Improving Website Loading Speeds

The speed at which a page loads plays a major role not only in who finds it, but also who stays to read it. Google considers loading times as part of its search engine rankings, and impatient visitors no longer have time to wait. Any page that takes too long will experience a high bounce rate and damaged rankings on two fronts. For these reasons, improving and maintaining a website's speed is vital for both SEO and user experience.

Because so much of what determines a website's loading time goes on underneath its surface, the thought of tuning it up is often intimidating for inexperienced business owners. The truth is that most lag can be ruled down to a few issues and their respective solutions, and it doesn't take a computer science major to create a noticeable improvement in performance.

Testing Page Speeds
In order to fix a problem, webmasters must first know that there is one. Sometimes this comes through user feedback left in emails, comments or direct complaints. More often, though, the first indication of a slow page is growth that fails to meet expectations and poor conversion rates.

There are many useful Web services that test domain speed, including Google's free Page Speed or Yahoo!'s YSlow. Both score a given page based on a number of different factors and offer insights into what needs to be fixed. Another free service, GTmetrix, combines both Page Speed and YSlow and provides a comprehensive report card based on its findings. These programs are a great jumping-off point to bring hidden issues to the forefront.

Lackluster Server Performance
It is common for young websites to start out on a cheaper server plan that suits their limited traffic. Once the page views begin rolling in, however, that server performance does not increase with them. Upgrading to more dedicated servers at higher data speeds may be the only step required to boost usability. Before considering any other solutions, review your hosting package and decide whether or not it is still enough to meet your needs.

Another frequent server issue involves distance. The farther a user is from the website's server, the longer it takes for information to transfer between them. This is most obvious on a global scale, but it can even become an issue on different sides of the same country. A Content Delivery Network, or CDN, service hosts websites on multiple servers in several different locations, directing users as needed for the best speeds. A CDN can be expensive and is best reserved for larger businesses.

Media
Images, videos and other types of media are the most time-consuming features on a loading web page, but it is not necessary to sacrifice aesthetics for speed. Certain image formats are more efficient than others. PNG images, for example, can be compressed for free online, while JPGs are a better option for detailed pictures. It is also possible to create CSS Sprites, which combine multiple images into one and thereby reduce loading times. Use as few images as possible while still keeping an attractive layout; the more there are on any given page, the more power they will need to load. The same rule applies for videos, Flash animations and other content.

Caching
Static areas of a website do not need to be loaded over and over again. When browsers first visit a typical page, they create a record of its content. If the site does not change by the time it is next accessed by that user, the browser can call upon its own cache to make loading faster.

Caching can be implemented automatically through many hosts, while WordPress users must install a plugin. Although caches are helpful for returning visitors, they are useless for anyone coming in for the first time. No website can rely on caches to provide a universally quick loading time, but they are a powerful tool for businesses with continuous repeating traffic.

Cleaning Up Code
Code that is inefficient, outdated or left over from older layouts bogs down browsers as they attempt to make sense of it. For example, inline CSS and Javascript, or code not stored in a stylesheet, must be loaded with the page every time instead of being cached for easy reference. Similarly, CSS Expressions were once popular for their versatility and unique applications, but they also refresh every time a user scrolls or clicks on a page. Outdated programming takes just a fraction of a second longer to read, but it adds up with every new error.

Besides outright mistakes, the structure of code may also create the perception of slower loading times. Place CSS stylesheets in a document's head. This allows the page to load progressively, one piece at a time, rather than leaving visitors staring at a white screen until it is finished. Scripts from languages such as Javascript, on the other hand, must load all at once and are best left in the footer to save time.

There are plenty of services out there to analyze a page's code. The process of removing redundancies from CSS and Javascript is known as minifying, and it can be done automatically at no charge. These services scan every document related to a domain based on the latest standards of digital languages. Although they are not as accurate as the trained eye of a professional programmer, they are intelligent enough to catch almost every major flaw.

There are thousands of other tiny tweaks that can improve performance, but for most businesses, resolving the issues listed above is enough to keep a website running smoothly. When in doubt, remember that simplifying either code or the layout is often the fastest way to see noticeable results and start improving user experience the same day.

Author Bio:
Mike John spends most of his days digging through code and crunching numbers to help online businesses based in Toronto and beyond meet the demands of their clients. For more info check: www.adarmygroup.com.

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