WordPress 5.2 came out last week and introduced an interesting new tool called Site Health, which is a new admin screen that gives you performance, security, and other optimization tips in your dashboard.
There are some other great improvements made in this new version (including some nice Gutenberg refinements), but today I am reviewing my experience on using Site Health to optimize the Marketers Delight website.
The Thing to Know About “Page Speed” and “Site Check” Tools
Before I begin, I have to make the disclaimer that tools like Site Health, and even page speed optimization tools are not the “end all be all” when it comes to actually evaluating the health and speed of your site.
I’ve had people come to me with blazing fast and highly optimized sites and going crazy when they see a less than perfect score on tests like these.
The truth is, many of these tools can only make generalizations about your website from the outside looking and in and therefore can only server recommendations based on a consensus about many millions of websites—rarely do they deliver fine-tuned results specific for your web hosting environment.
Even worse, many tools use scary sounding language and intense colors to make your website sound worse off than it really is, which can cause you to make drastic decisions for little to no gain.
Now don’t get me wrong, it is more than likely you will uncover some seriously useful analysis from these tools and you should aim to get the best score possible.
But just be wary of reaching a point of diminishing returns, where you have succeeded in getting through the major hurdles of website optimization and are now focusing on the minuscule parts that may not be worth your time at this moment.
The basics of a sound website are this: get a great host like SiteGround (my personal recommendation), WPEngine, Pagely, or Pantheon, and use a highly optimized theme like Marketers Delight (heh) with few plugins, and you will be 99% there.
My First Impressions of Site Health in WordPress 5.2
After updating the MD website to WordPress 5.2 I went straight to the new Site Health admin screen in WP Admin > Tools >Site Health. I was brought to a pleasant looking page that already had populated some info about what I could improve:
The nice part about this interface is how lightly designed it is and that there aren’t obnoxious warning messages and harsh language as I mentioned before about other site tools.
WordPress core developers tend to be very sensitive towards these kinds of details, and I am glad to see them implemented to a core site checking tool.
Site Health comes with two pages: Status and Info. The screenshot above is the Status page where will generate a list of recommendations for your site as your website ages over time.
The Info page will show you all kinds of harder technical information about your server and website setup, which can be great for debugging Plugins and Themes in the future.
I am very pleased to see the Site Info page provide such information, because I had noticed many Plugin authors recreate this kind of page for themselves to make debugging and support with their customers easier; now WordPress generates this useful info for us and it is all accessible with an easy copy/paste feature.
Following Site Health’s Suggestions and Tips for a Better WordPress Website
Site Health is as reliable as of a report as they get because it lives on the inside of your site and can pull data about your server that 3rd party non-plugins tools can’t give you.
Going back to the Status page, I see that Site Health is reporting my website’s score at a 57%, which seems pretty low.
I already knew my site was in good health to begin with so I was never unsettled by this score, and taking one look at Site Health’s recommendations proved it yet again as these recommendations are all minor to the larger picture.
But Site Health did show me some things I found useful, and I will go through step by step how I approached each recommendation and warning to get a higher score and more “healthy” website.
Evaluating My Site’s 3 Critical Issues
Site Health reported 3 critical issues with my site. I do consider this language a little harsh, but because I work on WordPress full time I can understand why these may be more critical for someone who doesn’t understanding WordPress as deeply as I do.
Critical Issue #1: You have plugins waiting to be updated
Sometimes I can get behind in updating my Plugins so looking at Site Health got me to go update some Plugins I haven’t updated in a few weeks. The good news is I only use 16 plugins, so I updated as many as I could. The problem with a few of my Plugins is that they require license keys to update, and I haven’t paid to renew them, so some Plugins will sit out of date until I renew my license. Luckily they do not have anything critical I find the need to update for (or am I being cheap?) so I updated only what could be done now.
Critical Issue #2: Your site is set to display errors to site visitors
Unless you are a developer, you likely will not have this issue to begin with. As I do some testing for Marketers Delight here on the live site, I turned on WordPress error messages as a way for me to find errors and show them to everyone as a test of MD’s ingenuity (also known as Skin in the Game). I realize this can be risky and I want to see how high I can get my Site Health score, so I turned this off for now by disabling the WP_DEBUG and WP_DEBUG_DISPLAY constants in my wp-config.php file.
Critical Issue #3: Background updates are not working as expected
This was surprising to me as I had never consciously turned off the auto update feature, where WordPress will automatically upgrade your site on small maintenance and bug fix releases. A Plugin in the past must have turned this feature off so I reenabled it by, again, going to wp-config.php and removing the AUTOMATIC_UPDATER_DISABLED constant. Thanks, Site Health!
Progress After Resolving 2 out of 3 Critical Issues
Unfortunately since all of my Plugins cannot be updated, I wasn’t able to fully resolve the update warning. But I still did update a few, and did successfully clear two out three issues, boosting my score all the way to 72%!
Now let’s keep going and see what we can do for the next section of Site Health checks.
Implementing Site Health Recommendations
Apart from “Critical Issues,” Site Health has a secondary category for recommendations, which are non-critical adjustments you can make to improve various parts of your server environments and ensure maximum compatibility with all of WordPress and PHP features.
Let’s see what Site Health recommended for me and how I implemented them:
Recommendation #1: Have a default theme available
This one is silly to me, but because of how bad the Theme landscape is outside of Marketers Delight, I can almost see why this is necessary. Essentially, if you are in the middle of updating your Theme and it breaks for whatever reason, WordPress will switch you to a “default theme” to keep your site going. This is seemingly helpful for quick debugging, but you should always have a backup made before you update your theme to a new major version so you can just revert back instead of switching to a whole other theme in the meantime, which can dig you even deeper into a hole to fix your site. I will be skipping this step as I do not have anything installed to my site that I don’t absolutely need.
Recommendation #2: We recommend you update PHP
Here’s one that surprised me—I thought my PHP was up to date but it turns out that PHP’s rapid release cycle has already jumped up to as high as version 7.3.5. I was on version 7.2.18, so I went ahead and updated the version on my server.
Upgrading your site’s PHP version can be tricky as not all Plugins can support PHP7, which is relatively new. Many servers out there are still running lower versions of PHP, and may break your site or throw warning messages until they are up to date.
The rule of thumb here is to at least be on any version of PHP7 because there are massive performance and security benefits to be gained by upgrading your site to a modern PHP version. You just have to make sure afterwards that your site doesn’t throw errors or break functionality, so that’s why it’s important to have updated Themes and Plugins, and even temporarily use the WP_DEBUG constants I mentioned above to ensure you are fully compatible with PHP.
In most modern hosts you can easily go back and forth between PHP versions to test how your site will react, and luckily with a host like SiteGround I can toggle between versions easily with the cPanel PHP version manager:
Recommendation #3: One or more recommended modules are missing
I have a feeling this may be one of the tougher parts of Site Health to implement, but luckily should also be one of the more minor parts. In my case, a module called imagick was not enabled, which as far as I understand, is a PHP API that allows Photoshop style image editing through PHP.
The thing you have to understand about PHP modules is that some web hosts disable different modules by default based on security or performance concerns. WordPress can run with certain modules disabled, but some Plugins may require different modules to work. Always look into any modules listed here first, as there could be a very good reason for why they are disabled.
Imagick, or ImageMagick looks safe to use, and my host even has an article about how to enable it, so I quickly added it to my php.ini file. If you have cPanel like I do, you can go to PHP Variables and use the interface to enable it there as well.
My Final Site Health Score and Closing Thoughts on a Healthy WordPress Site
After just a few minutes of optimizations I was able to get my Site Health score from 57% all the way up to 89%! I could do better if I updated the rest of my Plugins and added a default theme, but I won’t be chasing the perfect score for the reasons listed above.
I realize I am fortunate because I have already done much of the optimization work needed on my site to have a healthy Site Health score, and some of you due to different server configurations and Plugin usage may have a more sever road to take.
That’s why I hope this guide helps you get familiar with the value of Site Health and how to determine its use on your own website.
Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a healthy and fast website. You will know your website is already in good shape if you use a good web host (see my recommendations above) and an optimized WordPress theme with few Plugins.
Site Health is a tool that will help you with a range of issues from small to large that will help make your website the best it can be, and give you an analysis of your site that other tools cannot give as your site continues to change.
Don’t forget that these scores are not a definitive statement about the quality of your website, but can help you refine the smaller details that help keep your site healthy in the longterm.
The best way to keep a healthy website is to create a smart website, and there is no better theme on the market as feature packed and optimized as Marketers Delight.
MD’s design system alone will help keep your site running lean and clean, and comes with many features you traditionally needed Plugins for that are built-in and reused in a way that delivers these features fast with the fewest resources needed to load.
What was the result of your own Site Health check and did you encounter any issues not mentioned here? Show me your scores!