The first steps in website performance

Take the first important steps toward having a performant website. Learn about choosing a reliable, fair hosting service and something extra for big performance and security benefits.

January 11, 2019
Reading time 6 – 8 minutes

Getting your head around what to do first when it comes to your website’s performance is a daunting process. I am the first to admit this since with all my technical experience and knowledge I still find new angles to approach it. So no need to feel guilty. The web has failed you by making it so damn complicated.

Read along if you want to learn some down-to-earth ways of making the first steps towards a speedier site. This is a promise I’ve previously made in the article about getting into a sane mindset about performance. If you have the time, give it a read and come right back. I’ll wait.

Performance is a big thing these days, especially since Google forced everyone to pay attention to it, on numerous occasions (here, here). You got to “love” the carrot-and-stick that comes from everyone’s favorite search engine. When Google speaks about performance, everybody gets a sudden need for it.

Fortunately, the web ecosystem is listening and a whole host of ready-made solutions and services offer to lend a helping hand, often for no or very little money. I am going to highlight the most straightforward and easy to adopt of these solutions because few people have the time, expertise, or even the need for much more.

Free performance, up to a point

Let’s have a mutual understanding of performance and money. Straight out of the gate, economics 101: nothing of value comes for free, and performance is no exception.

After considering the fair offerings out there, it all comes down to how important web performance is to you and your audience, and how it matches with your budget. There is no point in agonizing about extra performance when you can’t afford it. Let your site and business grow, then come back and reevaluate.

There is virtually no end in sight for performance enhancements, but you don’t need to overdo it and lose focus on what really matters: the value and experience you are able to provide to your visitors.

I am going to assume you are not some CTO at a big company, but a passionate individual or a bunch of you that want to do their best in setting up their site for success. So let’s get bootstrapping for performance.

Hosting the needle in the haystack

One of the very first questions that pop to mind is: where to host this beautiful site of mine?

A quick search for hosting services delivers an endless list of providers, each promising the same things at wildly different price points. How is that? Confusion starts to set in, and you decide to go for the cheapest one and hope for the best.

Basic hosting has become a commodity and everyone either tries to talk you into purchasing from them or is striving to cram your website into an ever decreasing space.

Marketing and pricing strategy aside, all [honest] providers offer the same bang for the buck since they have pretty much the same costs, and routinely share the same datacenters (AWS, Azure, Google Cloud) or are part of the same conglomerate (EIG being the biggest).

My advice is to avoid shady, overly promising services and go with well-established brands where at least you benefit from the economies of scale. GoDaddy, Bluehost, SiteGround and A Small Orange come to mind. Pick the package that is closest to your needs today as you can always upgrade later on. If you have $5/month to spend and only one website to host, there is no benefit in having unlimited websites. You want the best single site hosting you can get.

Since WordPress is our main focus at Pixelgrade, and chances are yours too, it’s worth mentioning a different category of hosting services: dedicated or managed WordPress hosting. These types of packages are specifically optimized in terms of speed and ease of use for the WordPress platform. They are more expensive than general packages, but if you can afford it, definitely go for it. The boost in performance, security and overall experience shouldn’t be hard to spot.

So if you want to check out managed hosting for WordPress, I recommend these ones: GoDaddy, SiteGround, A Small Orange, Cloudways WooCommerce host, Flywheel, Bluehost, WPEngine. Just for kicks, here is how the top of the line services look like: Pagely, Presslabs.

Please keep in mind one important advantage of managed WordPress hostings in terms of speed and performance: the extra dollars you pay, most of the time, will mean savings along the way because you will not need to purchase premium caching or security plugins, pay for a CDN (Content Delivery Network) service, for backup services, etc.

What I mean is that if you are serious about your website and want to put considerable effort (and money) into it, it’s best to do yourself a favor and get a managed hosting around the $15-30/month range right off the bat. Fewer things to worry about along the way.

Now that hosting is no longer a head-scratcher, let’s see what else you can do to give your site that extra umf.

Performance from the clouds

Like I’ve said at the beginning, the web ecosystem acknowledged performance (and security) as a crucial way forward, quite early on, and sprung up dedicated services to help with that: ways to get your content closer to your reader’s geographical location (CDN), ways to make advanced image optimization algorithms available to everyone, ways to host your videos, and so on.

But one service stands well above others in terms of sheer usefulness: Cloudflare. And it starts for free to boot. I could not be more adamant: unless you have a really good reason not to, register your site with Cloudflare and get some big performance and security enhancements, for free. Their paid packages take things even further, but most of you will go a long way before that need arises.

I am in no way affiliated with Cloudflare, but, today, Cloudflare is a reliable bundle of performance and security services widely used throughout the web — a veritable backbone of the Internet.

The main thing it has going for it is its focus on customer experience and ease of use; you get access to (very) advanced technical innovations with a click of a button – no easy feat. Cloudflare is an excellent example of economies of scale working for the greater good (roughly 10% of all web requests pass through its servers at some point).

The fact that some hosting providers already offer a one-click option for activating Cloudflare speaks further about its importance and benefits.

While Cloudflare has plenty of options to choose from, you need to be quite technical or have the time to dig through their tutorials and documentation to be able to understand the implications. For most of you, the default configuration that you get when adding a new domain should be very much OK. So my recommendation is: don’t sweat it. Cloudflare’s primary focus are developers that know their stuff, but that doesn’t mean that the rest can’t reap the benefits. At most, you can configure a SSL certificate with a couple of clicks from the Crypto section of your domain’s dashboard and you are all green 🔒.

That is it. A solid hosting package from a respected provider and Cloudflare in front of it and you are all set to get going with setting up your site and get those creative juices flowing. All these have been so you can get closer to the fun part of it: crafting your content.

My next article will tackle just that: what you need to know and do when setting up your [WordPress] site for speedy user experience. Stay tuned!

Update: Have a look at the next article in the series about understanding images in a web context and keeping them in line with your web performance goals.

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