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May 5, 2014

Google and the Quest for Universal Site Encryption

Google’s next move could literally make the web a safer place. If the rumors are true, the web might just become a whole lot more secure.

The all-mighty search engine expressed some powerful sentiments last month that could make it volumes more difficult to spy on internet citizens. Google may use its clout to encourage web developers to make sites encrypted, and thereby receive a boost in rankings. The result could quite simply be game-changing on a global scale. The question is, will the online behemoth actually follow through with this hypothesis?

How Encryption Breeds Security

Encryption is the heart of cryptography, the technology-focused practice that embraces the art of private communication. Cryptography experts are consistently creating tools and services that allow for the secure passing of data, obscured from availability to third parties who would wish to interfere. Think it’s impossible to communicate privately via the web? Think again. It’s difficult, and nothing is fool proof, but many brilliant minds continue to crack this code; and the foundation is encryption.

The role of encryption in cryptography is simple: it’s the process by which communications are encoded, then passed in a manner that prevents outsiders from retrieving the data. Even the most sophisticated encryption tools aren’t hacker-proof, but they are robust enough to reduce the likelihood of a hack to a much smaller possibility. Encryption is akin to a home security system; it won’t stop the most determined thieves, but it will thwart the majority of amateurs. That alone is a significant step.

The Impact of Google’s Hypothesis

Now, imagine a world where the greatest SEO boost you could give your site would be the safety of encryption. If Google actually rewarded folks for infusing encryption into their infrastructure, most of the websites we use regularly would be loads and loads more secure, which in turn would limit the prevalence of hacks and identity thefts. Sounds a little like an online utopia, no?

Matt Cutts, the main search spokesperson for the world’s biggest search engine, seems to agree. It was his words at a recent conference that spawned the rumors that perhaps Google will one day reward encryption efforts. Officially, the company isn’t announcing anything, the least of which includes support for this shift. But Cutts has dropped hints before about changes in the works that have come to fruition (Panda, anyone?), so we are not off-base to dream a little (security) dream.

Why the World Needs More Encryption

By now, you’ve certainly heard about the heartbleed controversary. It was also disclosed in April that a well-regarded encryption scheme called OpenSSL contained a bug that gave hackers the ability to ascertain personally identifiable information. But don’t let this deter you from having trust in encryption. It’s not perfect, but it’s volumes better than no security layer at all.

If Google really did opt to use their powers for good in this manner, it would cause a firestorm of controversy and some significant development costs for sites who would have to get up to speed. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Google to act this way; they are already policing things in a less front-and-center manner.

For example, today, any site identified as possessing malicious software gets penalized in their search engine rankings. This is partly accomplished by weighting load times in Google’s algorithms, as sites with these prying layers historically load like molasses. And there’s likely a lot more Google does to weed out the bad guys that we aren’t privy to, since they speak so little about the 200 plus signals they incorporate into their algorithms.

The Flipside: Why Encryption May Never be Forced

On the other hand, if Google did start penalizing any site that didn’t have encryption, it’s possible they would only be elevating the least worthy sites. Asking web owners to revamp their infrastructures is a dramatic turn, and those with small budgets and limited resources would be slower to respond, and thus potentially wrongfully castigated.

Many websites still focus solely on beating the Google algorithms, and despite the company’s valiant efforts to not reward these manipulative behaviors, black hat tactics do still sometimes work. Giving an edge to encryption might simply serve to fan these less-than-honest flames.

Likewise, it’s critical that companies embrace encryption on a holistic level, rather than only creating a security layer for certain pages. If only a shopping cart is encrypted, as an example, hackers can capture “cookies” throughout the site and take advantage of weaknesses on other pages. Through this process, spies can track where users login, and intercept this data for their own benefit.

Encryption Lives On

Regardless of how or if the algorithms are adjusted, Google itself has already shown a strong support for encryption on their own websites. Recent times have revealed the commitment through the encryption of several Google-run services, including Google Search and Gmail. Last year, they kicked it up a notch by encrypting traffic between Google data centers. This happened on the heels of the NSA revelations that they were taking advantage of holes and vulnerabilities in Google’s protocols. Clearly Google wasn’t fond of being a glass house for government spying.

So where do you land on the encryption debate? Would you support Google’s efforts to make the process more widespread, or is that an invasion that supersedes their jurisdiction? Weigh in below and let us know your thoughts!


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Conscious online marketer, web executive, and multi-faceted writer Tina Courtney has been creating and fostering online innovations since 1996. Tina has assisted many clients in maximizing online production and marketing efforts, and is a staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney and JDate, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, influencer marketing, community management, lead generation, and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, and accomplished life coach.  Learn more on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+. Visit My Google+ Profile