Use get_the_terms() instead of wp_get_object_terms()

I was recently debugging the front page of a WordPress site and found a lot of queries to the terms and term relationships database tables.

Digging a little deeper, I found that the culprit were a set of functions that were calling wp_get_object_terms() to get the terms from a set of looped posts… and then I thought… “wait a minute, doesn’t WordPress should be using the object cache for this?”

Well, it turns out that wp_get_object_terms() always queries the database.

If you’re looping over WP_Query results, you should prefer get_the_terms() instead. It’s pretty much the same for most use cases, but it uses the object cache, which by default gets populated with the terms for the posts matching your query — unless you specifically set update_post_term_cache as false when instantiating WP_Query.

The are several differences, though: wp_get_object_terms() can take arrays as the first and second argument, while get_the_terms() can only take the post ID (or object) as first argument (so you can’t get the terms for a bunch of posts on one function call) and a string for taxonomy (so you can’t get the terms for several taxonomies); and you can use a third argument on the former, which the latter doesn’t have.

You could still emulate some of this, and still benefit from using the object cache; for instance, let’s see how you would get the names of the my_custom_tax terms for the current post, ordered by use on a descending way.

// using wp_get_object_terms()
$popular_terms = wp_get_object_terms( $post->ID, 'my_custom_tax', array( 
    'orderby' => 'count',
    'order'   => 'DESC',
    'fields'  => 'names'
) );

// using get_the_terms()
$popular_terms = get_the_terms( $post->ID, 'my_custom_tax' );
// $popular_terms will be ordered alphabetically, so let's order by count
$popular_terms = usort( $popular_terms, function( $a, $b ){
    if ( $a->count < $b->count ) {
        return 1;
    }
    if ( $a->count > $b->count ) {
        return -1;
    }
    return 0;
} );  
// we only need slugs, so...
$popular_terms = wp_list_pluck( $popular_terms, 'name' );

Even if it’s somewhat troublesome, it’s probably worth the effort if you’re trying to maximize for performance.

Horizontally scaling PHP applications

One of the most common worries of the enterprise IT world about WordPress and other Open Source apps it’s how you can scale it — which it’s kind of ironic when their enterprise-y web services response times are usually measured in the scale of tens of seconds…

DigitalOcean has published a high-level practical-overview on horizontally scaling PHP apps that’s a good starting point and I guess it could also apply to other kinds of apps as well.