The benefits and disadvantages of using Gravatars in WordPress

Possible alternatives to Gravatars on WordPress websites

Gravatars WordPress Website
Image Source: ROverhate – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

Have you enabled Gravatars on your WordPress website? If so, you might want to rethink that decision again. And if you haven’t enabled Gravatars on your website yet, you might want to consider possible alternatives to Gravatar first. Now allow us to explain these thoughts …

What are Gravatars for WordPress?

If you’re not familiar with Gravatars by name, you’ve probably at least run into them on sites you frequent, especially WordPress websites. They’re basically just user avatars gone global – or Globally Recognized Avatars – hence, the name. In other words, they’re identifying images that follow you around from site to site, as a user. When you comment on a site that’s enabled their usage, your Gravatar will show up next to your comment and your name, like so:

Gravatar Comments

As a WordPress website owner, when you activate Gravatars in your WordPress dashboard, you can choose in the settings menu what default images will display if a user hasn’t yet signed up for or logged in to an active, valid Gravatar account. See the WordPress default avatars in the image below:

WordPress Avatars

We have written about how to use Gravatar for user avatars for your WordPress website before here at MH Themes, but in this post, we’re going to examine the potential downsides to Gravatars and explain why those disadvantages are worth considering. We’ll also provide a few alternatives in form of WordPress plugins you can explore for your WordPress website that sidestep those drawbacks.

What’s the benefit to user avatars?

Given the fact that there are drawbacks at all, it’s worth time to consider the question: Why activate Gravatars at all? Is there any reason to use any kind of user avatars in the first place? The short answer is yes. Gravatars aren’t just pretty or interesting pictures next to comments or else. They can provide a great number of benefits and advantages for WordPress website owners.

To begin with, user avatars of any kind provide a heightened and improved user experience for your WordPress website by enabling differentiation between users in your community. After all, deep down we all believe we’re special. We want to be seen as individuals, and appreciated for our uniqueness. That’s especially true in the increasingly anonymous and crowded digital space.

User Avatars WordPress
Image Source: Clker-Free-Vector-Images – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

Even folks who don’t comment under their actual names like to maintain a unique digital identity. More practically, Gravatars encourage engagement by prompting readers to leave comments and participate in the conversations in the comments sections on posts and pages of your website.

And, of course, more engagement means more comments, more social shares, more traffic, and ultimately more conversions, sales, sign-ups, or whatever it is you’re most interested in growing for your site. Gravatars take that advantage and extend it to your users, as well, by making it easier for them to track their activity across all the sites they visit regularly.

The key disadvantage to using Gravatars

So if enabling Gravatars benefits both you as the website owner and your site users, then why wouldn’t you want to do so? In a word: Speed. Or maybe that should read in three words: Lack of speed. Bottom line: Gravatars can seriously increase the time it takes your WordPress website’s pages to load fully in your users’ browser windows.

Here’s why. If you write a blog post that gets a nice, solid boost of traffic, all things being equal you can expect to get a few more comments on that post than your average blog post. And you’re probably already aware that sometimes this traffic => comments equation can become cyclical: traffic => comments => more traffic => more comments => virality. That’s all well and good, right?

Comments Posts Pages
Image Source: geralt – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

There’s a slight catch: The more comments you have, the slower the page will load. Each comment has to be loaded, so the more comments that must be loaded, the more time it’ll take for the page as a whole to load completely. Moreover, when you’ve enabled Gravatars, there’s an additional factor to consider. Each of those comments carries an image, each of which must be rendered and loaded.

So every time your WordPress website is loaded, it creates a call to the Gravatar servers, asking the servers to check their databases for the commenter’s email address and return the appropriate Gravatar image to your server, so it can serve it up in the visitor’s browser window.

For each comment, a separate call to the Gravatar servers gets made, and each call is estimated to take about 100 ms. That might not be a huge deal if you’ve got 5 comments below a post on your WordPress website. But what if you have 500 comments? Take a look at the below screenshot from the above-linked-to post by Darren Slatten at SEOMofo.com showing the results of his speed test:

WordPress Comments Slow Down Page Speed
Image Source: Screenshot – seomofo.com

It all adds up. And that may have both a negative impact on SEO, as well as a negative impact on user experience. We’ve known since 2010 that Google ranking factors include site speed. Sure, the time it takes your WordPress website to load isn’t going to be as important as the quality and authority behind your actual content, but it’s definitely something Google will take into consideration. In the future, site speed may become more and more an important ranking factor.

And since Google’s paying ever more attention to user behavior on site, anything that detracts from a positive user experience should be addressed in any event. So test your site speed, then take a look at things you can do to help your pages load more quickly. One thing you might want to consider is adopting an alternative to Gravatars which offers some advantages for your WordPress website.

Alternatives to Gravatars

You can install plugins that manage Gravatar images more effectively for your site’s users by caching the images for a speedier page load. Plugins that can do this for you include FV Gravatar Cache. Another alternative to Gravatar is hosting your own user avatars on your own server. This will eliminate the lag created by all those calls to external servers and should speed up the process.

WP User Avatar Plugin
Image Source: Screenshot – WordPress.org

One plugin that you can use to implement this solution is WP User Avatar. With this plugin, you can designate any image in your media library as the default avatar. It will also add a simple image uploader to the profile page of your users so logged-in users can select their own avatars images. Contributing bloggers to your site can choose their own avatars for their posts. And if you couple this with a content delivery network or CDN, you can improve your site speed even more.

Conclusion: Using Gravatars in WordPress

It might not be a huge concern for you now, but you never know when a post will attract an unusual number of comments. Being prepared for that day with a smoother experience for your users and a faster page load time will only work to your benefit. Have you tried locally hosted avatars or caching Gravatars to address site speed concerns? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

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