When Google speaks, the ground shakes — or so it would seem. The search-engine giant need only hint at the idea of something being a ranking factor and business owners will not only take notice but take action. So when Google came out and announced that encrypting sites (moving from HTTP to HTTPS with an SSL certificate) would be taken as a ranking factor, it did more than make waves.
If “SSL” and “encryption” are all Greek to you, don’t worry.
In this beginner’s guide to SSL and SEO, we’ll cover what Google announced, the basics of SSL, how it impacts your SEO, and some important things to think about when considering moving your site to HTTPS.
What Are HTTPS and SSL, Anyway?
HTTPS (hypertext transfer protocol secure) is the secure version of the familiar “HTTP.” In short, it denotes that a site is secured using SSL encryption — an important distinction for those sites where sensitive information is passed back and forth (like online stores or bank sites).
SSL (secure sockets layer) is the standard security technology for encrypting the link between a server (where websites are hosted) and a browser (where people visit websites). When an SSL certificate is installed and verified, data sent across the site uses an encrypted connection that prevents hackers and prying onlookers from being able to access it.
SSL certificates have typically been used on any site where data is exchanged — sites where personal accounts, credit card numbers, or any other sensitive information might be used.
Your average personal blog or business or purely informational website wouldn’t have had a reason in the past to use an SSL connection.
What Exactly Did Google Announce?
On August 6, 2014, Google Webmaster Central posted “HTTPS as a ranking signal,” a short post that essentially announced the following:
- Security is a top priority for Google, and it works to make sure its own services use SSL by default.
- Google has decided to call for “HTTPS everywhere” on the Web to help keep information secure.
- For that reason, it has now made encrypted connections using SSL a part of its ranking algorithm.
That sounds awfully important, doesn’t it? But they go on to explain that this is currently a “lightweight” signal affecting less than one percent of global queries.
They explicitly state it carries far less weight than other signals like high-quality content, though they might “choose to strengthen it” over time.
Webmasters immediately started scrambling to comply with what was being dubbed as a new and important ranking signal. The story (and the surrounding hype) got spun and reinterpreted, and soon people were taking what Google called a “lightweight signal” as a critical part of their Web strategy.
What Are the Benefits of Switching to HTTPS?
Be reminded of why SSL exists in the first place: to protect transactions on a site. If your customer data is currently vulnerable, your primary reason for implementing HTTPS should be to protect them, not to please a search engine.
Switching to HTTPS gives your site an added touch of credibility and will help you avoid the headaches that come with leaked sensitive information. And now, you might see some better rankings, too.
Let’s Keep This in Perspective
There are hundreds of ranking signals Google uses to determine where you rank.
While they vary in importance (we know, for example, that quality links are an enormous part of the equation), you should be very careful not to treat any signal as a “killer app” or total game changer.
It is entirely possible to compete and succeed without switching to HTTPS, and HTTPS is not going to be the difference between page three and page one given all the other factors in the mix.
It is worth considering, not obsessing over.
There are several other things you should address, from content and site structure to load time and mobile-friendliness, long before you consider making a change to HTTPS just because Google told you to.
And to be absolutely clear, Google is NOT saying that sites without HTTPS will be penalized.
Implementing HTTPS Is No Walk in the Park
It’s crucial to know that switching to HTTPS is not like flicking on a light bulb. There are technical steps you will need to take to make the crossover, involving time, expertise, and money. You can also lose your existing rankings if the implementation is done hastily and important steps are missed.
The onus is on webmasters to preserve link equity and make sure no new problems are introduced during the transfer.
Google’s basic stated guidelines for moving to HTTPS include the following:
- Decide the kind of certificate you need: single, multi-domain, or wildcard certificate.
- 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.
- Don’t block your HTTPS site from crawling using robots.txt.
- Allow indexing of your pages by search engines where possible. Avoid the noindex robots metatag.
Google invites you to check out its site move article for more guidelines on how to change your website’s address, and there more items to take care of during implementation they haven’t mentioned:
- Implement 301 redirects for all old HTTP URLs to the new HTTPS variant (don’t redirect everything to the homepage, or you’ll destroy your old rankings).
- Update all rel=“canonical” tags you’re using in your HTML to the HTTPS variant.
- Update your XML sitemaps to reflect the new URL structures.
- Verify the new URLs in Google Webmaster Tools.
Last but not least, Google put out a great article on the best practices when using HTTPS and some of the most common pitfalls that should be bookmarked by anyone considering making the change.
You can buy SSL certificates from whoever is hosting your site, but you should know that they come with a renewable and ongoing fee. If you’ve got several domains or subdomains, you’ll need to buy a package that covers them, too.
Your development team will have to put together all the information necessary to buy and verify your SSL certificate. Also, you’ll need to make absolutely sure it’s renewed on an ongoing basis, or you may find yourself inadvertently flagged in search results for having an expired certificate — something that can cost you thousands in revenue until it’s resolved.
After the change, you’ll need to stay patient as you watch for Google to reindex the pages of your site.
Raven Tools outlined in detail the process they went through to make the change to HTTPS and the day-by-day results they saw. They managed not to lose any rankings in the process, and their insights are invaluable for any business considering the switch and worried about SEO fallout.
An important note: If your site is currently penalized, you should wait until the penalty has been lifted before trying to move over, or it may appear to search engines that you’re trying to dupe them by switching all of your URLs.
Is Moving to SSL Worth It Solely for SEO?
Given the amount of time and effort necessary to swap over to HTTPS, this is not a decision to take lightly.
Yes, Google has recommended it as a best practice, and that is important to consider. And while the signal is lightweight now, there’s nothing saying that won’t change — how quickly and when are the main questions.
If you’re a business and information is exchanged on your site and you’re not encrypted, the truth is you should have made the change ages ago, so now you should hop right on it.
For everyone else, we’d recommend prioritizing your effort. Before you dump resources into switching to SSL, consider other, more important factors: the quality of your content, the user experience of your website, the strength of your backlinks, whether or not you’re mobile friendly, and how fast your site loads. There are far greater gains to be made by addressing these areas, and there’s no evidence to suggest that SSL will be an enormous signal anytime soon.
When you do have the time, attention, and resources to devote, there’s really no reason not to switch to SSL — so long as you do it the right way and avoid costly mistakes that can trash your rankings.
If this is a move you’re considering, Digital Current would love to be of service to make sure your rankings aren’t lost in the transfer. Contact our team today!