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HTTPS as a Google Ranking Factor

View profile for Jamie Stevens
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What is HTTPS?

HTTPS (or Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure) is a secure method of transferring data over the internet that is used to stop unwanted snooping of your communications. At this point in time, it's use is mostly limited to certain areas of the internet that are most sensitive such as Email, online banking and e-commerce.  However, prominent security experts and privacy groups such as the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) have long pushed for adoption of HTTPS across the web in order to keep user's browsing habits and personal information private.

The history of Google and HTTPS

For the last few years Google has been driving HTTPS adoption. In 2011 they have enabled HTTPS by default for all search queries[1], and this had the effect of hiding search terms from website owners. This led rapidally to the situation we have today where almost all search terms are hidden. In 2014 Google showed further commitment to a policy of search-privacy by no longer showing the keyword used for Google's own PPC adverts in Google analytics.

HTTPS as a ranking signal

In March 2014, Google's Head of Web Spam, Matt Cutts, was speaking at the Search Marketing Expo in California and mentioned that he would like to see HTTPS adopted as a ranking factor[2]. This generated a lot of buzz in the SEO world as Matt Cutts is a Google figurehead on anything SEO related so when he starts discussing potential new ranking signals it is usually a sign that Google have something in the works.

On the 6th of August, Google announced on their online security blog that HTTPS was finally to be used as a ranking signal.[3]

“For now it's only a very lightweight signal—affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content—while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.”

I expect that most of the affected queries are in HTTPS heavy sectors such as e-commerce where there are likely to be lots of sites using HTTPS, so any site not using HTTPS in these sectors is putting themselves at a disadvantage. Google also say that they may decide to strengthen the signal but I think this unlikely in the next year.

Disadvantages of HTTPS

While being good for the end user, HTTPS does come with some difficulties for site owners:

  • Costs – The first thing that you will need to do in order to enable HTTPS on your site is to purchase a SSL certificate. This certificate verifies that your site is who it says it says in order to stop another site from pretending to be you. The certificates cost around £300 a year.
  • Speed – Before being sent to the end-user, all of the data must be encrypted instead of being sent straight to the user. This encryption takes time, and although this is usually only milliseconds it can affect the user's experience of the page. The speed of the page is also a Google ranking factor. In order to resolve any speed issues associated with HTTP, site owners may need to pay for increased server capacity.
  • Complexity – Setting up HTTPS on a website by an average site-owner is very complex and difficult to do correctly. Most site-owners will not be able to do this without the help of a web developer that is experienced in configuring HTTPS.
  • Shortage of IP Addresses - HTTPS requires a site to have a unique IP address, but many sites run behind proxy servers that present a single IP address to the outside world. There is a severe global shortage of IP addresses so obtaining addresses for all existing sites is not possible until the adoption of IPv6 which is a slow and expensive process. See What is IPv6 and why is it so important?

Conclusion

Most sites will not be affected by the addition of HTTPS as a ranking signal any time soon. If your site is with us then it will already be using HTTPS to protect personal data such as login details - but don't expect the entire site to be HTTPS until IPv6 is more established. And even then, it will only come with some extra cost (yet to be determined).

If you want to improve your rankings focus on the more important signals such as high quality content. Google says that HTTPS is a minor factor (<1%) and evidence suggests that the effect is so small as to be extremely difficult to measure. A recent study by SearchMetrics concluded that, to-date, HTTPS showed no relation with rankings.

Good SEO is about looking at the site as a whole and not getting fixated about any one signal at the expense of others.

 

Sources:

[1] http://searchengineland.com/google-to-begin-encrypting-searches-outbound-clicks-by-default-97435
[2] http://www.seroundtable.com/google-ssl-ranking-18256.html
[3] http://googleonlinesecurity.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/https-as-ranking-signal_6.html

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