Performance (Page Load Time) Matters — A Tale from This Blog

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I’ve been with the same host for this blog ever since I launched it over five years ago, and I had actually been with that host for 3 or 4 years prior to that as they hosted a personal site and, later, a personal blog. At the time I first signed up, the company was called CrystalTech, but, through various mergers and acquisitions, they’re now Newtek Services.

I originally signed up with CrystalTech on the recommendation of one of those friends-since-junior-high-who-was-way-more-technical-than-I (this guy, actually). My one requirement, I’m sad to say, was that the host needed to support the Microsoft Frontpage Server Extensions. CrystalTech was a Microsoft-based shop when it came to their infrastructure, and they fit the bill.

The “Frontpage support” requirement has lonnnnng since disappeared, but I had a host with great pricing and great technical support, and they threw in some proactive “surprise and delights” here and there (they once sent me an email to tell me they had changed the way their hosting packages worked, had evaluated my existing plan and usage, and had moved me to a new plan that dropped my monthly fee by 25%). When I moved to WordPress with my sites, I hit a bump or two along the way, but their support team came through for me when I hit dead ends on my own with getting everything to work.

But, all was not idyllic.

  • Over the past six months, My free SiteUptime account started pinging me a bit more often (from once-every-3-or-4-months to more like once-per-month) that the site was down. 
  • I’d long since lost the ability to do automated updates of WordPress when new releases came out.
  • I’d rolled out the Google Analytics tag update (since deprecated and included automatically) to have GA check my page load time, and it was never very good (which I rationalized by the fact that my most popular posts are lengthy Excel-related ones with a lot of screen captures).

After what was a somewhat frustrating (extremely atypical) exchange with their support team via email, I finally decided it was time to start looking for an alternative and threw it out to Twitter:

Tweet about The SBA

To Newtek Service’s credit, I got a tweet followed by an email followed by a phone call that explained that they actually had been working to get a Linux-based infrastructure in place for clients who were running WordPress, because they had seen that Linux seemed to handle WordPress hosting better than Windows. That phone call was followed — the same day — by moving this blog over to the new platform, letting me check it out there to make sure everything looked right, and then updating the DNS record to put the live blog on the  new infrastructure.

WordPress auto-updating now works, I haven’t had a site downtime notification since the change was made, and the page load time results are eye-popping (the notation is when the switch was made):

Page Load Time

Wow.

When it comes to other site metrics, I didn’t see a whole lot of movement. My bounce rate, which is already really high (most visitors deep link to a specific post that bubbled up on one long tail search or another, get what they’re looking for, and leave), and that didn’t move at all. But, for cases where the visitor didn’t wait out the page load, often GA would not get a chance to fire, I don’t think, so those wouldn’t be counted as bounces (because they wouldn’t be counted as visits).

Visits look like they might have gone up a bit (fewer people abandoning due to slow load time for the first page), but nothing so dramatic as to allow me to conclude the change was the root cause.

But, I don’t really need to see other data to know that a 50% reduction in page load time (which is still at a point that is 2X the “3 seconds” that is often used as the standard for eCommerce sites…which this site is not)  has enabled me to provide a better experience to visitors. And, the fact that it required no additional monthly fee made it all the better!

Now, am I thrilled that it was only when I publicly declared that I was leaving my hosting provider that the update occurred? I’m not thrilled…but I’m not really all that disappointed, either:

  • I had never reached out to Newtek Services to tell them that “the little things” were starting to add up to me taking my business elsewhere
  • I spend a very small amount of money each month — I’m on one of the lowest-of-low-end plans, and I knew that meant I was sharing bandwidth and servers with the other low-value customers
  • Newtek did have updates in the works that, had I waited another month or two, about which I’m pretty sure I would have been notified when it was fully ready for prime time

Overall, I’m kicking myself for ignoring my page load time reports for so long. I’d looked at them, but my assumption was that, either I needed to do some serious theme overhauling work in WordPress (which is PHP work wayyyy over my head) or I needed to start paying a bit more each month for my blog hosting (which ran counter to my cheapskate nature)

As it turned out, neither was the case, and it’s just because I didn’t get off my ass and do a little digging that I didn’t address the issue much sooner.

Live and learn!

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