How does browser caching affect web design?

Users visit websites hundreds, thousands, and even more times per month. Each time a website is visited, a browser requests a web page, and then the server has to do a ton of complex and time-consuming calculations to retrieve the latest posts, generate the page design, and so on. Caching removes the redundancy from this process. That is what caching is used for. And that brings up many questions, such as how does browser caching affect web design. We have to make sure you understand the caching technology first to answer that. Let’s jump into that straight away.

how does browser caching affect web design

Caching: the good, the bad, and the ugly – What is Web Caching?

We can describe caching as a necessary evil. Its work consists of several steps. The browser requests the server and gets some data that can be HTML, CSS, some JavaScript, and some images. Then, the server connects that data to the cache-control header, which is essentially meta-data about how long that information is valid. When a web page uses the content at the same URL, the browser checks for a local copy, then check the expiration date, and if it is still valid, it uses that copy without further approval from the server. This is caching in as layman terms as possible.

The idea of caching is pretty simple, while the technology and precise details might not be.

We’ll explain it like this – if we tell you to remember an event from your past and then request you to remember it again, you’ll remember it faster the second time around. That’s because your brain saved all the information from the first time you recalled that event in your recent memory, making it much easier to recall it for the second time.

So the first time someone visits a website, all the information the site holds needs to come from somewhere. The browser must retrieve all the text, images, CSS style, media files, and scripts for display. When the website is visited, the request is received and processed on the server, and the resulting web page has to be converted into an HTML file to show on the visitor’s web browser. The server stores this HTML file within its RAM, so the next time that visitor views the homepage, the server sends the already prepared HTML file to the browser (processing and conversion to the HTML file are skipped with caching working).

What slows down the website is usually MySQL queries. Most of the time, the page might have to do dozens of MySQL queries to render all the information needed to display that particular page. That puts a significant strain on the server hardware and increases the page loading time. Enabling caching prevents the server from running the backend/DB queries, cutting the processing time. Therefore the page delivery is much quicker.

Types of caching

We can roughly divide caching into two types:

  • Server caching which is done on the server
  • Browser caching which is done on the client

Browser caching is active when a person visits a website. The browser downloads all additional resources alongside the page’s content the first time someone reaches the website. Browser caching allows the browser to store all that information, so the next time that same person visits the site, it takes less time to load it. During browser caching, static parts of the website that don’t change from visit to visit, such as CSS, images, and JavaScript, are downloaded and stored closer to the user. During the next visit, the browser can recall this data from the stored location rather than having the webserver do it all over again.

Benefits of browser caching:

  • Optimization and responsiveness – content can be cached at many points between the origin and the consumer, reducing network traffic if it’s cached closer to the consumer. It improves loading time, which positively affects the performance of a web page.
  • Decreasing network costs – less network activity results in reduced costs.
  • Ensuring availability – user experience is nowadays the key, so caching allows users to access content and spare the website from crashing. 

As for server caching, instead of processing every request, the server takes the results of these requests and stores them, making everything much faster. There are two methods of server caching – object and full-page cache. Object cache stores only pieces of data and can be helpful when storing the results of complex operations and within the code.

Caching options

Caching or cache-control has several options that can be set to precisely define how the browser handles cache requests:

  • No-cache specifies that content can be cached but must undergo revalidation on each request before being served to the client, which allows the client to check for new content without downloading resources again if they haven’t changed.
  • No-store indicates that the content can’t be cached in any way, suitable for sensitive data and resources that will change from visit to visit.
  • The Public option designates that the content can be cached in every way.
  • Private specifies that the user’s browser may store content and is used for user-specific data, which is not particularly sensitive.
  • Max-age defines the maximum time that particular content can be cached before revalidation.

We know what’s on your mind right now. You’re questioning the cache benefits when you change the web page content or design. But there’s no need to worry about anything. The cache is a complex feature and has a complex technology behind it, so it has ways to empty the cache when specific conditions are met and regenerate new information.

Always use a single caching plug; that’s the most important rule of all. Having more than one caching plugin can negatively impact your site’s processing. 

Disadvantages of web caching

While all this sounds great, and you should take advantage of it, caching has its downside.

Although your website performs better, you want your users to see the latest version. We can’t expect them to do “hard refresh” every time they regularly visit our site or clear cache. This type of caching issue is frustrating for both the developer and end-user.

So to avoid this frustration, we use a technique called cache-busting, cache flushing or purging the cache. We typically use WP-Rocket to have control over website’s caching. 

Web design/redesign

Your goal as a web designer is always to make and maintain a user-friendly and functional website. So from time to time, redesigning is necessary. During a redesign, you make many changes that affect the code and the pages. Such changes may affect SEO, so you may want to learn more about how to redesign without losing SEO; however, that’s not why you’re here.

So, you just finished designing or redesigning a website, and before the final acceptance of changes you made, you want to look at the website from a visitor’s perspective. Have you noticed that sometimes website changes don’t take effect immediately and there happen to be delays with new website appearance? The changes are not showing up; you’re still seeing the previous version. That is the moment when caching is doing its thing.

How does browser caching affect web design?

When reviewing changes made during the development of a website, caching might be a problem because it stores all instructions coded in the website and shows the latest look of the site. So, in that case, you want nothing to be pulled from the browser cache. To assure that, it’s necessary to perform a change in the settings known as “hard refresh” on the browser before reviewing the changes and modifications performed. First, navigate the page you want to review and then use the steps depending on what browser you’re using.

  • Google Chrome
    • Hold down the Ctrl key and click the reload button
    • Hold down the Ctrl key and press the F5 key
  • Mozilla Firefox
    • Hold down the Ctrl key and press the F5 key
    • Hold down Ctrl and Shift keys and press R
  • Internet Explorer
    • Hold down the Ctrl key and click the reload button
    • Hold down the Ctrl key and press the F5 key.

Caching works by categorizing specific page resources in terms of how frequently they change. So, for example, the site’s logo image changes rarely, unlike the site’s script that might change every few days. This is beneficial to you and your users to determine which type of content is more static or more dynamic. 

When redesigning or updating your website, its content changes rapidly. The first time you refresh the page, the changes won’t appear but don’t stress it. The next time you refresh, it will appear. But don’t turn the caching off. Not just because the procedure itself is complex, but because it benefits the website performance.

It’s powerful enough to allow specific content type changes and flexible enough for easy updates when the site’s content changes.

Final thoughts

As a web designer, you always strive for the fastest website and have everything ticked off of your website quality assurance checklist. A fast website leads to better SEO scores and increases user satisfaction.

We hope this article answers your question about how does browser caching affect web design, so let’s sum it up – your caching options shouldn’t be permanent; instead, you should regularly audit them and adjust to ensure maximum performance. Also, cache cleaning should be planned and, if possible, done step by step.

A well-coded website already loads in a second or two, so questions like “Is cache needed” can appear. The answer of a web design agency in Chicago to that question is yes because by implementing caching, you’re not just making your website faster; you’re increasing user experience and making it perform better. Caching increases the speed of the website without sacrificing anything in the process.

Brian Djordjevic
About The Author

Brian Dordevic

Brian is Marketing Strategic Planner with a passion for all things digital. Feel free to follow him on Twitter or schedule a consultation call with him.

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