It’s been two years since Google announced, on its Webmaster Central Blog, that HTTPS was considered a ranking signal. In December last year, Google also confirmed that all HTTPS websites would be indexed by default, as it attempted to promote “a private experience between the user and the website”. However, switching to HTTPS is still an arguable topic for digital marketers, as this secure website system is considered as a “lightweight signal” which carries less than 1% of queries and may bring certain risks if not switched properly from the previous HTTP website. To gain a better understanding of this topic, it’s vital to know the basic difference between HTTP and HTTPS, what benefit and potential issues that HTTPS brings in general and to SEO in particular.
HTTP vs HTTPS: the basics
HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is a system for distributing and receiving data communication (e.g. texts, images, videos, sound and other multimedia files) and which attempts to present data to online users regardless of the platform channels like desktops, tablets or mobile.
HTTPS (Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is a system for secure transactions and authorisation between the browser and the website it is connected to. HTTPS is claimed to provide a higher level of security for exchanging data like personal passwords or credit card numbers, as all the information is encrypted.
HTTPS is a secure version of HTTP. What makes HTTPS more secure is an additional layer of protocol called the SSL certificate (Secure Sockets Locket). This SSL certificate attempts to generate encryption between the web browser of the visitors and the web server for private information without eavesdropping, message tampering and data modification. It is for this reason that many eCommerce websites switch to the secure HTTPS web server.
HTTPS performance in Google
After Google’s official announcement regarding the ranking signal of HTTPS in August 2014, there were a few arguments over this topic. Searchmetrics ran their own research and believed that there were no relation between HTTPS and rankings. The impact of switching to HTTPS was claimed to be relatively small and, thus, people downplayed Google’’s announcement.
Two years later, MOZ has collected data from their own tracking system and presented a “wake-up call” for those underestimating the role of HTTPS.
Sites using HTTPS account for 32.5% (approximately one-third) of Google’s page 1 results as of June 2016. One of the biggest factors contributing to this figure is websites like Wikipedia who started switching to HTTPS in the middle of 2015. Several giants like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Pinterest have also made the switch.
SEO benefits of switching to HTTPS
As mentioned, Google offers a slight ranking boost for HTTPS sites. Compared to other ranking signals like unique content and quality link building, HTTPS may not earn significant rankings; however, it is important to keep in mind that the value of switching to HTTPS is likely to increase in the long-term.
HTTPS is an ideal system to preserve the secure referral information whenever the traffic passes to it. This is a big advantage compared to the normal HTTP which is more likely to strip away referral data and transfer it as “Direct”. This would become a concern in your analytics reports, as you would not know where the traffic actually comes from.
Security and privacy
Marketers argue that HTTPS is always best used when your website requires a password for login. As well as this, HTTPS encryption brings many benefits including:
- Avoiding third party tampering
- Making the site more secure for visitors
- Encrypting and protecting all data communication including browsing history and credit card numbers
SEO concerns of switching to HTTPS
Shifting the entire site to HTTPS can be tricky and there are some small details that people are likely to overlook which can have a huge impact on the performance of the site:
- Have all HTTP URLs been 301 redirected to their new HTTPS equivalent to avoid site duplication?
- Are canonical tags pointing to new HTTPS URLs?
- Do all internal links point to the new HTTPS URLs?
- Are new social shares pointing to the new HTTPS URLs?
Double checking these points will prevent decreases in rankings and conversion rates after switching to HTTPS.
Due to the extra communication requirement between servers, there is a potential that HTTPS may slow down your website. This is really important as page speed is a ranking factor itself, especially on the mobile platform. Check out these suggestions from MOZ, Google’s best practices to secure your site with HTTPS, and new tools like SPDY when trying to speed up your HTTPS website.
Switching to HTTPS brings more Google-friendly value for businesses in the search engines. Compared to the normal HTTP protocol, HTTPS gives the website more security and privacy, as personal data like passwords and credit card numbers (communicated between the website browser and the website server) are all encrypted. HTTPS also brings more referral traffic and ranking boosts from an SEO perspective, just remember to keep some best practices (as mentioned above) in mind to avoid any unexpected errors when implementing HTTPS.
Has your website recently switched to HTTPS? What were the results? How has it helped your SEO management effort? Have you encountered any challenges? Let us know in the comments!