Is location a part of the web hosting decision process?
Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it isn’t a part of it at all. Why would it be? They have decided that they need a website, now it turns out that they need a host in order to have that, so it’s just another thing on their to do list, which probably already seems to be long, complicated and daunting enough, as it is.
Location and communication
For a few people the location requirement might come about as a consequence of another need, namely customer support. Some will require support in a certain language, and that will be a major factor in the web hosting choices they will make. After all, there’s no way to go around the fact that you need to be able to communicate with your host, so both parties need to have a good command of the language they’ll be using. Many argue that customer support is what makes or breaks a hosting company these days, so communication is definitely an important part of the overall hosting experience.
United States – the default choice?
For many, due to the popularity of English, even more so online, the language of choice will be it, or their mother tongue. There are even reasons why the first choice will be English, such as a distrust of the local hosting market or hearsay that US based hosting is better and/or cheaper etc.
The cost is always important, not matter what we purchase. These days, US hosts have a double competitive advantage. On one hand, the size of the web hosting market and high competition there has lead to prices going down. On the other hand, for a good number of years now, the US dollar has been relatively weak compared to other currencies of developed countries. Most EU citizens (that includes the UK), will probably find that the exchange rate makes US services, and hosting in particular, quite cost effective.
Not all users are regular users, trying to host their business or personal, inoffensive, website. Some have questionable content, possibly illegal content. They’re looking for anonymity and protection from the long arm of the law. For that, they will prefer to have their sites in a remote place, with few regulations, where laws, especially copyright laws, are not actively enforced. Offshore hosting is the typical answer to their prayers. In a way, you can think of offshore hosting as the tax haven equivalent of the hosting world. It helps put a smoke screen between the individual operating a site, and the authorities of the country he resides in. The aim here is simple, but has little to do with what’s right from a website hosting point of view. The hosting may be poor quality, slow, unreliable, expensive, that’s probably of less importance.
Hosting at home
No, not hosting in your own home, but in your country/area. This may seem for some like the perfect choice, and it has its advantages. The language bit mentioned earlier can be one. Then, you’re probably quite familiar with local rules and regulations, you’re aware of customer protection agencies, know many of the rights that you have as a consumer, and which of these rights can be easily enforced. If the company is close to the area you reside in you might go in for a visit prior to buying, or a visit might be opportune should things go very wrong once you signup.
It’s not all advantages though. Some countries, even continents, have relatively poor Internet connections, being unreliable and/or slow. Some are very expensive too. You need to consider these factors if at all possible, before reaching a decision whether your country of residence is the correct location choice for your site.
The drive for speed
If you’re like most webmasters, then you want your website to load very fast. This is a main web hosting choice criterion, and a valid one too. You also probably want to take control of the whole situation in your own hands, and test the hosting companies out in some way. This leads many new webmasters trying to use ping or some other tools to do assess the speed of the server. That’s an easy mistake to do, confusing our individual perception of quality, as being the optimum thing for our website. However, the distance between two points affects the performance of a network. That small ping or the fast loading page you notice is quite likely to be the result of your computer being physically close to the server, or on the contrary, the large distance can influence the results of your measurements negatively.
Still, you might say, faster is still better, right? I will agree with you, but ask, better for whom? For that’s a pitfall many don’t manage to avoid. The website is not there for you, the webmaster, it is there for the visitors it is trying to attract. It is for them that the performance must be optimum, and that means that the server should be close to them, if possible/feasible.
Now, for a lot of websites, such demography is either unknown or vaguely known. If unknown, starting out with US based hosting is probably a good idea, at least for costs related reasons. However, a website written in Spanish will probably mainly attract traffic from Spain and Latin America, and a little bit from the United States as well. Much of the rest of the world can’t read it and won’t be searching for it. Hosting under these circumstances seems to be better located somewhere in the Americas. But the subject of the site might make it of interest almost exclusively to Madrid, Spain inhabitants, in which case a server in Spain, or at least in Europe, would be a fairer choice.
Search engine optimization considerations
Search engines do care about serving their users with relevant content. In trying to do so, they have assumed that domains hosted in a given country may deserve a boost when a person from that area makes a search. It makes some sense, because say Germans are more likely to be the ones to use a German host, and their websites are more likely to be addressing the interests of the German population. The search engines do this by analysing the website’s server IP information. Below you can see the information about this website, whreviews.com, as it is provided by whois.domaintools.com.
We can see there the IP where whreviews.com is hosted, its location, and information about the hosting company, or about the data center where the server is located. Just as this tool can determine the geolocation of an IP based on IP whois, so can a search engine. The server’s location is derived from IP ownership information, and we can see it presented here in an easy to read by humans form: the small US flag, followed by the state, city and company.
The whole rationale above applies for generic domains (e.g. .com, .net, .org etc.), which are not associated to a territory. However, if you have say a “.de” domain, this would be a clear sign that the domain is German-specific, and this information will supersede the one derived from IP. It would not matter that the site is hosted in the US for example, the site would still be considered to be geotargeted towards the German population. This makes almost perfect sense, because few people or businesses outside Germany, or not targeting the German population in their marketing, would register a .de domain for their site.
You don’t have to use a .de domain or host in Germany if you’re targeting a mostly german audience with your site. In the case of Google at least, you also have the option of setting your website’s geographic target via their WebmasterTools.
I chose Germany as a random example, but it just so happens that, Matt Cutts, who I like to think of as Google’s official advisor on SEO issues (yes, he is a Google employee), gave it as an example too when explaining the same issue: Server Geographic location and SEO.
Web hosting company location versus server location
Many web hosting companies will offer their hosting to their countrymen, but will actually co-locate or rent their servers in another part of the world. Many European, Asian and Australian hosts do this, with the server location country of choice often being the US, due to cost and overall good connectivity to most of the world, as mentioned earlier.
Whichever country they choose to place their servers in, this creates a further problem for you as a potential customer. It does not suffice to find a host in the country where you want your websites hosted (should you decide this to be important for your site), you must also make sure that they have the servers placed where you want them to be.
The perfect hosting location?
We can safely conclude based on everything written so far, that there is no universally perfect web server location. The answer depends on the person who owns or manages the site, and it depends on the website itself. All the different factors presented here in this article must be given proper weight, and a decision that is optimum for the given combination must be reached. The end result is very much a subjective one, because often times the ideal result arising from performance and SEO considerations could be, say Singapore, for a number of reasons, but the costs or the language preference might outweigh those and lead to a performance compromise that is a long term feasible option.