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Google Announces HTTPS Websites Will Receive An Organic Search Ranking Boost

Intouch Team

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Websites that use secure, encrypted connections will have an advantage in  organic Search results.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
On Wednesday, August 6, Google announced that HTTPS is being used as a ranking signal within its organic search algorithm. What is being called “a very lightweight signal” by Google, the HTTPS ranking factor affects fewer than 1 percent of global queries and carries less weight than other signals, such as high-quality content. However, Google hinted that this signal could become stronger over time:

“For now it's only a very lightweight signal…while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.”

“For now it's only a very lightweight signal…while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.”

This POV provides an overview of the announcement from Google, as well as guidance for pharma companies who are actively engaged in organic search.

WHAT IS HTTP AND HTTPS?
Most people don’t realize it, but they use HTTP every day when they browse the Internet. Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, is a system of digital rules for data exchange between computers. HTTP allows a user’s computer to communicate with servers that house website content. When HTTP is combined with Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, the communication between the user’s computer and the server is encrypted and the information is transmitted securely. This combination of HTTP and SSL is the foundation for HTTPS, which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. When the address of a website in the browser reads HTTPS, that website is most likely utilizing SSL and is therefore more secure than a website that reads as HTTP.

WHY ADD HTTPS AS A RANKING SIGNAL NOW?
Awareness around cyber security continues to grow with the world’s dependence on the Internet for information gathering, banking and commerce, which often share and provide private information. Large corporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon have become the catalyst for change in the cyber security industry. Google has been the loudest voice, trying to change how we think about cyber security to be less about security measures as an add-on for some websites and more about making security measures the default practice for all websites.

Throughout the summer, many Google representatives have focused on promoting the use of HTTPS (also known as HTTP over TLS, or Transport Layer Security) at conferences such as SMX West, SMX Advanced and at the Google I/O event. Google acknowledged they’ve seen more and more webmasters adopting HTTPS on their websites, but the company hopes to see even more websites switch after their announcement on Wednesday.

In an article posted on Google’s Webmaster Central Blog, the search giant announced it has been testing HTTPS as a ranking signal for a few months and is fully implementing HTTPS as a ranking signal in its search ranking algorithms. There are two reasons for the addition of this ranking factor:

  • Google saw “positive results” in tests of HTTPS, which means search engine results for tested queries were more relevant than results without HTTPS as a considered ranking signal.
  • By giving websites with HTTPS a boost in organic search, Google is rewarding security, thereby incentivizing webmasters who haven’t adopted HTTPS to switch for the added SEO benefit.

This isn’t the first time Google has revealed a ranking factor in order to change the habits of webmasters. In June 2013, Google took a strong stance by announcing that websites that weren’t mobile-friendly would be demoted in organic search. Google framed the ranking factor as an effort to improve the mobile web. The same year, Google continued to push for a mobile-friendly web experience by including site speed as a ranking factor in mobile search. This announcement was meant to spur webmasters to optimize their websites to load quickly on mobile phones.

Google understands the impact that its algorithm has on the world’s websites and the impact that the user experience of those websites has on its business. Serving up websites that are secure and mobile-friendly improves user experience and makes a wider range of activities on the Web possible and safe.

WHAT WEBSITES SHOULD USE HTTPS?
This summer at Google I/O, Google representatives Pierre Far and Ilya Grigorik gave a presentation entitled “HTTPS Everywhere,” which was designed to convince webmasters to switch to HTTPS no matter the purpose of the website. The presentation argued that even websites that do not ask for personal or financial information should use HTTPS because it protects the privacy of users and prevents information from being intercepted by third parties.

“We want to convince you that all communication should be secure by default.”
                                                     — Pierre Far

There are many cases where simply visiting a website would be considered personal information, even if a website does not directly ask the user to send it personal information, such as on a registration form. For example, if a user were to visit a pharma website which raises awareness about cancer, a user could have a reasonable expectation that the information viewed on that site is private. HTTPS ensures that all communications between the server and the user’s browser are secured.

Users have been taught to trust the green padlock associated with HTTPS use, as it provides a higher level of assurance that the site they are visiting is the one they intended to visit. HTTPS uses a third-party certificate authority to validate the authenticity of the server by providing a trusted certificate. Before providing the green padlock, the user’s browser verifies that the server it is communicating with is the same server as the trusted certificate. Viruses and other malware have been known to redirect users from their intended site in what is known as a man-in-the-middle attack. For pharma websites, this is important because they deal with regulated content.

Using HTTPS prevents these types of attacks from happening, which is why Google recommends that all websites make the switch now. Google is leading this charge by using its platform and influence in organic search to encourage this change.

HOW WILL HTTPS INFLUENCE MY ORGANIC SEARCH RANKING?
At first, we don’t expect most websites to see much impact on their individual rankings. Google is said to use over 200 ranking signals in its algorithm, and the HTTPS change is being called “a very lightweight signal,” light enough that it reportedly impacts less than 1 percent of global queries and carries less weight than things like high-quality content. Still, 1 percent of all the queries that happen on a given day is a large number, and any signal that Google uses should be considered by websites looking to rank highly for relevant queries.

WHEN SHOULD WEBSITES CONSIDER THE SWITCH TO HTTPS?
Rarely should any website make a major change like switching to HTTPS for SEO benefit alone. There are a lot of factors that go into the decision, and all should be considered. The pros of switching to HTTPS are pretty simple:

  • HTTPS is more secure and protects both the website and the users that visit the website from various cyber-attacks.
  • HTTPS is now a ranking factor and will likely grow in strength over time, so switching helps benefit SEO efforts in the long run.

However, there are some cons to consider when making the switch as well:

  • Encrypting information with HTTPS increases the overhead of a server and requires more processing power, which could slow site speed in some scenarios.
  • Switching to HTTPS requires the purchase of a certificate, which can cost a couple hundred dollars per year.
  • HTTPS requires a slight change in URLs from original HTTP versions. Even with proper redirects, this could mean a temporary ranking dip as Google reassigns page authority.

It’s important to note that most of the cons are legitimate, but don’t necessarily outweigh the pros. Servers are often fast enough that the switch shouldn’t slow down the site speed with proper configuration. Google has emphasized that both site speed and the URL switch shouldn’t impact organic search ranking. Every situation is different, so talking with SEO and development teams on a website-by-website basis is the best way to determine whether or not to switch to HTTPS.

CONCLUSION
Making websites secure by default is a noble cause that is made possible with advanced technology and is increasingly important as Internet dependency grows. HTTPS is one step toward making the Internet a safer experience, and Google is leading the charge in this thinking. By making HTTPS a ranking signal, Google is encouraging us to rethink website security and take proactive measures to prevent an attack. While SEO should be considered in the decision to switch, it isn’t the only factor, and each website should consider the unique pros and cons of the decision.

 

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