In 2014, Google announced the addition of HTTPS as a web page ranking signal. The change was expected to affect nearly one percent of search queries – a small number in principle, but large enough to attract the attention of digital marketers. After all, it’s acknowledged that Google uses hundreds of analytical strategies in their ranking algorithms, and every small improvement in website performance is welcomed by owners and users.
The purpose or function of a website should determine whether to use HTTP or HTTPS as a data transfer method. Firstly, however, the differences between the two need to be understood, along with any anticipated improvements to SEO that will be rewarded by switching.
HTTP and HTTPS
Web pages created with the html format are usually received and transferred by HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). As an application layer, HTTP doesn’t retain previous web browsing session information, thereby using less data.
HTTPS (Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol) acts a little differently. The word ‘Secure’ gives us a clue. HTTPS was created to facilitate secure transactions and authorised web page viewing. It has become an important feature of websites that exchange personal information such as credit card numbers and bank account details. The added layer of security with HTTPS prevents unauthorised entry.
HTTPS is simply a secure version of HTTP, with the additional security measures facilitated by SSL (Secure Sockets Layer).
How does SSL work?
Information communicated by HTTPS in conjunction with SSL is protected in several ways:
- Encryption: Access to data is protected by a secret key or password. Encrypted data is also known as ‘cipher text’, in contrast to ‘plain text’ used for unencrypted data.
- Authentication: This requests users to provide credentials that match information located in a database of authorised users.
- Data Integrity: Data remains intact, and information cannot be corrupted or altered during transmission or retrieval.
SSL focusses on secure data transmission regardless of appearance, whereas HTTP is responsible for the appearance of a web page. An ideal synergy can be attained by combining them both with HTTPS.
Why is HTTPS considered a ranking factor?
Encrypted URLs have been increasingly ranked since 2013. According to Erik Newton at BrightEdge, “Google preference for trusted sites isn’t surprising. If users are guaranteed to have a secure site experience, they will prefer HTTPS to HTTP.”
In other words, ‘page authority’ is an important algorithmic ranking signal at Google, and obtaining a HTTPS certificate is a significant indicator of website authority. It makes sense that websites using HTTPS will be rewarded by Google with higher page rankings in organic search.
Making the switch to HTTPS
Altering a website can create disruptions to page rankings. Any initial loss of rank should be followed by a recovery, unless the changes have been implemented incorrectly or unnecessarily. Here are some recommendations from Google:
- Choose an appropriate SSL certificate for single-domain (one website), multi-domain (more than one website), or wildcard (any website within a domain name)
- Ensure the SSL certificate is up to date
- Use relative URLs for any affected resources on the secure domain
- Update robots.txt to allow HTTPS page crawling
- Make sure your website returns the right HTTP status code
- Additional considerations
It’s unrealistic to implement website changes solely for the sake of capturing every Google page ranking algorithm. The end result would be a site that is cluttered and confusing. Users today expect style, simplicity and speed. A website designed to facilitate good user experience is essential in order for it to become a subject authority. Maximum relevant information presented succinctly is true eloquence, and worthy of a page ranking reward.