Anybody who keeps up with the news will be aware that privacy and security on the internet is a huge issue in these modern times, often cropping up in debates surrounding technology and politics. With more and more people awakening to the everyday risks of browsing the web, the need for a more secure internet now seems more important than ever. HTTPS is simply one of the many measures working towards a greater sense of security for the entire web community. As Google puts it, HTTPS “protects the integrity and confidentiality of data between the user’s computer and the site.” In fact, Google are so dead-set on it’s benefits that they have been calling for the use of HTTPS everywhere on the internet (more on this later). But to understand all the hype, we first need to ask the most obvious question…

What is HTTPS, exactly?

The technical details of HTTPS are almost guaranteed to bore you, so let’s stick to the bare essentials (this is an SEO glossary, after all). Look to the top of this webpage and you will see https:// right at the front of our website’s URL, most likely (depending on your browser) with a little green padlock by its side. It stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, a procedure by which information is exchanged securely on the internet. More specifically, it works to ensure three different layers of security and protection for websites:

  • Authenticating the website with an SSL/TLS certificate, which removes any confusion as to whether or not the site is actually owned by the stated host and not an imposter.
  • Stopping information from being intercepted or corrupted as it is transferred from the user to the website, which protects the site from certain types of hacking.
  • Encrypting all communications between the client and the server, which prevents any information transferred through the site from being tracked or stolen by eavesdroppers.

Of course, these factors are important in their own right and even those webmasters who aren’t aiming to increase their online presence should seriously consider adopting HTTPS on their websites – the benefits are there for all to enjoy! The most important benefit of HTTPS for SEO purposes, however, is that it is conducive to both positive user experience and search engine performance. Let’s consider both of these benefits individually.

HTTPS and user experience

As a user, if you can see https:// at the beginning of a website address then you know that you information is far more secure while browsing that website. This sense of security is especially crucial with sites that require users to share their bank details, and there are many users out there who are savvy enough to avoid doing so if the website doesn’t use HTTPS. Inasmuch as safe browsing is a desirable thing, a website that does embrace HTTPS is more likely to gain the long-term trust of users and offer them an overall positive experience.

Strictly speaking, the same cannot be said of regular HTTP websites as they are not authenticated and encrypted. As such, the user has no objective guarantee that the information they are giving to that website is in safe hands. It’s not necessarily that all HTTP websites are dodgy and don’t care about their users. That’s not the point – it’s more about the potential danger associated with websites that don’t have security certificates, and the possibility that such danger could influence users’ experience of a site. As we always say here at Yellowball, putting user experience first is never a bad thing!

HTTPS as a ranking signal

In August 2014, Google officially announced that they were starting to take the security of websites into account when ranking them in search results. In other words, they began favouring and rewarding sites that used HTTPS as opposed to plain ol’ HTTP. The motivation behind this move was to make the web a safer place for searchers. Although it’s perhaps one of Google’s smaller ranking signals (“affecting fewer than 1% of global queries and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content,” according to the official statement) it still incentivises websites to value their security more and get an SSL certificate… I guess that was the point.

Why should you change to HTTPS?

Despite being a relatively minor ranking signal, the influence of HTTPS on SEO has been quickly gaining momentum in recent times. There’s certainly nothing ‘minor’ about the fact that, according to a report by Moz in April 2017, over half of the websites in Google’s page one search results have HTTPS – and that percentage continues to grow! The general consensus is that SEOs should be capitalising on this trend, especially with Google becoming increasingly insistent on more secure websites across the web. This is especially prevalent for e-commerce websites where users are asked to submit sensitive personal data.

And their insistence extends beyond a subtle ranking signal: in October 2017, Google Chrome started automatically marking websites with forms or search boxes that do not have HTTPS as ‘not secure’. Indeed, for quite a while Google have had “a long-term plan to mark all HTTP sites as non-secure.” Given the negative implication of having your site displayed in search results (or in Chrome) alongside the words ‘not secure’, it’s probably about time you all upgraded to HTTPS – just saying! And if you’re being optimistic about it (the SEO community needs a bit of optimism every now and then), this also presents a great opportunity to take part in a wider effort to create a more secure internet for everyone, users and webmasters alike.

Will you lose ‘link juice’ by switching to HTTPS?

Some claim that if a website uses HTTPS where it isn’t completely necessary (i.e. a website that doesn’t have an e-commerce bent) then it could stand to lose around 15% of its ‘link juice’ when making the switch, largely due to the 301 redirects which will be implemented as a result. This is an obvious concern for businesses that have invested heavily in SEO and have scaled in line with increased leads from organic search. A short term dip in rankings due to lost link juice could potentially have a negative impact on such businesses.

The easiest way to mitigate this potential short-term loss is to run through something similar to the broken link building process. This involves contacting all of the websites who have provided a link to your site, notifying them of your change to HTTPS, and encouraging them to make the necessary amendments to their link. Bear in mind: it is unlikely that 100% of these websites will change the link, especially if the linking pages are reasonably old.

If you’re still feeling uneasy about making the switch, that’s understandable – but we invite you to consider the following scenario. As the months and years go by, Google place more and more emphasis on HTTPS as a ranking signal whilst you continue to invest in SEO. Eventually you may see a drop in rankings as websites that have made the switch start gain favour over your website. All of a sudden, a larger amount of link juice is at stake! As such, the smart move is to take the short-term hit sooner rather than later in order to avoid the potential long-term risks.