Installing W3 Total Cache to improve WordPress performance

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Can installing a plugin really magically speed up your website? I’ve been playing with W3 Total Cache and its various options to boost performance to find out…

W3 Total Cache allows you to easily add many tweaks to your website which combine to provide a sizable boost in performance. Many of these tweaks you could implement yourself. However, this plugin provides a comprehensive range of techniques which can be enabled and disabled through a friendly interface. The plugin features a handy preview mode so you can try certain options before deploying them.

w3tcAfter installing the plugin a little setup is required. There is some code which you’ll need to place in your .htaccess file. Depending on your server configuration, the plugin may be able to complete this step for you. If you find it can’t and you’ve setup permalinks in WordPress, you’ll already have the .htaccess file in your root directory which you can copy and paste this code into. If the file doesn’t exist, check that you can see hidden files before creating this file yourself.

The code added to your .htaccess file enables HTTP compression (reducing your visitors download times) and ETags.

ETags are unique references assigned to each file, these references change when the file is altered. ETags allow your browser to compare its copy of a file with the servers before downloading, preventing an unchanged file from being downloaded again. Reducing bandwidth and speeding up the end users experience.

W3 Total Cache contains many options, however the most useful I’ve found are page caching and its minification and concatenation functions.

Page Cache

WordPress typically generates a webpage for each request, fetching numerous template files and running off to its database to retrieve content. The process is fairly quick however for more complex or popular sites this wait can become a problem.

The “page cache” option of W3 Total Cache saves a snapshot of each generated page and serves that copy to each subsequent request. Saving server load and reducing the response time.

Minification and concatenation

W3 Total Cache can automatically compress and combine your CSS and JavaScript.

The minification process removes unnecessary characters such as spaces and line breaks to reduce file size.

Combining CSS and JavaScript into one file reduces the overhead of loading each file individually. Browsers also limit the number of concurrent connections to a web server; therefore combining files allows other objects to be downloaded and rendered sooner.

Findings

On a basic installation of WordPress and with minimal configuration, W3 Total Cache was able to:

  • reduce the number of external objects loaded from 12 to 9
  • reduce the total size of a page by almost 15%
  • improve Google’s Page Speed Score from a rating of 49/100 to 88/100

W3 Total Cache is clearly a powerful plugin and its optimisations not only provide your visitors with a faster experience but could even help you rank higher in search engines such as Google.

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