Should You Use a CDN for Your WordPress Site? Your Questions Answered

Should You Use a CDN for Your WordPress Site? Your Questions Answered

Site speed is important. Like, really important. In fact, a slow site could be the death knell of your business.

That might sound dramatic, but it’s the truth. When a visitor lands on your site, they want to find what they’re looking for quickly. And if your site is loading slowly, they’re much more likely to bounce off to another site and leave yours in the dust.

Using a CDN can prevent this, however. But even though they can deliver lightning quick load times, they’re not right for everyone in every situation.

We recently reviewed the most popular CDNs and what they offer, but today I going to look at when a CDN is appropriate, how you can best implement one, and how you can tell if your site is offering up appropriate speeds.

The Need for Speed

Akamai and Gomez.com recently explored the correlation between website load times and visitor activity. Here are just some of the facts they found:

  • 47% of people expect websites to load within 2 seconds.
  • 40% of people consider 3 seconds too long to wait for a website to load.
  • If a page were to delay in loading by just one second, it could mean a difference in 7% in conversions.

Your website’s speed can affect more than just the user experience and your on-site conversions, too. It’s a well-known fact that search engines are looking to rank relevant and high-performing websites with better search rankings. If visitors are abandoning ship within a few seconds of entering your website or if Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool deems your site lacking in performance, you could potentially be losing traffic due to negligence.

Now, let’s go back to the original question posed. Regardless of how well you believe your site speed is performing, are you fully confident that your visitors agree? Your website is weighed down by high-resolution images, videos, plugins, scripts, and other files that can bog down your website’s load time. On top of that, you put an extreme distance between your heavily-loaded down website and a visitor from another country, and the most perfectly optimized website might not matter. Your website’s performance still might be dragging.

If you’re concerned with missed opportunities and disgruntled visitors, it may be time you started looking into a content delivery (or distribution) network, usually known as a CDN. If you haven’t heard of CDNs before or are just curious about how to give your website some much-needed pep, then this Q&A is for you.

CloudFlare, a popular CDN, offers servers set up around the world.
CloudFlare, a popular CDN, offers servers set up around the world.

What is a CDN?

In the simplest of terms, content delivery networks help close the distance and bulk between you and your website’s visitors. So regardless of how many large media files, images, or pages you have on your website, a CDN allows your visitors to experience and interact with your website just as fast as if they were locally based.

For websites with a lot of traffic and/or with a large global audience, this is a huge deal. Those few seconds you lose in load time (and in potentially converted business) are extremely valuable. Rather than dump your video assets or try to find more WordPress plugins to help with compressing image files, you can instead turn to a CDN to help improve your website’s performance (as well as security, stability, and more).

Keep in mind that visitors will continue to demand more and more from your website, especially if you’ve already established yourself as a trustworthy brand. As their expectations grow and as your website puts more strain on the Internet (along with everyone else’s), investing in a CDN would be a smart move.

Akamai predicts that within two years 55% of global web traffic will pass through CDNs. Find out below if yours should be one of them.

How does a CDN work?

There are three main components to a CDN:

  1. Website files – The files on your website are the main reason a CDN is needed. Images, theme files, scripts, videos, and other static files need to be easily and quickly accessed when someone visits your website. It is that distance between your site visitor and those files that usually causes your website to load slowly.
  2. Pull urls – When you work with a CDN, you need to have a location from which the global servers can make duplicates of your files. This file directory is known as a pull url.
  3. Edge servers – Typically, your main hosting server resides in one or maybe two locations. So when someone visits your website, they are trying to access files from that server’s specific location. A CDN, on the other hand, has a global network of edge servers. So when someone visits your website that runs on a CDN, they can access your files from a server location that is closest to them, thereby increasing page load speeds since there is less distance for those files to cover.

What is the difference between web hosting and CDN?

If you’re working on WordPress, then you’ve already got web hosting established. This is probably through someone like HostGator, GoDaddy, or BlueHost. Think of web hosting as the virtual space you rent to house your online business (your website). You store all your files on the web hosting servers and then you build your website using a number of tools from there.

A CDN is a service that you lay on top of your web hosting. The web hosting remains the foundation where you keep your non-static website files as well as WordPress. However, the CDN is what will take all those bulky static files and replicate them across their network of global servers.

Do I still need hosting services if I have a CDN?

Yes. See explanation above.

What are the benefits of CDNs?

While most people associate CDNs with the convenience of speed, there are many more perks associated with these services.

User Experience

Remember those studies from Akamai where they reported that all it took was a delay of a few seconds to turn people away from a website? That was no joke. Nearly half of the people surveyed considered that to be too much of an inconvenience to wait around for.

So naturally, if you can reduce that load time for visitors, local or global, you can improve their perceived user experience from the get-go.

SEO

Search engines aren’t ranking certain sites over others just because they feel like it. Their main goal is to provide people conducting web searches with best-fit results. Think about it this way: if Google were to start directing people to websites that didn’t match their search requirements or that forced them to abandon the site because it took too long to open, those people would stop using Google.

Regardless of how self-serving that may seem, search engines are in the business of getting people the right results. So, by making sure your website is optimized with the fastest load times around the world, you’ll also be helping improve your SEO.

Failover

What were to happen if the servers of your hosting company were to go dark? For web hosts without failover—backup locations at which duplicate files are stored—that can mean big trouble for websites that go down as a result. If you think slow load times are bad, a website that crashes is definitely not going to be perceived well.

CDNs are built with an inherent failover/recovery capability as all of your site’s static files are replicated in their global network of servers, ensuring that your site stays up and running at all times.

Cost

While you do have to spend money on CDN services, the bandwidth you would normally have to pay for with your hosting provider can be shifted over to CDN, thus resulting in lower costs for hosting.

For companies that were already aware of the issue with slower page load times, this also means you don’t have to purchase additional hosting space from multiple providers in order to reach a greater audience. You can just accomplish all that through your CDN.

Security

Many CDNs offer additional layers of security that help prevent DDoS attacks, keep data secure, and process customer transactions.

Quality

One of the major reasons why CDNs are seeing such huge adoption rates right now is because of the growing use of video in marketing, sales, social, and everywhere else on the web. Video can take up a lot of bandwidth, so in order to keep your website loaded with all the high-res imagery, high-performance videos, and back-end scripts you want, working with a global network of servers will cut down on streaming issues and load failures, and enable you to deliver a quality UX to all visitors.

Support

Like with any good hosting provider, your CDN should be able to provide you with all the support you need. Do you want analytics on your site’s performance and information on upcoming web trends that may affect the customer experience? Want help in case a customer complains about an issue they’re experiencing on your site? Your CDN should offer that dedicated, 24/7 support you need.

Are there any drawbacks with CDN services?

There is really only one drawback to a CDN: cost.

That may seem a bit confusing considering “cost” was also mentioned above as a benefit; however, this is all subjective. It’s important to remember that when making any big investments related to your website to first make sure it’s right for you—right for your business and right for you at this time. Consider the “ifs”:

  • If your website traffic is mostly local,
  • If your business is ramping up and traffic to your website is easily managed by your hosting provider,
  • If your site has a very simple design and not a lot of heavy files or scripts,
  • If you’re already running on thin margins…

Then a CDN will probably end up being an unnecessary and burdensome cost to your business.

Do I need a CDN?

If your business doesn’t fall into one of those if-statements above, then the answer is probably “yes.” Here are some points you should use to determine whether or not you need a CDN at this time:

  • Is the size and complexity of your website growing?
  • Do you have a worldwide audience, but no global hosting provider to help you deliver speedy page loads to all of your website visitors?
  • Is the amount of traffic to your website too much for your hosting to handle?
  • Have you recently been experiencing website crashes or complaints about website performance?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, then it’s time you start researching your options.

What if CDN services aren’t right for me, but I still want help?

There are a number of reasons why you may be hesitant to sign up for CDN services even though your website’s performance and support need a little boost. Maybe it’s the cost, maybe it’s the lack of time to research providers, or maybe there just won’t be enough of an ROI with this investment right now. And that’s fine. There are alternative solutions that can make sure your website is covered.

Image hosting

There are many types of static files that affect your website’s bandwidth: theme files, CSS files, images, videos, scripts, and more. One solution to consider in offloading some of that weight from your website is a photo hosting site. There are a number of them that offer free storage, so if your site is small enough, you can sign on for one of these services and spare your hosting the burden of managing those files.

Imgur, Flickr, and PhotoBucket are just some of the image hosting sites you can look into. Remember though that there is a tradeoff with these. If these photo storage platforms cannot handle the size or resolution of the images and videos you want to use and you’re forced to pay for their more premium services, it may end up being worth it to go with a CDN instead.

Cloud storage

For those of you who want coverage for more than just your image files, you can turn to cloud storage services for that. The same deal applies with these service providers: storage is free up to a certain point (usually somewhere between two and ten GB). Here are some of the more popular services: Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and Microsoft OneDrive.

New hosting provider

Before you invest any serious time or energy into any new resource for your business, you should consider the pros and cons. Perhaps after some more careful consideration of other hosting providers or other plans with your current hosting provider, you can find a hosting solution better suited to your needs without having to move your files to an off-site platform. What it should always boil down to: Is it worth your time and money?

WordPress Plugins

For those of you new to WordPress or who haven’t had a chance to investigate all of the tools and plugins that come along with it, this should be your next step. Just because you have larger, high-res files and videos you want to showcase, that doesn’t mean you need to invest in a CDN service if you’re not ready.

Check first into some plugin options.

  • Hummingbird

    Hummingbird can be a really useful tool to invest in, even if you do sign up for CDN services. Hummingbird is a plugin that can quickly sweep through your website files and optimize and reduce their size in order to help improve speed. These quick and easy file compression and browser caching updates could make the difference in a site that loads in one second as opposed to three.

  • Cloudinary

    There are also plugins like Cloudinary that are CDNs, though their focus is a little more limited. If you aren’t satisfied with image or cloud storage software and you’re still not ready for a full-on CDN service, consider using this image-storing CDN WordPress plugin. In addition, Cloudinary also gives you the ability to edit your photos within their platform, so it’s a CDN and image manipulation tool all in one.

How do I choose a CDN provider?

Okay, so let’s say you’ve decided that CDN services are what you need. So how do you determine which one is right for you?

Through lots of research.

Much like what you did with your hosting provider or your image storage service or any other service you’ve invested in to support your business, you weighed the options. While it may be easier to assume everyone’s the same and to go with the first one you find, the first one isn’t always the right one.

Now when it comes to something like CDN, you’re looking for specific results. Those specific results are going to come about when certain factors are met. Here are the top ones to consider:

  • Geography: The main reason you invested in this was so that you’d have access to a global network of servers that could deliver a better website experience to visitors, regardless of their physical distance from you. So if a CDN provider does not have servers set up in a part of the world where you have a large audience, this wouldn’t be one you’d want to consider.
  • Cost: There has been a lot of talk about cost with CDNs: how CDNs can help save you money… or cost you money. It all matters on the state of your business. However, if you are ready to consider CDNs, pricing is worth looking into as some of the plans may not be within your budget. There are also some companies that charge hidden fees, so make sure you read the fine print before committing to any one service.
  • Support: While using a CDN is apt to provide a more reliable website experience to your users, that does not necessarily mean that things won’t go wrong from time-to-time. If an issue should arise, if you should have any questions, if you want to make adjustments to your plan, will your CDN service provider be there for you? What is the level of support they offer? Is there another provider available who promises the same thing, but with extra bonuses? These are all important matters to consider.

When investing in a service that will be so crucial to your business’s success, it’s important to take the time to think about what is the most important to you and who can help you achieve that.

Which CDN service providers should I look at first?

There are a lot of CDN service providers to consider. If pricing is a concern, make sure you start here to help narrow down your search. Enter your monthly data usage and then see which of these providers are within your budget. Remember: some of the pricing plans can be not as simple as “you pay X amount of dollars per month,” so make sure you do your search and check for any hidden fees, extra charges in other countries, etc. before committing to one provider.

When you’re ready, start with this list of CDN services and visit their websites if you want to find out more.

  • Akamai

    Akamai really seems to be the master of the CDN space. With extensive resources they’ve crafted around the subject (as evidenced at the top of this article) to their comprehensive breakout surrounding their solutions, the industries they serve, and big-name clients they cater to, Akamai’s knowledge in the space is worth looking into, even if you choose not to work with them.

  • CDN77

    CDN77 is very transparent about who they are and are using numbers to demonstrate their expertise in the space. With almost 20,000 websites powered in four years, this may the small business team to suit your major CDN needs. They currently specialize in website acceleration, video delivery, gaming, storage, custom SSL, and private CDNs.

  • CloudFlare

    CloudFlare does a good job of explaining what a CDN is, what it’s going to do for your business, and how easy it is to set up (they claim it only takes five minutes). They also take the time to explain all of their other specialties and have a well-laid-out support page. If they’re willing to give you that much information upfront and be that supportive on their website, chances are good that their virtual support teams are just as mindful of the customer.

  • Fastly

    In a sea of CDN service providers, Fastly is able to tout some very well-known clients like Vogue, Kayak, Twitter, and Vimeo–at least one of whom’s website you probably visit on a regularly basis. If you’re not spotting any issues with those websites, then it’s safe to say an investment in Fastly’s CDN would probably be worth it for your own business. The company specializes in web and mobile performance, media and streaming, cloud security, technology platforms, and APIs as well.

  • Incapsula

    There is a lot going on on this website. Make sure that when you visit it you go straight to the Content Delivery Network page so you can narrow in on exactly what you’re looking for. All the details you’ll need on their network and services can be found right there and you won’t have to get bogged down in requesting quotes or free trials for other services. They also have a live chat on their website, so feel free to send them any questions you have.

  • KeyCDN

    It’s always a good sign when a business can showcase their customer’s testimonials with real information–name, business, and photo. If you like what you see from those testimonials (right from the home page), go ahead and try them out with a free trial. Not many of these companies highlight the free trial option, so this might be worth looking into if you’re just not sure if a CDN is right for you.

  • MaxCDN

    If you look at the MaxCDN website closely, you’ll see that they clearly define who their audience is. They’re not talking about powering “websites”, they’re talking about powering tech teams. Their Solutions page also has a really great breakout around their solution types as well as their target audience. So if you’re looking to work with someone who understands your business’s and website’s specific needs, these guys may be your best bet.

Wrapping Up

It’s important to keep in mind that CDNs are just one piece of the puzzle. You need the right host provider, the right content management system, the right web design, the “right” everything else. Your website should be a constantly evolving reflection of your business and while a CDN can help with performance issues, it cannot solve all your problems. So whenever you’re looking to make updates to and improve your WordPress website, remember to give it a comprehensive review rather than hope that a singular fix may help everything else fall into place.

Brenda Barron
Now that we’re done with the Q&A, do you now feel closer to making a decision about how to improve your site's speed? Do you think you'll invest in a CDN? Share your thoughts below.