Google’s magic algorithm is reckoned to be about as secret as the recipe for Coca-Cola; top, top secret. Nevertheless, little clues are frequently dropped and analysed as to its possible content and what may affect it. Naturally they’re of huge interest to e-commerce stores needing to gain the edge in searches. The potential relevance of website loading speed and host location, to search ranking has been debated in the past - what is the truth here?
Need for Speed
When selecting a web hosting service, or an e-commerce platform, the decision should never be based on price alone - there are numerous other factors to consider. High among them should be speed, and the predicted amount of uptime/downtime, as these can play a big part in how the website will perform in search engines.
Google’s spiders can visit a site several times a day. If they repeatedly encounter a site that is down, then it will be classed as unreliable and bumped down the rankings. Even a 99% uptime can result in up to seven hours offline every month if those seven hours happen to coincide with spider patrols. The effect on performance can be disastrous.
Both speed and downtime levels can fluctuate regularly so it’s useful for e-commerce stores to monitor them and, if they are in a slump, either address the issue with the company or find an alternative provider. And here’s the key - it’s wise not to enter long-term contracts with web hosts in case an early exit is necessary. Pay monthly deals may cost more but they offer greater flexibility than 12 months locked-in. Even the most reliable of companies can experience problems down the line.
Loading speed can be caused by several factors. It could simply be a matter of too many websites hosted on the same server necessitating a switch (something that certain platforms such as QuickMage can avoid with dedicated servers), but it could also be the result of the way a website has been coded and configured. Certain types of content such as lots of large imagery and videos can also slow things down.
A clever study by Moz last year found that Time to First Byte had some (unproven) correlation with search rankings i.e. the fastest response from a web server to a query causes the effect, rather than the time it took a page to load, presumably in part because page loading can often be affected by different browsers. So web hosting companies with high-tech backend infrastructure are the ones to look for - those that are going to be most responsive.
One last point to note is that slower-loading pages inevitably result in higher bounce rates (6-10seconds wait-time is the average) which definitely does have a known effect on rankings.
Location, location, location
This is less conclusive still. One theory posits that search engines will provide better rankings for sites that are hosted in the same country as the people searching. So a site hosted in the USA may not perform so well in France, as it would in Florida. For larger e-commerce sites it may be worth considering if it’s economically viable to set up country-specific sites.
Google, however, has been quoted as saying that server location isn’t a major factor, even to the point that it may be irrelevant in rankings. But given that we know speed can be a factor, hosting as close as possible to the largest group of site visitors is certainly not something to be ignored.
The best bet for e-commerce stores wanting to tick all the SEO boxes is to choose a provider that hosts servers in the country from where it hopes to get the most business, and to keep a close eye on speed and downtime with network monitoring tools. All sites of course should be fully optimised according to current industry standards and long-term contracts are generally to be treated with extreme caution.
E-commerce platforms such as QuickMage guarantee 99.9% uptime and has private dedicated servers available on request so that there are no other hosted sites impinging on performance. It also features proactive server monitoring so that resources can be allocated to cope with traffic spikes.
And keep in mind that if speed and location do play a part in rankings then it’s only one ingredient in Google’s famed ‘special sauce’. So if these cannot be improved on, there are always plenty of other measures that can be taken.