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How Design & Hosting Impacts Your SEO

October 29, 2015 • By

Did you know hosting your site on a poorly performing server could actually impact the traffic you receive from search?

Webmasters are not completely unaware that hosting issues can affect their site’s rankings. Yet things like server speed and location often don’t receive as much attention as other aspects of SEO.

Hosting has a huge impact on the speed of your website, combined with a simple design that doesn’t confuse, you could really reduce your bounce rates. It’s important to strategise correctly, and design and hosting should be part of the plan. Are design and hosting really that important from an SEO point of view? Absolutely, let’s take a look why.

Server Location

Most SEO’s believe your IP host location impacts your SEO significantly.

To give you some perspective though, here’s what Google’s John Mueller said on a Google Product Forums thread about the role of hosting server IP address in ranking websites.

“For search, specifically for geotargeting, the server’s location plays a very small role, in many cases it’s irrelevant. If you use a ccTLD or a gTLD together with Webmaster Tools, then we’ll mainly use the geotargeting from there, regardless of where your server is located. You definitely don’t need to host your website in any specific geographic location — use what works best for you, and give us that information via a ccTLD or Webmaster Tools.”

I have highlighted the important part of Mueller’s statement, because the hosting server’s IP address has had some undeniable effects on traffic and conversions for many websites. Let’s look at a case study that shows how host IP location drastically changed the rankings of a UK based website.

Switching Server Location Causes Drop in Traffic for UK Website: Case Study

The following picture tells the story of what happened to Built Visible’s UK site visits when the CEO Richard Baxtor shifted the hosting back and forth between the UK and USA a couple of times.

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Image and Case Source

The first change was accidental. The IP was shifted to the USA on 17th Feb and was restored to its UK location on 28 Feb. Note how sharply the UK traffic drops when the hosting is transferred to the US, and rises again when the hosting IP location is restored. Conversely, the search rankings in the US went up when the hosting was shifted there. Hence, the effect of IP location was undeniable and clear.

Baxtor says he also set the international targeting in Google’s Webmaster Tools to the UK, just as Mueller suggests. This marginally improved the number of impressions in the UK, but the traffic in the US dropped immediately. Also, the gain in traffic when the international targeting was defined was lower than the loss in traffic when the IP was shifted to another country.

Incidentally, Baxtor isn’t the only one who has felt the effects of an IP shift. Here’s what Matt Mayer of cebuimage.com comments on a post about Mueller’s explanation:

https://www.seroundtable.com/seo-geo-location-server-google-17468.html#comment-1073075608

Does Host Location Really Matter for SEO?

However, Mueller sticks to his viewpoint while replying to another, more recent question on Google’s webmaster help forum.

https://productforums.google.com/d/msg/webmasters/JrcgQE-9zWw/bUYrVBP4vlsJ

Obviously, something is not right here. Google’s Matt Cutts comes through more clearly in the following Google Webmaster video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keIzr3eWK8I

An article on Google’s webmaster support also confirms that “the server location is often physically near your users and can be a signal about your site’s intended audience. ” Your local addresses and phone numbers, language, currency, incoming links, and Google’s My Business pages also send signals to Google’s ranking spiders about the intended audience of your site. It is only logical that hosting in the same country will strengthen those signals. Moreover, buying hosting near the geo-location of your target customers also improves your page loading times.

Should I Host My Site in My Own or Another Country?

To wind up this confusing discussion about the effect of hosting IP location on SEO, it does appear the hosting server’s location has a marked effect on ranking and impressions.

  • The safest thing to do is to host your website in the country where most of your customers are going to be located.
  • For websites having a global/multi-regional customer base, it will help to set up multi-regional domains/sub-domains for the most important countries, as Cutts also suggests.
  • Just in case your local server speeds and uptimes are lousy and you have to buy hosting in another country, your only option is to either point your gTLD to the country where you do most of your business or use a ccTLD domain name.

Site Speed

Speed is a killer…but for SEO, speed is life. The more patient of your users (47%) want your website to load in less than 2 seconds. And if you think that’s not fair, here the real stunner. A 1-second delay in page response could cost you 7% of your conversions; and a 4 seconds delay can cause one-fourth of your visitors to leave you website.

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Image Source: hobo-web

Why Site Speed is Critical

Speed is a critical component of user experience and that’s why Google considers loading time when ranking websites. It made clear back in 2010 that loading time will be a small factor in its search algorithm. A year later, Cutts explained in a YouTube video that the speed signal only affected just one in one thousand websites. He said you shouldn’t be worried if your site is loading a few seconds slower, because speed was “really not going to be an issue in Google search ranking.”

The latest official statement about loading time came earlier this year from John Mueller. He says during a Google+ hangout that he doesn’t know how much of the page-speed ranking signal is being used. He also says they do have a small factor for pages that are really too slow to load. (Source).

To cut the long story short, speed might not be too significant a search factor directly, unless your site is really taking ages to load. In that case Google might de-index it altogether. But the effects of slow loading times on conversions and user experience cannot be denied. At the end of it, Google evaluates the user experience that visitors have on your website. Slower site speeds can cause high bounce rate or pogo-sticking, which can waste your valuable SEO efforts. If you had a good SEO agency, they would be able to advise on the importance of speed further.

How to Avoid Speed Issues

To avoid speed issues, always buy your hosting after a lot of research. If your hosting provider does not allocate sufficient resources to your domain or there are certain other issues affecting your site loading times, all your keyword research, link building, and other SEO tactics may be useless.

Ask friends, monitor the page speed of your competitors’ and your own site, read hosting reviews, and when you’ve finally bought the hosting and published your site, keep optimizing your site’s content and structure for speed continuously.

Other Hosting Factors

Hosting quality depends on a number of things like server resource, server uptime, local communication infrastructure, availability of server-side features such as FTP, PHP, SSI, MySQL, SEO friendly URLs, eCommerce, security, etc. Some of these factors can seriously influence the way your site is ranked.

Uptime/Downtime

Google and other search engines don’t want to send people to websites that are often unavailable. Moreover, search spiders crawl your website according to a periodic schedule. If your site is down and the spiders can’t access it, they will not be able to rank or index your pages. There goes all your investment and effort that you put into SEO.

Dotcom Monitor tested the uptimes/downtimes of 20 mid-sized retailers for one week, and 16 of them had 100% uptime. This was a few years ago. Today, 100% uptime is pretty much the standard for quality hosting.

Shared Hosting

Google’s official stance is that shared hosting does not impact your SEO ranking, but what if shared hosting is causing slower loading times or increased downtimes? People buy shared hosting because it’s cheaper than buying separate hosting for different domains. But the cost saving comes at the expense of bandwidth and disk space, which can critically affect the site’s response time and SEO.

Moreover, sharing an IP address with people you don’t know might expose your site to the risk of being blacklisted in case some other site hosted on the same IP engages in illegal or spammy practices.

In-House Hosting

Some websites are still hosted on a server in the businesses offices. I’m not completely against this but it really doesn’t have much appeal. Its tough to scale up if needed and you would need to employ someone to look after it. I’d recommend migrating unless you really know what you are doing.

HTTPS Security

An HTTPS domain is the concurrent security standard that protects your website and its users from hacking. It does so by encrypting the data when it’s being transferred between the server and the user’s computer. An HTTPS secure URL is highlighted by green color and a “lock icon” in your browser’s address bar. Apart from providing impregnable security, an HTTPS hosting thus also gives your users the confidence that their information is secure.

Google announced last year that it was starting to use a lightweight HTTPS signal to give a slight ranking boost to the sites adopting the HTTPS security. The signal impacts just 1 in 1000 global search queries, for now. But it may become essential for you to buy or migrate to an HTTPS hosting if most of your competitors are already on HTTPS.

OK, so what about Design?

By now, everyone who has invested their time into understanding how the Google algorithms work should know that all these things are intertwined – almost like a web (yep. the world wide web!). Every element plays a part and design is no different. I wrote a long article with a deep run-down of how design can impact conversion rates. There’s much more to it than conversions though, you need to think about simplicity and keeping visitors on your site. The more positive on-page performance metrics you can show Google, the more they will trust your site and rank it higher.

Recently I spoke with Sreedhar Ambati, the Chief Product Officer of ClickDesk. They went through the painstaking and time consuming task of redeveloping their website design with a focus on decreasing bounce rates and improving conversion rates and saw a dramatic improvement in rankings due to Google seeing positive visitor performance.

Conclusion

The essence of SEO today is to provide a better user experience to your visitors. It’s for the sake of user experience that we use the relevant keywords, have great content on our pages, streamline the navigation, and do a hundred more things. It will be a shame if all that effort goes down the drain just because your hosting provider screws up. You should choose your hosting carefully the first time, because migrating your domain to a new server is a lot of hassle and can itself affect rankings.