Do I need to host my website in China?

The slowing effect of Chinese censorship on websites hosted outside China is well documented It’s important to ensure your website loads quickly for an excellent user experience. To rank on Chinese search engines, website load speed is a factor that Baidu, the biggest search engine in China, takes into account. If your company need to allow queries to databases to provide information, good connectivity is important.

Many Western digital agencies will offer you advice. It is usually ‘Yes, you need to host in China, or maybe Hong Kong’. Unless the agency has significant experience in delivering websites in China, their knowledge is usually based on hearsay rather than direct experience.

We’ve been dealing in this market for more than 15 years and the answer isn’t straight forward. We have had clients rank well on Baidu hosted outside China, we have helped clients with websites within China because their website is slow. So what factors do you need to be aware of to make a sound decision?


Who’s building your website?

How a website is coded is probably the biggest issue on how it will perform in China.

In the West, developers usually have access to quick internet speeds which enable certain best practices in terms of coding which don’t work so well in China. Many kind organizations host code such as fonts, jquery code libraries and analytics interfaces. Developers love these as such organizations are big so access to their servers for these files is usually quick. Such files are no longer hosted on your server, so it puts less load on your resources and can help your pages load quickly.

But in China, access to these 3rd party servers can be quick, but usually is slow and sometimes blocked altogether. So you can move your website to China, but if you are making the users PC connect out to the West to load lots of external 3rd party files, you will usually find this has serious performance implications for users or for search engine bots, or both.

So for many companies whose agencies use templates to build websites or who are predominantly delivering to Western audiences, this is overlooked and it’s a problem which is the same for Chinese users whether you host in China or outside. The solution: reduce calls to 3rd party code libraries, use China-based ones, or ask if they are needed at all? If access to them is blocked and they are needed, copy the files over to your server.


How many files???

Loading some website home pages requires countless pictures, fonts, widgets and God knows what else. Each time your web page requests a file, if you host outside the Chinese firewall, then a request from China to your server is made. In the West, internet speeds are good and we can afford to be inefficient. If each request has to go through the firewall and there are a lot of requests, then your website becomes slow. 

So hosting in China will help, right? In this case, yes it can. Your website is no longer traversing the firewall to load files so it’s quicker. The files are pulled directly from your server in China. However, do remember also that the internet in China varies massively across provinces. Different ISPs compete in different regions and don’t carry traffic from other networks well, so if you have China hosting and it’s pretty standard, then you may want to address reducing how many files your pages need to load. Even hosting in China it will help. If you’re outside China, it’s a must.


The evil ‘plugin’

Many companies use content management systems – WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Magento, Umbraco etc – maybe you do too?

They’re great. Companies get a cost-effective development because the software is open source and you’ve got a wide range of developers who are familiar with the software if your relationship with the current developer ever goes sour.

Developers love them too. Much of the functionality that many clients require has already been developed by an army of ‘plugin’ developers, so it saves a lot of time developing specific functionality for you the client.

The downside is, such plugin often add a lot of extra file requests and code into your website, sometimes to external servers. We discussed this above, so we know the effect that can have.

Worst still, such CMS plugins usually install this on every page throughout the website, irrespective if the functionality is used on only used on one or two pages. Many developers don’t get round to tidying this up, so as far as the China user is concerned, we’re back to loading a lot more files than necessary, slowing performance.

So if you or your developer can, get your files requests per page way down.


Not all servers are equal.

Many company websites suffer because the hosting they have isn’t adequate for China. If you are hosting inside or outside (but especially outside) the server needs to be quick, with plenty of RAM and good worldwide connectivity. If your server responds quickly to a request from China, and the site is well-optimized code-wise as we talked of above, then you’ve got a good chance of serving quickly to Chinese users.

If you’re on a shared server in some backwater, then you’ll struggle.

If you can host in China, then servers are configurable. Make sure you have enough power. Also, be aware that many are sold in ‘single pipe’, dual pipe’ or 'multi pipe’ flavors. These help to connect your website better to the various different ISP networks in China, so whichever carrier is strong in the user’s province, that network will take your web data to them.

With a ‘single pipe’ hosted within China, you can have a great server in Xiamen, but slow for users in Beijing.

So if you are hosting in China, get 'multi pipe'. If you are hosting outside of China, make sure your server is super quick.


Caching and compression

Is your server set up to cache properly? By this, we mean not require the end user to download the pictures and files from your website again if there are the same as yesterday. It all helps speed up the user's experience, especially in China.

It’s the same for compression. Many servers are set up to ‘Gzip’ compress content which your user's browser can automatically uncompress. Does yours?

In the West, Google and YSlow offer free tools to help you work this out and that’s a good place to start if this is new to you. Slow loading issues for Chinese users won’t be flagged up with these Western-based tools, but there are Chinese-based ones. The links and availability to these change frequently, but any Chinese contacts you have may be able to help you out with current ones.

To support your China website strategy, Backbone IT Group has a track record in advising companies on hosting and website performance in China, irrespective if you're working with a new build or an existing development. Get in touch now and we’ll look forward to helping your team.


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