Blink and You’ll Miss It: W3 Total Cache Plugin

by Martin Malden

SpeedingDespite my commitment to reducing the number of plugins I use on this site, I just added two. But one is a swap out, so my net increase is only one.

I’ll write about that one next time. This time I want to talk about the W3 Total Cache plugin.

I’ve known about the increase in site speed you can achieve with Cache plugins (there are quite a few of them out there), but I always resisted them because they can zap some functionality, particularly mobile plugins and anything triggered by page load.

W3-Total-Cache is no different – it zapped my light-box opt-in form and my mobile plugin doesn’t do what it should.

But the benefits it brings in terms of speed are so big that I decided to re-do my optin form instead. I’m still mulling over the mobile plugin.

What are the good bits?

Apart from the obvious (much faster page load time), the thing I most like about W3TC is the range of configuration options you have.

It works on 7 different areas to optimize your site:

  1. Page Cache
  2. Minify
  3. Database Cache
  4. Object Cache
  5. Browser Cache
  6. CDN
  7. User Agent Groups

Each of these areas is individually configurable.

When you install the plugin it discovers whether your hosting is shared or dedicated, and applies the recommended settings accordingly, so there’s not an awful lot you need to do.

However, there are two settings you do need to attend to, and they’re in the Minify section:

  1. JavaScript file locations
  2. CSS file locations

To get these you need to go to your site, view the source code for your page and copy the URLs of your JavaScript and CSS files.

You can only do one at a time, so copy the full location of each in turn and paste it into the appropriate boxes in the JavaScript and CSS sections of the Minify page.

You can also use the ‘Help’ button on the Minify page – not the one at the top of the page, the one in the body of the text.

The instructions are very clear – just follow them.

One thing to keep in mind with the CSS files: if you have more than 1 stylesheet you need to make sure the URLs are pasted into the Minify section in the same order as they sit in your source code.

Once you’ve attended to those two things you’re pretty much done, unless you’re running a CDN. In which case you’ll need to do a few things there – again all clearly set out on the page.

What about the not-so-good bits

Well, as I mentioned above, my light-box opt-in form got zapped and I haven’t yet discovered a way around that. So I developed a new opt-in form (inline).

And despite the User Agents section, which should solve the mobile plugins problem, the site on which I’ve tested my mobile plugin (Wapple Architect) only displays one item in the menu. Still some fiddling to do there.

When there’s an upgrade of the plugin you need to re-set the locations of your JavaScript and CSS files in the Minify section.

There’s no warning during the upgrade process that you need to do that and I only discovered this by accident.

So it would be quite easy to miss that step, especially if you’re doing lots of plugin upgrades at the same time.

I don’t understand why you need to do this but, given that you do, there should be a warning somewhere during, or on completion of, the upgrade.

Living with W3TC

There are a few things that may take you by surprise at the outset but are fine once you realize that’s just how it is.

For example, when you make changes to your site you’ll see the revisions when you preview them while still logged in, but you may not see them after you’ve logged out.

But just clear your browser caches and they’ll show up.

Whenever you upgrade any plugins you’ll be asked to clear all caches. This time a warning does pop up at the top of whichever page you go to after completing a plugin upgrade.

A button is presented as part of the warning message, so just click that and you’re in good shape.

You’re also asked to check your Minify settings but, so far, the only time I’ve needed to attend to them is after upgrading W3TC itself.

Summary

So overall I’m a happy bunny. This plugin has very noticeably increased the speed with which my site loads, both on the initial load and, especially, on subsequent page loads.

I’m disappointed about my light-box opt-in form, because that was very effective, but that’s a price I’m happy to pay for the increased performance.

Definitely worth a look, especially with the increased emphasis Google is now placing on site load times.

You can find it here.

Cheers,

Martin Malden

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