Google announced late last week that they are starting to use HTTPS/SSL as a “lightweight” ranking signal within their Google search algorithm. Google stated that this factor would only impact “fewer than 1% of global search queries.” However, they did say that they may decide to strengthen the HTTPS ranking signal over time, presumably after giving webmasters the opportunity to switch their websites over to HTTPS. As I will go on to explain, moving to HTTPS (buying and installing an SSL certificate) should not be your number 1 priority right now, nor will it miraculously boost your website to the top of the search engine rankings, however it is certainly something to bear in mind over the coming months as Google continues it’s push towards improved online security.
What is HTTPS/SSL?
HTTPS stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure, which is the secure version of the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (http). HTTPS is usually used on sites to secure e-commerce transactions, such as online banking sites, email applications and e-commerce checkout areas. When a user connects to a website via HTTPS, the website encrypts the session with a Digital SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) Certificate. A user can tell if they are connected to website that has a valid SSL certificate if the website URL begins with https:// instead of http://. SSL certificates are essentially small data files that digitally bind a cryptographic key to the domain of the website in question – once this certificate is installed, a secure connection is enabled between the web server (where the website is hosted) and the browser (where the website is being accessed) to stop anyone snooping in on the connection and seeing the data being transferred. Web browsers such as Google Chrome and Firefox always display a padlock icon to indicate that a website is secured in this manner, whilst they also display https:// in the address bar. SSL certificates have been used by as much as ten percent of all websites as standard up until Google’s announcement, however I suspect that this announcement is likely to significantly increase the number of websites moving to HTTPS.
Should I be using HTTPS?
As I’ve already mentioned, running your website via HTTPS is not going to propel you to top of the search results for your target keywords – there are literally hundreds of other things you could be doing to improve your website which will yield better results in terms of rankings. That being said, I do expect HTTPS to grow in importance over the coming years, which means that website owners need to prepare for the inevitable mass shift to HTTPS in good time by planning the migration well in advance. It is not too often Google publicly announce the factors they use to rank websites, however Google webmaster trends analysts Zineb Ait Bahajji and Gary Illyes have explicitly stated that Google “would like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.” I’d therefore suggest that webmasters should take this as an advanced warning of the need to ensure their websites are only accessible via HTTPS in the not too distant future.
How to migrate to HTTPS
Google stated in their announcement last week that they have seen a lot more webmasters adopting HTTPS, and that they have already been testing it as a ranking signal with “positive” results. If your entire site is already running on HTTPS, you shouldn’t need to worry, but you’re being encouraged to test its security level and configuration using this free tool. If you don’t have an SSL certificate, and are looking to incorporate HTTPS for your site, these are a few basic tips for getting started straight from Google:
- Decide the kind of certificate you need: single, multi-domain, or wildcard certificate – find out more here
- Use 2048-bit key certificates
- Use relative URLs for resources that reside on the same secure domain
- Use protocol relative URLs for all other domains
- Check out Google’s Site move article for more guidelines on how to change your website’s address
- Don’t block your HTTPS site from being crawled using robots.txt
- Allow indexing of your pages by search engines where possible. Avoid the noindex robots meta tag.
I’d also suggest that you take some time to read through this Google help document on the subject, and fire over any queries you have to Google’s John Mueller, who has been actively answering questions about this on Google+
What if only part of my site is on HTTPS?
There are plenty of e-commerce sites that only have SSL enabled in their checkout area to secure online payments. Bearing in mind that the proposed ranking boost will only be applied to the pages that have SSL enabled, you need to ensure the whole site (the whole domain, all URLs and files) is moved over to HTTPS to gain any kind of ranking boost.
Pitfalls of moving to HTTPS
In all honesty, if you switch your site over properly, there will be no downside to moving over to HTTPS. Many people have previously expressed concerns about the load speeds of HTTPS sites vs. HTTP. However, Google’s recent work on SPDY has now mostly negated the speed issue. Google has previously stated (before the SSL boost anouncement) there is no ranking change in a negative way for moving to SSL. Furthermore, Google has improved Google Webmaster Tools to support HTTPS vs HTTP reporting, and have produced a useful HTTPS everywhere video presentation, which is certainly worth a watch.
Should this be my main concern?
In a word, No. There’s hundreds of other things you could be doing right now that will have a bigger impact on your keyword rankings. The need to migrate to HTTPS may well become more urgent over time as Google starts to give the signal more weight. However, it’s highly doubtful that Google will inform us of when exactly the ‘weight’ of this ranking factor will be increased. For now, I’d suggest that your main focus should be on the creation of good quality content and earning relevant inbound links. Once you’ve got a handle on those factors, maybe you could then think about migrating your site over to HTTPS. It seems many experts in the SEO industry are of the same opinion, judging by some of the reactions on Twitter following the announcement.
The issue of HTTPS is understandably complex for many, and there’s clearly a lot of information to take on board following Google’s announcement. Many web based companies and tech savvy business owners will no doubt be quick to implement the switch to HTTPS, however there are a multitude of other things business owners and marketers could be doing right now to gain better rankings for their target keywords. The main piece of advice I’d give here is not to rush into a HTTPS migration. Moving over to HTTPS isn’t without risk, and care should be taken when redirecting traffic from the non-HTTPs to the HTTPs version of your website. A poorly implemented SSL certificate can often lead to errors displaying for users, whilst improper redirection can also cause issues relating to duplicate content. Therefore, I would strongly suggest seeking the advice of an SEO consultant or an experienced developer if you’re planning on making the switch to HTTPS. To reiterate – this update affects only a small portion of Google’s search results (less than 1% of global queries). Quality, original website content, produced by a trusted author that is widely shared by your target audience will almost certainly provide better results at this moment in time, so please bear this in mind if the thought of moving to SSL is giving you a headache!