I suppose we better briefly explain what caching is to start with 🙂
Caching is simply the process of storing a copy of something that is frequently used. Your web browser does it already whether you realise it or not.
That is, if you revisit a web page that you’ve already been to, it won’t download everything all over again. That would be a waste. Instead the browser checks what is needed, what you already have and what has changed. If nothing at all has changed then it simply loads the same version it already had from your computer instead of downloading it again from the internet.
There’s more to it of course, but that’s all you need to understand.
What Is A Caching Plugin?
A similar thing is done by most website owners to make their sites load more quickly.
Millions of websites are built using tools like WordPress or Joomla. These tools make life a lot easier for the website owner who can add and edit content whenever they like. All without a website designer or programmer – which is how it used to be back in the day. But to achieve this simplicity for the site owner, these tools do a lot of complex work behind the scenes. They use templates, plugins and databases to do it.
When WordPress displays a blog post to a visitor it has to load a header template, a post template and a footer template. The post template may need special functions from another file. It may have to load more files for plugins that have been used (e.g. to show related posts or social like buttons). It has to go off to get information from a database for the actual post content.
In all it could be loading dozens of files and making many trips to the database to get all the information it needs – just to show one page on the site!
If another visitor comes along to view that exact same page, WordPress has to do everything all over again. Even though the page is exactly the same.
This is where a caching plugin can make a huge difference.
What the plugin will do is store a copy of that page on the server all fully ‘built’ and ready to go. So instead of loading dozens of files and repeat trips to the database, it just sends that one file to the visitor. It doesn’t have to visit the database, load any templates or anything else.
And when another visitor comes along – it just sends them that same file too. Over and over. It’s only when you change something on that page that WordPress builds a new cache file of that page.
Why Should You Care?
Caching has two big benefits. Firstly it makes your site load more quickly. Secondly it can greatly take the pressure off your web server, allowing it to handle a lot more visitors without slowing down.
This matters a lot.
Overloaded web servers will start failing – your visitors will start to get error messages instead of web pages. And that means people will leave your website and go elsewhere.
This ‘user experience’ aspect matters so much that Google even made it one of their ‘ranking factors’ (as far back as 2010!). Google want their users to have a good experience online, so they don’t want to send their customers to websites that are slow or unreliable.
So if your site takes ‘ages’ (more than 5 seconds!) to display a page then this can hurt your rankings in the search engines. It can also hurt if your site regularly gives page errors because it is so overloaded, or the web hosting is so poor, that it keeps failing.
A slow website can be very costly to your business.
So, How Can I Make My Site Load Faster?
The first thing to do is make sure you are using decent quality web hosting – for the level of traffic that your site gets.
You really don’t need an expensive dedicated server if you only have a small local business. Shared hosting will be absolutely fine for hundreds of visitors a day.
Just be aware that price alone is not the best guide. Some hosting companies will put a couple of hundred sites on one server and that can be absolutely fine. While others will cram in thousands on hardware that struggles to cope.
If you’re using a CMS (Content Management System) such as WordPress then you need to make sure caching is being used. Depending on the CMS it may already be built in – find out, and turn it on if it’s there.
For WordPress it is NOT built in. So you need to add a plugin such as WP Super Cache. It’s free, comes from the same people who make WordPress and over a million websites already use it. Another good free option is W3 Total Cache, it has more features but this does make it much more complex.
Caching generally can be quite complex. So always backup your site before you make any changes, read the instructions first and make sure you know how to undo any changes or restore your site before you start. It is very possible to break how your site looks or stop it functioning completely! We can help with this if you don’t want to tackle it yourself.
What Else Can I Do About A Slow Website?
There is a lot more you can do. This gets progressively more complicated however, and may be overkill for a small website.
As a general rule though you should make sure any images you upload are the ‘right size’. If you’re uploading photos for example it’s very rare that anyone needs to see the original full size image. So resize them first – using the smallest size that suits the purpose.
Also avoid blindly adding plugins. Well designed plugins will not slow your site down, but badly designed ones can. So only add what you need, and be very selective about the ones you use. And make sure you keep plugins up to date too.
For small websites this is likely to be enough. But if traffic increases more efforts may be required. You can minify content, use a CDN, upgrade your hosting, use a better designed theme, optimize or clean up your database, block bad bots and spammers from your site. There are are even server level caching solutions. But these things are unlikely to be necessary unless your site receives a lot of visitors.
Simply make sure your site loads quickly and it’s easy for customers to find what they need. That’s half the battle already won.