Delivering solid web and application performance within mainland China can be a challenge for even the most seasoned IT professional, and with a population exceeding 1.3 billion people it is becoming more important by the day. In fact, according to Mashable, there are now as many internet users in China as there are people in Europe.
If your website is slow (or times out completely) you are now missing out on nearly 735 million potential new customers.
So, what is so difficult about delivering a good user experience in mainland China? The answer is complicated, but it comes down to a few main issues:
- Government regulation – the Chinese government tightly regulates what can be seen on the Internet in mainland China. Businesses outside of China need a special license to serve content from within the Great Firewall and this can be revoked at any time for just about any reason. Many of the largest companies in the world like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter are banned.
- Size – China is huge. Even if you’re able to host your website or application inside China it won’t be fast everywhere in the country due to distance and poor peering connections.
- Mobile – a significant portion of the Chinese population does not have access to broadband and rely exclusively on their smartphones to access the Internet. If your site is not highly optimized for mobile it is likely timing out for this large section of the population.
This may sound intimidating, but there are a few simple things you can do to dramatically improve the online experience for your potential customers in mainland China:
1) Create a new domain for China
If you have traffic in China the first thing you’ll want to do is create a separate domain or subdomain specifically for your Chinese users. This serves a few purposes. First of all, you’ll want to remove any 3rd party content from this site that might be banned in China. This can be advertisements, analytics tags, social media widgets, etc. In general, the fewer 3rd party tags on this site the better. And for any 3rd parties you choose to keep, be sure to use web performance best practices and load any non-critical objects after your own content so it doesn’t delay rendering of the important parts of the page.
Creating a separate domain for your China traffic can also help deliver some cost savings when buying CDN bandwidth, which we will discuss in the next section.
2) Use an appropriate CDN
Most Internet companies in 2017 know to use a CDN to move their content closer to the end-user and optimize the performance of their site globally. What they may not know is that many CDNs today still have limited POP coverage in mainland China. Even if your CDN offers China delivery, you won’t have access unless you get an ICP license and pay a hefty premium for that bandwidth. For most companies, your CDN traffic in China is actually being served from Hong Kong. And while this may seem close enough, it is outside the Great Firewall which means it will still be incredibly slow by the time it reaches the mainland.
The fastest CDNs in China, according to Cedexis benchmarks, are ChinaCache and QUANTIL/ChinaNetCenter. These companies both offer significant POP coverage within China and have offices in the US that can give you local support in English and even help you get the appropriate license to deliver your site content there.
Note that traffic in China is more expensive than any other geographic region. If you want to reduce your costs you may want to consider a dual-CDN strategy where you run only your China domain on ChinaCache or QUANTIL and the rest of your traffic over your primary CDN.
3) Optimize your site
As we briefly discussed earlier, most people in China will be accessing your site from their mobile phone. This means you absolutely must optimize your site and reduce the overall size of the page load. The obvious first step is to optimize your images, but you can also minimize and inline JS and CSS files and remove any unneeded objects from the page.
Caching is another factor that can have a big impact. Most sites these days use content management systems that tend to generate HTML for each individual visitor, even if that isn’t necessary. When this happens the request has to go all the way back to your origin, resulting in significant delays. Be sure to utilize full page caching whenever possible. That includes caching of HTML, CSS, and JS files (if your website is relatively static).
If you want to see how your website performs within China you’ll want to use a monitoring solution with testing nodes in the area. Like with your CDN, the more nodes the better since China is huge and performance can vary greatly from one city to another. Catchpoint is a great option for this since it offers over 50 monitoring locations across China, covering most major cities and ISPs.
If you complete the three steps above you’ll be well on your way to delivering a solid user experience in China, but there are a few other things to consider.
First, be sure your website is backward compatible with older browsers. Many Internet users in China use older devices which may not be updated with the latest browsers and plugins.
Second, be sure to make use of the security services offered by your CDN (or another cloud security provider of your choice) to protect your site against DDoS attacks, application attacks, and malware. Research shows that nearly 30% of all cyber attacks are initiated in China. If you’re doing business in China, you need to secure your website.
In closing – the steps discussed in this article will allow you to significantly reduce your page load times in mainland China without having to host your content within the country. That said, there is no way to avoid going back to origin for certain requests, and the farther away your origin is the slower your site will be. If you have a highly dynamic website or application that isn’t easily cacheable, you should consider hosting it with one of the public clouds that do business in China like Alibaba, AWS, or Microsoft. All three companies have offices in the US that can help get you started, and if you have an ICP license (step 2) you can be up and running in no time.