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July 1, 2015

The Latest Major Google Shifts: Why Your Content Must Be HTTPS

Photo Credit: infocux Technologies Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

What exactly is HTTPS? Well, it’s a protocol used to establish a secure connection between a user and a server.

By enabling an HTTPS connection you create a trustworthy link between your server and the user, thereby making it virtually impossible for external parties to be privy to the information shared there.

Having an HTTPS connection might be even more important as recent statistics suggest that Google might be planning an update to their search algorithm that rewards sites that build around HTTPS. The question you have to ask yourself is, “Is my content HTTPS ready?”

What is HTTPS?

HTTPS stands for “Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure“, the bigger brother to our HTTP connections. What HTTPS does is allow for secure connections to be established between a server and client utilizing a protocol known as SSL (Secure Socket Layer).

HTTPS is most commonly seen in e-commerce sites or banking sites and is easy to spot thanks to the “Lock” icon that is prominently displayed in the address bar. HTTPS is essential to these services as information transmitted to these institutions need to remain secure for the protection of their clients. From a content site’s perspective, our trust is on the line whenever a user visits our site so to maintain our standing with our users, utilizing HTTPS might be in our best interests.

The Statistical Analysis

For the last ten days or so, Google’s ranking data for HTTPS pages has increased a whopping 9.9%. This might have been due to the recent shift in protocol type from Wikipedia, a powerhouse in itself of traffic. Wikipedia accounts for quite a large volume of page-one rankings and their change from HTTP to HTTPS might be affecting the statistics so as to give us a false understanding of what we’re looking at. In order to figure out if this is just an anomaly due to Wikipedia’s movement from one subset to the other, we have to look at how performance changes when we remove the subsets and consider all sites under the same umbrella.

When we do this, we still see a massive change. Although not as massive because of Wikipedia’s, the statistics tell an interesting tale and allow for some speculation on what the information we now have might mean. From what we know about Google and its updates starting with Penguin and Panda, it has become more of a user-centric search engine, trying to make webmasters conform to a Google ideal. If sites want to play nice with users, they have to play ball with Google first. This falls in line with what Google is trying to do to build a more user-friendly Internet. It is very possible Google may see this as a good opportunity to raise the stakes in the security race online.

How HTTPS Can Possibly Affect Our Traffic

Currently, Google uses HTTPS status as a very lightweight ranking factor, less than 1%. Based on what we’ve seen from our statistical analysis, this might change in the future to incorporate HTTPS more into the ranking system. I’m not going to go out on a limb here and say it will change the face of the Internet but the ramifications are still significant and far-reaching. And, for a webmaster to change a site from HTTP to HTTPS isn’t such a difficult task. Most changes to be done are automatic and usually implemented server side. As content producers we probably won’t be affected with the exception of our sites becoming reachable via HTTPS as opposed to the more common HTTP.

Currently, establishing an HTTPS solution for a content site allows users to have more trust in links and allows for the secure transmission of data. Although data presented to a content site may not be highly sensitive, setting up an HTTPS connection ensures that no external party is spoofing addresses to garner information from users that they would not normally divulge. This type of social engineering is becoming more and more common and an HTTPS connection helps with stopping this possible problem.

How does HTTPS Really Affect Your SEO?

Previously, Google’s Matt Cutts made the statement that he would like to see more sites using TLS (now SSL, the primary connection protocol for HTTPS) be rewarded for their dedication to the user. Google announced some time in August 2014 that HTTPS enabled sites would get a very minor boost to page ranking thanks to their HTTPS status. Although the boost is minor, it is still something to look at especially if competition in your particular niche is fierce for page ranking. Based on new evidence, however, it is very possible that Google may be planning another big update that could change how we see HTTPS in the near future.

How Can I Change My Site From HTTP to HTTPS?

There are a few ways that you can go about changing your site over from HTTP to HTTPS. Google recommends using 301-redirect requests on your server, allowing users to get redirected to an HTTPS page whenever an HTTP page is requested. Although somewhat of a messy solution it is still workable. Alternatively, you can invest in a sever that has HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS). This forcibly changes any HTTP address entered into an HTTPS address ensuring that users don’t get led off the beaten path and end up divulging their information to some unscrupulous third party.

HTTPS & the Future

Will HTTPS be more of a ranking issue in the future? The truth of the matter is that it’s still too early to tell. Until Wikipedia settles down into HTTPS territory and we can safely see what the statistics show in relation to their new position, we can’t be one hundred percent sure what we’re seeing is the test of a new Google ranking update or just the waves Wikipedia made when it dove into the pond. Regardless of whether HTTPS is a major issue in site ranking or not, it’s still an important consideration for any site.

Information is a potent thing online and taking care to secure it is one of the most important things we can do for our sites right now.


Julia Spence-McCoy is the CEO of Express Writers, an online copywriting agency that began in 2011 with thousands of web content pages written to date and more than 50 talented writers on the team. Her passion is copywriting and all that pertains, including the ever-changing game of Google algorithm updates.