are no missed opportunities that can never be reclaimed – you can always change your mind and try something you considered a year ago. You can never cover all your bases because there are too many of them and they are always changing – so why bother?


Always question what you want

The first step in the frugality I just talked about is filtering your own desires. We, humans, are complex creatures, with complicated lives and even more convoluted minds. But this doesn’t mean your website should reflect that. On the contrary, your site should be an exercise in simplicity, a stepping stone to Zen (or Jedi) mastery.

I can hear you craving for something actionable by now. OK, OK, I will pause for a bit.

  1. Write down the definition of success you have for your site. It can be anything, but do yourself a favor and be sincere. If you manage to be brief, all the better.
  2. Make a list of everything you want your site to have – feet off the brake. Go wild and document any little thing that is part of your vision. From “I want a large, centered logo” to “I want a newsletter subscription form” or “A Google Maps section is a must have.”
  3. Now ruthlessly question each item on the list. I know you’ve poured your heart and soul there, you love each and every bullet point. Trust me, you need to reach out to your rational side and decide on each one if it is absolutely necessary for the success of your site. If in reasonable doubt, kill it.

Do this exercise when you have a couple of hours of alone, quiet time – you’re gonna need it.

With this newfound clarity on what your site actually needs to get the job done, let’s continue down the rabbit hole of making further decisions.


Everybody wants to be your site’s friend

Solutions on the web are increasingly presented to you as cheap, easy to understand, plug-and-play cloud services.

This makes all the sense in the world for those providing them: subscription-based business models, superior control of infrastructure and development, usage data to drive product decisions, a direct relationship with the customer, etc.

It makes sense for you also: plenty of features, superior service, reduced risk, lower cognitive load, constant improvements, etc.

The day to day reality is quite different. The last I heard, you are not trying to build the next Amazon.com, some big corporate or world-wide charity website.

If that’s the case, then I am barking at the wrong tree, and you should seek professional help (not the medical kind). You are on a small budget and wish to make the most out of it by leveraging the open-source software ecosystem.

While making full use of those services sounds glorious, what is actually happening is wishful thinking (I am guilty of this too).

You imagine yourself reaching such success with your site that all those control panels are brimming with activity, those emailing lists growing by the minute, that Google Analytics world map packed full of lovable dots, that comments section buzzing with people anxiously waiting for their thoughts to instantly be approved. Every one of those bits and pieces you’ve plugged into your home is working to the max.

More often than not, you will get to actually use about 10-20% of a platform’s functionality, and you will do so rarely, further diminishing their usefulness to you. Oh, and when you want those services talking to each other, the real fun begins – more services are needed. All the while, your site and your readers will pay the price, in performance that is.

Each external service you add to your site has a direct performance cost. No exceptions.

Think twice, actually many times, if you want to know everything about your visitors or just the number of times a certain article has been read; if your users are actually into Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest sharing (yes, those little buttons are a direct line to their servers); if you need that newsletter building platform, that social commenting system, that…The list is endless.

On top of performance costs, each of your “friends” represents a privacy and security risk to you and your visitors, one that is totally out of your control.

So, exercise extra restraint when thinking of adding external services as you are quite unlikely to pull them out – personal biases, marketing, and lock-in effects considered. Use them if they really solve a pain you and your site have in the present, not in the [ideal] future. 


Take pride in your choices

Be proud of that missing pop-up subscribe form. Be proud of your non-existent full-width, full-height slideshow. Be thankful for that simple front-page with “just” three navigation items. Be grateful to that missing sidebar. Be happy you don’t have an analytics dashboard to refresh all day.

Take pride in choosing to do less when everyone wants to do more. Be confident in building your website with web performance in mind. You are not missing out, instead, you have cleared your mind and that of your readers.

Oh, and be proud you have stayed with me thus far – no easy feat. I am thankful.


[PART #2] Setting up your WordPress website for performance

It’s been a long, winding road down web performance lane up to this point, but I am confident it was worth it since, by now, you probably have a firm grip on the healthy mental model needed to stay sane and get results.

I guess it’s about time we get to how does everything come together in the world of WordPress sites. Sorry if I kept you waiting, but you need to understand that such sites share the same performance struggles like any other.

WordPress has no intrinsic advantage when it comes to performance, no secret sauce. You just have a wide range of possibilities, more so than in pretty much any other open-source ecosystem.

But with many possibilities come…plenty of headaches. You’ve just half-heartedly, but decisively, trimmed down your list of expectations, gained some clarity and peace of mind, and now again?

The Universe (or me) must be playing tricks on you. Sadly, you are right – things are not getting any easier.

You need to keep your “question everything” hat on if you are to find suitable solutions to your checklist of needs. The WordPress ecosystem is very diverse when it comes to quality, especially performance wise. The reasons are quite obvious, but I won’t get into that now. Just accept it as a fact and let me help you with some tricks to navigate quicker.

The decisions you will make concerning this or that theme, plugin, or service, are nothing more than placing bets. You can never be sure that you’ve found the perfect solution in an environment as dynamic as WordPress.

The best you can do is go through some mental steps to minimize potential losses. This is the light in which I bring forth to you the following advice.


Stick to trusted authors and shops

Trust and reputation is probably the most important bearing you have when considering open-source software. It takes years of hard, consistent, incremental work to build them, and nobody wants to come close of jeopardizing this valuable, but fragile edifice – it has a nasty tendency to instantly disappear.

Look for individual authors and shops within the WordPress ecosystem that inspire the kind of trust you are after, that manage to reassure you that they are the real deal.

When assessing one you feel good about, quickly play the devil’s advocate and do a quick google with the name and terms like “scandal, problems, suspended, hack”. If the first results seem unrelated, good to go; if you stumble upon meaningful articles, read on and decide for yourself.

There are countless, lesser-known authors out there that produce very good products. It would seem almost unfair to exclude them, and it is. But life is short and you have little experience within the ecosystem – you have a site to get going.

So leave it up to agencies and professionals to dig them up, test-drive, and spread the word about them – you will get to use their products, one day. Right now, you are treading unknown waters and your boat could do without the extra risk.


Find a just-about-right theme

When looking for a theme to power-up the frontend of your site, stay away from multi-purpose themes. There, I said it.

Those themes are only useful in the hands of professionals that can navigate their hundreds of bells and whistles, not you. What you need is a WordPress theme that is close enough to your styling and functional needs.

Look for themes with a demo site that showcases a large part of the front-facing functionality on your list, and not much else. This way you will be confident that the theme author has kept its focus and delivered a solution-driven product. As a bonus, you will get the recommended plugins to go with that theme – fewer decisions for you.

By aiming for niche, focused WordPress themes, you stand a much better chance of staying in your performance budget.


Smaller plugins over larger ones

In WordPress, there are tens of good plugins (free or premium) for just about any problem you could imagine.

I strongly recommend you start with the free ones that are just a quick search away on WordPress.org. If you find yourself out of luck, explore premium offerings.

But, regardless if you go free or pro, try to use plugins that match only a specific problem on your list (or a group of closely related ones), not those that promise to bathe your site in feature-glory.

When it comes to plugins and performance, more plugins doesn’t necessarily mean less performance. Ten quality plugins will be less of a drag on performance than a big one, regardless of its quality.


Value decisions over options

When considering a theme or a plugin, take a long hard look at the options they provide you with. Run through this set of questions in your head:

  • Do these options make sense without the need to go through the documentation?
  • Do these options focus on what I want to achieve?
  • Are there low-level, granular options that “empower” me more than I want?
  • Are the options grouped in a meaningful way, reducing my cognitive load?

A good product should pass the bar described by these questions. It is a sign that the maker has taken upon itself the responsibility to do the hard work of making decisions, so you don’t have to. The functionality they provide should just work, with few chances of you messing things up.

Stay clear of products that brag about how many options they provide. They are just regular programming disguised as a visual interface.

They are useful to no one: if you are a programmer, you know how to code directly; if you are not into coding, you don’t have the needed knowledge to use these controls properly. Don’t fall for such scams that play on your ego.

Why is this important in terms of performance? When an author has taken the just, but challenging path of making a product with few, carefully considered options, you can be pretty sure that he cares about the quality of the code as well. It wouldn’t make sense to waste all that design effort on a crappy foundation.

When in doubt

When you have several equally promising plugins, go for the most used one – spread your bets. It is hard to make a case against sheer usage – something must be right with that plugin.

Sure, there are hidden gems out there that haven’t yet had a chance to shine, but it is not up to you to make that happen, not yet. You want well-tested, battle-hardened solutions that stood the test of time.

You may find yourself in a pickle due to conflicting reviews. It seems a number of people are super happy (5 stars), but an equal number are just dreading the day they used that product (1 stars).

I say: ignore both of these groups as their reviews are probably heavily biased. See what the 4 and 3 stars are saying and make your decision based on that.

If you are having trouble deciding between two premium offerings, whether it’s premium themes or plugins, test their support service and see which one suits you best.

Often, a team dedicated to delivering good products will also care about the customer service they provide. This is especially true in the WordPress world where the GPL license grants the user almost absolute freedom in terms of how he or she uses the code – product support becomes that much important as a differentiating factor.


A pragmatic helping hand

Now, I am going to do something that I generally avoided doing thus far, with few exceptions: give you specific recommendations of themes shops and plugins.

I intentionally stayed clear of pointing to this or that because of the wide variety of problems out there. I believe a solid understanding of the underlying challenges of web performance is of much greater value.

But since we narrowed the scope down to setting up your WordPress site, I can give you some pointers to start from when you are feeling lost or pressured by time. I will focus on solutions for the most common problems encountered in building a site.

All of these are solely based on my years of experience navigating the WordPress ecosystem, so don’t take them as definitive answers.

I have no affiliation with any of them, apart from Pixelgrade, obviously – so no affiliate links. Oh, and they are in no particular order, and definitely not exhaustive.

Trusted Themes Shops

Trusted Plugins Shops

There are many other plugin creators out there, but I kept this list focused on just plugin shops with more than one plugin. Those individual authors or one-plugin companies will be mentioned below.

Now let’s start identifying likely plugin candidates for common functional WordPress problems. I will try to refrain from premium solutions where there are equally suitable free alternatives.

Contact Form Plugins

SEO Plugins

Stats & Analytics Plugins

Spam Prevention (Forms, Comments) Plugins

Proper Email Sending Plugins

Custom Content Order Plugins

Image Thumbnail Regeneration Plugins

When you change themes or play with more low-level image settings, you are going to need one of these:

Image Auto-Optimization Plugins

Conditional Display Menu Items Plugins

Social Sharing Buttons Plugins

SSL (Green Lock – HTTPS) Plugins

There you go. Pick and choose from the lists above when you encounter those problems.

I stayed clear of external services recommendations because weighing in on a certain platform over another is beyond the scope of this article.

Most likely you will first decide on a certain service independent of WordPress, and then you will use the official WordPress plugin to do the integration.


Stay frugal and remember your list

As you can easily see, things add up with ease and complexity happily shoots up through the roof. Remember the principles laid out previously, the main one being to be as frugal as possible with the capabilities you plug into your digital home.

Try to create and keep close by the list with your desires that are absolutely crucial for the success of your site. If in doubt, shorten it.

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This article is the fourth one in our series about web performance in general, and WordPress in particular. If by any chance you’ve missed my previous thoughts expressed in this series, here are the topics covered: a sane way to understand and make peace with performance on the web, pragmatic steps to choose your site’s hosting service, and understanding the life of images in the online realm.

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I am Vlad Olaru, architect by passion, web believer by nature, gladly wearing multiple hats if this is what it takes to achieve award‐winning results.