The Ultimate Guide to W3 Total Cache: Introduction to Caching

We talk about website speed a lot. Quality web hosting, image optimization, caching, minification, and website testing are all topics we cover on a regular basis.

Why do we do that? Why spend so much time talking about website speed?

Because when it comes to websites, speed kills.

If your website has a speed problem – that is, a lack of speed – it can kill your site’s production by:

  • Hurting your site’s rank in search engine results,
  • Increasing your site’s bounce rate,
  • Reducing the number of pageviews and the amount of time visitors spend on your site, and/or
  • Hurting the rate at which you convert visitors into customers or subscribers.

Fortunately, there are lots of tools you can use to speed up a WordPress website. One of the most popular plugins for boosting website speed is W3 Total Cache (W3TC). This powerful and complex plugin can do a lot of different things to speed up a WordPress website.

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So over the course of four articles we’re going to dive deep into W3TC so that you can get the most out of this powerful plugin.

w3 total cache website screenshot

Introduction to W3 Total Cache

W3TC is a plugin that needs little introduction.

It’s a free plugin that was created by Frederick Townes, Founding CTO and current Senior Technical Advisor to Mashable . The plugin is maintained and supported by Frederick’s agency, W3 Edge.

It is active on over one million WordPress websites, making it one of the most used plugins in the WordPress Plugin Directory. In addition, it’s rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars based on more than 3,000 user reviews means it’s also one of the most-loved WordPress plugins.

What does W3TC Do?

W3TC does a lot – that’s why this is a four-part series. However, at a conceptual level, we can boil down what W3TC does to three things:

  • It optimizes HTML, CSS, and JavaScript resources by minifying,combining, and compressing them,
  • It creates and caches static website resources to reduce the load on the server and speed up website delivery, and
  • It integrates with content delivery networks so that cached static resources are mirrored on the CDN.

WordPress is a platform for creating dynamic websites. You know what a dynamic website is, right? The page of a dynamic website doesn’t exist as a static HTML file. Instead, when a webpage is requested, website software such as WordPress processes the request and generates static files to fulfill the request and build the webpage.

On one hand, this is awesome. It makes publishing and website creation easier and faster. On the other hand, generating web pages dynamically takes more time than just shooting back static files and requires the server to do more work to generate each pageview. As a result, using software like WordPress inevitably slows down website performance when compared to websites built entirely out of static resources.

How does caching affect the way dynamic website operate?

When the server generates a webpage dynamically, caching has the potential to grab the static webpage files and store them on the web server, send a copy to a content delivery network (CDN), and even store a copy on the website visitor’s browser. That way, when that webpage is needed a second time, the static resources can be delivered without requiring the website software to process the request on the server and generate the resources a second time.

In effect, here’s what caching does:

  • Cuts down on the number of times code has to be processed and a database queried to generate a webpage, thereby significantly reducing the amount of work the web server has to do.
  • Increases the number of visitors a website can handle since the server is doing less work to generate each pageview.
  • Speeds up delivery of a website by creating and storing a ready-to-deliver version of the webpage.

At its heart, W3TC is all about caching. W3TC can be used to cache website resources on the server, on a content delivery network, and on visitor browsers. However, in order to make caching as effective as possible, the cached resources have to be optimized and minified. W3TC does more than just cache website resources, it also optimizes them for delivery.

How Does Caching with W3TC Work?

A variety of caching and minification techniques are built into W3TC. Some of the specific things W3TC does to speed up website performance include:

  • Static minified versions of pages and posts can be stored on visitor browsers, on the web server, and on a CDN.
  • CSS and JavaScript resources may be minified and stored on visitor browsers, the server, and mirrored to a CDN.
  • Feed pages such as category, tag, author, and search results pages, can be cached and stored by visitor browsers, the server, and mirrored on the CDN.
  • Database objects may be cached on visitor browser and the server to reduce the number of database queries.
  • Enough data can be stored by a visitor browsers that subsequent page views by a single visitor are rendered instantaneously.

W3TC does all of this without modifying the actual website files. For example, a website’s CSS and JavaScript resources aren’t actually modified by W3TC. Instead, what happens is that W3TC creates a copy of these files, minifies and optimizes the files, and then stores the minified and optimized version in the cache.

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Why You Should Use W3 Total Cache

So maybe you’re sold on caching but not on W3 Total Cache. There is more than one caching plugin available and you want to make sure W3TC is the right caching plugin for you. W3TC can’t the right solution for every website and every user.

It makes sense to consider some alternatives before committing to a long-term arrangement with W3TC. If you want to consider your options, here are four solid alternatives to W3TC to start your search for the perfect caching plugin. None of these plugins are direct drop-in replacements that take care of everything W3TC does, but they do implement many of the same techniques and can speed up your WordPress website.

  • WP Super Cache, from Automattic, mirrors many of the same features as W3 Total Cache.
  • WP-Cache.com is the easy-button caching plugin. Just activate and go.
  • WP Rocket is a premium plugin that is generally considered one of the best caching plugins available on the market today.
  • Hummingbird is an optimization plugin from WPMU DEV. If offers browser caching as well as JavaScript and CSS minification, combination, and relocation. WPMU DEV users have reported having success using Hummingbird for minification and browser caching alongside W3TC for server and CDN integration.

It isn’t hard to make a strong case for why you should use W3TC. It’s insanely popular. It is flexible enough to work with virtually every hosting arrangement. As a matter of fact, it’s recommended by many hosting providers and CDN service providers. In addition, W3TC is used by some really popular WordPress websites like CSS-Tricks, WP Beginner, and Mashable (until 2012 when they stopped using WordPress to generate the site frontend).

In addition, W3TC works with virtually any type of hosting, plays nice with most plugins and themes, and can be integrated with popular CDNs. As a result, just about every WordPress website is a candidate for using W3TC.

Alright, that’s enough with the love-fest. W3TC isn’t perfect and isn’t for everyone. Why is that? I’m glad you asked.

Why Not to Use W3 Total Cache

W3 Total Cache is complicated.

You’ll find that complaint all over the web: in plugin reviews, support threads, and in guides to W3TC installation and setup. If you don’t take the time to study W3TC and set it up properly you won’t get the performance boost you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for an easy button, W3TC isn’t it and you’ll be happier using an intentionally simplified caching plugin like WP-Cache.com. However, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, W3TC has the potential to dramatically improve the speed of almost any WordPress website.

What’s Next?

In the next part of this series tomorrow, we’ll dive right into W3TC. We’ll walk you step-by-step through all sixteen – yes, sixteen – plugin menus. As we go along I’ll explain how to use each menu to set up W3TC like a pro.

Have you ever used W3 Total Cache? Were you able to boost you site's performance with it? What sort of headaches did you have getting the plugin set up? VIEW 19 comments