Cheating for Website Performance
Frontend tips for speeding up websites
Published Mar 11, 2015
Have been turning into a bit of a performance nut lately. This is what I’ve found useful for speeding up websites. These are mostly frontend optimizations; I’m not going to delve into server performance here.
- Minify Everything
- Concatenate Everything
- Use Pjax
- Use Server Rendering
- Use Font Icons or Inline SVG
- Serve Static Assets
- Reduce Latency
- Consider a Static Website
By far the most important thing to optimize is images. There are great free tools like graphicsmagick that let you automatically compress images without visible quality loss, rescale to different dimensions, crop, etc. They can be a part of your standard build chain, so there’s absolutely no excuse for not using them. See example (scroll down to image processing).
Minifying CSS is usually less important, but like everything else, it’s a useful optimization and there’s no excuse for not doing it.
Network latency is a huge deal. I can’t stress this enough. Depending on the connectivity between your servers and your users, latency could range from 50ms to as much as a second.
If you serve assets as multiple independent files, the browser has to make separate network requests for each. Browsers only download a few assets at a time, stalling other requests, which means any additional, say, stylesheets delay the beginning of loading for other assets like images or fonts. Even when everything is cached and elicits a 304 “not modified” response, the browser still has to wait longer before rendering the entirety of the page.
That’s bad. To avoid that, make sure to concatenate assets used on each page, like stylesheets, scripts, and icons (see below on that).
Update: see this in-depth post on pjax.
Pjax is a cheap trick that combines
ajax to mimic page
transitions without actually reloading the page.
The basic idea is dead simple and can be implemented in a few lines of code.
Attach a document-level event listener to intercept clicks on
<a> elements. If
the clicked link leads to an internal page, fetch the page by ajax, replace the
contents of the current page, and replace the URL using
browsers that don’t support this API, you simply fall back to normal page
There are a few implementations in the wild, but they require clientside and server-side configuration. If you’re like me, this will seem like a waste of time. The biggest benefit of pjax is keeping the browsing session. Micromanaging partial templates is probably not worth your time, but everyone’s needs are different.
I wrote a simple pjax library that works with zero config. Check the gotchas to see if it’s usable for your site, then give it a spin or roll your own! The library is also used on this very site. Inspect the network console to observe the effects.
Use Server Rendering
There’s a trend towards single page applications (SPA) with clientside routing and rendering. They tend to skip server-side rendering in favor of being data-driven, usually through a RESTful API. As a result, they tend to have slow initial page loads. This is bad, particularly on slow connections, which is typical for mobile.
The core parts of the application should be bundled into a single file, and big but optional parts may be imported asynchronously when needed. If your app is small, you can skip lazy loading and bundle the entire app.
Use Font Icons or Inline SVG
Most sites need icons. In the past, we had to use raster images. However, in the
days of widespread retina displays,
@font-face, and SVG, that’s a poor option.
Hopefully you have switched to the vector alternatives: icon fonts and SVG
icons. They scale to any display sharpness and are easy to style with CSS.
Serve Static Assets
This goes without saying, but you should double check to make sure your server is properly configured for static files like images, stylesheets, and scripts. It should include headers that tell the browser to cache the file, and respond with 304 for unchanged assets. This eliminates a lot of redownloading, reducing latency+download time to latency+0.
Network latency is a huge deal. It’s a part of each request made by the browser,
even for static assets with 304 responses. The browser blocks page rendering
while downloading the document and anything included in
<head>, which defines
how snappy or sluggish your site feels. The browser may also wait for the first
few images (Firefox seems to have this tendency), or it may choose to render the
page and later flicker them into view, and latency determines how quickly this
On many sites, the document is rendered dynamically and involves database access. This absolutely needs to be fast, but this work is usually done once per page load. The rest comes from network latency for the document and assets. Make sure to use a web hosting with low latency times for your target audience. If your audience is all over the world, pick a server with good average latency and use a caching proxy / CDN like CloudFlare to reduce latency for static content.
Consider a Static Website
Simple websites with one maintainer, like a personal page or a blog, don’t need a scripting engine with a database. You can prerender them into HTML files, then serve with nginx or on a service like Github Pages. Dynamic functionality can be implemented with ajax.
Serving static files is naturally more performant than rendering templates on each request. They’re also automatically subject to caching. When the base document is cached, some browsers may serve the entire page, including assets, from the cache, rendering it with zero latency.