Google announced an update to their search algorithm to now include HTTPS as a ranking signal last month. This blog post is to help people understand what HTTP and HTTPS are, how they differ, what this change means, why Google made this update and the potential SEO impacts this change and transitioning your website to HTTPS can cause.
What is HTTP?
Asking what HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) is, is like asking what the internet is. It is the foundation of data communication for the internet which connects browser requests to server responses. When you enter a URL into your browser (Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, etc.), the browser sends out a request for the information stored under that address. This data is sent back to your browser which then interprets the data and displays it for you in an appropriate manner.
What does HTTP have to do with search engines?
Essentially search engines like Google and Bing use bots (aka crawlers) to scour the World Wide Web for information and document it. Once a website is crawled a snapshot of it is indexed and warehoused in a worldwide network of data centers, then every so often the crawlers will periodically return to sites to check for any change in information and document updates. Once a query is entered into a search engine it will return a list of URLs they have deemed relevant enough to address your query. It’s very important to note that when you’re looking for information through a search engine like Google or Bing you aren’t actually searching the entire web for it. What you are doing is searching through their giant database of indexed information for results. This is why search engines want to return high quality, relevant information from verifiable sources for your search queries. This is also why they’re constantly updating their search algorithm to devalue/deindex low quality results and penalize people trying to game the system.
What is HTTPS?
HTTPS stands for HTTP + Secure, which means that requests to servers as well as responses returned are protected with an extra level of encryption. Historically banks, e-commerce sites and any site concerned with protecting personal data (like credit card numbers) would take advantage of the HTTPS protocol. Consumer trust would be compromised if they didn’t and then those sites would run the risk of visitors leaving for a more secure competitor and never returning.
Why does Google care about HTTPS?
On August 06, 2014 Google posted their stance on HTTPS as a ranking signal: “we’ve been running tests taking into account whether sites use secure, encrypted connections as a signal in our search ranking algorithms. We’ve seen positive results, so we’re starting to use HTTPS as a ranking signal. For now it’s only a very lightweight signal — affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals…”
Like I mentioned above, search engines want to return high quality, relevant information from verifiable sources for your search queries. This is their job and even though we don’t see all the work going on behind the scenes, ongoing algorithm tweaks and updates happen frequently throughout any given year. This has helped search evolve and better create a seamless connection between you and the knowledge you seek. Sites that take the time and make the effort to distinguish themselves as a verifiable source through the HTTPS protocol have already taken a step in rising above lower quality sites by providing benefits like confidentiality, integrity and identity. Your information remains confidential from prying eyes because only your browser and the server can decrypt the traffic. To me, this is what Google’s webspam team had in mind when they made the push for this update.
Potential SEO Impacts This Change and Transferring Your Website to HTTPS Can Cause
The Good – If you properly transition your site from HTTP to HTTPS, your site can start to gain some ranking favor through the positive algorithm signal and be seen as a greater authority to Google. This improved view of your site to Google can help it improve in organic rank and begin to gain SERP visibility and real estate against your competition.
The Bad – Transitioning to a HTTPS site will most likely slow down Page Load time as the SSL Negotiation step adds a layer of encryption onto your data request as well as the information returned. It is very difficult to avoid a delay in loading your resources (unless you leverage the currently limited SPDY security protocol and don’t use a CDN or, or if you take advantage of one of the few CDNs supporting SPDY) and not only does that diminish user experience but Google has previously mentioned that they use site speed as a ranking factor back in 2010. On top of slowing down your site, you need to pay to obtain an SSL certificate (Godaddy.com’s prices range from $69.99/year for protecting one website to $269.99/year to protect all subdomains). You can leverage this SSL certificate comparison tool to ballpark the annual price you’ll end up having to pay.
The Ugly – Currently leveraging HTTPS across an entire site will interfere with an e-commerce site running on Magento Enterprise or Community Edition with Full Page Cache on it. With Magento’s Full Page Cache not working, the response time of your site will slow down substantially and with enough visitors to your site it might crash.
As you can probably tell, there are a lot of positive and negative implications with transitioning your site from HTTP to HTTPS. If you want to learn more about HTTP vs HTTPS please check out the video podcast Tony Edward and I posted on the subject. Please like and share this article and our video so all the webmasters and site owners in your network are aware of this update and what it could mean for them. Also, as transitioning a site from HTTP to HTTPS is a multi-step process which can potentially compromise organic rankings and your site’s functionality, it’s highly recommended to have a trained SEO involved throughout the entire process. Visit our SEO services section to see how we can help you improve your organic visibility today!
Here are some resource links that were very helpful for our research and can help you gain a better understanding of the recent update by Google.
Here is a recent video on HTTPS I did with my colleague Tony Edward.