Image Optimization in WordPress – Why It’s Important and How to Do It
As a website owner, you want to reach as many people as possible. This is one of the biggest challenges you face, and if your project is to succeed, you need to tackle it correctly.
Performance probably won’t be the first thing you’ll consider while drawing up a strategy to attract more traffic. However, if you think about it, you’ll realize that you, like every other internet user, hate slow websites. You’ll also recall numerous instances where you’ve given up on a site that is taking too long to load.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how your site’s performance could affect the number of people who interact with it.
Optimizing your website’s images can have a pretty profound effect on the loading speeds, and if you’re using WordPress, you are presented with a wide range of options. Let’s explore them and see how to take full advantage of them.
Why Is Image Optimization So Important?
To understand the importance of image optimization, we first need to figure out what happens when you access a web page.
In basic terms, your computer contacts the hosting server and downloads the page’s HTML files and the rest of the elements that make up your website’s design. Usually, they are by far the biggest and heaviest elements that your computer needs to download and display.
Go to any stock images directory, and you’ll see that high-quality photos and graphics can weigh up to several megabytes per file.
Many users won’t bother waiting even for the homepage to load, and those that do will likely run out of patience soon after clicking one or two links.
On the other, it hampers your SEO rankings. For a while now, performance has been one of the factors Google considers when arranging the websites on its results pages. The search engine giant continues to make changes to its algorithms, and they all seem to emphasize the importance of a good user experience and quick loading speeds.
For example, Google recently announced Core Web Vitals – a set of metrics that will soon have a significant impact on where your website ranks on the search engine results pages. The goal is to entice administrators to streamline their websites, and a lot of the work will revolve around the way imagery is loaded and rendered on the user’s screen.
So, if you don’t do something to optimize your website’s images, fewer users will be able to find you on the search engine results pages. And those who do land on your site probably won’t be impressed with the user experience and are bound to leave promptly.
To a certain extent, it won’t be entirely wrong to say that the project’s entire future depends on how well you optimize your images, so putting it high on your priority list might not be such a bad idea. You’re probably eager to find out how to tackle the job.
What can I do to optimize my images?
Images often make up the bulk of the data the user’s browser must process and render in order to display the website. Unfortunately, optimizing them for faster loading speeds isn’t as easy as it sounds.
You can’t expect to be done with it in ten minutes or half an hour, and there’s no step-by-step guide you can follow. If you’re going to cover all your bases, you need to approach it from two separate angles.
Improving image delivery
You can do many things to improve the way imagery is transmitted and rendered on the user’s browser. Here are some of them:
- Choose the correct image format
For decades, we’ve been using the same formats for our images and animations. We use JPG for standard photos and pictures, PNG for raster graphics with lossless compression, and GIF for animations.
Although old, these formats still work, but in 2010, Google launched an alternative that delivers much lighter, more optimized images. It’s called WebP, and it supports both lossy and lossless compression. WebP images can have transparent fields, and the format can be used for animations. The reduction in file size is absolutely remarkable. WebP files are no less than 26% smaller than equivalent PNGs, and up to 35% smaller than JPGs.
Until recently, website administrators steered clear from WebP because of compatibility issues with browsers and CMSs (including WordPress). Now, however, these problems are as good as gone, so converting your images to WebP is something you should definitely look into.
- Enable caching
Caching is one of the first ports of call when you’re trying to speed up a website. WordPress’s ease of use may deceive you into thinking that it’s a simple application. That’s not strictly the case.
Whenever a visitor tries to interact with your website, the content management system needs to process quite a few requests to produce the required content.
Caching means processing some of these requests beforehand and storing the output. This way, whenever a user needs it, it can be served straight from the cache. On the one hand, this reduces the load on the server and frees up resources, which improves the performance. On the other, it also delivers images more quickly and significantly boosts the user experience.
WordPress’s out-of-the-box caching functionality is somewhat limited, but you can choose from dozens of different caching plugins. Some of them offer additional, advanced image optimization features, as well.
- Employ a Content Delivery Network (CDN)
As we’ve established already, most of the data users’ browsers need to process consists of images. These images need to cover the physical distance between the server they’re hosted on and the visitor’s computer. The greater the distance, the more time they’ll need to get to their destination. A content delivery network can reduce this distance.
A CDN is a network of servers scattered all across the globe. Using a CDN means storing some of your website’s static data (like your images) and serving it from the server nearest to the visitor. Most CDN providers have dozens of points of presence, so even if you have a global audience, you can be sure that your website will load quickly for everyone.
There are quite a few providers to choose from, and some, like Cloudflare, can even let you use their networks for free.
- Lazy loading
Modern websites rely heavily on imagery to keep visitors interested. Pictures are scattered all over the page, so there’s always something to attract users’ attention, no matter how further down they scroll.
Unfortunately, as we’ve established already, images are heavy, and the more of them you have, the slower your website will be. The effects on the performance are even more severe if you’re trying to load many images at once.
If you enable lazy loading, WordPress won’t attempt to display images outside the user’s viewpoint. In other words, when a user accesses your website, WordPress will only load the images located in the top part of your homepage. It won’t bother with the ones that are below the proverbial fold until the visitor scrolls down and they appear in the browser window. The process is infinitely streamlined, and the effect on the overall user experience is profound.
It’s such a good technique for minimizing load and improving performance that it was integrated into WordPress 5.5. It’s enabled by default, but if you want to customize the way your website loads images, you’ll have to install a plugin.
- Get the right hosting account
Most people tend to focus on price when they’re setting up a hosting account. Unfortunately, few think about the profound effects their hosting service can have on their website’s speed.
For example, although it costs a little bit more than entry-level shared hosting plans, a virtual private server offers a much more reliable and consistent service. The guaranteed resources are available all the time, and you don’t need to worry about other people overloading the server and compromising your loading speeds.
When you choose the type of hosting that fits your needs and budget, you need to check what your provider offers in terms of features and support and how it compares to its competitors. The right choice now can make a significant difference in the long run.
- Desktop image editing applications
Adobe Photoshop is perhaps the world’s best-known photo editing software. It comes with a specific option that optimizes the file for use on the web. It’s one of the best ways of decreasing an image’s file size without touching its dimensions or compromising its quality.
If you’re willing to explore more, the internet can show you other Photoshop techniques to help you reduce the images’ footprint. Simply getting familiar with this sort of software can open quite a few doors for your professional development as not just a website administrator but a web designer as well.
If Photoshop is too expensive for you, open-source alternatives like GIMP can give you a similarly broad range of features without breaking the bank.
- Online image editing services
If you can’t be bothered to install new applications on your personal computer, you can always use browser-based image editing services.
In the past, the choice was rather limited. The applications that were around didn’t offer much in the way of features, either. Things have changed quite a bit.
There are quite a few available solutions, and they now offer a broad range of useful features. Some of them are so advanced, they could be considered a viable alternative to the rather pricey Photoshop.
If you only need to reduce the file size of your images and prepare them for publishing on your website, you can find online services specializing in this.
- Using a WordPress image optimization plugin
This is very likely the path most of you are going to take. Indeed, you can find quite a few plugins that can automatically optimize your website’s images and improve the overall loading speeds.
Developers often embed several techniques under the same plugin, so with a single add-on, you could have both lazy loading and caching capabilities. An image optimization plugin can be a good all-in-one solution but bear in mind that thanks to all these features, they can be a handful to configure. Often, they come with complex dashboards with dozens of buttons and checkboxes. Getting the most out of them could be a tall order, especially if you’re not familiar with how they work.
Another thing you need to remember is to frequently check for updates. Outdated plugins are among the hackers’ favorite attack vectors, so keeping all add-ons up to date is crucial for the overall security of your website.
Bear in mind that image optimization is not a task you check off on a to-do list. It’s a constant process, and if you are to ensure that your website performs well at all times, you need to stay on top of all the different trends, shifts, and innovations.
Image optimization needs to be a critical point in your plan to improve your website’s loading speeds. Given how many things you need to consider, the whole thing may seem a bit daunting at first. Still, if you take the time to understand the process, you will soon reap the benefits of quick-loading images and a massively improved user experience.