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Webpage speed & why Joomla! still beats other CMS in 2021

Web page speed and why Joomla still flies in 2021

Webpage speed and Joomla. It’s a topic I really don’t think that much about when I design a project in this CMS. I guess it’s never presented itself as that much of an issue so I just haven’t bothered looking into it. I started my web design journey back in 2003, the importance of web page speed was in its infancy.

Back then, I was coding static websites in HTML and getting excited about what was going to be possible with CSS3. This was 5 years before Steve jobs changed the world with the iPhone. Building websites for mobile and responsive web design was not a thing at all. Furthermore, when Jobs demoed safari on the first iPhone it was all about delivering a ‘desktop Mac’ experience on a mobile. Click to jump to a section of the website and pinch in and out to zoom. This was seen as a major USP for the iPhone over established smart devices like blackberry or Palm.

As we moved into a new decade and as more and more mobile devices came to fruition,  mobile website rendering became a more considered topic. Although the ability to view the full ‘desktop experience’ on a phone screen was a great talking point for us earlyish adopters, it often became a frustrating and slow process navigating around a large webpage; clicking, pinching, swiping and ultimately getting lost in the process.

Selling responsive web design

Over a period of years, responsive web design became a buzz word that us web developers would use to sell our services. A mobile ‘friendly’ version of the website would be included in the commission costs of course and would be ‘fully responsive‘ – sounds great doesn’t it?! Hand coded HTML or PHP developed websites also received various responsive ‘grid based’ frameworks to build on, Bootstrap being the most recognised probably.

Around 2010-2011 I started seeing a glut of responsive commercial themes for WordPress appear. Back then I was still using WordPress primarily for clients’ blogs, opting for Joomla, MODx ( remember this? )  or hand coded HTML for their main website. This continued for a while and ultimately I found myself in a position where the blog section of my client’s web portfolio, running WordPress was vastly more mobile friendly than their main website.

Bootstrap appeared around late 2011 and I was able to rebuild or retrofit customers’ static HTML websites to allow for mobile. However, responsive Joomla themes were still very thin on the ground. I think the first responsive theme I considered for Joomla was from Rocket Themes. It was a superb theme, but compared to the flexibility offered by the equivalent WordPress theme, I felt a little disappointed.

Webpage speed and the continental drift between Joomla and WordPress

For me, this is when the chasm began to open between Joomla and WordPress. I loved using Joomla. It took me an age to learn so naturally I was very defensive about this CMS when others suggested I punted WordPress to my client’s instead. I had plenty of ammunition when questioned about my use of Joomla over WordPress. ‘C’mon WordPress is for blogging, not building full websites in’ I’d say. And that was true then. Commercial theme and framework developers battled with crowbarring in the CMS features Joomla had out of the box.

Also, Joomla was designed to scale well. It was ( and is ) often used for building local government websites and educational institution websites because it scales up so well. Joomla was much more flexible when it came to user privileges and putting administration restrictions on large sections of the website too, making it great for multi-departmental organisations. It as also built to be a complete CMS from the beginning, including offering an article based blogging functionality  ( although not as slick as WordPress ). It also seemed faster on the front end and when making changes in the back end or ‘Administrator’ pages compared to WordPress, irrespective of theme choice or quality of web hosting.

Webpage speed vs web design features

Back in 2011 – 2012 web page speed was probably the biggest difference I noticed between these 2 systems. Joomla just seemed more efficient and I felt like I spent less time waiting for pages to update. I guess I put this down to Joomla being of purer heritage as a CMS and WordPress a Blogging platform with CMS functionality bolted on and not always in an elegant way. Even today, the most popular commercial WordPress themes and frameworks accompany or assist the core functionality which can tender the feeling of an ‘admin within an admin’ development experience. There becomes 2 learning curves, the WordPress core editor with its various quirks and the theme’s admin doing things its own way.

In spite of that clear sense Joomla operated quicker, the allure of those avant-garde commercial themes on WordPress with their huge hero banners, parallax effects, animations and boundless typography options became all too tempting to a traditional graphic designer such as myself. Creatively, these themes seemed like freedom from applying creativity as a developer, to applying creativity as a graphic designer and only limited by the imagination.

The price of progress

However, the truth wasn’t so creative and diverse. Many WordPress websites were stuck with the design choices made by the theme developers and designers and users were left with limited customisation options. Even worse, many designers simply used the ‘showcase’ or demo webpages provided by the theme makers and tweaked them to suit their clients’ needs. I can own up to doing this myself on occasion, bedazzled with those compelling magazine inspired graphical structures of HTML, CSS and javascript.

What happened? Everyone’s WordPress websites kind of looked the same and followed the same formula when it came to page structure. Compound this with slower web page speed and it’s easy to feel a little hard done by!

Today, this bolt-on environment still exists in WordPress. Although it seems more integrated and planned than it did 8 years ago. Page builder frameworks like Elementor and Divi integrate better with the WordPress core but these frameworks are big and substantial applications in their own right. They actually feel as big as WordPress itself if not bigger. Joomla has not escaped this bolt-on feeling too. Powerful blogging/article management extensions such as K2 , frameworks like Helix and JoomShaper’s excellent Page Builder Pro offer similar experiences for Joomla. However, there still remains an intrinsic feeling of integration that is less apparent with WordPress. I actually don’t have any technical evidence to back up that feeling, but it is a feeling and that cannot be easily dismissed.

Website development options in 2021

For half a decade or so, website owners and developers have had the option of building their online presence using hosted website builders like Wix or Squarespace. These subscription based services take away all the fuss and maintenance requirements of self hosted CMS and deliver the user a graphical page builder interface not unlike the most advanced available on WordPress and Joomla.

Although services like Wix, Squarespace and the e-commerce focused Shopify target the end user, suggesting there’s no need to pay for that developer, I do get commissions to work on these platforms for clients ALL THE TIME!. Generally I find them great to get up and running but often it’s not long before you find their limitations and find yourself saying ‘if only I could add that WordPress plugin…’ Additionally, they tend not to perform as favourably as a well optimised theme on Joomla or WordPress with good hosting. However they allow the end user who has that time and the bandwidth after a full day’s work to learn the platform. It’s understandable and logical when it works. Maybe they don’t have the budget to pay a developer for every small change and want giving them the opportunity to grow their business efficiently… more power!

So, if we dismiss the SASS hosted website builder platforms we are still left with the debate of WordPress vs Joomla. Is it worth running with a Joomla foundation for your website opting for the purpose build CMS, running efficiently front end and back end. Or is the lure of the WordPress universe with it’s countless plugins, themes, add-ons and integrations too much, even if it comes with the price of a little more bloat and a little more work needed to yield great web page speed results?

CMS Market share & security

Truthfully the war is already won I think. According to Kinsta, WordPress has 64% share of the CMS market with 40% of the all the websites online worldwide being WordPress. Joomla in contrast settles for 4.6% market share of all CMS and only 2.5% overall. That said, being the number one CMS means you are very much in the limelight. WordPress due to its very success is by far the most targeted platform for hackers who want to add malware or perform SQL injections on your website.

Wordpress hacking and webpage speed
WordPress websites receive malicious attacks and exploits more than other CMS

This is not unlike the MacOs vs Windows virus debate. True, it could be said the UNIX underpinnings of MacOs may make it less susceptible to attack. But it’s really down to numbers. Window’s worldwide market share dwarfs MacOs and frankly it’s more efficacious for hackers to concentrate on the world’s most popular operating system.

Interestingly, even though WordPress is insanely popular, the core system is pretty bulletproof, receiving security updates on what seems like a daily basis sometimes. Ironically, it’s the very features we love so much about WordPress that can make it so vulnerable. Those sexy plugins, themes and add-ons are made by third party developers and not always written that well or don’t get the same level of attention when it comes to security matters. Apple’s insular, hyper controlled ecosystem take a bow!

Are there webpage speed issues with WordPress and is it fixable?

Yet again, WordPress web page speed issues can be collateral damage from those sexy third party plugins, themes and extensions.  There’s no doubt it’s the add-ons that pile on weight to the Platform. Running a clean WordPress default ‘blog’ orientated theme with minimal plugins can easily produce a mobile web page speed test in the 90s in Chrome Lighthouse, PageSpeed Insights or GTmetrix. Add a heavy commercial theme, page builder and 20 plugins and see that score plummet to mid 40s on a good day.

So a fast performing WordPress website is possible. it just needs careful configuration, mindful use of well-written and maintained plugins and a quality commercial theme that doesn’t output bloat in its various guises. Caching may also help with the page speed loading times but it’s important to trim the fat from your WordPress install as much as possible as they can’t perform miracles if ‘Time to meaningful Paint‘ takes longer than boiling the kettle!

Why Joomla still flies in 2021

To summarise my findings, I can clearly say Joomla just seems to be quicker with less effort needed. This may be down to there being less incentive to chuck 20 plugins and a page builder at it and hope for the best, but I think it’s more than that. I’m in the privileged position of building almost the same website in Joomla and WordPress so I can compare the two… with some caveats. I originally made a well-performing website for a client in Joomla. The website existed for a couple of years with only the basic on on-site SEO in place ( basically good quality meta title and descriptions … not much more ).

Moving forward, the client had decided to work on SEO more and requested the help of an ‘SEO professional’… Sigh ( apologies to those SEO Pros deserve the title of ‘Pro’ ).

Rightly or not, the SEO agency found it difficult to work in Joomla ( err… what is ‘Joomla!?’ ) and suggesting a move to WordPress would assist the process due to the glut of respectable SEO plugins to choose from. The client was happy with the look and structure of the website I’d made in Joomla, just needed it in WordPress. How could I refuse?!

Chrome Lighthouse Webpage Speed Scores
Chrome Lighthouse can be used to assess various performance metrics for your webpage.

As I said earlier there are some caveats. No doubt the WordPress version is a little richer and heavier design and content wise. however, I’m prepared to put that down to progression, a natural sense to improve a website and keeping things fresh. Bottom line,  Running on the same server, outputting very similar website homepages in terms of look, feel, content and structure, 106KB for WordPress, 37KB of HTML for Joomla. ‘Time to meaningful Paint’ was average 2.4 seconds in WordPress ( which is pretty good actually ), but just 1.2 seconds average for the Joomla version.

These figures vary throughout the day and of course it’s probably not completely fair to compare the platforms in this way, but it’s the only experiment I can perform myself to make this comparison. I’d say the jury is still out on the WordPress vs Joomla debate and with Google’s Web Core Vitals around the corner, we’ll all have to consider the web page speed of our websites, irrespective of the platform.

So… Joomla! still flies in 2o21.