For the past three years, Google has been pushing webmasters to shift from HTTP to HTTPS. This is part of their attempt to make the web more secure. One of the ways they’ve encouraged this change is by making HTTPS a ranking factor in Google search. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how important HTTPS is for SEO marketing.
Some recent data suggest that HTTPS plays a big role in modern SEO. For instance, only 1% of the web currently uses HTTPS, but roughly 40% of all first page results on Google are HTTPS pages.
That suggests that HTTPS is a huge ranking factor for SEO. But when you dig a little deeper, the picture gets slightly more complicated. In fact, some people maintain that HTTPS is more or less an SEO non-factor. Confused? You won’t be by the end of this post.
Understanding HTTP vs. HTTPS
Before diving into the role that HTTPS plays in SEO marketing, here’s a quick guide to what it actually is.
HTTP stands for “Hyper Text Transfer Protocol.” Historically, HTTP is the way that websites create a connection to transmit data to users. Unfortunately, this connection is unprotected. HTTPS, on the other hand, stands for “Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure.” Unlike HTTP, it actually protects the website-to-user connection.
This is accomplished with SSL certification. On an HTTPS website, an SSL certificate secures the connection between the website and the user, using a security key. This security key authenticates the connection, encrypts transmitted data, and prevents hackers from exploiting this connection.
HTTPS protection is particularly valuable on certain websites. On ecommerce sites, an HTTPS connection prevents payment information from being stolen. The same is true of any website where a user is entering sensitive information or engaging in private communication. If you download files from a website, an HTTPS can also prevent hackers from corrupting the files during transmission.
While most websites don’t necessarily need this level of protection, it has been Google’s policy since 2014 to encourage HTTPS as the standard protocol for the modern web. To encourage HTTPS adoption, they announced that it would become an SEO ranking factor.
The question is how important has HTTPS been to SEO marketing since 2014? And how important is it in 2017 specifically?
The Importance of HTTPS for SEO
Since 2014, a number of SEO marketing experts have had the chance to measure the effect of HTTPS on SEO. Most analyses have found that HTTPS, on its own, has a marginal effect on rankings. This aligns with Google official position, which they gave in 2015, stating that HTTPS acts as a kind of “tie-breaker.” If two sites are equally ranked, but one uses HTTPS and the other doesn’t, the HTTPS site will rank first.
However, some SEO marketing studies have found that HTTPS gives a small boost to all websites, not just cases where Google needs a tie-breaker. The teams running these studies have seen cases where lower-ranked websites were able to leapfrog closely-ranked competitors thanks to an HTTPS connection.
Part of the reason for this might be the other ranking factors that HTTPS is tied to. HTTPS causes pages to load faster. Page speed is a well-known ranking factor. Users are also more likely to trust HTTPS pages, so these pages might have better user engagement signal.
So how is it that 40% of all first-page results use HTTPS, when only 1% of the entire web has adopted this protocol? The simple answer is that 1% happens to include most the web’s biggest and most trafficked websites: major brands, news sources, social networks, etc. These sites need to be secure, so they were some of HTTPS’s first adopters. At the same time, these sites already have a huge edge in SEO marketing. So even if it seems like HTTPS is giving them a huge boost in the rankings, they’re mostly ranking well because they’re doing everything else right.