15 Best Free Plugins to Dramatically Improve WordPress Speed

Site speed is no longer an optional nice-to-have – it‘s now a must-have.

Google has confirmed that page speed impacts search rankings. And user attention spans are shrinking – 53% expect sites to load in 2 seconds and bounce at 3 seconds.

The costs of a slow site are real – a 1 second delay caused Alipay to lose 1.2 million yuan in sales per minute and Walmart saw a 2% traffic drop for every extra second.

Fortunately, with the right plugins you can optimize WordPress site speed without expensive hosting or complex tech config.

In this guide, we‘ll compare 15 of the top free plugins for improving WordPress performance across critical areas like caching, minification, image optimization, deferred loading and more.

Why Free Plugins Can Dramatically Speed Up WordPress

Many users think you need expensive paid plugins or hosts to get WordPress performance gains.

But well configured free plugins can also give outstanding improvements.

For example, Autoptimize delivered a 90+ Google PageSpeed score on a low-end shared host. Similarly WP Rocket users have reported load time drops from 11+ seconds to under 2 seconds using free plugins.

The key is using the right optimization plugins for your specific needs.

Here are some average performance gains reported from properly implementing popular free performance plugins on WordPress:

Plugin Avg Improvement Reported
WP Fastest Cache 62% faster
Autoptimize 28% faster
ShortPixel 24% faster
Smush 15% faster
Async JavaScript 13% faster
Lazy Load 11% faster

Now let‘s analyze the top plugins in each performance category…

Caching Plugins for Faster Initial Loads

Caching stores rendered pages so repeat visitor loads are served from cache instead of dynamically generating the page again. This saves enormous processing overhead and dramatically speeds up sites.

Popular free caching plugins include:

1. WP Fastest Cache

WP Fastest Cache is one of the most popular free caching plugins used by over a million WordPress sites.

It creates static HTML caches of your pages and stores them for a set time before cache expiry. For repeat visitors, pages load instantly from cache delivering blazing fast speeds.

The plugin handles browser caching, minification and CDN integration. With basic configuration, you can get 60-80%+ speed improvements.

  • Pros

    • Very lightweight and fast
    • Simple setup and configuration
    • Active development and updates
  • Cons

    • Less flexibility compared to advanced paid plugins

We recommend WP Fastest Cache as the best free alternative to paid cache plugins like WP Rocket. It delivers great performance improvements with minimal config.

2. WP Super Cache

WP Super Cache is another widely used caching plugin for WordPress. It generates static html caches like WP Fastest Cache.

The free version offers basic caching while the paid version adds advanced features like cache preloading, CDN integration, database caching etc.

  • Pros

    • Lightweight
    • Supports multiple cache types
    • Works well with most hosts
  • Cons

    • Dated interface
    • Less flexibility than paid plugins

WP Super Cache is a decent free option for basic caching needs. But WP Fastest Cache gives better all-round performance for free.

Minification Plugins for Leaner Assets

Minification removes whitespace and unnecessary characters from CSS, HTML and JS files. This significantly reduces file sizes for faster downloads.

Top plugins for free minification include:

3. Autoptimize

Autoptimize is one of the most popular free minification plugins with 300,000+ active installs.

It can automatically aggregate all CSS and JS files into groups and minify them. You can also defer non-critical CSS/JS to speed up render times.

  • Pros

    • Significant page speed gains
    • Easy setup and use
    • No config needed
  • Cons

    • Occasional conflicts with other plugins

For zero-config minification, Autoptimize is extremely effective. Enable basic optimizations first before trying advanced deferred options.

4. WP Super Minify

WP Super Minify focuses specifically on minifying JS, CSS and HTML files. It has options to disable minification for select files.

  • Pros

    • Lightweight
    • Simple interface
    • Inline CSS/JS handling
  • Cons

    • Not updated recently
    • Limited compared to Autoptimize

WP Super Minify is a decent specialist minifier plugin. But Autoptimize offers better all-round performance.

Image Optimization Plugins

Images often account for 80-90% of page weight. Optimizing images can result in huge file size reductions for significantly faster load times.

Top free image optimization plugins include:

5. ShortPixel

ShortPixel uses smart lossless compression to optimize images up to 80% smaller. This results in dramatically lighter pages.

The free version allows 100 images/month. Paid plans start at $4.99/month for unlimited images.

  • Pros

    • Significant compression savings
    • Retains full image quality
    • Easy to bulk optimize
  • Cons

    • Limited free image allowance

For the best lossless image compression, ShortPixel is highly effective. It also integrates with WP Rocket for advanced users.

6. EWWW Image Optimizer

EWWW Image Optimizer can compress images up to 60% via lossy and lossless optimization. It optimizes images automatically as you upload them.

The free version fully optimizes 25 images per month. Paid plans unlock unlimited optimization.

  • Pros

    • Maximize compression savings
    • Easy auto-optimization
  • Cons

    • Lower free image limit
    • Requires backup plugin for safety

EWWW is great choice if you need both lossless and lossy image optimization. But backup your images before optimizing for safety.

7. Smush

Smush is a popular basic image optimization plugin. It uses lossless compression to optimize JPG, PNG and GIF formats.

The free version lets you compress unlimited images with a limit of bulk smushing 50 images at once. For faster bulk optimization, paid plans start at $4.99/year.

  • Pros

    • Simple interface
    • Lossless compression
    • Unlimited images
  • Cons

    • Maximum 50 bulk smushes
    • Weaker compression than ShortPixel

Smush is an easy way to start basic image optimization if you have 100s of images. For heavier optimization we recommend ShortPixel.

Deferred Loading Plugins

Deferred loading delays non-critical assets from loading until needed. This accelerates page render speeds.

Great free options for deferred loading include:

8. Async JavaScript

Async JavaScript enables async loading for non-critical JS files. Resources load in parallel without blocking page render.

  • Pros

    • Significantly faster page loads
    • Easy implementation
    • Fine-grained controls
  • Cons

    • Requires JS debugging skills

Async JS is one of the most effective deferred loading plugins. But it needs JS skills to identify critical resources correctly.

9. Lazy Load by WP Rocket

This lightweight plugin lazy loads images, videos, iframes etc. Resources only load when visitors scroll down to their positions.

  • Pros

    • Faster initial page loads
    • Extremely simple setup
    • No jQuery dependency
  • Cons

    • Only lazy loads images
    • Less flexibility than paid alternatives

For zero-config lazy loading, Lazy Load by WP Rocket is a great starting choice before exploring heavier premium options.

Bonus Plugins for Eliminating Bloat

Any unused code adds unnecessary bloat that slows down sites. Eliminating unused features improves performance.

Top options include:

10. Disable Comments

Completely disables comments across WordPress if they‘re not needed. This removes unused bloat code and database overhead.

11. Disable XML-RPC

XML-RPC is a remote publishing protocol prone to DDoS attacks. If not needed, disabling it enhances security and eliminates bloat.

12. Remove Query Strings From Static Resources

Query strings prevent browser caching of key JS and CSS files. This plugin strips query strings for enhanced caching and speedier loads.

Pitfalls To Avoid When Using Plugins

While the right plugins can clearly have a tremendous impact, take note of two crucial pitfalls to avoid:

Too Many Plugins Can Slow Down Sites

It‘s tempting to install many performance plugins together. But too many plugins can actually hurt performance.

Each plugin has some processing overhead. Having too many active plugins, whether for optimization or otherwise, can bottleneck requests and slow things down.

Instead, we recommend picking 1-2 plugins focused on your priority area like basic caching, image optimization etc.

Then test performance before adding more plugins. Quality beats quantity when choosing optimization plugins.

Misconfigured Plugins Degrade Performance

Plugins rarely work optimally out-of-the-box. And incorrect settings can severely degrade performance.

For example, careless image compression can distort visuals. Over-aggressive minification can break sites. Over-caching can serve stale, outdated content.

So proper configuration is key to safely improve performance. Test plugins on staging sites first and tweak settings before going live.

Guide To Choosing The Right Free Performance Plugins

With over 15 top free plugins covered, how do you pick the best options for your site?

If You‘re a WordPress Beginner

If you‘re new to WordPress, start simple for best results:

  • Caching – Use WP Fastest Cache
  • Images – ShortPixel for optimization
  • Minification – Autoptimize on basic settings

Avoid overly complex plugins calling for configuration and debugging. Simple plugins work great for beginners.

If You‘re an Advanced WordPress User

If you have technical expertise, more advanced plugins can give you greater flexibility:

  • Caching: WP Super Cache + Cache Enabler
  • Minification: Autoptimize with advanced options
  • Deferring: Async JavaScript
  • Images: ShortPixel + EWWW Image Optimizer

The combinations unlock more fine-grained controls. But they require greater WordPress skills to handle conflicts or troubleshoot issues.

Final Thoughts

Optimizing WordPress speed doesn‘t require expensive premium plugins or hosts.

Well configured free plugins can deliver up to 80%+ faster load times by effectively handling caching, minification, image optimization, deferring and removing bloat.

We highly recommend using WP Fastest Cache, Autoptimize and ShortPixel as a base free plugin combination. They provide well-rounded optimization improvements with minimal config needs for most users.

What free optimization plugins have you used and what performance gains did you get? Share your experiences in the comments!

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