If you read my previous column about caching in WordPress, you know that it is incredibly important, for both the speed of your site and the health of your server, to run some kind of caching plugin on your installation.
But what’s lesser known is that you not only have a variety of caching plugins available for you on WordPress, but they aren’t all the same.
This isn’t to say that one is “better” or “worse” than another, but rather, that they have different aims, goals and purposes. A cache that is right for a friend’s site might not be right for yours and vice versa.
So how do you find which caching plugin is right for you? It starts with understanding why these plugins are different and then evaluating your needs honestly so that you’ll be able to pick the right one.
Simply put, this isn’t so much a guide to tell you which caching plugin is right or best for you, but rather, a guide to help you understand that there are options and figure out which one is the best for your situation.
Why and How Are Caching Plugins Different?
On a fundamental level, all caching plugins do the exact same thing. They are designed to make your site load faster and require fewer resources by allowing your server to offer static pages rather than having to generate a new page using PHP and MySQL for every visitor who comes to your site.
The trade off is that, while your pages will be less dynamic, meaning they won’t update as frequently, they will load faster and your site can handle more visitors. For most sites, the drawback on the tradeoff is barely noticeable.
But while all caching plugins do the same thing, they get there by dramatically different ways. Simply put, there are a lot of ways that a server can create, store and deliver a cached version of the page and how a plugin achieves the effect can have a great impact on its performance and it the actual impact it has.
For example, W3 Total Cache, by itself, has six different options for page cache settings, just one of its options. Some of the options are aimed at simplicity, some are aimed at sacrificing server resources for additional speed and some are designed for heavily customized and unusual environments.
Using a caching plugin or a caching plugin setup that’s a poor fit for your server can actually slow your site down or create more problems for you.
So, how do you choose which one is right for you? I would advise doing your own research as the plugins available are constantly changing, but your evaluation always starts with an honest look at your site and your site’s needs.
What Do You Need?
The first step to picking a caching plugin is to take a honest look at your needs. What kind of traffic levels are you seeing? How big of a threat are traffic spikes? How complex is your site? What kind of hosting do you have? Are you having any issues with slowness now?
The truth is that most blogs can get by with a relatively simple caching plugin such as Quick Cache, Lite Cache or Hyper Cache. In all of the above cases, the plugin is geared toward simplicity and toward helping the largest number of WordPress sites possible.
While you’ll still need to research which is right for you, you probably don’t need W3 Total Cache, which is meant to be more of a caching framework than a plugin. The deluge of options, many of which aren’t even available on shared servers can not only confuse but can actually open the door to poor settings that can slow a site down or overly tax a server.
For those needing more power than a basic caching plugin but less than W3 Total Cache, a system such as WP Super Cache might be a good fit as it’s a compromise between the simplicity of the basic caching plugins and the power of W3 Total Cache. However, it too may be too much if you don’t need to choose your caching type or use a content delivery network.
Generally, when choosing a caching plugin, it’s more important to choose a plugin that has the features you need and not necessarily the one with the most options. More options, while important to those who need them, are often just more problems, especially if you’re out of your depth.
So what features do you need? Your average blog with a routine updating schedule will see a significant boost with any caching system that uses disk-based caching (other alternatives are faster but generally use more memory and server resources) and either through mod_rewrite, which requires you to edit your .htaccess file, or through PHP caching.
Database caching, object caching, etc. probably aren’t necessary. In fact, Hostgator recommends you turn them off if you use W3 Total Cache. While they’re powerful tools in some situations, for most blogs with typical hosting setups they don’t add that much, if anything.
In fact, if you overtax your server with the wrong settings, it could actually go slower than without caching at all.
While W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache are both great plugins and can work wonders for your site, it’s important to remember that they are not the only caching plugins out there and others might be better tuned to your server and your level of expertise.
While it’s tempting to choose the caching plugin with the most options or the longest history, if you’re going to use a fairly standard setup for your site, it’s likely best to go with a plugin that was built from the ground up around that setup and not one that includes it as one option among dozens.
Simply put, caching plugins are not magical fixes for a slow site and they can, if used improperly, create problems for your site and the decision of which to use should be weighed carefully.
However, when making that decision, don’t limit yourself to the one or two best known ones. While they are certainly well known for a reason, there are other options out there and they might be better for you.
In the end, if a different caching program can provide less stress for you and your server, it’s probably worth going with it, even if it isn’t the one everyone else seems to be using.