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August 25, 2014

HTTPS Now a Google Ranking Factor

When Matt Cutts, Google webspam fighter extraordinaire, says something, SEOs best listen. Most of the time he’s offering hints at a policy the search engine will soon adopt, and so it is with Google’s latest change in ranking factor.

On Aug. 6, Google announced that it will start using HTTPS as a ranking signal.

Only a few months before, during March’s SMX West, Cutts had hinted the company was considering a move in that direction, but he declined to speculate when the change would take place or even whether it was a viable option for Google.

Looks like the company heeded Cutts’ advice. It claims it was motivated by a desire to make the web a safer place, which is a nice idea, though a cynic might say it’s just another case of Google enforcing its will on us. Goodness knows that once the search giant makes a decision, the rest of the internet has no choice but to fall in line. Google has said that the switch to a secure domain will give sites only a small boost, and it could rise later if more sites are doing it.

So what does this new change mean for SEOs? Let’s take a look at what HTTPS is, why it’s important, and how it could impact you.

What is HTTPS?

In the simplest terms, HTTPS is the secure version of HTTP. Your site can switch to an HTTPS domain after you install an SSL certificate. When you connect to an HTTPS site, your session will be encrypted by a digital certificate.

It’s basically a way to ensure that your private stuff stays private. Online retail sites have been using HTTPS for years to keep sensitive information such as credit card numbers and addresses private. Since Internet fraud has become a huge concern, and with hackers trying to get their hands on any information that’s left unprotected on the web, using SSL connections has become understandably popular.

Google itself switched over to HTTPS for all of its searches last year. The move was unpopular among SEOs, as it meant keyword data was no longer passed along to site owners, eliminating one way to track users.

Why the HTTPS Switch is Important

Google is calling the switch a “lightweight signal” in terms of search page ranking. It says in its announcement that it could tweak its formula to put more weight on having HTTPS, but it wants to give sites more time to get their SSL certificates installed.

For now, many SEOs seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Marketers reacted to the Google switch on Twitter
by suggesting that Google’s announcement was really a precursor to the search engine starting a business selling SSL certificates, since those should become very in demand following Google’s decision. They were joking, for the most part, but it’s hard not to imagine that Google has some sort of long-term plan relating to this change.

Google always has an endgame for its changes, whether it’s eliminating Google author profile pictures in search results or changing SERP displays. Perhaps the company is waiting to fully implement the next step until Cutts, who went on sabbatical this summer, returns in the fall.

Smaller sites have argued this change should not apply to them. Why does a content site like a blog need to be secure? Google says there are two main reasons: data integrity and authentication. If your server is not secure, there’s always a possibility someone could change the way your content is reaching your readers. And you want to be able to prove that you are the one actually writing the content on your page, not someone posing as you.

How HTTPS Could Impact Search Rankings

Google itself has been coy when it comes to how the switch to HTTPS could impact search rankings. It claims that it will be only a “lightweight signal” and not very significant when you look at all the other factors that go into search rankings. High-quality content, for example, will continue to be much more important than security of a site.

But the company also hinted that HTTPS could become a much more important search factor down the road. Google wants to give sites time to adopt SSL certificates. So while the company says right now it will impact about 1 percent of all searches, in coming years you can expect that to change.

So what should smart sites be doing to ensure they are properly optimized? Here are some tips you can use to get your site in line with Google’s HTTPS push:

  • Determine which type of certificate your site needs. You can choose from single, multi-domain or wildcard.
  • Make sure you pick a 2048-bit key certificate.
  • Do not block your HTTPS site from using robots.txt to crawl.
  • Let your pages be indexed by search engines when you can.
  • Use your analytics software to track the move from HTTP to HTTPS.

The Bottom Line

For now, HTTPS will not be a huge factor in search rankings, so you may think you can put off transitioning. But remember, this is Google. The company rarely makes any moves that don’t have a bigger aim down the line, and it punishes those who don’t fall in line with its vision of Internet orderliness. While you probably don’t have to jump to HTTPS the moment you read this, you’d be wise to do it in short order, if only to avoid the headache of having to do it quickly once Google inevitably decides security is a big search ranking factor.


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Adrienne Erin writes twice weekly for SiteProNews about online marketing strategies that help businesses like 12 Keys Recovery succeed. Follow @adrienneerin on Twitter to see more of her work or get in touch.

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