HTTP or HTTPS for SEO?

HTTP or HTTPS? The SEO Impact of Using SSL Certificates

Last Edited September 15, 2017 by Garenne Bigby in Search Engine Optimization

Not too long ago, Google announced that switching a website over to the HTTPS protocol would give it a small boost in ranking. Google, being the ruler of the Internet, should know what's what then, right? Many people have this mentality but it is vital to understand the difference between HTTP and HTTPS, how to switch, and if even making the switch is right for your brand to begin with. To start with, it is vital to ask a few questions; why would Google rather HTTPS for SEO rankings? And what are the benefits of using HTTPS for SEO? It should also be noted that there are a few concerns regarding SEO and changing an HTTP website to HTTPS.

Understanding the Difference

Where there are you are the user of the site or developing your own website, a good online experience will involve a secure third-party and trusted encryption. In order to understand how to get this done and to better understand why Google would favor certain elements, it is vital to know what exactly the difference between HTTP & HTTPS is and why it matters.

HTTP

Hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) is a system that is used to send and receive information through the Internet. HTTP is known as an 'application layer protocol', meaning that it is focused on how information is portrayed to the user with a little concern for how the data is actually transferred from point A to point B. It is referred to as 'stateless', meaning that it does not try to remember anything to do with the previous web session. A benefit of being stateless is that there is not as much data to send, meaning increased speeds when browsing.

HTTP is mostly used to access HTML pages, and it can be useful to consider that other resources may be used through accessing HTTP. This used to be the way that most websites that did not hold any confidential information (like credit card numbers) would set up their websites since security was not seen as the highest priority at one point in time.

HTTPS

The secure hypertext transfer protocol (HTTPS) was developed in order to allow authorization and completely secure transactions. The exchange of confidential information must be secure in order to prevent access from unauthorized sources. HTTPS makes this possible. In a number of ways HTTPS is the same as HTTP because it follows the same most basic protocols. The HTTP or HTTPS client, like a web browser, will establish a connection to a server on a standard port. But the HTTPS will provide enhanced protection because it uses SSL to surround the data. To put it simply, HTTPS is simply the secure version of HTTP.

To dive a little bit deeper, the main difference is that by default, HTTPS uses TCP Port 443, so technically HTTP & HTTPS are two separate types of communication.

HTTPS works with another protocol, SSL – secure socket layer. The SSL will transport the data safely and securely, which is the main difference that Google cares about.

Neither HTTP nor HTTPS cares about how data gets transferred from one point to its destination. On the flip-side, SSL does not care what the data will look like, as HTTP/HTTPS does. This is why HTTPS can offer the best of both worlds. It not only cares about what the user will visually see and experience, but it also provides an extra layer of protection during data transfer from one point to another.

It should be noted that sometimes people use the terms SSL and HTTPS interchangeably, but that is incorrect. HTTPS is only secure because it uses SSL to move data. They are two separate elements and protocol but do work together to create a secure environment.

HTTPS and Google

It should be a surprise to nobody that Google favors websites that are trusted, secure, and certified. This is because users can know that the website will encrypt their information for the added level of security. But users should understand that getting a certificate can be quite an involved process, which is why it allows for higher ranking benefits. Not just anyone can have a certificate for their website.

When the website goes through the process of obtaining a certificate, the issuer of the certificate becomes the trusted third-party. When a browser recognizes a secure website, it will use the information on the certificate to verify that the website is exactly as it claims to be. When a user knows the difference between an HTTP and HTTPS website, they can browse and will know that their information will be safe. This level of security allows businesses to get started and remain in the e-commerce industry because of their credibility.

Google now uses HTTPS as a ranking signal. Data analysis has shown that HTTPS websites have a higher advantage of ranking over HTTP links, so switching to HTTPS will benefit any website, whether or not confidential information is involved. To get just a bit more information, data that is sent using HTTPS is protected via TLS, or transport layer security protocol. This provides three important layers of protection: data integrity to ensure that the data cannot be modified or broken during transfer without detection, encryption of the data to keep it secure, and authentication to prove that users are communicating with the intended site.

Google explains that websites that use HTTPS will have a slight ranking advantage because of these aspects of security. Still, these secure HTTPS websites will only have a slight benefit of the overall ranking system, no more of a benefit than high-quality content providers.

HTTPS Used as a Ranking Signal

Google makes it known that security is a top priority, as the company invests a lot of time, money, and other resources in order to make sure that their services are the best of the best, by using incredible security, like a strong HTTPS encryption, as a default. What does this mean for internet users? Those who are using programs by Google like Gmail, Search, and Google Drive will automatically have a secure connection when using Google. Beyond their own programs, Google is working to make the internet as a whole a safer place. A large part of that is ensuring that the websites that are being accessed through Google are secure. As an example, they have put together resources that will aid webmasters in preventing and fixing security breaches that may happen on their website.

More and more, webmasters are converting to using HTTPS on their websites, which is encouraging for the internet community. For the reasons listed above, Google has run test and taken into account whether or not websites are using secure and encrypted connections as a signal (or factor) in their algorithms for search ranking. There have been positive results displayed, so they are beginning to actively implement HTTPS as a ranking signal. As of now, it is only a slight signal, really only having an effect on less than 1% of global queries. It carries less weight than high-quality content. It will only hold this lightweight until a significant number of webmasters have had the chance to switch from using HTTP to HTTPS as an effort to keep users and websites alike safe on the web.

The SEO Advantage of Using HTTPS

It is quite clear that HTTPS offers security that many Internet users ask for and even demand, so it is absolutely the way to go if you would like your website to be favored by Google. Aside from that, there are some additional benefits for SEO that should be considered.

Increased rankings is the obvious one. As noted, Google confirmed the small ranking boost of sites using HTTPS. Like many ranking signals, it is difficult to isolate on its own, but it is definitely something to keep in mind. On a positive note, the value of switching to HTTPS may increase over time.

Referral data is preserved when traffic passes to an HTTP website. This is different than what happens when traffic goes through an HTTP site – it is taken away and looks as if it is direct with no referral.

HTTPS will add privacy and security to a website and SEO goals through: verification of the website that it is the right one on the server, preventing tampering by third parties, making the website more secure for visitors, and encrypting all communication like URLs, which in turn protects things like credit card numbers and browsing history.

SEO concerns for HTTPS

In general, there are no real concerns to be had with moving away from HTTP and using HTTPS. If Google is backing it consistently, it is more than likely a good practice. However, it is important that you do just a few things to make sure that your traffic does not suffer when the switch is made. First you will need to communicate to Google that the website has moved from HTTP to HTTPS.

Google suggests the following things when switching from HTTP to HTTPS:

  • Utilize 2048-bit key certificates
  • Decide if you need a single, wildcard, multi domain certificate
  • Utilize relative URLs for resources that are using the same secure domain
  • Do not prevent the HTTPS site from getting crawled with robots.txt
  • You should allow indexing of the pages in search engines of where it is possible
  • Avoid using the noindex meta tag for robots.txt
  • Choose protocol relative URLs for the other domains
  • Carefully track your migration from HTTP to HTTPS using your choice of analytics software and Google's Webmaster Tools

In order to get a certificate, you will need to provide your certificate signing request (CSR) on the web server. Then, you will select the server software used to generate the CSR. After that you will select the preferred hash algorithm. Lastly, you will select the validity period for the certificate.

SSL Certificates

An SSL Certificate is a block of code on a web server that will provide security for communications online. When a browser makes contact with a secure web site, the SSL certificate will enable an encrypted (secure) connection. It is like sealing a package before putting it in the mail. SSL certificates bring trust because each of them will contain identification information—when an SSL certificate is requested, a third party will verify the information of the organization and will then issue a unique certificate to the user with that information. This is called the authentication process, and chances are, you have encountered an error message that included the phrase.

Considering Everything

The main thing to know is that moving to HTTPS will help a website to stay in good standing with Google. Alongside all of the SEO benefits outlined, HTTPS is a more secure system for a website to operate. Security for a website and its users is the most important benefit of making the switch from HTTP to HTTPS. HTTPS is not only perfect for security reasons but for referred data as well, along with other SEO approaches. When examining the issue as a whole, while considering the future of HTTPS and Google, it is highly recommended to switch to HTTPS if you have not already.

If you have a website that is already operating on HTTPS, you can take steps to test its security level and configuration with Google's Qualys Lab tool. If you are feeling concerned about TLS and the performance of the website, there is a tool to check the speed of TLS.

Those who are not familiar with the visual difference in an HTTP and HTTPS website should take note of their address bar—not only will it be indicated within the URL, but many times there will be a lock symbol and green text indicating the security of the website. For those who are on the fence about converting to HTTPS, there is nothing to lose by going through with the conversion as soon as possible, as most sites are heading in that direction anyway.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder @dynomapper
Garenne Bigby is freelance Chicago developer and founder of DYNO Mapper with over 10 years experience in both agency and freelance roles in design, development, user experience, SEO, and information architecture.

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