Content Delivery Networks (CDN): Good or Bad for SEO?
What is a CDN and does it harm SEO - Especially for Images
If you ever asked yourself if using a Content Delivery Network is bad for SEO, you might have heard lots of different opinions. A lot of articles mention the load speed of a page. But it’s not just that. Anyway, we have lots of things to talk about CDNs, particularly its SEO advantages and disadvantages, so let’s dive in.
First off, I would like to clarify what CDNs are and how they are used. So, if you want to skip the introductory part, scroll to the main articles below:
- SEO Advantages of CDNS for SEO
- SEO Disadvantages of CDNs for SEO
What Is a Content Delivery Network (CDN)?
A CDN is an external service provider besides your web server, which hosts your files such as videos, software, java scripts, and more. When embedded in your CMS, the media files, for example, are being displayed from an external source, instead from your website. Here is an example how to use CDNs for images:
Let’s say you have an article under the URL
Instead of having the hero image hosted by that URL
…you would have it hosted under a CDN like this
CDNs do not host your whole content or website but just help in caching of page components such images or videos, to accelerate the speed at which they load. The CDN has data centers that can be anywhere on the globe.
Why Use Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)?
Old news: Load speed matters for SEO. The slower your website, the lower your rank. Because Google doesn’t want a bad user experience.
Once a website gets bigger and the sessions increase, sometimes all they need to do is move the web server to a faster web server host: either to a co-location, to self-owned server infrastructures or nowadays to a scalable cloud computing platform such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud or even to a faster CMS provider such as WPEngine. This seems to be the first step to provide a better and faster browsing experience for users.
Often if your server or host is not able to provide a decent load speed for your website, they tend to recommend CDNs. In my experience however a service provider recommending CDNs as the first alternative seems to be rushed and not thought through.
Most of the time issue is that they are not able to provide a decent server speed. In this case, best action would be to move away from that provider, and ignore their recommendation for CDNs. Let me explain why:
When your website becomes a giant, traffic and speed once again become a challenge. Especially when you have to deliver millions of files such as images through your website every day, you will face severe symptoms of slowdowns. It starts with compromised bandwidth and server speed. Tt will affect user experience, and eventually Google will find out that you can’t satisfy your users with speed and will rank your website down.
While more sessions are considered an SEO heaven, at the same time the slowdown it causes is the SEO’s worst nightmare. Welcome to the SEO vicious circle!
Why Use a CDN?
The main reason to use CDNs is to increase the speed and load time of web pages. Quite simply solve the annoying delay when loading media. Especially websites such as news organizations that have millions of images and videos, have to face a huge amount of data traffic caused by images, articles and also other media files such as videos.
Imagine for a moment you have millions of sessions on your website every day which is a wonderfil thought. However, in this case, even images can cause a heavy traffic and burden your bandwidth a lot.
Of course, without having a CDN, you could still try to overcome this challenge by installing load balancers to your server ecosystem and redesign the database infrastructure — on top of that you might have to extend the number of servers, and have to constantly think about getting more bandwidth, and not least but least but last your should have WebP anyway.
And that’s when CDNs come in pretty handy.
You don’t have to worry about all that anymore — instead, you would outsource all your bigger files such as even illustrations, images and videos to an external host that is specialized to manage the fast delivery of large media files. It’s much faster, but also much cheaper than to scale your web server infrastructure and maintain it.
It seems to be a good solution, but there is an SEO flipside to this, but more about that later in this article. First, let’s have a look at how CDNs actually work:
How Does a Content Delivery Network (CDN) Work?
Most of the CMS nowadays, even WordPress, have the appropriate plugins to handle CDNs. Once in alignment with your CMS, the image handling, for example, looks like nothing has changed: The media file is uploaded through the CMS such as WordPress as usual. But the media files are automatically diverted to the CDN, and at the same time, the CMS makes sure that the media file is being loaded from that CDN. That way the editors wouldn’t even know about the existence of a CDN because on the CMS backend, everything looks as is. But as an SEO, when you look at the source code of a web page, you will see that the image is not loaded from your website’s domain, but from another one.
Note: Even a subdomain is considered another domain.
When you’re using CDNs for your images, for example, all your images will be delivered from that CDN. That will enormously increase the speed of your page load as the CDN is specialized in delivering large data files extremely fast. As CDNs have to manage large files, they use high bandwidths, provide scalable server infrastructures with all the gimmicks that come with it: Load balancers, state-of-the-art and efficiently configured Database Management Systems (DMBS).
The SEO Advantages of CDNs
Once a CDN takes care of the delivery of your larger files such as images, the amount of traffic your site is causing will be limited to HTML/text only. This will make each of your pages extremely small from a page load speed and traffic perspective. It’s the perfect SEO for page speed.
Unfortunately, that’s the only SEO advantage you’ll get from this.
As page speed seems to be the only benefit for SEO when it comes to CDNs, it’s important to know when actually using a CDN makes sense.
One of the rules in engaging a CDN is when it comes to larger video files. Using a CDN to increase your page speed for the video file is a good idea. Google doesn’t really index video files unless they live on YouTube. So, if you have a website with lots of embedded video files on the same web server, you might want to think about using CDNs instead, rather than hosting the video files directly under the same server.
But when it comes to images… well, that’s the problem right here:
The SEO Disadvantages of CDNs
Most of the articles about SEO and CDN are about page load speed. That’s nice, but all of them seem to miss the most important disadvantage: Images!
In my experience, more than 95% of the SEOs are missing the opportunities of Search Engine Optimized Images. In my article “How to use SEO Optimized Images” I stressed out the importance of unique images for pages. And in the past and today, using unique images for SEO turned out to be one of the most effective SEO methods. You might want to read the part where I mention “Image Optimization is a blessing for Smaller Campaigns” in my article. Also, many companies miss the opportunity to utilize WebP.
If your website is the Times Magazine, Forbes or USA Today, you couldn’t care less about the fact that you are using a CDN to host your images. As your website is already one of the top-ranking sites on the World Wide Web, you should not be concerned about image optimization.
But of you are not one of the 100 biggest websites in the world, you are basically telling Google that all your images are located somewhere else.
And this is what it comes down to: If you host your images throughout another web server or URL, you give away the Google trust for that image to another source. As the image physically lies somewhere else, it’s not necessarily a part of your website from a Google standpoint. All the positive effects you can benefit from in my article about “Image Optimization Article” will have no meaning for your website if you use a CDN. You can have the perfect ALT Tags, unique and beautiful images, great captions, and SEO optimized file names… all that would will be in vain if you use CDNs.
Google’s Standpoint on CDN for Images
You won’t find Google’s standpoint on how to utilize CDNs when it comes to images. The reason most likely is Google would rather prefer that you use faster servers such as CDNs to fulfill the user experience, rather than having a slower load speed.
In a sense, it benefits Google when you use CDNs. But would Google try to understand that the image that is being displayed in another URL belongs to your website? Google would not bother.
All Google cares about is user experience, and not how well you are going to be ranked.
Google may or may not crawl these images just to increase their image portfolio for their image search, but won’t care much about how these two elements (your URL and the CDN URL) are connected. For all Google knows, that image even doesn’t belong to your website.
Long story short: You won’t get any SEO credits for that image you’re using, no matter how great you think the image is or how well related it is to your content.
I’m not saying, it’s a bad thing. Google might rank your page anyway, and even on the highest positions on the SERP (Search Engine Result Pages). But it’s just the content Google is now taking in consideration, not the image anymore. In conclusion:
You’re missing all the nice image optimization opportunities when you don’t have your image under the same URL as your website.
There is no reason for you to use CDNs if you have less than 100K traffic on your website per month.
If you have to use CDNs for whatever reason, you should at least consider using a subdomain. Many CDNs provide the ability to create a subdomain for your domain, where the images can live under. By changing DNS records, you can your propagate a designated subdomain such as images.<yourdomain>.com to the Content Delivery Network. That way all your images or any other media files will look like they live in your domain ecosystem — but remember: That is not guaranteed.
It’s a good start, but when it comes to subdomains, it’s never safe to say that Google will acknowledge your subdomain as a part of your website. Especially in this case, as only images would live under that subdomain, it’s most likely Google will just see that subdomain as a file archive, and an entity not related to your website. It might, or it might not. Google decides based on its own algorithm if it will consider your subdomain a part of your site or not — Google handles subdomains differently based on each website.
Our research indicates that Google handles giant websites such as Times Magazine and others differently than the other ones that are in the billion. Google uses so-called Focused Crawlers when it comes to giant websites that act as the gatekeepers of the web. A Focus Crawler is one of the magic potions Google doesn’t like to talk about much. It basically crawls and indexes a selection of websites with specific setups than it does with other websites. In short: Some websites receive a special treatment.
Don’t expect the same treatment for your web project, unless you and the Google CEO have a special relationship.
We’ve researched a couple smaller website projects that have been using CDNs and could see that they were not getting any SEO credits for their images — many of them couldn’t even be found through Google Image Search. Some of the websites we checked were also using CDNs as subdomains, hoping that would make a change — but it does not help.
To sum up, if you are not one of the world’s biggest websites that is being challenged by high traffic and slow load speed, don’t use CDNs for images at all. It is best to keep your images under the same URL if you want to profit from Image SEO, unless your website has millions of of images it can’t handle and you don’t have a choice.
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