First principles Performance Long term
Luis Sanz Rodríguez

On the speed of WordPress

The statistics speak for themselves: as of September 2022, WordPress powers 43% of all the websites on the internet and a whopping 64.18% of those using a content management system.

WordPress is a cost-effective solution that allows individuals and companies to have nice looking, highly functional websites while keeping the budget and development times under control. With a bit of knowledge, you can even launch and maintain the site yourself.

It fits almost any web project and it’s completely free, so it has no initial cost and comes with no monthly strings attached.

In addition, it has basically put the agency problem (the lock-in associated to custom-made solution) to an end. There are countless freelancers and development studios willing to help you take your site to its next step.

This convenience explains its wide spread adoption.

Yet, like any widespread software, it’s subject to misuse. Badly executed websites are mostly based on WordPress and not on tailored solutions, because the latter are reserved for high budget projects and are usually developed by an experienced team.

This results on a reputation issue among programmers. One of their main complaints is that WordPress is slow. Are they right?

What the average corporate WordPress site looks like

The first WordPress experience many front or back-end developers have comes from inheriting an outdated, bloated corporate website. After trying to figure out how to change a layout in a non-working page-builder and checking out the site performance evaluation, this first experience also becomes their last.

But this is not WordPress’ fault. With poorly chosen third party software, you can also make a sluggish, unmaintainable website using React, Laravel or the JamStack solution of your choice.

The problem lies elsewhere.

With its fulgurant growth, many dev businesses have chosen to orbit around WordPress, and not all of them have the technical knowledge or the willing to spend the amount of time needed to optimize it properly.

Many choices are based on the developer convenience, completely disregarding the user experience:

  • Does the website need a fancy page builder? The most used one will install more than 700 KB of CSS.
  • Is there a contact form involved? Any of the top market premium solutions will provide you with 98% of features you won’t ever use.
  • Does the FAQ page require an accordion? Why would anyone bother writing four lines of javascript and CSS when you can install yet another plugin?

I could continue ad absurdum, it’s easy to get the point.

If the developer is not careful enough, a site can easily end up loading two instances of jQuery, FontAwesome 4 and 5 in solid and outlined styles, five or six different typographies with all of their weights and a bunch of CSS and javascript files with that fancy team members carousel and six styles of flip boxes you will never use.

It might sound exaggerated, but this is the reality for many corporate sites.

Is WordPress to blame?

I don’t think so. There is not much WordPress can do to avoid abuse without becoming a restrictive tool, which is against its foundational principles.

To developers belong a portion of this cake. If the only performance measure is trying to fix the poor choice of tools with a caching plugin when the website is already online, things have go wrong from the early begining.

But we’re not alone in the party.

Many small to medium sized companies hand their websites to web design or marketing agencies. And in the whole process of planning, designing and building their website the term “performance” never plays a central role. Graphic design does, textual content does, deadlines do, but who cares about a couple of seconds more than delivering a visually pleasant site in the shortest time possible in order to advance to the next project?

Some clients also bear some responsibility. Most of the time, you get what you pay for. Even without having the technical knowledge to understand the difference, a little research on a couple of projects done by the agency might get you a good clue about the expected outcome. You don’t want to start a thousands miles journey without a good pair of shoes.

What can be done?

First of all, developers should have a co-leading role in the early stages of project planning. Companies need to understand the core importance of a fast site and that it has an easy selling point: it pays off the extra budget, which is not much, the first time someone hires your client’s services because their site was better ranked due to performance. And this will happen: performant websites not only have better usability, they also rank higher on search engines.

Then, agencies should incorporate a performance culture in their design department. Designers should understand that including an interactive hero, a parallax effect and some animations might force the developer to rely on third-party software because the time doesn’t allow to write a custom made solution. A side-to-side communication in the first design stages might prevent a chain of decisions which might end with this kind of poor website experiences.

And, finally, we, developers, should care enough about two things:

  • In the first place, the motto should be that motivated choices pay off on the long-term. For a project, I needed a complex form solution. There was a little payment involved, the submissions were connected to an email marketing tool and the form involved steps. I did an eight hour research during the weekend among the biggest players in the market. I installed each of them separately, tested their impact in loading speed, profiled its share of server usage, checked their dependencies and even analyzed the specificity of their CSS before making a choice. That choice has accompanied me for years and I haven’t regretted a single time the extra time I spent on the research.
  • Lastly, things should be looked at from afar. Do not choose a tool just because it’s easy and convenient for building websites fast. The speed should be on the front end and convenience on future maintenance.

Summing up

Take a look at this very website. I bet if I told you it was made with a static site generator you wouldn’t be surprised. Yet it’s not. It’s a fully featured WordPress installation without any caching plugin and hosted on a cheap shared server. I just put a little love on its build.

Fast WordPress sites can be made just by having performance in mind in every stage of the process: from the planning board to the handling of assets, from to the chosen technology stack to ongoing site care.

Once this culture is established within a team, it will come naturally to it and won’t imply much extra time per site. But client satisfaction will skyrocket and your reputation will go with it.