Most of the time, when we talk about web hosting for SEO purposes, we talk about having your own dedicated server. You don’t need to have an actual server in a corner in your store, of course, though some large businesses do prefer to have control over their server in such a direct manner.
No, a dedicated server just means that, in a data farm somewhere, one complete machine is dedicated to you. This is in contrast to a shared host, which is one piece of hardware running software that creates virtual server environments, each of which hosts a site.
Web hosting companies typically offer both types of hosting. They love users that run shared hosts, because they’re more efficient with hardware. On the other hand, they love users that run dedicated servers, because they can charge more for dedicated servers than they can for spaced on a shared server.
This is, of course, because there are numerous drawbacks to using a shared server. Some of those drawbacks can have an effect on SEO, though they are largely minimal.
Shared Vs. Dedicated Hosting
For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that price is your deciding factor. For just about any purpose, dedicated hosting is going to out-shine shared hosting. The primary difference, of course, will be price. Shared hosting is universally cheaper than dedicated hosting, and as such, if you’re just looking for cheap hosting to run a website while you try to grow, it’s the best option.
Shared hosting has a drawback when it comes to server resources. With multiple sites running on the same server, there are limits to the amount of resources each site can use. Servers by their hardware have limitations on how frequently a hard drive can be accessed and how much data can pass through a network connection. With a dedicated server, it’s much harder to reach those limits, because it’s just your site using those resources. With a shared server, you’ll have to share those resources with other sites.
Normally, this won’t be an issue. Servers are beefy, and they have code in place to help minimize hard drive use. They use compression to put through data, and you’re already working to minimize your page load times, so you’re working to minimize network connection usage as well.
However, it can become an issue in two particular cases.
- Hard drive issues. If one of the other sites on your shared server is using buggy code for a database, for example, that code might be demanding constant access to the hard drive, limiting how much other sites can access that drive.
- DDoS attacks. If one of the other sites on your shared server falls under attack by hackers looking to take it down, they can. They’ll also take your site with it, because the attack targets network hardware and server resources, not individual sites.
You also are potentially more susceptible to hardware failure. That said, I can’t tell you that a hard drive used by four sites is any more prone to failure than one only used by one site. Hardware failure happens more often because of flaws in the device manufacturing process than it does due to being worn out from use. You’re more likely to suffer a crash from a power surge than from a hard drive just wearing out.
With a shared web host, there’s one other big negative to consider, and that’s the level of control you have over the software and mechanics of the server. Shared servers all run on a fixed architecture, in a virtual environment. You don’t have a lot of options to run custom code or scripts, because if a buggy script crashes a server, it affects more than just you. By contrast, you have a lot more control – and a lot more responsibility – with a dedicated server. If you don’t have need of custom code or scripts for your site, you’ll be fine with shared hosting on this front.
Why a Shared Host?
The number one reason most people opt for shared hosting over dedicated hosting is the price. Shared hosting costs a lot less on a monthly basis, so if you’re on a tight small business budget, that’s a deciding factor.
Another good reason is that with a shared host, a lot of concerns are done for you. The web host can’t afford to have a hacker compromise a server with a half-dozen sites hosted through it. Therefore, they implement security on their own, which is augmented by the security you run on your site. They also tend to offer additional security software, either for free or for a discounted cost compared to the price of buying it on your own.
Likewise, they will keep server infrastructure up to date. You are still responsible for the software you run, like WordPress for a blog or PHPBB for a web forum, but you don’t have to worry about having the right version of PHP installed or the right version of Apache.
Concerns About Blacklists and Bad Neighborhoods
One thing you might have heard about when researching this topic is the idea of a bad neighborhood.
The concept works like this. A shared host could have five websites on the same server. Because the hardware is the same, all five of those sites have the same root IP address. If one of those sites was a spam site, Google might look poorly upon other sites on the same host.
Frankly, this isn’t true. Google doesn’t care whether or not you have a dedicated or a shared IP address. They know that many businesses can’t afford the investment of running dedicated hosting. More importantly, they know that you can’t control what other sites are hosted on the same IP address as your site. Expecting dedicated hosting as a search ranking factor makes SEO more pay-to-rank, and that’s not a good thing.
Though, as I say this, “spammy freehosts” is a negative ranking factor. Never use free web hosting. They tend to lace your content with mandatory ads or iframe content, which will hurt your ranking.
If you are concerned about blacklisting and bad neighborhoods, there are two things you can do about it. First, you can shop around for high quality hosting. A good web host will have a clause in their terms of service that allows them to shut down a problematic spam site. You don’t want to sign up with a host that doesn’t care.
That said, Google tends to cross-reference a lot of information before making a decision to blacklist a site. They’re more likely to demote a site based on shared WHOIS information with the spam site – which relates to domain, not server hosting – than they are based on IP address.
The other thing you can do is, when you encounter a spam site, look up who is hosting it and submit a complaint. Web hosts don’t scan the content on their clients sites, at least not beyond simple virus scans. They’ll never know if a site is spam unless they’re told.
Really, though, there’s only one good reason to care about having a dedicated IP address for your site, and that’s if you’re running a self-hosted storefront. This is in contrast to a third party storefront, like Shopify. See, you’ll want to have SSL on your site, and SSL requires a dedicated IP address.
In every other case, you can ignore IP issues with shared hosts. They won’t affect your search ranking or your site in any way. There are some few edge cases where your IP can affect communications in other ways, but for the most part they aren’t worth worrying about.
Tips for Picking a Good Shared Host
So, what I’ve mentioned in a couple places above is that you can alleviate your concerns about a shared host by picking a good one. How do you know when you’ve found a good one? Here’s what you should look for:
- Site speed. A lot of the speed of your site will come down to how you’ve designed it, the code and plugins and scripts that have to run before anything can be displayed. That said, a good portion of the speed of your site will come down to the web host and their networking infrastructure. You might consider asking what hardware your site would run on, and looking up what kind of performance it will give you.
- Site availability. If Google or a customer comes to visit your site, and finds that site is down, it’s bad. Real bad. Google will at least try again later, assuming it was just a brief glitch in the system. A customer might not be so forgiving. If they want to buy, and they can’t from you, they will somewhere else. Look for a web host with 99.99% guaranteed uptime.
- Security. Shared hosts will offer at least some additional security on top of what you can install in the form of antivirus and antispam software. They’ll have DDoS protection, antivirus apps, firewalls, and more in place. Make sure they have security and that it is kept up to date at all times.
- SEO knowledge. No, you’re not expecting your web host to do the work for you. Still, they should at least know what SEO is. They should be knowledgeable about the concept, even if they don’t have a hand in the implementation. If they don’t know what SEO is, they don’t know what’s important about it, and they can’t make decisions with that important information in mind.
- Load balancing. This is a unique concept that only applies to shared hosts. When you have four sites on the same server, the server should not be giving all of the hardware access to one site. That can lead to downtime or slower speeds for the other sites. The server should balance loads such that all sites are as fast as possible and as available as possible.
- Server location. Physically, you want to know where your servers are hosting. If you’re running a site for a local business in Idaho, you probably would prefer a server farm in Utah over a data center in Russia or Germany. As advanced as technology is, there’s always a noticeable lag in cross-ocean communications. You also may be subject to laws that change in the location of your server. This is why torrent sites often host themselves in Europe or Asia; those countries don’t shut down servers on violations as often. This shouldn’t be a concern for you, and as such you should stick with servers geographically close to where you live.
- Usage caps. Shared hosts will often have caps on the size of your site files and databases, but this is common even in dedicated hosting, to keep the files manageable for backups and migrations. Bandwidth caps are much less common, and much worse. If your site grows in popularity, you can run into bandwidth caps that
That covers a lot, but web hosts will have a lot of information about a lot of other things, which may or may not matter to you. For example:
- Site builders. Any time a web host is offering you the use of their site builder, feel free to zone out and daydream until they finish their pitch. Site builders are almost universally terrible, and chances are you’ll want to hire the services of a real web designer anyways.
- Search visibility. This is a meaningless phrase. Any website that doesn’t have NoIndex in their code is visible to search engines; it just takes more effort to be found for some sites than for others. If, however, this is a feature you have to pay for, scratch the web host off your list. They’re trying to scam you.
- Search engine submission. This is a similar meaningless phrase. Google will find you, and if you want to tell them how to do it, you can send them a sitemap. Any other search engine, with the possible exception of Bing, isn’t really worth paying attention to in the first place.
The Process of Finding a Web Host
Step 1: Figure out what you need out of a web host. Take a look at the factors above, figure out which are most important, and make a list. If your site has special requirements, like certain security features, code architectures, or resources, note them down.
Step 2: Scour the Internet for web hosts. You can use resources like this one, or you can look into referrals and recommendations from sites you trust. Just be aware that many web hosts have referral programs, which means that there’s a lot of highly-ranked affiliate websites floating around, much of which is inaccurate in favor of making a sale. Take reviews with a grain of salt.
Step 3: Eliminate web hosts from your list if they don’t have the requirements you set forth in step one. If they look good but lack one thing you think you need, consider how important that feature is. It could be a deal breaker, or it could be a compromise.
Step 4: Look up additional information about the web hosts still on your list. You can make a spreadsheet for comparisons if you want, or you can keep it generally in your head and make a decision based more on feelings than data. It’s up to you; here are some things you can look up:
- How long has the company been in business? Most of the low quality web hosts don’t live very long, at least not without rebranding. Older hosts have more experience doing what they do, and can help you more while you set things up.
- What is the reputation of the company? Some companies are known more as affiliate bait than as hosting companies. Others have reputations for working well on high end sites, but shafting their small business clients. Compare reviews to the perspective from which they were made.
- Does the company have a data center of their own, or are they a reseller that sells the services of a different data center? You don’t want to find out that three hosts you’re looking at are all just selling the same server space.
- Has the host been compromised in the past, on a large scale? Did they lose user data? Has it happened more than once?
- How is their customer service? The best host in the world might be a bad fit if they don’t have a contact you can use when you need help.
You can also perhaps consider VPN hosting. It’s like a cross between shared hosting and dedicated hosting, in that it takes place on one server but with virtual servers hosted on it, rather than a shared environment. It’s more expensive, typically, but it can work for some businesses that want more than what a shared host provides.