If you’re running a global business, you’ve likely discovered the importance of localizing your website. But how important is the actual location of where your site is hosted?
In this article, I seek to explain the financial and user experience impact related to where you host your website.
You’ll learn more than you ever wanted about how the internet works, but hopefully, you will walk away with knowledge you can use to successfully manage your global digital experiences.
Who am I and why do I know about this stuff?
My name is David Vogelpohl and I’m the VP of Web Strategy at WP Engine. WP Engine is a digital experience platform powering WordPress experiences for global businesses in over 136 countries.
Beyond the experience I get in my day-to-day life working for a global web platform, I’ve also been involved with global internet backbone and data center deployments dating back to 1996.
In my career, I’ve gotten to know and work with the behind-the-scene players who built and maintained the very fabric of the modern internet. These include pioneers at companies like British Telephone, Comcast, Time Warner, Bell Canada, AT&T, and NTL.
For much of my career, I’ve managed global web properties including localizing in nine different languages and guiding everything from international data management to country TLD (domains) strategy. Each of the localized digital experiences my teams deployed had unique SEO campaigns focusing on local search engines, PPC campaigns, and aggressive advertising promotions.
I’ve also lead teams which have built website speed tools, and I’ve reviewed countless experiments calculating the benefits of page load time to conversion rates and SEO.
In short, I intimately know the structure of the internet, the impact of page speed, and how to leverage global web presences to drive revenue and growth.
Where you host your website matters
The location of where your site is hosted can have a big impact on user experience, how your site converts, and the visibility of your site to your target audience. In short, your website’s location really matters.
I generally consider four things when thinking about where my site is hosted:
- Speed – Will my visitors experience a slow loading website?
- Search Engines – Does hosting in-country affect SEO?
- Data Management – Do I need to follow certain data management rules for my target countries?
- Time – Does my organization have time to manage multiple locations for my hosting?
How location can affect your site’s load time
While the size and utilization of your host’s internet connections and servers are the primary drivers of your website’s speed, the distance of your server to your visitors can play equally as important of a role in the load time of your website.
In network terms “distance” is defined by ping time (network response time) which is largely affected by latency (network delay) and hops (number of network devices between two points).
From your website’s perspective, “latency” is the amount of network delay between your server and your visitor. Latency is caused by network devices processing your visitor’s traffic and delays, introduced by the physical distance between the visitor and your server (e.g. more length of wire to travel through, quality of the signal, etc.).
“Hops” refers to the number of network devices (routers, etc.) your visitors must pass through in order to reach your website. Each hop introduces processing time which causes delays in delivering content to your visitors.
Generally the greater the physical distance your server is from your customers, the longer it will take to load because of the increase in latency and hops.
Of course, the geography of the internet isn’t as simple as drawing a line on a map. The “internet” is a patchwork of wireless, satellite, and wired connections that rarely travel in a straight line.
A physical location that seems close to your visitors may actually be very far away in internet terms.
Even as recent as traffic six years ago, my personal mobile phone carrier routed all website requests I made in Austin through Houston. If a business was trying to reach a mobile audience in Austin at that time, Houston would have actually been the best place to host because of the reduced number of hops.
To fully understand where you should host your website, you need to understand the relationship of your host’s physical location to actual networks your visitors connect from.
How to find the fastest location to host your website
In the past, in order to test for visitor level network speed, you’d need to analyze server logs and do some wizardry with network and GEOIP lookup tables.
Luckily today you have an easy workaround that gives you the network speed by location for your users. Use this Page Speed by Country/City/Network report in Google Analytics to view average page load time by your visitors’ locations and the ISPs they’re connecting through.
Is your French site fast enough if it’s hosted in the UK? Are my visitors in Moscow able to download quickly from my servers in Helsinki? The above report will help you answer those questions and give you the information you need to make smart decisions about where you host your site and the experience you’re delivering to your visitors.
Distributing content even closer to visitors
As we discussed, the closer your servers are to your visitors, the faster your website will be. But did you know there’s an easy way to distribute pieces of your website to thousands of servers all around the world to be close to millions of people all at once?
A content distribution network or “CDN” allows you to push large files needed to load your web pages (or cached versions of entire web pages) to caching servers strategically located in data centers across the planet.
By leveraging services like MaxCDN, you can have your main web server located in the United States for example, but your images, videos, and cached web pages distributed to their global network of caching servers. These caching servers benefit your visitor’s download speeds in two important ways.
First, the “distance” of your content to your visitors is greatly reduced, thus leading to much faster download speeds. For example, images are often one of the slowest things to load on a web page, so if your images are distributed through a CDN, this will drastically reduce the website download speeds for your visitors, even if your primary web server is far away from the visitor.
Secondly, because the traffic for content served through the CDN isn’t actually hitting your servers (it’s being served by the CDN’s servers), your primary server has to work less, thus making it faster for all visitors.
This technique is called “offloading” and is similar to using embedded YouTube videos so your web server doesn’t have to store and serve those videos for your visitors.
A CDN allows you to push more of your content closer to your visitors and frees your server up from having to handle as many requests, thus reducing load and making your site faster for everyone.
In my opinion, a CDN is a must-have for every website, especially those focusing on a global audience.
How site speed affects international SEO
In 2013 Google started pushing an initiative called PageSpeed in order to help improve user experience on the web. Google also built a PageSpeed tool and publically acknowledged that PageSpeed is a factor in their ranking algorithm.
We don’t really know how Google calculates PageSpeed for the purpose of their ranking algorithm. The common consensus is that Google uses their own PageSpeed tool to measure and use in their ranking algorithm.
This common view is too limiting.
Google’s PageSpeed tool is a server-based tool which means it generally is giving you pagespeed based on a single data center’s connection to the internet (where their server(s) is located). In other words, the speed the tool shows is not a real representation on how actual users actually experience your website. Your host in Bolivia might be great for your users, but bad for Google’s PageSpeed tool.
Google knows all this of course, and in this video from August of 2013, Google’s Matt Cutts seems to indicate that pagespeed is used in their algorithm on a per user basis and not on a single view of pagespeed from a single data center (e.g. your “pagespeed score”).
To me, this confirms that Google is using user specific speed metrics in their ranking algorithm and a user-centric view of how your hosting location affects pagespeed will not only benefit how users experience your site, but also how well you rank in Google’s search results.
How location signals affect SEO
Location is important for speed and speed is important for SEO, but how else can the location of where you host affect how search engines treat your website?
The four main factors search engines use to determine location are the registered location of your web server’s IP address, the top-level domain (TLD) of your website, your HTML “lang” attribute, and data you provide them through services like Google Webmasters.
Every public IP address on the internet is distributed and controlled by organizations called “Internet Registries”. There is a registry for each continent including ARIN (North America), RIPE (Europe), APNIC (Asia), LACNIC (South America), and AFRINIC (Africa).
These registries control who owns specific IP addresses and store the location for the IP address. This directory of IP addresses and locations help make up databases called “GeoIP lookup tables” where search engines can determine where an IP address is supposed to be located.
I say “supposed to be located” because there is no actual requirement that a specific IP address must be located in the city declared in the registration with the Internet Registries. GeoIP lookup tables are famously inaccurate because of this, but because they are the best source of data associating IP address with a physical location, search engines will use this location data to influence their search rankings based on geography.
“In country” searches and even general searches done by visitors in a specific country can favor sites that have IP addresses which are registered in the country the visitor is searching from. If you’re looking to boost search rankings in a specific country, having an IP address for your site registered in that country can have a material impact on your search engine visibility.
Search engines can use any GeoIP lookup tables they want (even their own), so seeing exactly how a search engine views the location of your IP address can be difficult. The most consistent way to check the location of your IP address is to visit the registries’ websites (links above) and perform a “whois” search on the IP address of your server. The results for the whois query will show the location the registry has on file for your IP addresses.
Your TLD (domain) can also influence how search engines treat your site for local search results. A top-level domain refers to the part of your domain after the “.”. For example, “.com” is a TLD and “.co.uk” is also a TLD. TLD’s that indicate country of origin are referred to as “country level” TLDs.
The use of country level TLDs to determine your position in search rankings varies from search engine to search engine and country to country. As a general rule of thumb, having a unique country level TLD for each of your target countries is ideal for SEO.
Additionally, you can use the HTML “lang” attributes in the code of your rendered web pages to announce the location of your website. “Lang” attributes announce the language and region the page or link is targeted at. For example adding the lang attribute “en-GB” announces that a web page is for English visitors in the UK.
Using lang attributes can help search engines interpret which audiences are best for your site. Search engines use this information to help make sure their visitors see the right content based on their geography. The use of lang tags can vary depending on what you’re optimizing for, but Google has published this great guide on how you can use lang attributes on your site.
Finally, search engines provide services like Google Webmasters, Bing Webmaster Tools, and Baidu Webmaster Tools which allow you to claim your site and report the location of your site. The search engines will then use the location information you provide them to influence how they rank your site in their search engine for visitors from specific locations.
Out of the four main signals search engines use to determine location, the IP address is the only one which is actually influenced by where you host. If you’re unable to host your website on an IP address in a specific country, using the other three signals (lang tag, TLD, and webmaster tool portals) can be an effective way to communicate the target geographies for your site and boost your in-country SEO.
International Data Management
In addition to the speed and SEO considerations of location, you may also need to consider the regulatory and strategic issues associated with user data management.
Some countries require personal data to be stored in-country to avoid data being stored in countries with less aggressive (or more aggressive) privacy laws.
LinkedIn and other sites famously host servers in Russia in order to conform with political and legal pressure from the Russian government to not store user information in the US or other Western countries.
When you’re considering where to host your website, you should review your data management policy with your legal team to understand if there are requirements for where you store user data for the countries you’re targeting.
It could be that with SEO, speed, and time aside, you may have to host your website and servers in a specific country.
Balancing local hosting with your time
In a perfect world, your website would be stored on servers right next to each and every one of your site’s visitors. Of course, the time and expense of doing that are unreasonable so it’s up to you to determine what level of time and investment you want to make in your global hosting footprint.
At a minimum, I suggest you pick a location to host your site which is centrally located for the majority of visitors to your site. You should also use a CDN no matter what! A centrally located server in combination with a CDN will largely provide a fast-enough experience for most of your users.
From there, I suggest you look at deploying country level TLD sites (.fr, .de., .ca, etc) on servers / IP addresses within those countries. Mirror the in-country deployment of your TLD sites with the investment you’re making in a specific country.
If you’re expanding to Australia, consider hosting a “.au” version of your site hosted in Australia. Think of local hosting like opening an office.
Yes, it will take time and investment to launch and maintain, but if you’re serious about expanding into a specific country, it’s better to have a location down the street than across the world.