Friday, September 19, 2014

Google’s HTTPS Challenge: Making the Right SEO Choice

 

Photo Credit:  infocux Technologies  Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


If you’ve heard the latest news from Google that HTTPS sites may see a slight boost in rankings, it was a long time coming. Google has been flirting with the idea of rewarding more secure sites using HTTPS for well over a year now, and in early August, they made it official.

Before you dive in to redo your HTTP site into HTTPS, however, make sure it’s worth your while. Not every site needs to be in HTTPS, and not every HTTPS site will see a boost in SEO. Read on to learn where you fall in the fray.

Google’s Decision to Give Preference to HTTPS

In March of this year, Google’s master of search, Matt Cutts, made a telling statement at SMX. He stated flat out that he’d love to see SSL become an integral part of the search algorithms, thereby giving preference to more secure sites. Later on, Google said quite simply, “HTTPS Everywhere.”
So on August 6th of this year, it came as no surprise to any SEO expert that the leading search engine’s webmaster blog released this statement: they are ready to “see more and more webmasters adopt HTTPS.”

Before You Make the HTTPS Switch. . .
Please also note that Google additionally stated HTTPS would only factor in as a “lightweight signal.” At least initially. This means that less than 1% of all global queries will be affected by an HTTPS rankings boost. This is still more substantial than most algorithm updates, but it doesn’t warrant each and every business owner the urgency to spend time and resources redoing their sites.
How do you determine the best course of action? Let’s first uncover the best motivations to go HTTPS. One clue: it isn’t SEO.

HTTPS and SSL: Clear Definitions

HTTPS stands for “Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure”, and all it really means is it’s a secure version of HTTP. If you run an ecommerce site, or any digital destination that accepts payment, HTTPS is a must for your visitors.

SSL stands for “Secure Sockets Layer”. This is simply a protocol that provides a secure process for transmitting files. SSL, in essence, encrypts the connection, so files can be transmitted safely.
In order for HTTPS and SSL to operate properly, digital certificates must be procured. These come in several forms:
  • Single domains (if you have a single URL, like www.mysite.com)
  • Multi-domains (for URLs like www.mysite.com and www.mysubsite.mysite.com, or www.mysite.net)
  • Wildcard certificates (for sites with URL structures like www.mysubdomain1.mysite.com, www.mysubdomain2.mysite.com, etc.
When you switch from HTTP to HTTPS, it’s not your website that changes, it’s the browser request, which now selects an encrypted connection. To execute this, the certificate above is required, along with the way your site is hosted. This is the tricky part, as each hosting company operates differently. So if you feel like your site needs to be secure, for any reason, start with your hosting company; they will indicate what needs to happen for your site to be compliant.

How Important is HTTPS to SEO?

The answer to this question is. . .it depends. At the moment, it’s minimally important; as mentioned above, less than 1% of search queries will currently be affected by a switch to HTTPS. Let’s be clear, however; if Google is making statements like “all website owners [should] switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web,” this should clearly be in your big picture strategy.

Google owns roughly 70% of the search engine market share, and since they’ve identified HTTPS as an essential way to make users happy and safe, your long term SEO strategy should absolutely include a switch to encryption, if you’re not there already. You don’t need to stop everything and make it your number one priority, but put it on you radar and take steps toward completion. This isn’t just a case for better SEO, but for a more secure and beneficial experience for all your customers too.

As for timing, that’s anyone’s guess. A safe assumption is that it will be a year or more before
HTTPS is a significant factor in Google’s algorithm, and not a “lightweight signal.” It likely won’t happen any time sooner. That said, if you do run an ecommerce site, your motivation should be the safety of your customer’s data, and their peace of mind. That far trumps the importance or relevance of miniscule SEO increases. If you don’t run a site that involves passing personally identifiable information, or payment of any kind, take your time. Google won’t mind.


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