So You Want to Improve Website Performance? - SiteDistrict

So You Want to Improve Website Performance?

Know when, why, and how to improve real-world site performance


There are many reasons why you might want to optimize a site and improve performance, or why you might think this is necessary. This post covers some of the most common reasons, breaks down misconceptions, and will help you understand if you actually have real-world performance issues, whether it's worth trying to address them, and some next steps to take if it turns out that performance optimization could pay off.

This page is essential reading to complete before you even think about optimizing a site hosted on SITEDISTRICT. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Many Reasons to Optimize

We'll start by taking a look at the possible reasons you might want to optimize a site. It's good to start by knowing how you got here, before taking the next steps, which are the same regardless of the initial reason to look at site optimization.

When it comes to performance optimization, there is usually someone (who ) is asking about or for it, and there is usually something (what ) that they are looking at ...

Who is asking?

When it comes to performance, there's usually someone who is concerned or who is complaining. These might include:

  • Client / Boss
  • Website User / Customer / Staff
  • SEO Agency
  • You

Client / Boss asked about it

If you are a web developer building or maintaining a WordPress site for a client, or working within an organization in a similar role, you might receive a request to improve a site's performance from the person who's paying your salary or invoices.

The reason that your client or boss is requesting a site be optimized may be any of the reasons covered below, or could be because their own boss requesting it. It's a good idea to figure out where the request originates, and what the reasoning is behind it.

Customer or User noticed an issue

In some cases, the actual users of the website will report some type of performance problem, which they've experienced first-hand.

One of these users noticing performance issued could be you.

SEO agency / person

Your client or your company may have hired an SEO consultant or agency, and for whatever reason, they are recommending that you optimize your site performance.

You'll want to find out why the SEO person or agency thinks this is important or necessary. It's also good to back up a few steps and find out why this SEO person or agency was hired in the first place.

What are they looking at?

Synthetic Testing Tools

There are a number of different website performance testing & diagnostic tools available on the web and in your web browser. Some of the most common include:

  • PageSpeed Insights
  • GTMetrix
  • Pingdom
  • Lighthouse (inside Chrome browser)
  • WebPageTest

Some people (you, your client, your boss, an SEO person, etc.) will use one of these tools to test a site or page's performance. After using one of these tools, you might think that the results are an indication that you should spend some time optimizing your site.

This however, is the easily the most widespread mistake that people make when it comes to website performance.

You should never use a synthetic testing tool as a scoreboard. They are diagnostic tools. More details on that below.

Google Search Console

Someone - probably one of the people listed in the above section - might be looking inside Google's Search Console tool. This tool includes a Performance section, which displays data & reports based on real users.

The Website Itself

When it's actual users and customers that are noticing performance issues, it's not because they are running synthetic testing tools, or looking at reports somewhere - it's because they are actually using the site.

WordPress performance issues can show up in a number of places. Some of the more common places include the front of the site, eCommerce pages, membership areas, the WordPress Admin (backend), and more.

In some cases, performance issues may be not be consistently present, but might show up at seemingly random times, or during specific times of day or periods of higher traffic or use.

First Steps: Learn and Understand

The first steps you should take are actually to figure out the who, what and when that are prompting an interest in site performance and optimization. That's what's covered in the previous sections.

Understand What They Want

Once you know who is asking about website performance, you should figure out why they are interested in website performance. Some possible reasons are covered in the previous sections.

Whatever the answer, you should ask "Why?" until you have a sufficient understanding of the motivation & reason. One useful technique is to ask "Why?" five times, to gain a more complete understanding of what's going on. Take notes and record the answers each time you ask.

Learn about website performance

There's a good chance you actually need to go back and do some homework on (re)learn about website performance. There is a lot of misinformation & misunderstanding about this topic. Many people need to spend quite a bit of time retraining themselves to look at and think about website performance differently.

Know how to measure performance

There are many different ways to measure website performance. It's important to understand the different metrics that can be measured, how to measure them, and what actually matters in which contexts.

Understand what's important to Google

One common reason why people think they need - or want - to optimize website performance, is they are concerned about their Google ranking. But most people have a poor understanding of what Google actually cares about, how they measure website performance when it comes to ranking signals, and how much it matters.

If Google is important for your website & business, make sure you understand Google's position on website performance.

Learn about Core Web Vitals

If you've read the pages above, it should be clear that website performance is about real people and their experience while using websites.

A set of metrics called Core Web Vitals (CWV) was developed by Google as a subset of website performance metrics in order to better quantify performance-related aspects of the user experience. If you're going to focus on website performance, you should know what CWV are, what affects them, how they are measured, what the 75th percentile represents, and where to view the values of these metrics as collected from actual users.

Disregard / Avoid Bad Information: Red Flags

Unfortunately, a lot of the advice that is out there regarding WordPress and website performance is ignorant, misguided, or completely wrong. Once you've read the pages linked to from the sections above, you should be able to spot such bad information more easily.

Some "red flags" to help identify bad website optimization & performance advice:

  • Focuses on "solutions", before fully understanding the problem and context
  • Uses or references synthetic tools as a scoreboard
  • Speaks in absolutes where there could be exceptions
  • Lists or recommends "best practices"
  • Doesn't put human users at the forefront of the performance discussion

Review performance in SiteDistrict dashboard

For WordPress sites hosted on SITEDISTRICT, you have access to what is probably better and more complete data on website performance than you can find anywhere else.

Learn how to use our analytics suite to view website traffic and performance metrics across your sites. The data we collect comes from actual website traffic and actual users, which means it presents a more accurate, more relevant, & more complete picture than synthetic tools.

Next Steps: Diagnosis

Once you have an understanding of who (if anyone) is reporting performance issues, what they are seeing and where, what affects website performance, how to measure website performance, what Google cares about, what Core Web Vitals are and how & to view them for your site, and are familiar with the SITEDISTRICT dashboard tools for viewing performance data, you should be decently equipped to figure out if you actually do have a problem.

Decide if you have a problem

There's a fairly simple way to determine if you have a website performance issue that requires some optimization:

  • Is an actual person experiencing or reporting some type of performance issues during normal use of the website?

If the answer is "Yes", then you'll next need to figure out where the problem is coming from. The next section covers that.

If the answer is "No", and the actual reason is because someone thinks they need to make the site "faster" because they heard it's a good idea, or looked at the results of a synthetic test, then you probably want to focus on educating this person about website performance. You might even send them a link to this page.

Where is the problem?

If someone is experiencing a performance issue with the website, you'll need to figure out where it is coming from. A very important thing to keep in mind is that it could be any number of places, including those that are more specific to the user, and possibly completely out of your control.

Factors that can affect speed include a user's device, their browser & extensions, their Internet connection, browser caching, server-level caching, the server & hosting, as well as the site itself, including the theme & plugins. You'll need to figure out which of these is involved first, before even attempting to fix them.

Diagnosis should always come first, when it comes to site performance and optimization. Never jump to a "solution" or start by following a list of best practices.

How big is the problem?

One of the most common mistakes with performance optimization is making the problem out to be bigger than it is. Again, you should let people's experience guide you here. Only use synthetic testing tools as a way to understand what actual users are experiencing. Never use the results as scoreboard nor the recommendations as a TODO list.

Always prioritize any optimization work, focusing on doing the least amount possible to make the biggest impact - ideally addressing the biggest pain point users are experiencing.

Be mindful that real WordPress performance optimization - the kind that yields noticeable differences to actual users - can be complicated, require significant experience, take a long time, and be quite expensive.

Addressing the Problem

So, by this point, if you've read through the other pages, and spent some time doing your homework around the Internet, hopefully you're equipped to figure out if you have a problem, and if the problem is an actual speed issue that requires a technical solution, or one of ignorance, which often requires its own solution.

Educate Others

The easiest way to address many WordPress performance "problems" these days is to realize that you don't actually have a problem in the first place. Again, unless actual users are suffering, you quite may well have better things to do with your time and your client's money.

Once you are comfortable with website performance basics yourself, start to educate others about performance yourself. Or send them over to this page, and the other pages that we link to from here.

It can't be repeated enough: never use synthetic test results as a scoreboard. Google doesn't, and you should not either. The results also don't reflect reality. Reality is often far more variable and complex.

Replicate the Problem

If an actual person is experiencing a performance issue, you should try to replicate it yourself. In this case, you need to act like the "support person" to whoever is experiencing the problem. See our page about getting good support for tips on how to work with others on replicating the issue.

Upgrade your WordPress Hosting

One of the easiest ways to improve WordPress performance is to switch to a more optimized hosting platform. Notice the word "switch" - rarely can you get a significant improvement in performance by "upgrading" at your existing host. You're more likely to be upsold, and end up paying significantly more, with little, if any, actual performance improvements.

But, a word of warning: don't jump to switching hosting as a solution either. You still need to diagnose your speed issue properly first, to determine if your hosting is indeed a significant part of the problem.

At SITEDISTRICT we have direct experience with over 60 different major (and some more minor) WordPress hosting providers, and we have a very good idea which ones are fast, and which are not. Just ask us about your host if you want to know, or go ahead and import your site to SITEDISTRICT and use our tools to test its performance.

If your site is already hosted on SITEDISTRICT then there is likely nothing you need to do here. There are only a handful of platforms that provide a similar level of raw, uncached performance for WordPress.

Optimization Plugins

On other platforms besides SITEDISTRICT which are less optimized out of the box, it's fairly common practice to install some types of WordPress plugins to provide either a real or imagined performance boost.

Some of these plugins actually do make a difference, while others might only boost some scores for synthetic testing tools, while not affecting or actually hurting real-word performance.

These types of plugins may include caching, object caching, CDN, image optimization, score boosting, JavaScript & CSS minimization, and more.

At SITEDISTRICT we never recommend optimization plugins, although we know that some people will use them on other hosts if they are unable to move the site to a more optimized hosting platform where they are not necessary.

We also block or disable most optimization plugins on SITEDISTRICT You should never install any performance or optimization plugins on SiteDistrict, without consulting us first. In most cases, one of these will hold true:

  • Our platform already performs the necessary optimization
  • The optimization is not actually necessary or beneficial to real-world performance
  • The plugin may make real-word performance worse, or cause issues

Contact SiteDistrict support

If your WordPress site is hosted on SITEDISTRICT then you should first follow the steps and links above to make sure you have a solid understanding of website performance. Then, you should use our dashboard to examine your site's performance in detail. Talk to your users, your staff, and test the website yourself to see if you experience and can reliably replicate performance issues.

If you've done all this, and you are not sure where to go next, contact us and provide us with as much detail as possible. Let us know what appears to be the problem, steps to replicate it, and provide any links to the SiteDistrict dashboard that might show evidence of a server-side issue.

Advanced Performance Optimization

If you've found that you have a performance issue, and have confirmed it with us (recommended), and we couldn't find any quick solutions together, then you may have to move on to some more advanced WordPress performance optimization.

Common Mistakes

We've covered many of the common mistakes that occur when it comes to site optimization and performance in the sections above. Summarizing some of these:

  • Using synthetic tools as a scoreboard, TODO list, or to generate a performance "audit"
  • Not understanding the complexity & variability of website performance
  • Not asking "Why?" when someone says a site needs to be sped up
  • Failing to collect or use real-user performance metrics
  • Installing plugins or activating services instead of diagnosing first
  • Not talking to actual users about performance
  • Believing what you read on the Internet about how to optimize website & WordPress performance


We hope that after reading this page and the related content on the SITEDISTRICT website, that you have a much better understanding of website performance basics, how to identify if you have a performance problem, and some of the next steps to take


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