On Wednesday August 6, Google announced that it would be using HTTPS as a ranking signal in it’s SERPs. Since 2011 Google itself has been encrypting all it’s sites, so there’s little surprise that it is encouraging everyone else to do the same.
In Google’s own words:
“Over the past few months we’ve been running tests taking into account whether sites use secure, encrypted connections as a signal in our search ranking algorithms.
“We’ve seen positive results, so we’re starting to use HTTPS as a ranking signal. For now it’s only a very lightweight signal—affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content—while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS.”
The company went on to say that it will strengthen the algorithm in order to encourage all website owners to switch to HTTPS.
So why is Google encouraging a switch?
At the moment, only 25 per cent of websites use HTTPS, meaning that there are a staggering number of websites that are unprotected. HTTPS is particularly important for public wireless networks, as they are susceptible to eavesdropping via packet sniffing- meaning that programmes get to read everything that happens over an unencrypted network.
HTTPS scrambles data being transmitted and makes it harder for hackers (and the NSA) to get hold of important information.
In a recent talk, developers Pierre Far and lya Grigorik advocated “HTTPS everywhere”:
But is such a small increase worth the hassle?
Although a slight increase in rankings is appetising for any marketer, changing from HTTP to HTTPS needs to be done correctly, and it can’t be done by just anyone.
And there are already spanners in Google’s works.
First of all, The Wall Street Journal kindly pointed out that the new encryption reward doesn’t work quite as well with e-commerce sites and it’s Trusted Stores programme.
Google stated in an email that:
“The Trusted Stores badge is designed to be suppressed and not show up on secure pages. There will not be a badge that shows up on every page of the site. However, per the program guidelines, it is required that the badge must be displayed on all pages of your site.”
A Google spokesperson later told the newspaper that they were “working on it.”
What’s more, AdSense publisher Peter Claar also found that switching to HTTPS wasn’t quite as straight forward as he had initially hoped. After becoming excited over hints expelled by the one and only Matt Cutts, Claar moved his website (schooldigger.com) over to HTTPS, before immediately regretting the decision and moving it back only three weeks later.
The issue came down to the fact that ad revenues fell by 43 per cent, and CPCs were off by a massive 39 per cent from the previous period. Additionally, RPMs fell by 37 per cent, and all was magically fixed when Claar moved his site back over to HTTP a mere 21 days later.
SEO Roundtable giant Barry Shwartz even tested the HTTPS switch and found similar drops.
So, if you are considering a move to HTTPS for a whole site, my honest advice is wait it out.
Let Google sort the kinks out first, and I’d even suggest holding on until they up the ante a little more. I’m in no doubt that in a couple of years, a lot more sites will be using HTTPS across the whole site, but as we have seen above, jumping in too early can be costly and not worth your time. Ask yourself the question: Will offering HTTPS across your whole website add any value to users? If so I’d start planning, but if you’re solely doing it for a boost in rankings then personally I’d say they are bigger and more straightforward fish to fry.
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