I actively publish 7 websites. Fat Stacks is one of them.
From March to May 2021 I worked like crazy to improve all my sites’ Core Web Vital Scores from a dismal red to green (on mobile… desktop scores we already decent).
I did this because Google long ago announced CWV scores would become a ranking factor for SEO.
For me it was a no-brainer to at least try to get good scores. Why ignore a new factor when Google tells you pretty much what you need to do.
For years I’ve been plagued with slow sites. I was a plugin pig loading on every silly bell and whistle I could find. I used bloated page builders. I jammed multiple email pop up plugins all over the place. I crammed ad scripts from multiple ad providers.
My sites were a speed nightmare.
As long as it didn’t seem to impede traffic and revenue growth, I didn’t care.
And then Google announced speed, or at least CWV scores, which I guess is Google’s way of measuring user website experience, would count.
I needed to up my game.
This blog post steps you through all that I did and tech stack I ended up with to achieve green Core Web Vital scores on 5 out of 7 sites. I’ll also explain why 2 sites are stuck in orange. There are benefits to having multiple sites because I can in some cases figure out variables that make a difference.
CWV Score Screenshots
All screenshots obtained on June 16, 2021 (one day after Google started rolling out the Core Web Vital update, aka page experience update).
Before I get into how to improve CWV scores, here are screenshots from Search Console showing the CWV results.
Note: Site numbers below correspond to sites set out in my income reports. Sites 1, 3, 9, 10, Fatstacksblog and Cyclebaron have AdThrive ads on them. You’ll also see that two of my blogs have quite a bit of content… 5,000+ posts each. Site 1 is an absolute beast when it comes to images (hundreds of thousands of images). When I started this process, I was gunning to get site 1 to orange. When it hit green, that was quite a feat.
Site 1 (biggest niche site)
Please note that Site 11 does NOT have ads on it… yet.
Why do Cyclebaron and Fatstacksblog score orange and the rest of my sites score green?
I can only speculate here but each of the two sites have one thing different the rest of my niche sites, so I’m basing my conclusion on that.
Cyclebaron scores orange because it’s hosted with Bluehost. I don’t know for sure, but Cyclebaron is a pretty bare bones site set up identically to all other niche sites but is the only site hosted with Bluehost. In fact, CB has fewer plugins than my larger sites.
Bluehost is a low cost, shared hosting provider. I used it for years. I think it’s good for the money but it’s certainly not Rocket.net which is the host for all my other sites.
I put Cyclebaron on Bluehost because it’s my public niche site and I wanted to use a lower-cost hosting provider to illustrate that lower-cost hosting can work just fine. In this case, though, it might be worth investing in hosting that yields better CWV scores.
Fatstacksblog.com is also set up exactly the same as my green-scoring sites on Rocket.net hosting. The ONLY difference with Fatstacksblog.com is I have the Convertbox email sign-up form script on every page. Again, I can’t know for certain it’s ConvertBox that is causing the issue, but it’s the only variable that differs from my green-scoring sites.
Will I switch Cyclebaron’s hosting?
If ever I plan to grow Cyclebaron, I would switch it to Rocket.net. I wouldn’t want to be held back if I were to invest in its growth. For now, it sits and as long as it sits, I’ll keep it with Bluehost.
Am I going to remove the email sign-up forms from Fat Stacks?
No, I’m not going to remove the email sign-up forms from Fat Stacks. The email newsletter is the heart of Fat Stacks. I love Convertbox as an email form provider. Orange scores will have to do. It would be like removing display ads from my niche sites to get better scores. I wouldn’t do that because without ads, the sites are worthless.
Interestingly, I had ConvertBox on two niche sites (sites 1 and 3) that were orange until I removed Convertbox. I’m fairly certain Convertbox hampers CWV scores.
In other words, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
How did I achieve green CWV scores on mobile for my niche sites with AdThrive ads?
Let me start by saying that the tech stack I used is not the only formula for green scores.
It requires trial and error. I tried many, many plugins and tweaks before hitting green.
Here’s what I did and use.
Step 1: Cut the number of plugins on my sites by at least 50%
I took a scorched earth policy and eliminated every plugin that wasn’t absolutely necessary for my sites. For site 1, plugin count went from an eye-popping 72 to 34 plugins. 34 plugins is still quite a few. Where I could substitute lighter plugins, I did so.
Site 3 now has 24 plugins. Site 10, a fairly barebones site, only has 21 plugins. That’s as low as I could get it.
Note that it’s not really plugin count that matters. It’s the plugins themselves. One bloated hog of a plugin could cause more speed damage than 20 lightweight plugins.
Step 2: Changed to a Different (Better) WordPress Theme
I was using Bimber theme on my sites. Bimber is great but it’s bloated… or I should say there were lighter options out there.
After testing Kadence, Generate Press and Astra, I went with Astra.
Astra isn’t the lightest theme but it’s light, fast and offers a great set of features and customization. The main reason I went with Astra is it includes infinite scroll for individual posts. I like infinite scroll on my niche sites because I get much longer time on site and more page views per visitor (two very good metrics).
Alternative themes for speed include Kadence and GeneratePress. There are probably others but Kadence and GP are lightweight. If I didn’t need infinite scroll, I would have gone with Kadence.
Step 3: Ditched the Bloat
A big part of improving speed and scores involved getting rid of bloat; namely plugins that slowed my sites down. In some cases, I substituted bloated plugins with leaner plugins.
I took a no-holds-barred approach to ditching plugins. If I didn’t absolutely need it, I ditched it. Since March 2021 I’ve read dozens of websites and blog posts as well as bought one course and a fleet of ebooks on WordPress website speed and page experience. While there were differnt approaches in each, one constant was “get rid of bloated, heavy plugins”.
Here are the bloated all-stars I ditched:
Elementor Page Builder
I had Elementor pages on sites 1, 3 and Fat Stacks. I converted all pages to Gutenberg and removed Elementor.
This was a huge job given I had over 80 Elementor pages across the two sites but went smoothly and quickly because I hired this Gutenberg migration service. You can see their handy work on the Fat Stacks homepage. I use the WP Stackable and Ultimate Addons for Gutenberg block libraries.
Removed Convertbox (on all sites but Fat Stacks)
I had read that pop-up form plugins can slow sites down. I have to agree because until I removed it from sites 1 and 3, I was stuck in orange. I still use Convertbox on Fat Stacks, which is stuck in orange (all else is pretty much the same on Fat Stacks as my green-scoring sites).
For site 1, I now put Convertkit for code only on pages where I collect emails.
I don’t use popups or collect emails on any other site.
Switched SEO Plugins
I used to use Yoast SEO plugin. I had read it’s pretty bloated. After researching which SEO plugins are lightest, I settled on The SEO Framework.
I was nervous changing SEO plugisn. I could just imagine all my SEO traffic disappearing because of some oversight. Fortunately, the change went without a hitch. The SEO Framework offers everything I need SEO-wise.
Turned ON AdThrive’s “Reduce CLS” Feature
AdThrive provides publishers the option to reduce Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) by toggling a setting in the AdThrive dashboard. I turned it on for all sites.
Step 4: Installed 5 Speed Optimization Plugins
I tested all kinds of speed optimization plugins that are aimed at optimizing and speeding up websites. When the smoke cleared, I settled on five of them that I use on all sites. Those 4 plugins are:
WP Rocket (Paid): use only for caching.
Permatters (Paid): This is a gem of a plugin. I use it to serve Google Analytics script on the server and to remove various scripts from URLs where they are not needed with the Script Manager feature. Perfmatters offers additional optimization features as well. It’s a great and easy-to-use optimization plugin.
Flying Scripts by WP Speed Matters (Free): This plugin enables you to prevent scripts from loading until visitors take an action such as scrolling or moving a cursor. Very handy.
What settings did you use for the above 5 speed optimization plugins?
I can’t give away the farm here because the screenshots and over-the-shoulder videos are reserved for my site speed course which is in my course bundle here. Moreover, the settings you use for these plugins is a bit trial and error. I have friends who have a similar tech stack as me but have slightly different settings for Autoptimize and/or WP Rocket and/or Perfmatters.
Step 5: Switched to Rocket.net Hosting
I was with Kinsta for years. Kinsta served me well but it was time to try something different.
Rocket.net hosting is based on Cloudflare Enterprise. They quoted me a monthly cost less than half what I was paying Kinsta. Rocket’s hosting includes image compression and serving images in optimal format. I could go on and on.
At the end of the day, I believe switching to Rocket.net helped me get my sites’ Core Web Vitals into green. I don’t need an image optimization plugin (I was using Optimole while still with Kinsta). I don’t have to pay for Cloudflare (I was paying $200/mo. for Cloudflare business when with Kinsta). I save a ton of money with Rocket.net, my sites are wicked fast and I enjoy great CWV scores. It’s a big win.
One other big perk with Rocket.net is it provides all the website security I need. In other words, I don’t need Wordfence or similar on my sites to prevent hacks (or so I’m told). Apparently, Cloudflare Enterprise provides strong security preventing hacks and other WordPress website security problems. I’ve suffered hacks and malware in the past so I’m very happy that Rocket includes built-in security measures.
Did green CWV scores increase traffic?
It’s too soon to say. The Google page experience update started rolling out yesterday. I think many of us in this line of work thought the update starting on June 2, 2021 was the page experience update but it wasn’t. Yesterday (June 15, 2021) was the first day of the update so I have no idea whether I’ll gain, stay the same or drop.
I say drop because my biggest site lost 15% traffic from the June 2/21 update… maybe traffic will continue dropping from that update despite having good CWV scores.
Anything is possible in this line of work.
The one thing I find odd about the page experience update
It seems that most websites and website publishers didn’t bother attempting to improve Core Web Vital scores. I’ve been checking top tier websites sporadically over the last couple of months and most score dismally… very low red. These are sites that I don’t see Google downgrading over these scores just because they’re internet behemoths. So I wonder just how much of an impact the Google page experience update will have.
Some say it won’t make much of an impact at all. Others say it could be big. I don’t know. All I know is I’ve done all I can and now it’s out of my hands.
P.S. I set up all my sties pretty much exactly the same. This makes publishing multiple sites so much easier and more efficient. For example, when I need to make changes on a site, I do it in assembly line fashion. I open all sites in different tabs and rip through each making the exact same change.
Jon runs the place around here. He pontificates about launching and growing online publishing businesses, aka blogs that make a few bucks. His pride and joy is the email newsletter he publishes.
In all seriousness, Jon is the founder and owner of a digital media company that publishes a variety of web properties visited and beloved by millions of readers monthly. Fatstacks is where he shares a glimpse into his digital publishing business.