[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley. Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case why performance matters when creating WordPress websites?
If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice, or by going to WPTavern.com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy and paste that URL into most podcast players. If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, I’m very keen to hear from you and hopefully get you, or your idea featured on the show. Go to WPTavern.com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox. And use the contact form there.
So on the podcast today we have Felix Arntz. Felix is a developer relations engineer at Google and a WordPress core committer. He’s the lead engineer for the Site Kit plugin for WordPress, and has been a regular contributor to WordPress for several years. He’s also been involved in the newly created WordPress performance team, which is trying to work out how WordPress can stay ahead of the performance curve.
Despite the fact that WordPress’ has share of the CMS market is very strong, third party CMSs like Wix and Shopify have been growing their customer base in recent years. As single platforms they can be very focused upon performance and don’t have to worry about the possible performance issues, which the plugin and theme architecture of WordPress brings. Is this something that we need to be concerned about? Are website clients beginning to ask more probing questions about performance? And is WordPress keeping up with the marketing and messaging?
He also talks about why it’s important for the whole WordPress community to be thinking about performance when building any website. It’s no secret that Google and other search engines are very interested in making the web faster. And future rankings could well be boosted by having a performant site. So we talked through some of the ways that this can be achieved.
We also talk about Felix’s career. The fact that there’s an emerging industry of people who are able to work exclusively on website performance and earn their living from this expertise. This could be in the writing of code, the optimization of assets, as well as the configuration of hosting options. Felix recommends some things which might be of use for people wishing to find out more. It’s an interesting conversation about an area which is going to matter more and more in the months and years to come.
Typically when we record the podcast, there’s not a lot of background noise, but that’s not always the case with these WordCamp Europe interviews. We were competing against the crowds and the air conditioning. And whilst the podcasts are more than listable, I hope that you understand that the vagaries of the real world were at play.
If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all of the links in the show notes by heading over to WPTavern.com forward slash podcast, where you’ll find all of the other episodes as well.
And so without further delay, I bring you Felix Arntz.
I am joined on the podcast today by Felix Arntz. How are you doing?
[00:03:59] Felix Arntz: Pretty great. It’s amazing to be back at the in person event. It’s crazy.
[00:04:03] Nathan Wrigley: There are 2000, I think 2,700 people and it actually feels like a lot more, but it’s a spectacular event.
You are working at Google. Am I right in saying that? What’s your role over at Google?
[00:04:13] Felix Arntz: I’m a developer relations engineer, so yeah, I work on specifically focused on content management systems. Like of course WordPress, primarily. So yeah, I’m working in the, primarily in the WordPress ecosystem.
[00:04:25] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah.
[00:04:25] Felix Arntz: And, my two main projects currently are the Site Kit plugin, Google Site Kit plugin, which is, you may have heard of. It’s Google’s flagship plugin for WordPress and the new performance team, which was fairly recently formed.
[00:04:36] Nathan Wrigley: Did you have a background in WordPress or were you Google first and then WordPress a bit later? Or was it WordPress first and Google later?
[00:04:42] Felix Arntz: I come from the WordPress community. My first WordCamp was WordCamp Europe seven years ago, and then I joined the contributor day and I got to contribute and really got hooked on doing that. I got my first props for WordPress Core contributions back then, and I never stopped contributing since.
[00:04:59] Nathan Wrigley: It, kind of feels like if you were to rewind the clock that far, maybe a bit further, that Google and WordPress, there wasn’t really a connection there. it was one of many CMSs, but maybe I’ve got the timeline wrong there, but it does feel now as if Google is treating WordPress very seriously indeed.
You know, obviously with the market share being what it is, it’s good to get in there. Is that the case? Does it see WordPress as an important part of the ecosystem?
[00:05:23] Felix Arntz: Yeah, absolutely. I think historically it’s, it has not always been as much as that, as it has been since, I don’t know, 2017, 18, I think that’s where this really started. And yeah, that’s where Google started actively focusing more on WordPress. There had been smaller efforts here and there before, but that’s when it really started. And I started working for Google in the end of 2018, and with a few other people from the WordPress community.
[00:05:46] Nathan Wrigley: Well, your involvement in WordCamp Europe is all about performance and, I would imagine most people, and I’m gonna say that me included basically, I don’t really understand it. I know that it’s important. I know that performance matters, and I know that everybody is, has been talking about it for the last, let’s say eighteen, twenty months, specifically around Core Web Vitals and things like that, where we, we suddenly felt like the sky was falling in and everything needed to be rebuilt.
How important, does it really matter? And what I mean by that is if I’m just starting up a local website for a local shop and I can sort of rely on traffic to come to that website. Does it have any impact at all, or is this really just about the search engine? The search results for Google? So I’m trying to strike a balance with where we need to apply the most effort. So for most people it would be designing the website in the first place and things like SEO possibly, and performance possibly they come much further down the pecking order of what they want to worry about.
What’s your insight? Is it super important or is it a thing that we can leave till a little bit later?
[00:06:47] Felix Arntz: I would say that performance and SEO have a little bit of similarity just in the sense that they both actually affect, they should affect, user experience. The end user experience of the people that visit the site.
So search engine optimization in that sense is a little bit of a misleading term I would argue, because of course you are optimizing for the search engine, but the search engines, the different search engines, they try to be, they try to have algorithms that as close as possible kind of represent how the user would experience the site.
And when you optimize for search engines, if you do it in the proper way you would also be optimizing for the end users. There’s of course those things like black hat SEO, where you stuff keywords, and that doesn’t do anything nice for end user. And that’s the way that you should not do SEO.
And when you do improved performance, it now has, yeah, it has certain impact on the search engines, but mainly it is a priority because of the end user experience.
[00:07:41] Nathan Wrigley: Okay. So, this is a ridiculous question, but I’m gonna ask it anyway. What are the key bits, what are the key bits of the jigsaw that make up performance? If you were to put yourself in front of a typical WordPress user. So somebody who basically doesn’t really perhaps know anything about performance, what would be the things that you would say, okay, here’s the first two or three things that you need to be worrying about?
[00:08:02] Felix Arntz: I feel like at a high level a lot of people think about performance, just about how fast the page loads. That is probably, maybe the most essential of the different high level areas of what is performance. But I think it’s also, it is very important to, there’s two other, I would argue high level aspects, which are key for performance.
And I take performance again, in that sense, it’s a, it’s a major part of user experience. Another part of it is layout shifts. So I feel like everybody that’s probably listening to this has experienced this thing that they click on a button on a website and it, while they want to click the moment it clicks, it moves away and then you click on some ad instead or something like that.
[00:08:40] Nathan Wrigley: Maybe by design.
[00:08:41] Felix Arntz: Maybe yeah, yeah, sometimes. But yeah, this is a very bad user experience and not having this kind of experience is also contributing to a solid performance. I would really put performance to a degree similar with user experience. It’s a part of user experience.
The third part to performance is how fast the page responds when you do something on it. If you scroll and it’s, if you move the scroll wheel and it scrolls four seconds later, that’s not great either. So those are the three tiers to performance, in my opinion. Like the loading performance, the avoiding layout shifts and how fast the page responds to your actions.
[00:09:15] Nathan Wrigley: The beautiful thing about WordPress is that you can download WordPress and it basically comes vanilla. And you can throw as many things as you like on top of it, plugin, themes, blocks, increasingly and so on. And of course, each of those things has a, perhaps tiny, but maybe major impact.
And I feel that it’s quite a difficult thing to understand in WordPress, what performance is. If you go to, and we’ll get onto this, we’ll develop this a bit later. If you go to a proprietary CMS, something where it’s a SaaS. You pay your fixed monthly fee or what have you, and they take care of all of that.
There’s nothing to worry about, but it seems like there’s a myriad of things, possibly dozens of things that you could do to your WordPress site. I feel that that’s a difficulty. That’s a problem that WordPress has got to overcome because there’s no one size fits all. No two WordPress sites are the same.
So it’s that puzzle of unpicking. Okay, on my site, what are the things that I need to do to address it? Do you think that is an actual problem? Have we got ourselves to the point where WordPress is, because of its nature, because you can throw anything at it. It’s more difficult to untangle that mess?
[00:10:16] Felix Arntz: Certainly yes. So I would say by the nature of WordPress that, because there’s endless possibilities. There’s endless possibilities to do whatever you want to do, but, there’s also endless possibilities to mess up performance or any, any best practice for that matter on your WordPress site, because you kind of have full control about everything.
In those other type of platforms, which like SaaS or proprietary or whatever you call them, yeah it’s all, it’s more controlled. It is a more controlled environment. You have a lot less options in what you can do. And another aspect is that in those systems, they’re usually maintained by a single company and that company builds the entire product. All the different aspects of it.
Where in the WordPress ecosystem, there’s WordPress core. And then there’s 60,000 plugins, from probably 50,000 different people or companies. So they are not all aligned. I can tell you that.
[00:11:08] Nathan Wrigley: It does make it incredibly difficult to unpick because your combination of things will not be the same as my combination of things. And whilst there might be some broad outlines that you can do. And, I feel that in the WordPress space, a lot of that is sort of installing another thing to try and unpick all the other things that you did. So it might be a performance or a caching plugin or something like that, and the problem sort of gets worse.
And although at this event, WordCamp Europe 2022, I would say it’s fair to say that most of the people here are fairly obsessed with WordPress. I would also hazard a guess that the vast majority of people that are using WordPress, have very little idea of what’s going on. You know, they, they probably know there’s some hosting accounts somewhere that they’ve used and whatever that tier is and so on.
And they know that they’re using WordPress, but they might not have any, any indication that, okay, you, you need to compress this, cache this and so on. And that’s, that’s difficult. And communicating that to people I think is gonna be a real challenge for wordpress.org in the future because the competition from the proprietary CMSs, the ones that you say where everything’s in one package. It’s hosted by them. It’s managed by them. The code is updated by them. They feel at the moment as if they’re kind of winning the race a little bit in terms of performance. Is that fair?
[00:12:19] Felix Arntz: Yeah, like some of those, proprietary CMSs, they are indeed ahead of WordPress in terms of performance, but largely due to them having less of this complexity that we are facing with WordPress. But also not only WordPress, like other open source CMSs, like Drupal, Joomla and so forth, they are facing similar challenges.
[00:12:37] Nathan Wrigley: So the next piece for me is the approach that WordPress has taken. And a few years ago it was decided that performance was enough of a thing that a team need needed to be created. And my understanding is that you are part of that team. What’s its remit? What’s its objectives? What’s its goal? And I realize that you’re at the beginning of this journey. So it may be that you’re just trying to flesh out what that looks like. But just give us an idea of what it is, what the goals are and how many people are involved at this point in time.
[00:13:03] Felix Arntz: So the team actually only came up in fall or so last year. Probably the early conversation started sometime summer last. It was an initiative that came from different contributors. Several, like the way that usually WordPress teams, new WordPress teams are formed is that a group of people or people from companies or individual contributors get together and say, we need to do something about this.
Specifically in this, me and other people from my team were involved in together with contributors from Yoast and XWP, 10up, we all kind of got together and thought like, we need to do something about performance. Started in through initial conversations and at some point we formed a proposal that we published at makewordpress.org that there should be an official WordPress performance team that can focus on those aspects.
There is an accessibility team. There’s a security team. There should also be a performance team. And as similar to those other two teams, to really have a focus group for this area, that goes across the different disciplines. Like not only Core, but also plugins and themes.
That’s how the performance team started. It has been very well received from the very beginning. Uh, there was a lot of support on the initial posts. That was amazing to see that a lot of people in the WordPress community, they were happy to see that and they cared.
Since then, yeah, I would say the team’s formation so far has been quite successful. We started, setting up weekly meetings on Slack where we discussed where we’re gonna focus on. And a lot of contributors have showed up since, and contributed to our efforts, to the team’s efforts.
[00:14:33] Nathan Wrigley: And I presume you’re wide open to anybody that’s listening to this that wants to get stuck in as well.
[00:14:38] Felix Arntz: Oh, absolutely. We have a booth here at WordCamp Europe, which is also really exciting, like at the community area there’s a performance booth this time and we would love to have anybody who’s interested to join our meetings
[00:14:50] Nathan Wrigley: Tell me how it’s been received. There’s all the other booths as well. Have you been receiving the same amount of visitors coming to you and talking and trying to figure things out?
[00:14:58] Felix Arntz: Yeah, there has been a large number of people that were interested in coming, stopping by asking about. And some people have heard about the initiative before and they just wanna to hear a bit more about it. Some people come with very concrete ideas, like, hey, we should do this in the performance team. Other people haven’t heard about it yet, and that’s great too. Like, so far, yeah, the reception has been very positive.
[00:15:17] Nathan Wrigley: So what are the ideas that you are coalescing around? What are the things that are coming up in your Slack channel and maybe that came up in the last 24 hours or so? What are the things that you’ve decided, okay, we’re gonna tackle it in this order. Here’s the first two, three, whatever things.
[00:15:30] Felix Arntz: So, look at it from a higher level. I think we have with the performance team, there is different layers to improve. And the main thing that we have been focusing on so far is improving performance in WordPress Core, different aspects of WordPress Core.
That’s the one aspect. Another one is to, improve or to make available tools, to measure performance specifically for WordPress, in a WordPress context. Through that basically, raise more awareness or make it easier, even for plugin or theme developers to test performance of their plugins or themes and determine where there are any problems and how can those be fixed?
So that’s another aspect and overall, raising more awareness of performance and making metric based performance decisions.
[00:16:11] Nathan Wrigley: It feels to me like the WordPress Core bit is the low hanging fruit, because there it is. You’ve got it in front of you and you can figure out what it is that needs to be tweaked and so on. And so presumably work, whether it’s begun or not, I don’t know, but presumably work will begin on that at some point. And then as you say, it’s about educating the community and I feel that’s going quite well actually.
I obsess about WordPress and so I’m constantly looking around, but it does feel like there’s a lot more messaging about that coming out. Maybe that’s to do with Core Web Vitals and things and so on and so forth. I wondered about partnerships as well, because a big part of this whole jigsaw piece is the thing that the WordPress site sits on.
So for example, you know, you may have hosting over here for $3 99 a month or something, or you may be spending a hundred dollars a month and that kind of piece presumably, would be at some point needed to be addressed. Talking to the hosting companies and so on making partnerships and giving them the benefit of whatever insights you’ve managed to figure out.
[00:17:06] Felix Arntz: Absolutely. There are some people who are from the hosting team there, from the WordPress hosting team are also involved in the performance team. And, I can say not a lot has happened on that side yet, but that is certainly an aspect where we wanna do more.
And we have already. So far, we’ve mostly reached out to hosting providers for specific feedback on certain things that we wanted to do in WordPress Core to get more research and more information on that. But I think what you’re saying, I definitely see that coming up.
[00:17:32] Nathan Wrigley: In terms of Google’s contribution. Google traditionally over the last few years, certainly since I’ve been attending these large events, Google’s been a real key sponsor. And you’re helping with the Site Kit initiative. Just tell us about that. Maybe just dwell on the complexity of that and all of the different pieces that fit into place, because I’ve heard about it. I briefly took a look at it right at the beginning when it came out and it’s fresh and new, but I haven’t really done much with it since then. So I need educating on what’s in there and where it’s gone in the last few months or years even.
[00:18:01] Felix Arntz: So Site Kit is very much separate from the performance team. That has, has been the product which I started on, started working on from my very beginning at Google. it’s basically, Google’s, Google’s flagship product which helps you to use the popular Google tools that help you succeed as a web creator, right within your WordPress site. And one of the things that really helps with its onboarding to all those tools, like search console, analytics, AdSense to name a few.
There’s always this complexity that in order to set up those tools on your site, you often have to paste some snippet somewhere in your WordPress site, and then it’s like a lot of people put this in their themes’ functions.php, and then you update the theme and it’s gone. Or like, unless you really know what you’re doing there, there’s lots of ways to mess that up.
One of the things that Site Kit really does for you is make this super straightforward, like make a couple clicks and it all takes care of that for you because it’s in the WordPress site, it connects directly to the Google APIs. Sets up those those services for you. And then it displays the relevant metrics right within your WordPress site.
So you can manage it all from your WordPress site. You can still go to the Google services of course, to see like the full picture of all the stats, but you can see the most, what we consider the most important metrics, you can see them in your WordPress site.
[00:19:07] Nathan Wrigley: So it basically pulls all of the bits and pieces, all the important data from the Google properties. And just puts them inside the dashboard as if you’ve gone out to look at, I dunno, analytics dot Google dot com.
[00:19:17] Felix Arntz: Right. Yeah. One thing that is also special about it is that it has connection to all of those services. In the Google services, you have to go to one service or the other or the other, but in Site Kit has a dashboard that combines the metrics from all of them. There is definitely like a long term goal to also correlate them more. Like we have also connection to Page Speed Insights, which that is a part of Site Kit, which has more, a little bit more of course, like overlap with performance.
So we have a page speed module and, eventually it would be amazing if we can somehow explain to site owners how like performance, this page, let’s make an example. Like this URL has a way better web vitals performance value than other ones and see how it’s much better performing in terms of the number of conversions.
[00:20:01] Nathan Wrigley: I feel like that’s the missing bit for me. The connection between all of this work and any benefit. Because I never see the benefit from the work, because you know, you put in the time and you, compress this thing and you do that thing, but there’s no sort of direct comparison.
If I could, for example, quickly and easily in my WordPress dashboard go, okay, that thing that I did over there, it’s been up there for a month now and I can see that it’s had this effect. Yeah. That’s really useful. It’s a great big endorsement I think from the giant that is Google to put all of this time and effort into a WordPress thing. I don’t know if you do that on other CMSs or other platforms as well?
[00:20:39] Felix Arntz: I mean, we have been involved with other CMSs, like Typo3 Drupal, Joomla. The team that I’m part of, mostly with open source, open source CMSs. WordPress has a bit more attention because of its yeah, its meaning, its importance and popularity on the web. One of the things that we are seeing is that fewer users use the traditional web, which is what WordPress is part of. And more and more users use apps and we think it’s vital that, to get a little more of this attention from people back to the web, it has to match the apps in the experience and the performance.
[00:21:14] Nathan Wrigley: Is that what is behind all of this push because, I mean, the, the apps on your phone, they are just breathtakingly, amazing. You know, the capabilities that are in iOS and Android and the way that they behave and the animations and things. They’re just all baked into the OS and they look beautiful.
I completely identify with why would you go to, as an example, why would you go to twitter.com if you could have the Twitter app? And so that, I guess is what you’re saying that at some point, parity between the two, the web is in every way as capable and performant as the app.
[00:21:44] Felix Arntz: Right, right. Yeah, absolutely.
[00:21:46] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. I feel like we’re a long way away from that at the minute.
[00:21:48] Felix Arntz: Yes we are. And that’s where, that’s why Google overall is interested in this and Google would like to succeed. Would like to see the web succeed. Cause it, of course it is important for Google, but it is also important for WordPress. So I would argue in this sense and, I care. I have always been part of the WordPress ecosystem and I, I am a fan of WordPress, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. And, uh, I think that in this sense I would argue that the interest of WordPress and Google in that sense overlap.
[00:22:13] Nathan Wrigley: It’s interesting because on my phone I’m really addicted to the way that the animation is is smooth and the way that I might scroll something up and something will compress. So there’s animations there. And yet it’s kind of like the polar opposite on the web we’re being told no, no, get rid of all of that sort of stuff. You know, compress the images don’t have any animation where you don’t need it, and so on. They are quite different things. And I guess it’s the browser, that’s the bottleneck?
[00:22:34] Felix Arntz: I don’t know. I, I would argue there’s, the more of those things you do, the harder it gets to keep good performance. Having good performance is hard. And, uh, if you have an empty WordPress site out of the box, it has amazing performance, but you add 10 plugins to it and a ton of content and that changes.
[00:22:50] Nathan Wrigley: To develop that a little bit, what I was meaning is on the phone, it doesn’t seem to matter how much of those animations and things they throw at it. It still just is performant.
And I, I really don’t know where the difference there is, whether the browser is incapable of handling that level of load, or if it’s just that the, the operating system, iOS, Android, or what have you you can cope more. I don’t know.
[00:23:08] Felix Arntz: I don’t know. I would argue that quite a bit of it is that, you can do a lot of those nicer animations on the web too. And, if you do it yeah, with CSS, it can still be fast. But usually there’s other things involved that make the website slow.
[00:23:34] Nathan Wrigley: A couple of years ago, actually, you may need to correct me. When did the whole concept of Core Web Vitals, when did that all really begin? It feels like two years to me.
[00:23:42] Felix Arntz: Yeah. Maybe I, I can’t even say.
[00:23:43] Nathan Wrigley: It’s about, it’s roughly, let’s say it’s two years. Everybody was obsessed with that. It really did feel like it was a you know, line in the sound where everybody was right, if it doesn’t meet all of these metrics, hell is gonna freeze over. Your website won’t be ranked anymore. Equally, it never felt to me that that moment ever arrived. I didn’t really see that the sites that I’d been building hit too badly, even though there wasn’t a lot of remedial work that I did. Was that just a load of hype or did that stuff really affect the SERPs?
[00:24:12] Felix Arntz: I mean this was prioritized. The Core Web Vitals um, were prioritized by Google, of course, because we had to raise more awareness of that performance on the web is not going so great. And the site owners and developers and whoever is involved in websites, they should, they need to do something about it to improve performance. Honestly, I don’t know much about like how they affect search.
[00:24:32] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. I was gonna say, if you knew how the search results were.
[00:24:35] Felix Arntz: Oh yeah. Yeah, lot of people would ask me a lot of questions.
[00:24:37] Nathan Wrigley: That’s right. You’d be locked in this room and pounded by questions, yeah. You’ve managed to make a career out of WordPress and performance. So firstly, well done for that. If that’s the thing that you were aiming at, that’s really amazing. Secondly, I wonder if the whole performance thing is there like a bonafide career in the future. In the same way that people, I dunno, 20 years ago, there were no people who were SEO consultants. It was just not a thing. And then suddenly people thought, oh, do you know what, there’s a job there, there’s enough work to be done to make that a job and we can get paid for doing that. Do you think that would be the case for people like you? You could be a freelance performance person?
[00:25:13] Felix Arntz: I feel like that is already a thing to a degree. It’s probably has blurry lines, like where you are like, I would recommend that, if any developer should try to familiarize themselves with the performance best practices and build that knowledge and improve this knowledge over time.
Because it is important to consider performance in every, in every step while you develop your products or plugins or themes, and similar to how this with accessibility and security, they have to be part of the whole design process at all times. But I would to your point, I also can see how I think there’re already a bunch of people that, that have specific strength in their knowledge in performance.
And maybe they’re still developers or maybe they could also be end users that know a ton about performance and help other site owners to improve it. Yeah, I think that is already a thing. but I, I could definitely see it growing.
[00:26:00] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. It feels like a tunnel that you could go down and you could really be an expert in that and sort of separate yourself and maybe find a career which didn’t always involve, I don’t know, building the entire site. You might just advise on that particular component.
[00:26:11] Felix Arntz: Yeah Yeah. I think one of the things I wanna say, like in order to get started with that, uh, some of the tools that help you measure performance, they can be really helpful I would say. Because a lot of us, including myself, we don’t know all of these performance best practices. It is a ton to think about based on what you’re doing. Yeah, there are a lot of different tools to measure performance and give you recommendations. What you need to improve?
I think it’s very valuable to learn from those and internalize that knowledge that you get from running your site through one of, through some of these tools. And then from there you can think about how can I actually address this problem.
[00:26:44] Nathan Wrigley: Well, Felix, sadly, we’re out of time. So I’m gonna say thank you very much for chatting to me today. I appreciate it.
[00:26:48] Felix Arntz: Yeah, thank you.