Hugo vs. WordPress page load speed comparison: Hugo leaves WordPress in its dust

Getting Things Tech recently moved from WordPress to Hugo, partly motivated by the hope for better page load performance. Has the bet paid off? Without a doubt. With over a month on this new platform, we now have some data to show off the differences.

Apples and Oranges

First, it should be noted that there’s no real apples to apples comparison between WordPress and Hugo. They work very differently, even if in many cases the end result is the same. For instance, WordPress needs a MySQL database to work, fundamentally changing the type of bare minimum server setup required.

Hugo creates a batch of HTML files, which just need to be downloaded by the visitor. Every visit to a WordPress site requires a query to the MySQL database to retrieve the post information, at which point the server builds the HTML page from scratch. WordPress is simply more resource-intensive. Not coincidentally, the main ways that hosts speed up WordPress sites is by pre-generating the pages and hosting them statically, not unlike Hugo.

Some sites simply can’t be run the way that Hugo, Jekyll, or many other systems provide because their content changes too often. Still, many sites are hosted on WordPress mainly due to its familiarity and online text editor rather than the dynamic content that it serves well.

While Hugo and WordPress are not technically similar, the expected output is the same for many bloggers choosing between them. With that in mind, let’s look at the experience of GTT.

We keep our visitor analytics in-house with Piwik, a self-hosted and open source solution to keep from needlessly exposing visitors to more Google tracking than necessary. Among the metrics tracked by Piwik is the time it takes to generate the page, which is not exactly page load speed but rather how long it takes the server to send the HTML to the user.

Below is a graphic showing the daily page generation time since May 2015 at Getting Things Tech. Note that in mid-December 2016, we switched to Hugo from WordPress. You can click to view it in full size on a separate page.

It’s a bit difficult to pick up on any meaningful differences in that view. Part of this is because the time at the very end, when we switched to Hugo, doesn’t take up much of the graph. The other part is because we had one day with extremely slow page loading, which needlessly expands the y-axis.

To take a closer look, let’s take a peek at just the past 6 months.

Wow! Something really changed towards the end there. In case it isn’t dramatic enough for you, let’s zoom in.

That part where the line drops down steeply? That’s when we switched to Hugo. For a little more explanation, the middle gray line represents 5 seconds page generation time. You can see that the pre-Hugo average is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 seconds. Post-Hugo, it’s so low it’s hard to be precise.

Dreamhost, Siteground, DigitalOcean

One thing that you should keep in mind about this comparison is that the move to Hugo also coincided in a change in web hosts. In our final months on WordPress, we were on a shared hosting plan with Dreamhost. These are not particularly speedy hosting plans, so a reasonable person could argue that this is an unfair comparison.

As detailed in another post, we are now hosted by DigitalOcean, which offers VPS servers. Without going into great detail, VPS servers have the ability to be faster than shared hosts because your little sector of server space is reserved to just your site. On the other hand, we are hosted on the cheapest VPS that DigitalOcean offers. Tellingly, this server would be very slow running WordPress, perhaps much slower than Dreamhost’s shared plans.

Prior to Dreamhost, though, we were hosted by Siteground. At Siteground, we were on a managed Wordpress hosting plan, which also utilizes a VPS. That VPS had more resources than our current one (at a higher price too, I’ll add). We were also using Siteground’s caching mechanisms that attempt to serve WordPress sites in a way that more closely resembles a static site like one created with Hugo.

Below is a graph of the six-month period during which we migrated from managed WordPress hosting at Siteground to shared hosting at Dreamhost.

You can see that when we transferred in mid-June, the page load speeds got a lot slower. On the other hand, notice that with Siteground the page load speeds were still nearly 2 seconds on average. Here’s a closer look:

Note that there are 4 days with “0” readings because Piwik was not yet running on the Dreamhost server, not because it was temporarily super fast.

Final thoughts

As said previously, there’s no obviously “fair” test between these two platforms. At the same time, many sites like this one can switch between the two and so comparisons are needed nonetheless.

One could argue that the page speed issues on the WordPress version of this site were due to some aspect of the WordPress setup, not WordPress itself. That could be the case—maybe a better theme, fewer or faster plugins, etc. may have helped—but it hardly explains the vast differences.

Overall, WordPress has some strengths that Hugo will never aspire to have. WordPress can serve dynamic content and is, in general, more feature-packed. It requires considerably less know-how to get up and running. But if you are thinking about Hugo as a way to get more speed for less money, that’s exactly what you’ll get.


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