One of the most common misconceptions about website speed is that the only symptom of a slow website is speed itself.
Given that you can run a GT Metrix or Pingdom speed test report in about the time that it takes to load your WordPress website, it’s also not particularly difficult to diagnose and confirm a speed problem with such obvious symptoms. But just like everything else in business, a single metric like site speed doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
When a website isn’t properly optimized, there are almost always corollary side effects. And while it can sometimes be difficult to make the connection between your website’s raw speed and its performance, when it comes to the less obvious side effects of a slow website, it’s no real shock why they would affect your overall site performance negatively.
In fact, those less obvious side effects are often downright cringeworthy for any organization that depends on the success of its website.
So what kinds of problems can ultimately be tied back to site speed?
1. Site Outages During High Traffic or Email Blasts
Sporadic site outages are often a sign that your hosting is overwhelmed with all of the work it needs to do to keep up with the traffic you’re sending to it. If you find that your site is always running smoothly at off peak traffic times, but during peak traffic times it’s regularly crashing, that usually means that your site is either under optimized or that your hosting package is too small for the type or quantity of traffic you’re sending to it.
Before jumping straight into a hosting package upgrade, though, you should make a point to optimize the site to be as efficient as possible. If you’ve never optimized your site speed before, the odds are that it isn’t even adequately using the resources it already has, so throwing more horsepower at it is likely to only play out in higher monthly costs. While higher hosting costs might be great news for your hosting company, you probably could find better things to do with those funds – like improve your marketing. Once you max out the horsepower you already have, then you can justify spending more on hosting if the problem persists.
2. Impossible to Reproduce Problems – Like Forms Not Working
Most sites have at least one contact form of some sort on them. Considering that those forms are the part of your site that move visitors from window shopping to engagement, it’s critical that they work – particularly if your site involves e-commerce. There are several things that can cause contact forms to break, but if your symptoms involve the form working one minute and failing the very next minute, that can often be a sign of overly high website load.
For e-commerce sites (like those with WooCommerce), the form that seems to experience this the most is the checkout page. Given that the checkout page has a lot more work to do than a regular contact form (process payment, file an order, email the customer, etc), that should serve as no shock. In practice, an unstable or slow checkout page can result in anything from complete cart abandonment (a lost sale) to customer complaints (which chew up your precious time).
If no other obvious errors present themselves and if you’ve already noticed some slowness or instability, this is the place to look next.
3. Out of Memory Errors
The more complicated your website is, the more memory it’s going to need to be able to run. As a general rule of thumb, if your site is loaded down with WordPress plugins or the purpose of the site has to do more with what the website “does” than what the website “says” then you should expect that the minimum amount of horsepower required to run your site will be higher than your typical small business site or blog.
If you’re using e-commerce plugins like WooCommerce then you don’t even need to guess. All e-commerce sites need more horsepower than with your typical “content and contact forms” websites. By eliminating unneeded plugins/themes, disabling unneeded features, and tweaking your WordPress configuration to allow it access to more memory, you can often take the edge off of your site’s memory consumption and improve the stability of your site.
Just bear in mind that your host plays a part in how much memory you can get your hands on. No matter what you do, if they artificially limit your access to memory on the server (even for good reasons), you’re going to need to get into a more suitable hosting package for the type of site you own.
Timeouts are another symptom that can mean a lot of things. At a minimum they mean that some part of the process for displaying your website is running long. That could be because of poor speed optimization in your site like slow database queries or it could be because of too much load on the server from some other customer on your shared hosting account.
If you can find the exact cause of the timeout and fix that, go for it. But if the cause is proving hard to pin down you should consider optimizing the site’s speed or (if you can afford it) bumping your hosting package to something that isn’t impacted by your host’s other clients – like a dedicated or virtual private server.
Just be sure that you don’t hapharzardly throw money at the problem. More horespower from your web host will only help for so long if you don’t address the underlying performance problem.
5. The White Screen of Death
When a blank white screen appears instead of your website, that’s a sign that PHP is throwing some sort of error behind the scenes. Step one is to check your server’s error logs to see if you can pinpoint the exact problem. Many times that’s all it takes to find the cause of the issue and address it, but if the white screens seem to come at random times or only during times when you really need things to work (like after a major email blast) then you might be looking at another performance related problem.
Out of memory related issues are a very common cause of white screens for sites that are dealing with performance problems.
If you can’t figure out what the exact cause of the issue is, then you will need to bring in professional help to diagnose and repair it.
6. Partial Page Loads, No Styling, or Missing Images
When a page on your site seems to partially load and then either stalls out (spinning wheel/hourglass) or stops loading entirely, that too is often a sign that your server is dealing with some overwhelm. Ironically that can also just be an issue of your browser caching copies of your site a bit too aggressively (which browsers do to speed up the web). The hard and fast test for whether this is speed related is not that you (as a site owner) are experiencing the problem.
If you own and regularly edit the site, it’s not uncommon for this to sporadically occur just for you from time to time. But if the problem is happening for your visitors semi-regularly – especially during high traffic times – then that is a sign that it is speed related and you might want to look into some alternative hosting or infrastructure options (like a CDN).
7. Conversion Rates Suddenly Dropping Despite Constant Traffic
If you haven’t made any recent changes to your website or the way that you drive traffic to it and you suddenly see a noticeable drop in conversion rates on your website despite a steady stream of traffic to the site, then you could be looking at some sort of instability problem or speed problem with your website. While you should always check for other factors (like an increase in competition), if there is no other noticeable explanation for the conversion loss, you should take a closer look at the site’s overall snappiness and stability.
Remember that all it takes to drop your conversion rate by up to 7% is a single second delay in website load time. So the speed and stability of your site are perhaps more related to your success with conversions than any other single factor outside of basic marketing techniques (target audience, message, etc).
8. Bounce Rates Suddenly Spiking Despite Constant Traffic
In the words of Analytics expert Avinash Kaushik, bounce rate is best explained as “I came, I puked, I left.” When people aren’t sticking around your site for very long, it’s either because they are not part of your target audience or there was some sort of problem that turned them off or blocked them from getting to the site. Check with your marketing professional about any possible changes to message, tactics, or competition, but if nothing has changed in a noticeable way other than your bounce rate, then you should check your site’s overall responsiveness and stability to see if there might be some trouble there. If you don’t notice anything in particular with the site speed, you might check your site’s error logs to see if there are any hints to the cause there.
9. Huge Differences Between Traffic Count Stats
Since you can measure actual website traffic in a number of different ways, you should always expect at least a little bit of difference between the reported traffic that your host provides and the reported traffic that Google Analytics (or your preferred analytics tool) provides. But if the difference seems overly large to you, that may mean that your visitors are leaving the site before your page even loads. That would prevent Google Analytics from every even seeing the visitor, but your web host would definitely know about it.
Bear in mind that another common cause of this symptom is a website security breach. So if you notice a bunch of referring URL’s in your analytics that definitely don’t have anything to do with your website or some other inexplicable traffic spike then you should consider talking with a website security professional.
As always, if you notice any stability problems or page slowdowns yourself – particularly during high traffic times – then that’s a dead giveaway that the site is not handling the pressure of the traffic you’re sending to it very well.
10. High Hosting Costs / Regular Hosting Upgrades
If every time you turn around, you have to upgrade your hosting again, that’s a dead giveaway that your site is not using its resources efficiently – particularly if you’re not also seeing major upticks in your site traffic. The whole point of website performance optimization is to make your site do more with less. That plays out to both better conversion and lower hosting costs at the same time.
That said, if you’re paying under $12/month for your website hosting, then the problem probably is probably more that you’re paying too little for hosting than too much. At prices that low, your web host has no other way to effectively make money from their hosting services other than to overcrowd their servers and upsell like crazy. By articially limiting your access to server resources to make room for other website owners, they’re also inadvertently forcing you to bump your head against their resource caps on a regular basis.
While it’s always a good idea to optimize your site to make sure that it does the most it can with the resources it has, if you’re paying too little for hosting, there is only so much that can be done to optimize your site before a hosting switch is going to be your only option.
11. Threatening Emails, Insufficient Resource Warnings, Out of Bandwidth Notices, or Punitive Actions by Your Web Host
If your web host arbitrarily shuts down your hosting or sends some sort of threatening email about your site violating the terms of service due to excessive resource usage or bandwidth usage, that is typically either a sign of a large traffic spike, security breach, or site performance issue. If you’re in the middle of a major traffic push, high bandwidth use should be expected. A CDN can often help get around that problem.
More and more often a sudden burst in traffic also can mean that someone is trying to brute force their way into your WordPress admin or has started sending spam or hacker traffic to the site. If the site has been breached or is under attack, you should work with a qualified security pro to address the issue, but if everything is coming up clean, then you’re probably either dealing with an underwhelming hosting package or a site efficiency problem.
Before committing to a higher hosting package price, make sure that you’ve maxed out efficiency with the hosting that you have already. If you’ve already optimized the site’s speed and efficiency, then it might be time to upgrade your hosting package.
12. Login Forms Not Working and Then Suddenly Working w/ No Change
If your WordPress admin login form seems to start working and then stop working sporadically or you experience random errors as you move through the admin on the site, a lot of times that means that your site is under too much load or maxing out its resources. Obviously you should work with your programmer to review the errors on the site in case they are simple things to fix, but if the problem persists or is too vague to diagnose, then it might be time to consider more heavy duty options like a more advanced WordPress programmer or speed assessment. If you have any questions about your site speed, a quick test with Pingdom or GT Metrix can often help you pinpoint the likelihood that that is part of the problem.
13. A Drop in Search Engine Ranking
Since July of 2010 Google has been factoring a site’s load time into search engine ranking. Specifically they seem to be most concerned with something called TTFB (time to first byte). In a nutshell, TTFB is the amount of time that it takes before your hosting starts to respond at all. A good way to tell whether you have a long TTFB or not is to count how many seconds it takes between the time that you type in the address of your site and the time that you start to see content of some sort. If you’re staring at a blank white screen for over a second or two before you start to see content, then you probably have a long TTFB and you should expect that it is affecting your search ranking.
Just keep in mind that speed is one of over 200 site ranking factors, so you should still talk with your marketing professional to determine if there is any other possible cause of the search ranking drop as well. But if you know for a fact that you have a long TTFB from a quick test, speeding up the site is a good way to improve any negative scoring you might be experiencing due to site speed and consequently improve your search ranking.
If you find that your WordPress or WooCommerce site is unstable or slow then you probably should discuss the situation with your web developer first. If they can pinpoint the cause of the problem and address it, you can move on with business as usual. At a minimum, some basic site caching and housecleaning is probably in order as well. Just keep in mind that ultimately there are two factors that impact WordPress speed: how much raw power your site has access to and how efficient the site is with that raw power. Unless you already know that your webhost is a deadbeat service provider, don’t assume that hosting is the whole cause of the problem and jump from host to host looking for the best you can get as that will ultimately just wind up wasting time and money in the long run. First make a point to optimize WordPress itself (more to come on that in future posts) and once you’ve maxed out what you have, you’ll be able to tell for sure how much of the problem really is your host.