One of the SEO questions we commonly hear is, “Can the speed of your website affect SEO?”
As of August 2021, Google indicated that as part of the Page Experience Update, certain factors that correlate with a fast loading site would be considered in ranking.
It should be noted that these metrics are approximations for how fast a website loads in the browser. The true metric you should consider is how fast your website loads for a typical customer on mobile in real-world practice.
A 2016 study of aggregated Google data showed that 53% of users abandoned a site if it took more than three seconds to load. This same study showed that the average mobile site in 2016 took 19 seconds to load over 3G. Sites that loaded in five seconds had 70% longer sessions than sites that loaded in the average of nineteen seconds.
The empirical data shows that faster sites mean happier users, with 46% of people say that waiting for pages to load is what they dislike the most when browsing the web on mobile devices.
So, the big questions are, does server location affect site speed? And how much does site speed influence search rankings?
Does the Location Where Your Website is Hosted Affect SEO?
One factor that affects the page loading time is the distance of the server from your target customers. The closer the hosting server is to your customers, the faster the website will load.
Files from the hosting server must transfer over the internet to your customer’s devices. Data centers that are near your customers will transfer files faster than servers thousands of miles away. Every second counts when it comes to site speed.
Obviously, there is much more to making your website load quickly than getting hosting close to your target market. Here are some other things to consider with page speed.
Invest in a Premium Host
Good hosting can make a world of difference in site speed. Premium hosts like WP Engine or Kinsta have invested heavily in server infrastructure, and are focused more on site speed optimizations than cheap shared hosting providers.
Optimize and Resize Images
Images are typically the largest part of “page weight” on a website. By reducing the size of images to the dimensions you require, it can save kilobytes or even megabytes of data. Using next generation image types like WebP in browsers that support their use can also help reduce page size.
defer attributes for linked scripts, it gets rid of the render-blocking properties of internal and external scripts. Note: You may not always be able to use this on every script, as it can break page functionality in some cases.
Reducing Stylesheets or Inlining CSS
Stylesheets are also render-blocking by default, but they cannot be deferred or downloaded asynchronously. One way to make a web page download faster is to minimize CSS (remove white space). Critical path CSS, used to render “above the fold” content may be inserted in the HTML, but should be used only as needed, lest it make the HTML load slower. Having page-specific or template-specific stylesheets can also shave milliseconds off page download time.
Reducing Third-Party Fonts or Using System Fonts
System font stacks are a page speed strategy that relies on only using fonts installed on an operating system like Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android. The idea is to set the
font-family rule to use fonts that would be found on these OS natively. Reducing the reliance on font libraries like Google Fonts or Adobe Fonts can also help speed up your site. These third-party font libraries also have the option of using the CSS property font-display which can be set to
fallback to limit render blocking.
Some hosting providers have their own caching, which is a means of storing all the files necessary to create a page for quicker fetching and rendering. Some platforms like WordPress also let you configure caching plugins for granular caching control.
Reducing DOM Size
The Document Object Model (DOM) is a model of how a HTML web page is rendered. Understanding how a browser renders the DOM can help you make page speed configurations. Suffice it for now to understand that the less nodes there are to render a HTML page, the quicker the browser can render that page. Calculating certain browser animations can also add milliseconds to rendering, so learning which animations are speed-friendly and which are not can also help you speed up your website.
Now that we have looked at some of the many ways you can speed up your site, let’s look at the question of hosting server location one more time. There’s something important to see.
Does the Hosting Country Make a Difference in SEO Rankings?
Another specific SEO question we’ve received is “Does the country where you host a website affect SEO rankings?”
There may be more to hosting location than site speed. It is very possible the the IP address of your website can affect rankings, especially if you are targeting specific geographical areas. Our advice is to host your website in a data center located in the country you are most interested in targeting for organic search.
From our experiences, it looks like Google may see this as a minor ranking signal for specific geographies.
Two Anecdotal Stories About Changing the Server Location
First story: In 2019, I had a client that provides a service in Italy, but their target customers live in the United States and United Kingdom. Most of this companies competitors not only are based in Italy, but also host their sites on data centers in Italy. Most of the websites are of reasonably comparable design quality and content. The competitors hosted in Italy seemed to rank better in searches performed in Italy, but my client ranked better in searches performed in the US and UK. One possible reason is my client’s hosting data centers were based in the US.
Second story: I had a client in 2018 that was targeting customers in the United States, but had their hosting in Canada. Before we made any changes to the content or design, we asked them to change their hosting to a better host based in the US. They subsequently had several keywords that went up from page two to page one, and others that went up from the bottom of page one to the top three.
Now, in this second case, part of the explanation was probably the upgraded server infrastructure from the Canadian host to the US host, which is known for being optimized for speed. A few years ago, Google’s algorithm seemed to prioritize speed for many searches, and that definitely could have played a major role in their rankings increase.
Investing in better hosting can make a big difference in how fast your website loads in a typical browser.
It is always good to spend a few dollars more per month to have premium web hosting that will improve the loading time for your customers and clients. The gains you see from upgrading from a cheap shared hosting plan or an IT department that doesn’t specialize in hosting can make an impact in your ranking.
If you rely on your website for revenue, you would be wise to optimize the website for speed. You can use tools like Page Speed Insights to analyze Core Web Vitals metrics, and use tools like GTMetrix to get the real page loading times for key pages on your site. By comparing pages on your website to corresponding pages from your competitors, you can evaluate how many improvements you need to make.
Remember that page speed isn’t the only thing Google considers in ranking. The content of your pages, and the overall authority of your website are also crucial to win at SEO.
Our advice is to also invest in a reputable web host located in your target country, that is optimized for speed. We currently host our site on WP Engine, but hosts such as Kinsta are also good for site speed.
If you have looked at your site speed, and are frustrated with what you’re seeing, or if you are not happy with the current state of your SEO, reach out and contact us. We are always happy to give you guidance on how to improve organic search traffic to your website.