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Improving Site Performance

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all fast websites are alike, but all slow websites are slow in different ways.

This document is a brief guide to improve your Gatsby site’s performance.

Part 1: Creating a process for performance improvements

Because websites are hard to make fast and easy to make slow, performance improvement isn’t just something that takes place at one point in time. Instead, performance is a system that you put in place to maintain and extend performance gains over time.

Step 1: Choose a testing tool

In order to get a baseline, you need to decide what you consider the “source of truth”.

Lighthouse / PageSpeed Insights and Webpagetest are the most common website performance testing tools in the Gatsby community. Lighthouse tends to be seen as more “canonical”. Webpagetest tends to be seen as more precise.

These tools measure what are known as “Core Web Vitals”, which measure both time to page load and time to page interactivity. Google’s official page has more detail on what these metrics are.

Step 2: Set up performance monitoring 

Site performance monitoring becomes increasingly important the more long-lasting your project is. You can put a lot of effort into performance work — but then ship a performance regression that wipes out all your hard work!

There are three options for this:

  • Gatsby Cloud has Lighthouse performance reports built into its CI/CD. Every time someone opens a pull request or merges into master, a Lighthouse report will be run and the performance score displayed.

  • Use a third-party service that offers performance monitoring, such as Calibre or Speedcurve

  • Integrate Webpagetest or Lighthouse reports into your CI/CD process, via eg webhooks or GitHub Actions.

For additional precision, run a test multiple times and take the median result.

Step 3: Quantify the impact of each change you make 

While you’re doing performance improvement work, it’s important to understand the impact of each change or set of changes. You may find that one change gives you a 2-point Lighthouse improvement and another gives you a 20-point improvement.

There’s an easy way to measure this:

  1. Write a pull request with each change or set of changes, using a service like Gatsby Cloud or Netlify that generates deploy previews per-PR.
  2. Run Lighthouse tests against the deploy preview for that branch and the deploy preview for master. Do not compare the live site to a deploy preview since the CDN setup may differ.
  3. Calculate the difference in Lighthouse scores.
  4. If you don’t see a significant difference from a change, consider batching similar changes together until the difference is noticeable and thinking about the changes as a group.

Performance work can be surprisingly nonlinear in impact.

Part 2: Implement Improvements.

When you run a test in your testing tool of choice, it will give you a number of recommendations. These can be bucketed into five core categories:

Every site is different, and the recommendations will give some guidance as to where the highest effort to impact ratio is on your site.

Address third-party-script impact

Various types of calls made in your HTML, like calls to external font files, will block page load or page interactivity in different ways. In addition, third-party scripts can execute “eagerly”, often delaying page load while they do so.

Step 1: Remove unneeded and high-cost, low-value scripts

For each script, it can be helpful to understand the business purpose, relative importance, and who’s using the data. This will allow you to identify and remove any unused scripts.

There may also be relatively unimportant scripts that have a high performance costs; these are also good candidates for removal.

Step 2: Use the Gatsby Script component to load scripts performantly

Support for the Gatsby Script API was added in gatsby@4.15.0.

Gatsby includes a built-in <Script> component that unlocks the ability to load your scripts with various strategies that are beneficial for performance:

  • After your page hydrates (post-hydrate strategy)
  • After the browser’s main thread becomes idle (idle strategy)
  • In a web worker, avoiding doing any work on the main thread at all (off-main-thread strategy, experimental)

Each strategy comes with its own set of considerations, but they are all more performant than the regular blocking <script>, <script async>, and <script defer>.

The Gatsby <Script> component also supports inline scripts, so for your smaller scripts you can save the cost of a network request and determine when the inline script is loaded.

For more information, see the Gatsby Script reference documentation.

Another option is to replace multiple analytics trackers that load in the user’s browser with a single tracker from a “customer data platform” (CDP) like Segment or Rudderstack. CDPs will send out data to your analytics tools from their servers. Here is one example of a team that did this to optimize performance.

Reduce your JavaScript bundle cost

Among all assets, JavaScript can be uniquely costly to your performance. This is due to three main reasons:

  • Like other assets, it needs to be loaded into your browser.

  • Unlike most other assets, it’s code. That means it needs to be parsed by your browser, which can “block” other work from happening.

  • With third-party npm modules, it’s easy to accidentally add a lot of JavaScript you don’t actually need.

To reduce your JavaScript bundle size, follow the steps below.

Step 1: Profile your bundle

The first step to fix this is to figure out what’s going on. Use gatsby-plugin-webpack-bundle-analyser-v2 and the experimental plugin gatsby-plugin-perf-budgets to profile your bundle. When you add this tool to your gatsby-config.js, you can analyze the bundle size on each page in your application.

Chunk naming patterns help you break down a page into three categories:

  • application-level chunks (shared with all pages),
  • template-level chunks (shared with all pages of the same template),
  • page-level data imports

Visuals illustrating this breakdown: all chunks on a page, only application-level chunks, only template-level chunks.

Step 2: Remove unneeded third-party imports from application-level chunks

Start by auditing your application-level chunks, especially commons.js — the bundle that is shared by all components.

Start by inspecting third-party package size. Anything over 50kb, and certainly 100kb, is worth examining whether it’s needed. Some common culprits include: Moment.js, Lodash, Material UI, but you’ll want to inspect your individual libraries.

To prevent large imports from recurring, consider using a tool that displays the size of library imports you’re pulling in. The Import Cost extension for Visual Studio Code and BundlePhobia are good resources.

In addition, eyeball all the medium-sized packages (10-50kb). If it doesn’t look like there’s a good reason for that particular package to be in the commons, carefully audit your import structure.

One edge case: If you’re importing Redux globally, Redux can pull in data bundles that don’t seem to be related. If you’re only using Redux on a page or two, you may want to check the impact by removing it entirely and running Lighthouse.

Step 3: Audit your application-level chunks for components and data that don’t need to be on every page

One common challenge is inadvertently pulling in more code or data than you intend to your commons bundle.

For example, let’s say you have a header that imports a JSON object in order to check a key / value pair on that object. Whether that JSON object is 5kb or 50kb, you’ve now imported it into every page on your site!

There’s a couple ways to detect this:

  • Notice components and data that don’t seem to be needed on every page. If you’re using v2 of Gatsby, certain methods of importing can cause code to get bundled on pages it doesn’t belong on. Try replacing indirect import statements like import { myIcon } from './icons/index.js' with direct imports like import { myIcon } from './icons/my-icon.js'.

  • Watch for unexpectedly large data imports. If you notice large JSON objects, and you do need the data (or some portion of it), there are a couple options.

    • If you only need a small portion of that data, consider getting it a different way. Split up the JSON file, query it via GraphQL, or import it in gatsby-node.js and pass through only the subset of data you need.

    • If you need the data, but not right away (perhaps it’s lower in the page, or being used by an event handler), you might consider switching to asynchronously fetching it.

Step 4: On critical paths, identify unneeded code & components

Your site likely has critical paths on your site that are very important to business success. This might be your home page, a signup page, a product template, and so on.

Inspect critical paths’ template-level chunks for large third-party libraries and unneeded components. Repeat the process from steps two and three to identify optimization opportunities.

Step 5: On critical paths, lazy-load below-the-fold components

Gatsby’s default behavior is to bundle the entire page together. However, there may be some components that don’t need to be loaded right away. Perhaps your home page is quite long and you’re willing to defer loading elements farther down on the page if it makes the initial page load faster.

One way you can do this is to lazy-load below-the-fold components using loadable-components. loadable-components is the recommended lazy-loading solution for all server-side-rendered React applications, including Gatsby websites.

We recommend you use the gatsby plugin to install loadable-components. This plugin ensures that all components are still server-rendered for performance benefits.

Step 6: Consider using the Preact plugin

Preact is a UI library that works similarly to React, but is much smaller (~3kb compressed as opposed to ~40kb). gatsby-plugin-preact is a drop-in plugin that will render your site in Preact instead of React, cutting 35-40kb of JavaScript from your bundle.

This step can make sense if the framework.js bundle is a large part of your overall bundle size, and want to further optimize.

Using Preact is an advanced way to decrease bundle size. Note that in certain, occasional edge cases this can create ill-documented, odd user interactions. We do not recommend this for sites with complex UI logic, like a SaaS app.\ After installing gatsby-plugin-preact, you’ll need to use Preact Developer Tools instead of React Developer Tools to inspect your component behavior.

Styling & Fonts

When working with CSS and fonts, there are certain additional patterns you’ll need to follow or tools to use in order to optimize performance.

Step 1: Check for globally bundled CSS

Without properly scoped and imported CSS you can end up with a large bundle with all your CSS getting pulled in on every page. What you want, instead, is a small bundle pulling in only needed CSS.

You can use the Coverage drawer in Chrome’s Dev Tools to detect the proportion of unused CSS on each page.

Gatsby inlines CSS into the initial HTML file. So when running Coverage look for the line with the current page’s UR and take note of the % of bytes that are unused and the page size.

A “good” scenario is having between 20-40% of unused code — this includes, for example CSS to define responsive layouts that isn’t evaluated on desktop format. A “bad” scenario is 80-90% unused code and a 1mb file.

You can dig deeper by scroll through the page on the usage drawer to look at the unused CSS and get a sense of whether it is needed for that page. To fix these issues, look at moving to a modular CSS solution like CSS modules.

Step 2: If you’re using a CSS-in-JS library, use the Gatsby plugin

If you’re using a CSS-in-JS library like styled-components or emotion, use the relevant plugin: gatsby-plugin-styled-components or gatsby-plugin-emotion.

These plugins server-side render the styles; otherwise, the output HTML will intersperse <style> tags with HTML elements, which can cause the browser to perform costly layout reflow.

Step 3: Optimize fonts

Font files can usually be reduced in size significantly. If your font file is over 50kb, it’s too large. In addition, fonts block page load, so it’s important to think about reducing network calls.

  • Prefer woff2. Don’t use ttf. woff2 is a compressed font format, supported by browsers used by over 95% of Internet users. A few legacy browsers need woff.Like using avif and webp instead of png and jpg, using the correct format can significantly cut down the amount of data sent over the network.
  • Self-host rather than installing from an external CDN. Having the font file available locally will save a trip over the network and reduce blocking time.
  • Use Latin font subsets only (if creating a Latin-language site). It’s common to accidentally include font extensions (Greek, Cyrillic, Devnagari, Chinese) when typically you only need the Latin base set. The Google Webfonts Helper app can help you do this with free fonts.

Font optimizations are usually small, but easy performance wins.

Images & Media

Media files are often the largest files on a site, and so can delay page load significantly while they are pulled over the network, especially if their location is not well-defined.

Gatsby Plugin Image is our approach to optimizing image loading performance. It does three basic things:

  1. It delays non-essential work for images not above the fold to avoid resource congestion.
  2. It provides a placeholder during image fetch.
  3. It minimizes image file size to reduce request roundtrip time.

The gatsby-plugin-image documentation is fairly exhaustive, ranging from why image optimization is important to how to implement Gatsby Plugin Image.

Implementing Gatsby Image is typically the bulk of image- and media-related performance optimization.

Resource Requests & CDN Configuration

Part of the work in loading a Gatsby site is minimizing the time to transport bits over the network. There’s a number of ways to do this.

  • Load critical assets from your main domain where possible. Some people use another domain for their images. This can have a 300ms delay when it comes to LCP compared to loading it from the main CDN. This is sometimes necessitated by company policies; try to avoid it if possible.

  • Preconnect to subdomains using gatsby-plugin-preconnect. The impact of this is very site-specific, and while it’s usually positive, we’ve seen this actually slow down page loads on occasion, so you’ll want to test this.

  • Utilize Gatsby Link. Gatsby Link is our approach to optimizing the intra-site navigation experience. We pre-load linked pages on your site so that transitioning between pages is smooth and seamless. Here’s a guide to using Gatsby Link.

  • Implement proper CDN caching policies. Configuration differs on a per-CDN basis, but since Gatsby generates unique bundle names via hashes, bundles can be cached indefinitely since they are immutable.

Additional Resources

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