It’s always great to have really intelligent and thought-provoking conversations with clients, and I recently had one. The client is looking to re-launch a website and we were talking through some of the basics. One of the questions that they brought up—that I was so glad to hear—was regarded hosting. Now hosting, of course, is where your website is going to live. As marketers, I believe that we can just right in and start thinking about the design, conversion funnels, and other marketing related items all while forgetting about some of the basics—like where is the site going to live. Sometimes it’s out of our hands as we’re working with IT departments or other agencies. Every now and then, though, we have the opportunity to pick everything from the ground up. Sometimes that responsibility can be daunting, because you may know everything there is to know about content marketing, but nothing about servers, server architecture, etc. If you turn to the almighty Google, it can be mind blowing just how many options there are. So it comes down to the question of knowing which one to pick.
As a digital marketer, you’re thinking, “this website needs to rank in search.” You need to get some traffic to it and you may remember that in the past, hosting played a pretty critical role in overall search rankings. It isn’t as important now as it was in the past, but it still does play a role. So when you’re searching around for hosting providers, it’s always good to take some time to look at their offerings and ask a lot of questions.
When we take a look at Google, obviously there’s a ton of factors that go into the Google rank algorithm—everything from markup schema, through keywords, through traffic, and more. From a hosting standpoint, it really boils down to three things: security, speed, and reliability.
Speaking from experience, clearing out issues around different hacks, code injections, and malware is not fun. The hard part about security issues is that if Google detects the problem before you do, a user can get that “red warning screen of death” when they try to visit your site. On top of that, if you don’t pay attention and address the issue, it can really hurt your ranking numbers/position. This is why I really like looking first at security around your hosting. Talk to hosting providers, see what kind of security software they run, as well as what kind of environment it’s going to be in. I always prefer—from a business standpoint—that a site is on dedicated hosting or a virtual private server. Another thing to consider about security is server location. I tend to be a little bit on the paranoid side when I start thinking about my website and its hosting. Being in the US, I trust companies that have servers located in the US more so than locations overseas. Nefarious means—such as hacking, DDOS attacks, etc.—aside, things can happen with connectivity and access. I remember a few years ago, Cuba was actually without internet for a few months because a ship accidentally cut an undersea cable that provided the entire island with their internet access. Things can also happen through geopolitical situations, and it would just be an additional unfortunate thing to have another country cut access to the internet, and then suddenly your website and server is gone.
The second thing that Google is really looking at when it comes to your hosting is overall speed. When I say speed, I mean, how long does it take your site to load, and how long does it take the servers to respond to some sort of activity. The speed of your site or pages is controlled by the server-side technology, the location of the server, and the site itself. In this article, I am not going to get into things like server caching and things like that, but it is something to think about when you start getting into development. When you’re thinking about just hosting, what you’re really thinking about is how quickly the server responds to connection requests, and whether there is any kind of latency or lag time when delivering the content to the user or to Google. Having a site hosted in the United States means that there are fewer things for your content to travel through in order to reach the user. Depending upon your keywords and industry, to beat out the competition in SERP, it may pay to have servers located closer to your users. For example, if you’re a company that is located in the Midwest and you know that you have customers primarily in the Midwest, it would help to have your servers actually located somewhere in the Midwest. This means that as the user goes to find your website it’s just going to get delivered to them quicker because there are fewer routers and things that have to go through to get to them.
Outside of server location, the server configuration itself matters. We won’t get into this too in-depth, but something to consider is using content delivery networks or CDNS. If you have a website that does a lot of video or serves a lot of larger files delivered to the user—or even just the basic images and core files—if you’re looking for that blazing speed and even some additional reliability and failover, it pays to have a CDN set up. Through the CDN, your files are delivered from servers that are closer to the user and specialized for that delivery.
Reliability of the website can be controlled by both speed and security, but it’s also a separate signal inside Google’s quality score. This can be as simple as server uptime, and sometimes as complicated as Java, PHP and other scripting errors. If Google is coming to your site and the page isn’t there, it’s not going to be able to index or rank it. Or if it’s finding links and it’s coming up with 500 gateway errors or 404 not found errors, it’s going to lower your quality score over time. One of the first reliability metrics to keep in mind is server uptime. Uptime can be a little bit of a hard metric to follow as most hosting providers are always going to guarantee you 99.9% or 99.5% percent uptime. That may sound great, but if you start calculating out percentages for larger volume sites, 0.5% can work out to be a bunch of minutes. If those minutes are the ones when your key customers are looking at the site or when Google is trying to look at your site—whether it’s up 99.5% percent of the rest of the time, that point 0.5% is the most important. This is why I like cloud-based hosting environments like VPS or cloud-based private servers. The best part of these environments is that they mostly have some form of auto scaling that either you can pay for or are part of a managed service that, when your site’s getting a lot of traffic, even during attacks, it’s going to spin up extra nodes that keep the site live for as long as it can.
So which one do you choose?
Now that we know what Google is looking for, the question become which service do we pick? Unfortunately, the answer is really dependent on your individual needs. That said, I have personally had success with A2 Hosting, Dreamhost, and Midphase. Regardless of which host you’re starting to look at, I always recommend contacting them to find out about the services. Sometimes FAQ and pricing pages will give you some of the info, but a 10-15 minute long call can usually give you all the answers and a feel for how they provide customer service. When you’re talking to them, here are some questions that I recommend asking:
- “What web frameworks or content management systems (CMSs) work best with your server setup?”
- “What kind of firewall or other protections do you have in place?”
- “What kind of active monitoring do you do around security or server issues?”
- “Where are the servers located and what is the step? VPS? Shared?
- “Can we get a CDN to spread out a little bit more of the load or do you have a preferred CDN service?”
- “Do you offer any server-side solutions for site caching, script minifying, etc.? If not, do you allow plugins or services like W3 Total Cache?”
Of course, if you feel uncomfortable making the call for hosting, always feel free to talk to your developer as they have likely had experience with several hosting solutions in their work. Or I’m always happy to help, so feel free to connect with my by clicking Contact in the menu.