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One of the most difficult tasks an SEO professional has is telling your company or client their site is slow and clunky – and worse, that the content they spent so much time and money on is the problem.
This is where a Content Delivery Network (CDN) can help.
If you’re investing in creating high-quality content, you should probably also reconsider how you manage your digital assets and invest in a CDN.
In this column, you’ll learn what to look for in a CDN, how much using a CDN may cost, and common implementation issues to watch out for.
What Can a CDN Do for Your Business?
The way images and video are integrated (or not) into the ecosystem of the website can make or break its performance.
Think of CDNs like an EZ-Pass. CDNs essentially act as a multiple-path traffic intersection where different internet providers and servers can connect and provide each other with access to the website traffic coming from each source.
They pass assets and traffic back and forth as the assets are called up by page loads rather than waiting for each asset to load on individual pages, or render as a hard-coded element.
This happens around the world in multiple locations, rather than relying on a single server for all content service and delivery.
These hosts of servers hold cached files ready to render when called to decrease load time and essentially shrink the path to delivery.
Similarly, having a CDN is like jumping on the turnpike and scanning your EZ-Pass instead of taking a journey over slower backroads to your destination. CDNs improve speed and efficiency by optimizing web traffic routes.
See Content Delivery Network (CDN): What It Is & How It Works to learn more about the basics.
How CDNs Support Organizational SEO Goals
CDNs have become an industry standard (particularly in enterprise SEO) and are only becoming more valuable as content marketing investments increase.
Any SEO professional worth their salt can tell you that speed is an incredibly important factor in both improving website rankings and overall page and user experience.
It’s not exactly a secret that Google places great value on page experience. As an organization, it has taken great efforts to incentivize efficient web rendering and cause minimal user disruptions.
Nearly every (publicly discussed, anyway) Google algorithm update in the last several years has included elements for improving page experience, speed, and content delivery.
The longer content takes to render and serve, the more likely a user is to abandon their efforts and move on. Every rage-quit on a page that wouldn’t load is money or a lead lost.
Not only that but speed is closely tied to the much-anticipated Core Web Vitals update.
Beyond the UX function, a CDN also adds a layer of security to your website by ensuring secure encryption and transfer, distributed data, a current SSL, and balanced traffic loads.
This helps protect your business from denial-of-service (DDoS) cyberattacks, where the nefarious goal is to create a traffic surge in an attempt to overload and crash a server.
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DDoS attacks are estimated to double to over 15 million a year by 2023. The time to prepare for secure asset management is now.
What to Look For In a CDN Solution
Probably the most important consideration is whether the CDN is faster than your origin. If not, what’s the point?
You should also make sure it does well at delivering small files and large payloads alike.
Ideally, you’ll have the opportunity to demo your prospective CDN solutions. Here are a few common metrics you’ll want to test and explore:
- Last-mile and end-user DNS response time. You don’t want to test in-house only to learn after implementation that a complex DNS setup is creating long waits for end users.
- Peak hour performance. If your website experiences big fluctuations in traffic based on days of the week or times of the day, you’ll want to ensure that you pressure test the CDN response when it will matter most.
- Connect time. Here, you’re specifically looking for excellent network connectivity, low latency, and zero packet loss.
- Wait time on less popular assets. CDNs are a shared environment, and you want to make sure you’re aware if less requested assets are being retrieved from the origin server versus served from the edge (as popular assets are).
- Cache Hit/Miss. You should see this expressed as a ratio in your dashboard, and you don’t want to see many requests coming back to the origin.
- Throughput. This shouldn’t be lower than the origin for assets of any size.
- API integrations. Future-proof your investment a little by making sure that the CDN can be configured with your existing, as well as wishlist, software.
As far as what to look for in a CDN provider, you want to ensure that they have a large, diverse network. Akamai, for example, is the largest CDN provider and boasts over 300,000 servers in 130 countries.
You also want to know that the location of its servers meets the needs of your audience — both today and as you potentially grow into new markets.
If you’re looking for improvements in content delivery across South America or Africa, for example, you’ll want to ensure your choice of CDN has ample servers in those areas. This will restrict your options more than if you’re targeting North America or Europe, which have vast server networks.
How Much Does Using a CDN Cost?
Like all marketing solutions, there is a lot of variability in cost.
The bigger the ask in terms of content load, the more expensive the solution. This is why CDNs may not make sense for super small websites; it’s easier to manually optimize each image or asset and save the cost.
However, for medium to enterprise-level sites, content generation and sprawl quickly make manual optimization and curation an inefficient way to manage and deliver content across web properties.
Though it may be more costly in actual dollars than doing it yourself, the work A) actually gets done and B) doesn’t cost you sales and leads due to slow server response time and a frustrating user experience.
Generally, medium-sized businesses can expect to pay around $200+ in monthly costs, and large to enterprise-level solutions are almost always a custom quote.
The advantage of those plans, behind the pricing fog, is that they also often have guaranteed security features, enhanced analytics and user data available, up-time guarantees, and enhanced delivery/cache options to ensure a positive experience no matter how large the site.
You might find that CDN rates vary depending on your locations, as well, due to the server network issues mentioned above.
Watch for Common Issues in CDN Implementation
If you’ve been reading and waiting for the other shoe to drop, there are a few minor drawbacks to using a CDN, mostly related to getting it set up properly.
All of these have fairly simple solutions but if you’re about to go through a content migration to a CDN, it’s worth going in with eyes open.
May Require a Developer for Integration
Plenty of websites integrate nicely with CDNs, but if you’ve gone custom, getting it configured on a custom setup could be a bit of a headache and required some dedicated developer intervention.
Need to Budget for Using a CDN
It’s an extra cost on top of existing hosting/website costs.
Network Providers May Block the CDN
A few (very few, but still worth noting!) network providers may block the CDN. The most common culprit on Reddit threads appears to be the Microsoft Ajax CDN related to jQuery, but there are naming workarounds that usually resolve the issue.
If your CDN is using a third-party geo-mapping database, there is potential for an end-user to be assigned the wrong IP address. QA this during the setup process, and as often as annually, to make sure the CDN isn’t sending requests via an illogical, lengthy path.
The TL;DR of CDNs is that they help deliver content across your site quickly, which in turn improves user experience and website functionality, securely, and with limited impacts on your server.
Companies that use a CDN to host and distribute content may see improved search rankings and can expect a more secure website, and a better overall user experience.