HTTPS now a ranking signal in search
22 Aug 2014
Recently, Google announced that they were launching a new ranking signal within their search algorithm which would give small ranking boosts to websites using SSL/HTTPS.
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise; security has been a priority for Google in the last couple of years, introducing strong HTTPS encryption on services such as Gmail, Google Drive and also as default in search to increase user privacy.
Matt Cutts also hinted during this year’s Search Marketing Expo (SMX) in March, that if it was up to him, he would like to see HTTPS become a ranking signal.
For now Google have stated that this is “only a very lightweight signal” and in fact “carries less weight than other signals such as high-quality content”
Over the past few months, Google have been testing “secure, encrypted connections” as a signal within their search ranking algorithms, with “positive results”, affecting “fewer than 1% of global queries”.
However, they may decide to strengthen the signal in the future, stating they would “like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web”.
How it works
Unlike the Panda and Penguin filters which need to be refreshed over time, the HTTPS ranking signal will be working in real time. What this means is that as soon as Google indexes your new HTTPS URL, the URL should benefit from the HTTPS ranking signal straight away.
Notice I mentioned URL rather than URLs... This is due to the fact that the HTTPS ranking signal will be operating on a per-URL basis. So if your website already contains HTTPS URLs, it will only be these pages which receive a boost and not your whole website. This is likely another way for Google to encourage webmasters in making a full transition over to HTTPS.
Thinking of making the switch?
There are several considerations to take onboard before rushing into switching your website over to HTTPS as migrating over to HTTPS can do more harm than good if it is done incorrectly.
When carrying out a site move, Google recommends you use their ‘Change of Address’ tool within Google Webmaster Tools (GWT). However at present, this tool is not compatible with an HTTP to HTTPS switch and there is no indications as to when this function will be available.
Migrating from HTTP to HTTPS requires redirects to be put in place. Implementing 301 redirects from HTTP URLs to their HTTPS versions will assist in indicating the change and also preserve linking value from the old URLs to the new. However, there could be ranking flux during the transitioning period as search engines crawl the new HTTPS URLs. This could be exaggerated more if the redirects are done incorrectly.
Analytics and Webmaster Tools will also have to be set up again on the HTTPS version of your website. Webmaster Tools will allow you to track any errors which may have occurred during/after migration.
Although costs for obtaining SSL certificates are not too expensive these days, they can still be in the hundreds of pounds. So this might not be viable for all businesses, particularly small businesses with tighter margins.
Again with migration, smaller sites are easier to move across due to fewer URLs etc. Site owners with some technical knowledge may be able to tackle the process themselves. However, large/older websites may need more technical assistance, with either a freelance SEO/developer or agency required, resulting in higher costs.
Before you go switching your website over to HTTPS, you need to weigh up whether the benefits outweigh the risk/costs of migration...a botched migration can really hurt your website performance!
And remember that switching over to HTTPS will not make your website rank 1st for everything!!!
By John Waugh, Senior SEO Consultant