Is a CDN right for your WordPress website? Content delivery networks, or CDNs, can actually help WordPress sites (and any other websites) in a number of ways – but they're not necessarily a wise investment for every site. And CDNs can definitely be a confusing topic to dive into for the first time.
If you're confused about whether a content delivery network is a good choice for your WordPress website, you're on the right page. Read on to learn both the pros and the cons of CDNs. But first, let's define the concept and get some idea of what kinds of sites are less likely to benefit from a CDN.
CDNs and what they do
A CDN is simply a network of servers that site owners can utilize to help deliver site files to users in different parts of the world. When your users in various locations visit your site, they usually all travel (digitally, of course) to the location of your server, which is wherever your hosting company has placed its data centers. This can be far away from the location of your website visitor.
When using a CDN for your WordPress website, however, your visitors get shunted to servers located closer to their actual geographical locations. Those servers contain up-to-date cloned copies of all your site files. The server closest to an individual user is called the edge server.
So, for a WordPress site, all the core, theme, and plugin files would be copied to high-performance servers (usually SSD servers) in each of the locations in which your CDN has a data center, called a point of presence (or PoP). Your image files and documents, if any, would also be copied to each of these servers and be delivered to your website visitors upon entering your site.
Why is using CDNs a good thing? It sounds disorganized, or chaotic even. But it's not in the least. It's seamless, and when it works right, it can overcome a lot of server issues that can wreck your user experience. Now let's talk about the benfits and the drawbacks of utilizing CDNs for your website.
Benefits of CDNs
Now you know how CDNs work, their chief advantage should become fairly apparent: Speed.
Since thousands of website visitors are no longer clogging the same server, no matter where they are geographically, but rather being redirected to servers closer to home, the demand on your server to load your site's pages in a browser is greatly reduced. That in turn usually leads to a much faster page load time, which also speeds up the user's overall experience on your website.
Faster page loading isn't only good for your website visitors, of course – it's also good for SEO. It's a fairly well-established fact that page load time is one of Google's ranking factors, so if you're looking for better positioning in search results, a CDN might be a very valuable asset to take advantage of.
CDNs can also reduce your bounce rate. When the site WPBeginner first adopted a CDN, their bounce rate dropped, accompanied by a rise in pageviews. For sites that experience periodic traffic spikes, such as e-commerce sites during sale periods, CDNs offer another benefit – enhanced site stability.
Sudden jumps in traffic can either choke a servers performance or crash it. The right CDN can alleviate that risk by distributing the burden across several servers, so that not one server shoulders too much of the strain and your visitors have a seamless user experience when visiting your site.
Drawbacks of CDNs
While their benefits are significant and desirable probably to a majority of site owners – who doesn't want faster websites and better search rankings? – CDNs also have some drawbacks. For one thing, it can be difficult to find a good, solid, reliable provider. CDN providers come and go quite frequently, although the field does have a number of players who have been around for years. That means it can be a challenge to evaluate them on price and features on an even basis.
Additionally, CDNs can carry a bit of a learning curve. While it's not necessary for you as the site owner to understand all the code and technical details, you will have to do some research to make sure your site and the CDN are working well together. That can be a problem, since support can sometimes be hit or miss with less-than-established providers. But support is crucial. Look for providers that offer around-the-clock, 365-days-a-year technical assistance.
Another potential disadvantage to CDNs in general is that they may be impractical for some websites. The web is an increasingly globalized market. It might be difficult for some sites with truly global traffic to take full advantage of CDNs without just the right mix of PoP locations. Assuming such a large, globally-visited site can find the right CDN with the proper distribution of data centers, that site might find the cost somewhat prohibitive.
While many CDNs are free – YouTube, for example, is a CDN for video files – the kind that can support such large sites can come with a hefty price tag attached. And it can be hard to find out exactly how much that CDN service will wind up costing you, as often the pricing structures are complex, not fully disclosed, or somewhat confusing – or all three. If a CDN fee will depend on moving metrics, such as GB usage, that's information you'll need to insist is specified before you sign a contract.
Some areas may be blocked to access. Regions, organizations, and even whole countries block IP addresses associated with some of the more popular free CDN services. That means to get around this you'll need to do research to identify any potential coverage gaps and ensure you've got the best available coverage, subject to your budgetary constraints.
Finally, there's the issue of a loss of control when using CDNs. You'll have to deliver your website files to large companies – for example Google, Microsoft, Amazon, among other major players – and for some website owners, this might present a significant level of discomfort and unease.
Who needs a CDN (and who doesn't)
Some sites clearly would benefit from the right CDN – e-commerce sites with lots of product pages and images, any site with large streaming video files, sites with lots of global traffic, media sites and other kinds of sites that tend to publish several times a day. So who's left? Are there any websites that don't need CDNs, or for which the disadvantages would outweigh the benefits?
Sites with purely local traffic probably don't need a CDN. That would include most small business with strictly local customer bases and websites of only a handful of pages. For sites like this, CDNs can actually do more harm than good since they insert an additional step in the chain – an unnecessary connection that can present a point of vulnerability.
Wrapping up: The pros and cons of CDNs
There's no question that CDNs can present a number of attractive benefits to the right sites, including more stability, faster page load times, better SEO, and an enhanced user experience. But CDNs can also carry steep price tags, depending on the complexity of your site and its needs, and may present a challenge that would require a more significant investment of time and money than your business is prepared to make.
They're definitely worth exploring, however. Just take the time to conduct thorough research, evaluate each provider carefully based on the criteria that are most important to you, and look for customer reviews from sites similar to yours in terms of size, file distribution, and audience.