5 handy free tools to speed up your website

Create faster web pages with these professional apps


Want to speed up your website? It's well worth the effort.

The faster your pages load, the happier your visitors will be, and the longer they'll stick around.

Removing unnecessary or oversized content can help reduce your bandwidth requirements and save you money, too.

Of course you'll need advice on which parts of the site need optimisation, but that's surprisingly easy - we've uncovered free tools from Google, Yahoo, MySpace, AOL and more that will analyse any web page and point out how it can be improved. So which one is best? Keep reading for everything you need to know.

1. YSlow

Yahoo!'s YSlow is an excellent Firefox add-on that will analyse a web page and deliver a list of helpful suggestions on how to improve its performance. It's integrated with the Firebug development tool, though, so you must install that first before adding YSlow itself.

Once set up clicking Tools > Firebug > Open Firebug will display load times for every part of the current page, so if one image or external link is particularly slow then it'll be immediately obvious.

A couple more clicks and YSlow will return plenty of recommendations on how your page can be optimised. Try it on the YSlow download page, say, and you'll see that it's using four external JavaScripts. These should be combined into one, YSlow says, if possible. And because browsers won't start other downloads while scripts are downloading, any that are deferrable should be moved to the bottom of the page.

There were 20 other recommendations in the list, all graded so you can see which should be applied first. An overall page performance score provides an objective measure of speed, letting you watch how each change improves the site. And linked tools compress JavaScript, reduce the size of images and otherwise help speed up your pages.

We did notice one problem with YSlow, and it's big one: the current version doesn't work with Firefox 3.5. But once an upgrade appears YSlow will once again take its place as one of the best free web page optimisation tools around.


HELPFUL: YSlow clearly identifies the bottlenecks slowing down your PC

2. Web Page Analyzer

WebSiteOptimization's Page Analyzer is an online service that will check whatever URL you enter, then suggest ways to improve page performance.

This all starts with a simple list of page object types and the time they took to load (including estimates for several connection speeds), which immediately highlights any problem areas.

A further table highlights page objects that are using HTTP compression, and the rest of the report is taken up with "analysis and recommendations". These provided some useful comments on our test pages, successfully picking up oversized JavaScripts, the large number of page objects and so on, but lacked the depth we saw in the YSlow reports.

The Web Page Analyzer has some good advice to offer, then, and is a simple way to get started with web page optimisation. But if you're serious about revamping your web site then you'll want to quickly move on to a more professional tool.

Web page analyzer

SIMPLE: Web Page Analyzer is easy to use, but a little short on detailed speed-up advice

3. Google Page Speed

At first glance Google's new Page Speed looks like a YSlow clone: a a Firefox/Firebug add-on that benchmarks your web page and uses a set of best practice rules to let you know how you can speed things up. Play around with the tool for a while, though, and you soon begin to spot the differences.

Where YSlow simply tells you that trimming your JavaScripts or reducing cookie size is a good idea, say, Page Speed adds details, telling you exactly how many bytes you'll save.

And Page Speed also provides more substantial analysis of your page CSS code, for example pointing out on one test page that an estimated 57% of the current CSS was unused, and listing very inefficient CSS rules that needed fixing.

The Google utility is less impressive when it comes to benchmarking your site, with awkward and limited reports in comparison to YSlow. And overall it just feels more complex and fiddly to use. Page Speed is a relatively new program, though, and we're sure it'll improve over time. It's definitely worth installing alongside YSlow to ensure you'll get the best of both worlds.


IN DEPTH: PageSpeed offers plenty of good advice, but the presentation lets it down a little

4. MySpace Performance Tracker

MySpace has entered the web optimisation race with its own Performance Tracker. It promises more benchmark information than most of the competition, for instance measuring the CPU hit and memory footprint of your pages as they're rendered, as well as reporting on download times and estimating how these might vary for different connection speeds.

Sounds good, but there are problems. This is barely an alpha version and we found it simply didn't work on many systems. When we did get it to run, though, Performance Tracker provided some detailed benchmarks for our pages, which might be useful if you're looking for a way to assess the effectiveness of your own speedup tweaks.

It's also good to see someone developing a page optimisation tool for IE: like it or not, Internet Explorer is still the most popular browser around, and you really need to know how your pages perform on it.

Okay, so Performance Tracker is lacking in terms of the advice you're given at the moment, and there are some frustrating bugs. But these are early days. Performance Tracker is an interesting tool and by its full 1.0 release could be a must-have for every web developer's toolkit.

MySpace performance tracker

LACKING: It may take some tweaking before the pre-beta Performance Tracker will work

5. Pagetest

Initially developed by AOL as a way to benchmark its own websites, Pagetest is now being developed as an open source tool, and there's also a very easy to use online version that we decided to try out.

One immediate Pagetest advantage is the ability to choose the configuration of the system that will carry out the test, from a speedy cable connection in New Zealand to a 56K modem in the US. You can have the system repeat the test up to 10 times for more reliable results, and include logon details if your page requires authentication.

A minute or two later you'll be browsing a benchmark report that's easily the most detailed and attractive of anything we've seen. Everything you could possibly need is here, from simple details on each page object, to a complete record of every HTTP request and response header.

The optimisation advice isn't quite as good, with YSlow reports notably easier to follow, and Google's Page Speed having more depth. Still, there are useful tips here, and it's easy to scroll down the performance review table and, say, pick out text that can be compressed.

It's not perfect, then, but Pagetest has a lot to offer more experienced web developers. Try the online version first to see if it might be for you.


DETAILED: Red crosses in the performance table highlight areas where speed improvements can be made


MySpace Performance Tracker has made an interesting start, but is too buggy for serious use just yet.

And although the online Web Page Analyzer is quick and easy to use, it doesn't quite have the detailed advice that you need to properly speed up your web site.

Pagetest and Google Page Speed offer far more specific recommendations, and if you're an experienced developer then they're both worth trying.

But the best optimisation tool around, at least once it provides a version that works with Firefox 3.5, is still YSlow. It provides professional reports and high quality advice, yet in a straightforward way that's good for both experts and beginners.

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