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February 12, 2015

Speeding Up Your Website; Advice for Web Hosts and Webmasters

Photo Credit: Éole Wind

Site speed is crucial in maintaining a positive reputation among web surfers, especially since speed is a highly desired quality for web browsing. Nothing is more of a drag than when your favorite blog or online store is slow. Imagine you are a web hosting provider or webmaster for a site, and the pages of your hosted sites take more time to load than the average. When content takes just a bit too long to appear, site visitors begin to wonder if it’s even worth the wait. A web host, webmaster, and any other kind of manager of web servers owes it to the vast audience of the Internet to provide quality sites, and that means not resorting to blaming poor bandwidth or some other factor.

Fortunately, this problem can be easily fixed with a few strategies that can be employed to improve the speed of some or all web pages.

Use a Content Delivery Network

A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a collection of servers that work together to provide site content (graphics, documents, videos for streaming, etc.) to browsers quickly and seamlessly. Their usefulness cannot be over-emphasized, as pointed out by various managed web hosting companies. Utilizing the principle of fewest hops and an expansive bandwidth, said content is made available to a wide range of site visitors on demand. Any site owner involved in e-commerce – or any hosted site involving a large amount of content, for that matter – should set their eyes on CDNs, and not just for site speed. A CDN offers so many advantages beyond improving your web page load time.

For one, a CDN is physically scalable, and can be spread across a large geographical area. This makes gathering content for a web page a mere matter of neighboring servers working together, sharing the load in distribution to a relatively close end user.

Also, a CDN is secure, able to mitigate threats from some DDoS attacks by countering them with sheer bandwidth.

Of course, the main promise of a CDN is first and foremost a fast and reliable delivery of web content for site visitors, which should not be overlooked.

Compress Web Content

The size of files necessary to display a web page as desired can hamper site speed, and considering web servers by default will send content at their full file size, this can be an issue for content-rich sites and their visitors. As a web hosting provider or webmaster, the task falls on you since you are responsible for the site content browsers will see. To address this particular issue, one can look to compression as the solution. One very useful compression method is the free, GNU-based GZIP.

GZIP works by compressing the files on the web server before they are requested by a web browser. This way, when a web browser downloads a web page it’s not downloading the full size of each piece of content. Instead, the browser specifies it accepts zipped files, and the web server sends zipped versions of all the necessary files, reducing the load on bandwidth and putting the task of decompressing said content on the web browser. With the right implementation, GZIP can improve site speed and spares you from making some tough calls, especially when your web pages are content-heavy.

Getting into the Details

There are many changes that web hosting providers or webmasters can make to web pages. Each web page carries with it a certain “page weight” and increasing site speed could just be a matter of “trimming the fat”, as it were. This would require taking a second look at site code and scripts, decreasing resolution on uploaded images, and removing redirect links or even redundant and unnecessary links.

Another helpful tactic is reducing your DNS lookups. If a DNS lookup is to be understood as translating an IP address as a hostname, it would be obvious that a DNS lookup parsing through an abundance of IP addresses would increase response time for your site, which is especially troublesome considering a browser can’t do anything until a DNS lookup finishes.

With time, careful analysis, and the right approach, tailoring your site for optimal speed is a very real possibility, and one any proud site owner should pursue.

…and the Best Solution: Strategy & Implementation

A CDN, GZIP, and getting into the details can all be very beneficial, but underlying each is an important aspect to the business of running a website: responding to problems, implementing solutions, and coming up with a strategy to maintain that level of performance. It takes knowledge from experience, troubleshooting, and planning for the long-term. Utilizing different tools and methods for mitigating current problems is one thing. However, keeping up a conscious effort to prevent issues from arising is the ultimate key to running a smooth, fast website that visitors want to return to again and again.


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Fred Rhodes is a former IT specialist turned freelance writer. He is engaged with writing about the merits and challenges of web hosting and e-commerce for Zerolag. He can be contacted at fred.rhodes@win.zerolag.com

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